Whose Work in Bending the Arc of Justice?

“Bending the arc of justice once again”  is the title of a recent op-ed by Professor Parsonya Wise Whitehead of Loyola University (Baltimore Sun, Dec 12, 2014). This commentary was brought to my attention by a leader of our church, in part to celebrate the source of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s paraphrase of Unitarian abolitionist Rev. Theooldore Parker with the phrase, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Prof. Whitehead asks that we pay attention to this moment in our lives, this 50th anniversary of the marches in Selma and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King, this moment when our society is reeling from the impunity granted to extra-judicial killings by agents of the state of unarmed Black men.

She spoke of her own example. “I have spent the semester teaching about Ferguson in my classroom. My students wanted to know what they could do to be part of the change they believed was happening around the country. I told them they should focus on changing themselves and their communities. I had them spend some time examining and confronting their own racial biases. I taught them about the social construction of race and class and assigned follow-up readings to help guide our discussions. I taught them how to facilitate difficult and emotional (but necessary) conversations about race and class. I told them that years from now, they will not remember the tests that I gave them or the parties they attended, but they will remember that this was a time when they actively grabbed the reins of democracy and worked to bend the arc closer to justice.”

I visited Chicago this week to attend Winter Convocation of Meadville Lombard Theological School where I am a Teaching Pastor to ministers in preparation in the Baltimore region. The question of a lucid, compassionate, committed response to the state of our country was a theme of our conversations, and I sought a way toward clarity for me, for my students, and for the congregation that I lead and serve. How shall we respond to the reality of the hurt and pain in our cities–including our own Baltimore? How shall we deal with the work that is before us, a work Prof. Whitehead describes as “tiring and frustrating” when Black folk “have to prove to people, every day, that #BlackLivesMatter.”

A brief conversation on Facebook among members of our congregation called for the need for mixed-“race” groups to come together for consciousness-raising about this moment. I applaud the sentiment for consciousness-raising, and especially when it leads to action. But I also know that lucid action can lead to consciousness-raising, and it may be that there are enough avenues already described by the movement of Black and other People of Color for White folk like me to be engaged and thus to grow in our consciousness that, indeed, #BlackLivesMatter, and that Black lives are in danger by the status quo which holds (and holds back?) us. It may be that White People need to use the rational sense which is the hallmark of our religion of reason and “walk the talk” of our faith, engaging our heads and allowing the walk to win our hearts.

My dear colleague Rev. Alma Faith Crawford asked that I understand that many Black people have had enough of explaining, for years and decades and centuries, their lives and the injustice they experience, and maybe we are past the place for conversation only. Maybe we can simply look at what is already available on YouTube and Twitter and all the social media we have, and simply commit ourselves to being part of holding the police, for example, accountable in a just way for the work that they do for us all. In the midst of such work, we may examine our own racial biases, and we may engage the “difficult and emotional (but necessary) conversations about race and class” which will assist in the raising of our consciousness. And we may bend the arc of justice in the way that is appropriate at this time, this moment of profound dislocation and dissatisfaction by some of us, which many others of us see as distant and happening only to “the other.”

I look forward to our continued conversation–and action–to be about justice bending.  

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