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Posted: 1/10/2020
The Moral Universe's Arc of Justice
God's, Sometimes Slow, Movement
Bishop Curry and Rose

Usually for these Reflections, I try to find a painting from one of the great artists that fits the topic. Obviously, this one is not one of those. I'm not even sure who the photographer was; perhaps I was.

If you're an Episcopalian, or perhaps watched last year's English Royal Wedding (Prince Harry and Meghan), you'll recognize the fancy-robed gentleman to the left as Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Curry was elected in 2015, the first African-American to hold the position of Presiding Bishop. The title indicates the bishop of the United States' Episcopal Church.

The attractive woman to the right is my bride, Rose Dodd; picture was taken at our church, The Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Bishop Curry came to our church for a diocesan celebration of the interim service of Bishop Clifton Daniel as Provisional Bishop for the Diocese of Pennsylvania; Curry and Daniel were good friends in earlier years as bishops in different dioceses of North Carolina.

But, this Reflection isn't a history lesson about bishops and dioceses. I'd had this picture on my computer a few years, and when Bishop Curry gave the homily at Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan, I showed it to a number of people. Someone mentioned that I should get an enlargement and give it to Rose. I did, framed it, and gave it as a Christmas gift.

Its spot is on a small table near my lounge chair. The other evening I was up late by myself and looked at the picture ... the first time I looked beyond the obvious: The two special people and their warm smiles. The picture seemed to hold a meaning I hadn't yet seen. Perhaps it was because it was getting close to my 77th birthday, but the picture caused me to think how much the world has changed in my lifetime. I can't say that old age brings of much of value (for me, at least), but I think, if we allow it to, age can give a sense of perspective.

A picture like that one could never have even existed, at least in my world, during my (or Rose's) coming-of-age time, the late '50's — not even if it were a black and white photo, let alone one in vibrant color. Bishop Curry's black arm is so naturally around and clasping Rose's shoulder. (Try to imagine that in the '50's!) He's an Anglican bishop, representing the church in the United States — a black man as bishop. Also, but maybe not so unlikely, yet still fairly recent in our country's social life, Rose, a woman represented our church to select the successor to Bishop Daniel mentioned earlier. So much change in just my own lifetime.

In those late '50's, as a high school sophomore on the track team, I was our school's second best quarter-miler. A Black senior, Bill "Catfish" Hearst was number one — even one of the best in the state. I led off the mile relay team; Cat was the anchor, usually bringing us to victory. Cat and I weren't good friends or anything, but we worked out together and developed a warm relationship. A picture I remember, we were supposedly doing stretching exercises (but really just together lying on the grass) sharing dreams of maybe going to Hawaii and running on the white beaches.

That season Cat qualified for the State Meet, and to my surprise, I did too. State would be down south in Charleston, West Virginia (our school, Wellsburg High, in the Northern Panhandle, was only about 50 miles from Pittsburgh, Pa.) I think maybe four or five of us qualified. I asked our coach, "Can I room with Cat at State?" Coach Freeman (my favorite coach of anything ever) said, as I recall with little regret in his voice, "No, Keith, sorry; I have to take Bill to a hotel for Blacks in Charleston; he can't stay where we'll be. (I think an assistant may have stayed with Cat.)

I wish I could say that I was devastated; that I wanted to protest, maybe even stand up for my buddy. Kind of hurts today to say that such thoughts never really entered my mind. (Cat did come home with the gold, first-place medal. I came in fifth — still have the medal to prove it. But, I have no medal to say I was an agent of change to our country's social structure, or even thought about doing something for that.)

I guess I was simply not attuned to the injustices around me, just a naive teenager. Dad was born and raised in Georgia, and most summers we took a short vacation there. I remember the "For Colored" drinking fountains in stores, still picture that they were dirtier than the "Whites Only" fountains. Seemed odd, but, again I'm disappointed to say that I never thought beyond "odd". Thankfully, others — many my age — were moved by what was simply odd to me to march and some were killed to correct the way it was.

I'm envious of my wife when I think on those times. Her story is much more positive than mine. It was after the landmark supreme court's Brown v Board of Education in 1954. In the northern part of West Virginia, our Brooke County schools were among the first to desegregate. The first day of school in the fall, Rose was on the school bus in the back with her many friends. At a bus stop along the way, a black girl got on and sat alone in the middle of the bus. I don't know how long after, but Rose got up and sat with the girl (ended up they were in the same class). Rose says, "I didn't think anyone should sit in the bus alone." Knowing her, she did it for that sole reason; not to make a statement or anything grand like that. (Also, knowing her, she probably wouldn't have done it if it was to make a statement.) She did it simply because no one should sit alone. (People who know Rose, probably aren't surprised.)

Although improvement in our country's racial attitudes and conditions have changed, it seems like it's been a slow process. For those folks, the subjects of racial discrimination, it probably feels painfully slow. And it's obvious to anyone who cares to open their eyes and hearts there is still a long way to go. But, still, in my lifetime, the move toward justice has made significant strides — slowly, but surely. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote seems relate: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."Although often attributed to King, he was actually echoing the words of 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (in the 1850's). Parker's actual words were: "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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."

I don't think I'd be distorting the meaning of King's quote, by adding that it "may bend slowly." Or if I'd substitute for "arc of the moral universe" God's long arm of justice. My translation: "The long arm of God's justice may sometimes swing slowly, but it always bends toward His divine justice."

And, sometimes to recognize this arc of justice's slow movement, we have to step back — perhaps as I have done through pondering that picture — and take the "Long View". A prayer attributed to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador expresses this well: "It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision." (For the full prayer — a most meaningful one — see the Resources below.)

As one who writes from a Christian perspective, it would be nice to say that the Christian church was out in front leading God's slow march to civil rights justice. But, sadly, that was not the case. Oh yes, many churches did raise up leaders, send teams to the South to march and protest; some preached the need for change from the pulpit. Many of the Black civil rights leaders were spurred to action by their faith proclaimed in the Black church. (A highlight of my life was hearing the Rev. John Lewis (Representative from Georgia) preach at an American Baptist national convention gathering.)

But, as I see it, the church's role was spotty. For those churches and pastors who preached and emphasized social action and change, probably many more avoided the issue: "That's a social issue, not a religious/spiritual topic." Even many Black churches pretty much ignored the situation for fear of "rocking the boat". As a Christian and often-church leader, I hate to say it, but I'd be hard pressed to give my religious heritage more than a "C-plus" in God's slow but sure arm to His justice — at least in terms of racial civil rights.

As much, or even more than church people, God seemed to use many outside the church to move along change. Students from Northern progressive colleges (so-called "Northern Agitators") were key leaders and movers. And how would the movement had fared if it weren't for the never-minding-their-own-business media reporting and picturing the events of that era? I'm sure I was not the only passive one moved by the black and white images of powerful fire-hoses knocking down marchers and of police dogs ready to gnaw into the small black legs of children holding signs of protest. It was not a "fake news" that showed many of us that something was dreadfully wrong in America.

I would supposed that our Just God would love to see His Son's Church take the moral lead in moving toward His Kingdom on Earth. But, as those disciples he chose to lead were not religious leaders, God seems to use those who simply are willing to follow. Perhaps God uses college students not fearful to be considered agitators — or "pinko commies". Or maybe the pesky media willing to interview and film the dirty details and even challenge those in power. ... Maybe even a young woman with a heart to know that "no one should sit alone."

Are there ways God's sometimes-slow arm today is moving toward justice? Will we, or our churches, be a part of God's movement? Will we even work to discern whether some social movements today just may be the movement of our God? "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:19a, NIV) And, as that great hymn of the civil rights era says, "Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day."

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Resources Related To this Reflection

Prayer attributed to Oscar Romero: "A Future Not Our Own."
Edmund Pettis Bridge 2015 "We Shall Overcome": Pete Seeger

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