It bends towards justice

A New Unity Sunday Gathering


Today is a day of hope - a day of freshness and new beginnings
As we gather today, a whole new chapter of our lives individually and together remains to be written
The page is blank and the story has yet to take shape
Let our story be one of hope and joy
Let it be a tale of learning and growth in the face of challenges
Let it be filled with rich connection and relationship
and let it be a story of care and compassion that begins here and spreads outward embracing everyone
By this light, let us write a courageous and loving new chapter of our lives.



Excerpt from “Justice and the Conscience,” a sermon by Theodore Parker, published 1853

The majority of [those] who think [of it] have an ideal [of] justice better than the things about them, juster than the law... We all of us have some ideal; our dream is fairer than our day; we will not let it go. If the wicked prosper, it is but for a moment, say we... What an ideal democracy now floats before the eyes of earnest [people],—fairer than the "Republic" of Plato, or More's "Utopia," or the "golden age" of fabled memory! 

It is justice that we want to organize,—justice for all, for rich and poor. There the slave shall be free from his master. There shall be no want, no oppression, no fear of man, no fear of God, but only love." There is a good time coming,"—so we all believe when we are young and full of life and healthy hope.

[We have] the instinctive love of justice in [us], which gradually gets developed in the world... [T]he ploughshare of justice is drawn through and through the field of the world, uprooting the savage plants...

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.


Beginners, by Denise Levertov

But we have only begun to love the earth. We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life
How could we tire of hope? -- so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?-we have only begun to imagine justice and mercy,

Only begun to envision how it might be to live as siblings with beast and flower, not as oppressors.

Surely our river cannot already be hastening into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot drag, in the silt, all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet -- there is too much broken that must be mended,

Too much hurt that we have done to each other that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know the power that is in us if we would join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.

Message, by Andy Pakula


We Human beings are not all that sensitive to our world. 

A dog’s sense of smell is at least a thousand times more acute than ours. Elephants can hear much better than we can. Eagles and hawks have extraordinarily good vision - they can see a prey animal from a few miles away. 

A catfish has taste-buds all over its body, so even if you think you have a very discriminating palate, a boring fish has you beat. Our sense of touch leaves much to be desired too. Crocodiles and manatees can sense changes in their aquatic environment from great distances.

There’s one thing I know of that we are exquisitely sensitive to, and if you have ever spent time with groups of children then you know it too. 

Human children seem to be able to detect the difference in the size of slices of cake down to a millionth part. The number of chocolate chips in a biscuit can be determined in a fraction of an instant. Children are astoundingly good at detecting unfairness. 

This ability does not end with childhood - it just changes. We quiet our observations about portion size, but we might well be outraged to learn that someone else has got the job or the promotion we thought we deserved. Or it might be a part in a play or a chorus or an orchestra we tried out for. 

It doesn’t take much. If someone jumps a queue, we recognise the unfairness immediately. 
This simple and natural response is an important part of our theme for the next three months - justice. 

Over the next three months, we will talk about many different aspects of justice. We’ll ask what justice is, how to be a just person, what we can do, and what we shouldn’t do. We’ll look at different notions of justice and the different forms injustice has taken over time, including the ways it plays out today.

At its most basic though, the quest for justice is the wish for fair treatment. We recognise that strong desire in ourselves and - through compassion - begin to extend it to others.

Fairness sounds simple but, not surprisingly, it becomes much more complicated. What really is fair, after all? Should the older larger child get the same size slice of cake as the younger? Is that fair? Or should the slices be adjusted proportionally to age? Is it fairest to make them 10 grams for each year? Or maybe it should be by height or body weight?

Is it fair to be paid more for a job that requires hard physical labour or one that requires more training? Is the opposite true? Or is it fair that the market should decide? 

Is it fair that tall people can more easily become basketball players? Should I have an equal opportunity to be a sports star despite being somewhat vertically challenged?

Let’s not overcomplicate justice though. It is all too easy to be so thoughtful about this that we think ourselves into a position where - because it is hard or impossible to define justice for all time - we feel paralysed - unable to do anything. We will have time over the next few months to look at these ideas more carefully.

For now, though, we can recognise that we are easily able to identify some situations that are clearly unjust. Most of us will be certain that it is unjust for people to have different life opportunities solely because of the colour of their skin, the wealth of their parents, their religion, their sex, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation. 

And these are all areas where injustice persists today. 

As we consider justice, I find it helpful and inspiring to look to the past - to those who have helped to bend that arc of the moral universe more and more toward justice. 

I have been involved closely in just two Unitarian congregations: this one and First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. Both were associated with towering figures in the struggle for justice. 

Here, Mary Wollstonecraft broke new ground in insisting on equality for women through her writing and her own life. She is fairly considered “the mother of feminism” and her spirit continues to inspire us to challenge oppression in the many forms it takes today.

The Lexington congregation was the boyhood church home of Theodore Parker, a 19th Century Unitarian minister. We heard Parker’s voice in a reading including these words: 
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one…[b]ut from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. picked up this image in the American civil rights struggle, famously declaring “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This quote is one of five that Barack Obama chose to be incorporate in the carpet of the oval office in the White House. It is the only one of the five that did not originate with a former US president.

                                          Theodore Parker

                                          Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker was brilliant and he was bold. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, he challenged the orthodoxies of his day. He challenged literal belief in the supernaturalism of the bible. But his greater challenge to his times was his opposition to slavery. When a law was enacted that required people in northern states to return escaped slaves to the south, Parker defied the law. He urged and organised others to do the same. 

Parker himself sheltered fugitive slaves in his own home and he stood ready with sword and pistol ready to defend his guests from the authorities who might arrive to seize and return them to slavery. 

Parker’s views on theology made him a pariah amongst his colleague. Wollstonecraft’s actions and words earned her abuse among her peers. Parker’s stance on justice put his life at risk.

It is a natural reaction to fume at injustices imposed upon us or upon our loved ones. That response becomes weaker with distance and difference. The further away someone is, the less we tend to react at injustices visited upon them. And our sympathy and anger rise least with people who are different from us.

We may have the impression that some people in our society do not care about justice at all. Images come quickly to mind: a city banker walking by the homeless sleeping rough without a second look and perhaps with some disgust. The politicians cutting benefits for the poor while making it easier for corporations and wealthy individuals. Many voicing their opposition to welcoming refugees in Britain.

Of course, we can’t know what goes on in another person’s heart and mind, but in a time where we are encouraged to think first, last, and only about our own well-being and the needs of those closest to us, we need to ask “why bother with justice for others?” Why should you care? Why should we care?

To some extent we care because we just do - because that is the kind of people we are. Theodore Parker wrote that we have an instinctive love for justice. We will look at this another week, but it is true that it does feel as though that sense comes to us naturally and automatically.

But it is also powerful to recognise that justice work is almost always - ultimately - also in our own interest. If we are affluent, do we really want to live in a society where we are despised by the poor? Do we want to live in a society where lack of opportunity causes anger and unrest in a large part of the population? Do we really want our children to live in such a society?
If we are fortunate enough to live in an affluent country with tremendous liberty, are we prepared to live in a world where other nations are so deprived and so oppressive that they erupt in fury?

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The world is too small to imagine that we can take care of ourselves without thinking of others.

Whether because of a natural compassion or for simple self-interest and the interest of our children and grandchildren, the reasons to be concerned about justice for others are almost overwhelmingly strong. With our every action, we are creating the world that we, and then our children and the children of our friends, will live in. Surely, we want that to be an egalitarian and just world.

Given this, maybe the more relevant question is “Why do we not all devote ourselves to justice work?”

If we cannot abide injustice for ourselves or our loved ones and we are compassionate people and also have a self-interest in greater justice, why do most of us spend so little of our time and energy and resources furthering the progress of justice. After all, that great moral arc does not bend on its own - it bends toward justice through the concerted efforts of human beings throughout history.

So, why don’t we do more? And, by “we”, I don’t mean people who haven’t got a moment for themselves or any money to spend. There are people who have to spend almost every waking moment working or caring for others and who are so pressed financially that they can barely survive. They don’t spend their money on expensive coffees or their time watching the telly, surfing the web, or playing video games. And I also don’t mean to say that we should make no time for leisure, because we all need that to keep it together. 

When I ask this question, I mean those of us who find ourselves doing things we don’t need to do and spending on things we don’t need to have. What about us? Why don’t we do more?
I think there are three reasons. 

The first is fear. Fear blocks compassion. When we hear people speaking against welcoming refugees to Britain, we hear the voice of fear. They are afraid for their personal safety because other fearful people have convinced them that most Muslims and Arabs are terrorists. They are afraid that immigrants will take their jobs and increase their taxes. They are afraid that their country will no longer feel like their own. What looks to us uncaring or even hateful is usually - at its heart - actually fear.

The second reason we don’t do more is that we feel powerless. We may ache to alleviate the suffering and the injustice, but it all seems so immense. We think we can’t possibly make a difference. And, indeed, most of our efforts will have little impact on their own. 
But then, nothing has ever changed all at once by the efforts of a single person. Slavery didn’t end that way. Women didn’t get the vote that way. Same-sex couples didn’t get to marry that way. Every change has taken time and the small efforts of many many people. 

Nearly 2000 years ago, a Jewish sage - Rabbi Tarfon - spoke to this common challenge: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We need to remind ourselves again and again that none of us has great power alone, but all of us have great power together.

And finally, the third reason. When we can get past fear and recognise that we can actually make a difference in furthering the cause of justice, we still find ourselves stymied. We come up against confusion. In part, this relates to a modern-day problem sometimes called “the tyranny of choice.” 

Imagine that you want to buy some crisps. You go into the market and approach the right shelf, but if you have entered a good-sized shop, you are confronted with some serious choices. What would you like? There’s always salted, cheese and onion, or salt and vinegar. But what about Thai sweet chilli, balsamic vinegar and caramelised onion, Oriental red curry, lime and coriander chutney, vintage cheddar and onion chutney, buffalo mozzarella and herbs, chicken tikka masala, jalapeño pepper, or horseradish and sour cream. Oh wait - do you want them crinkle-cut, thick-cut, ridge-cut, square-cut, hand-fried, or reduced fat. What size package? This is only the tip of the iceberg. For example, Tesco currently stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner. 

Kettle Chips.jpg

Too much choice paralyses us. So when you are prepared to work for justice, what will you do? You might recognise that working on your own is too unfocused and decide to join up with some charity. Do you know how many registered charities there are in the UK? More than 160,000. You might be tempted to try to analyse which of these does the best work, or does it most effectively. That’s not something you can easily do - it’s more like a PhD thesis. 
The truth is that we can’t know what is the absolute most effective best thing to do, but we can’t let that stop us from doing something. Follow where your heart is leading. Where is your passion? Start there. You can always stop, reflect, and change your efforts.

So, when you are ready to make a difference, don’t let fear, a sense of powerlessness, or confusion get in your way. When we come to recognise that injustice is a poison that is sickening all of us, we must join in the work of making a healthier world.

Theodore Parker was right about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. Over the course of human development, civilisation has become much more compassionate and attuned to fairness for others. In this country, slavery was abolished, same-sex marriage legalised, religious freedom instituted, women were allowed to vote, health-care was provided to all, basic benefits were established, and much more. These and other changes have been monumental and we should not imagine for a moment that the trend has been toward less justice. Overall, the world has become more just and increasingly aware of injustice. 

But all of this change - every slight bend in the arc of the moral universe - has been accomplished by human hearts, minds, and hands. In every age, regular people with no extraordinary power or ability have joined in this great work toward justice. 

We have a powerful tool at our disposal - our sensitivity to unfairness. What if you were that person without opportunity? What if it was you or your child who was treated unfairly. This is the energy that fuels our work for justice. Don’t allow it to be blocked by fear or a sense of powerlessness or confusion. 

Let us do our part in creating the better world of tomorrow.

Let us take our place along the long arc toward justice.