Perhaps my favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr. is this: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This statement actually is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. King reconstructs Parker’s quote and takes it in a different direction. What was King intending to say?

In my brief exegesis of King’s paraphrase, I see three important insights. First is the honest understanding that the moral universe is not always just. King is much too aware of the co-morbidities of chattel slavery and Jim Crow to imbibe an exceptionalist view of American history. He knows that American history is littered with profound injustices.

But there is another insight, more transcendent in perspective, namely, that for the moral arc to be bent, there must be a Bender—One who is supremely powerful and righteous and on a mission of justice and redemption. We cannot forget that King’s first calling was as a minister of the Gospel. I do not think one can understand King’s words without a recognition of his deep faith in an Almighty God, who is willing and able to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

And finally, while acknowledging the reality of injustice, he does not get mired in despair, but lives with both eyes fixed on Jesus and the promise of redemption. There is a deep and abiding eschatology of hope that shapes King’s vision—an eschatology where the kingdom of God must begin to be realized in the here and now.

Martin Luther King’s words echo those of the Apostle Paul:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning  in labor until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:22-24)

Frank A. James III, DPhil, PhD
President and Professor of Historical Theology
Missio Seminary