Eric Davis: On bending the arc towards justice
There is a long history in America of religious voices speaking out for societal improvement and reform within the context of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition.
In the years before the Civil War, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister in Boston, often preached to congregations of more than 2,000 people. They came to hear him oppose the Fugitive Slave Act and advocate for abolition. Parker also wrote, and preached, in favor of temperance, women’s rights, penal reform and society’s responsibility to improve the condition of the poor.
During the Progressive Era, early in the 20th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, became a leading proponent of what he called the Social Gospel. He advocated that Christians had an obligation to bring the world’s condition closer to the Kingdom of Heaven about which Jesus spoke. Christians could not remain aloof from society. They needed to work to improve the lives of the “least among us.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading American theologian of the 20th century, started his career committed to working for pacifism and socialism, in line with the Social Gospel. Following the rise of Nazism and Fascism, and World War II, Niebuhr questioned the optimism of the Social Gospel, and wondered whether it truly reflected human nature. In his book “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Niebuhr argued that organizations, both private and public, would be more likely to engage in sinful behavior than would individuals. Religiously motivated leaders should thus speak out against the sins of society and, by acting as the conscience of the community, urge a return to the principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In the years after World War I, Dorothy Day was a journalist and activist, working for pacifism, women’s suffrage and social justice. In the early 1930s, she converted to Roman Catholicism, influenced in part by the social teachings of several European Catholic writers and scholars. In 1933, Day co-founded the newspaper Catholic Worker, which she edited until her death in 1980. She used this publication to advocate for wide-ranging improvements in workers’ economic position, for civil rights legislation to end discrimination against African-Americans and women, and for pacifism.
In the mid-20th century, Martin Luther King Jr., drawing upon several of the writers and preachers mentioned here, developed a theology of civil rights, and of civil disobedience, that was based on philosophical conceptions of human rights, American founding principles, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament. Two of King’s 1963 works, the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have A Dream” speech, are perhaps the best modern statements in favor of social action within a Christian perspective.
As American society has become more secularized over the last half-century, there have been fewer voices from the “Christian left” since King’s death. However, we may now be seeing the emergence of a new leader speaking in this tradition. In a 14-minute sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached about Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” in a way that resonated with millions of listeners around the world, some of them Christians, many of them not.
Theodore Parker once said, in a quote much liked and frequently cited by both President Barack Obama and Dr. King, that “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.”
Perhaps, after Bishop Curry’s recent sermon, that arc is bending just so slightly greater in the direction of justice.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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