Pastor Mark Anderson, Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was known for quoting a line from a 19th century sermon. That sermon was delivered by an avowed abolitionist preacher, Theodore Parker. Parker was a Unitarian, transcendentalist and anything but an orthodox christian. The quote follows: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The quote, as attributed to King, is actually a condensed version of the reference in the sermon. But whether in the original or the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version, both are wrong.
The widespread use of this quotation and its variants among Christian groups is a window into the classic, ongoing problem of distinguishing the law from the gospel. Both reverends mentioned above held out justice as God’s goal in the world. And this attractive analysis has been given moral standing by aligning it with slavery and racial injustice. It just sounds right. It feels right. Wrongs should be righted. Inequities should be addressed. The imbalances of the world should be set right. And all of this is in the realm justice. And the only mechanism the world has to bring about any of this is the Law.
Now, if the reverends Parker and King were speaking as citizens in an effort to influence legislation toward a more just society, fair enough. Societies, all societies, have a stake in making laws that are just as possible. That is what the law is for in its civil use.
But Parker and King were not speaking simply as citizens. They were putting themselves forward as preachers of God’s Word. And in that role they made the wrong turn, effectively saying that what God cares most about in this world is justice. But the proclamation of God’s Word in history does not bend toward justice. The arch of history bends toward mercy. What God cares most about is mercy, the mercy He has revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ.
Of course, in certain Christian circles, where Jesus Christ has been transformed into the arch typical social reformer (where, at least in the law he seems to be of some good), the best we can say about Jesus is, “Go and do what Jesus did,” my words hit the ear as heresy. But the word heretical actually belongs to those who have demoted the crucified Christ to the role of benignly packaged moral example.
This is not to say that preachers do not preach the law. We do. But the law is preached not to goad the Christian into social action, give life advice or opine on the latest issue in the headlines. The purpose of the Christian proclamation is straightforward and two-fold: to expose and name sin and to give away, in Jesus’ name, the forgiveness of sins.
The Gospel of God has been given for no other purpose.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in
Christ Jesus our Lord.”