Theodore Parker was a transcendentalist and an abolitionist whose words influenced both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. In an 1853 sermon, Parker stated “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. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
A little more than 100 years later, Martin Luther King Jr simplified the same sentiment, “I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We should see this is true. Contrary to the headlines broadcast from cable news networks, life isn’t that bad. Our society is acting with more justice than it ever has before. Our kids are safer than ever before. The poor are wealthier than ever before. That doesn’t mean life is sunshine and roses for everyone, just that we are better off as a whole. Our culture isn’t perfect but we are heading in the right direction. We might find evidence of moral decay, but the same is true of any other era in history.
Despite the looming threat of terrorism – from both homegrown and foreign radicals, despite the increasing occurrences of mass shootings, despite the petty bickering over partisan topics on social media, despite the reports of collegiate rapes and sexual assaults finding more publicity, despite the news of police killing unarmed black teenagers, despite the reports of cops being killed in cold blood, despite of all that is wrong in our world, we are better off than previous generations. We continue to engage in war but fewer soldiers are dying in battle. Racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred still exist, but we have come a long way from the days of slavery, women’s suffrage movement, Jim Crow laws, and the Trail of Tears. We have our flaws but the moral arc of the universe is bent toward justice. We are getting better and we will continue to improve.
But the moral arc didn’t always bend that direction. It once bent toward anarchy. The mythology of ancient cultures is filled with violence and chaos. From the Norse peoples to the Egyptians, from the Aztecs to the Mongols, from the Sumerians to the Romans. Ancient civilizations were inspired by tales of gods and monsters, dragons and warriors. For thousands of years, humanity lived in tribalism. We didn’t care about justice, we only wanted to protect our tribe. We needed heroes who would face our foes and shout “This. Is. Sparta!” Our tribes grew into empires and empires constantly clashed for dominion over the others.
Something changed. Something took the moral arc of the universe and twisted away from self-preservation, pointing it instead toward justice. I believe that change happened with a man, born into persecution in the hill country of Judea.
He was a strange man who preached strange words. When Jesus showed up, he started telling people about an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence. He said “Look, I know it’s always been like this, but there is another way – a better way.” The crowds had been taught to repay violence with violence. The law even allowed the penalty of an eye for an eye. But Jesus said “You don’t have to do it. You could turn the other cheek. You can repay violence with peace. You can respond to offenses with grace.”
Whether you do or don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, one thing can’t be ignored: Jesus inspired a group of people who believed that they could be different. Jesus led a ministry that emphasized justice, love, goodness, and mercy. In the centuries that followed, empires crumbled and civilization became more civilized. We went through an age of enlightenment. We industrialized, reformed, launched space shuttles, and tumbled face first into a globalized society. Along the way, we implemented methods of more humane treatment of farm animals, passed more ethical laws for the treatment of children, provided rights to women and minorities, gave relief to victims of natural disasters and refuge to those fleeing the turmoil in their homelands. Violent crime is going down. Murder rates are lower. Jesus gave us a glimpse of what justice could look like and we have been trying to achieve those ideals ever since.
But it didn’t end peacefully for Jesus. The Roman government executed him in the most violent method they had available at the time: crucifixion. Yet even the death of Jesus debunks the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of a savior committing violent acts to redeem us, The Savior redeemed us through suffering the violence committed against him. Jesus could have resisted. He could have overpowered those guards sent to arrest him. He could have called lightning down upon every centurion who participated in nailing him to the cross. But he didn’t. He showed compassion and asked God to forgive them for their ignorance.
In Jesus, we are given a new model. Violence is not defeated by violence. Violence is conquered by sacrifice. Violence is ended by a love that is willing to lay down its life for its friends. Redemption isn’t found in the perpetuation of violence but by breaking the cycle of violence.
Which brings me back to another statement from Martin Luther King Jr’s 1965 sermon. Before he said anything about the moral arc of the universe, he talked about redemption: “If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.” Taking a life will not redeem you, but giving up your life will. In a way, King was echoing the words of Jesus, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
There is no such thing as redemptive violence. But there is a sacrificial redemption.