Hanging on the Arc of the Moral Universe

As many of us have been this past week, I’ve been thinking and praying about race and racism in America. The jury declaring George Zimmerman innocent of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin dominated the news and drew a big response from people coast to coast who made their opinions known in public demonstrations or simply posting their feelings about the matter in social media. Though race reportedly wasn’t a factor in the trial, it was in the back of everyone’s mind who was following the case, and has become the dominant “issue” to stem from the trial. One might wonder if the trial would have come out different if the person killed had been white, and especially if the person who had pulled the trigger had been black.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, we have a horrible history of racially motivated violence. Though I’m not sure how the race riot of 1921 might have directly affected long time members, or perhaps even the creation of University United Methodist Church, I’m sure it had some bearing. I’m also sure we as a representative of Christ’s love and justice may still have some role to play in the reconciliation of those tragic days. Though we are separated from that infamous event by 92 years, there are still legacies of tragedy, hatred, fear, and injustice that live on. Those same legacies are boiling in the situation that led to the death of Trayvon Martin and the response the larger American culture has had to the trial of George Zimmerman. Racial profiling is a difficult reality to come to terms with, and it comes into play in matters of life and death and incarceration and justice. I recently watched an ABC News segment that showed the difference in how passers by responded to a young white man and a young black man, dressed the same, who were in the process of trying to steal a bike. The experiment is appalling, and is linked here.
In an enlightening article written by Victor Hinojosa, called “Christian Practices for the Journey Toward Shalom,” which is included in a Bible Study series on Racism developed by Baylor Center for Christian Ethics, the author states one difficulty in talking about racism, “Blacks and whites, including black and white Christians, are talking past each other in fundamental ways. Not only do they see racial inequality differently, they have fundamentally different understandings of racism. Whites, and especially white Christians, tend to see racism as particular sinful acts of individual racists behaving badly toward individual people of color…. In contrast, African Americans and other people of color see racism as having not only an individual dimension, but a structural one as well.” The structures are the underlying wellspring of racism that will not stop giving new life to particular instances of racism unless they are both addressed. When I was a participant in a Covenant Discipleship Group, a format developed by Upper Room ministries and a modern day incarnation of the “class meetings” that were the beginnings of the Methodist movement, I remember that our weekly accountability to one another was in four areas of two emphases—personal holiness and social holiness. As a group, the participants developed a covenant that we would be accountable to one another in carrying out each week. On the “social holiness” emphasis of the covenant, we came up with particular acts of Justice and Mercy. Acts of mercy were characterized by personal responsibility. Acts of Justice were characterized by societal responsibility. Clearly, the work of preparing for God’s peace, (Shalom) in the world is a twin responsibility of personal and societal action. Keeping the personal and the societal dimensions of a problem like racism in in mind and in balance is key to having a clear understanding of an issue, and is fortunately part of our heritage and distinctiveness as United Methodists. As Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite said in her excellent editorial in the Washington Post, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ But the arc of the moral universe is one thing, and injustice in the here and now is another.” I picture this “moral arc” as a bold and clear black line about 3 feet over our heads and extending out into the path we are heading. There is a springboard in our path called the Gospel, and while some stand around the springboard and discuss its width and length and the shininess of the springs, others run toward it and jump on it and grab hold of the moral arc, pulling it down little by little with their weight so that justice meets the ground that much sooner in the path we are on. I want to be in that group. I hope you do too.