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In a sermon in 1853, Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker penned these words:

“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 the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

If those words look familiar, it’s because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King thought them powerful enough to paraphrase them on numerous occasions when he said:
“[T]he arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

I thought of Parker’s words yesterday as I watched, along with people around the nation and the world, the verdict being handed down in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Mr. Chauvin was charged with three counts of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Yesterday, a jury of seven women and five men found him guilty on all three counts. Six of those jurors are white, four are Black, and two identify as multiracial.

During the trial, the jury and those in the courtroom viewed, over and over, the video recording made by then 17-year old Darnelle Frazier, a young woman who happened to be going to the corner store with her 9-year old cousin to buy some snacks. Seeing the commotion, she took out her cell phone and recorded the entire incident while begging Mr. Chauvin to stop kneeling on his neck because he couldn’t breathe and he was going to die. That, along with her release of the video and her testimony in court, was an act of incredible bravery, without which it is likely that the verdict yesterday would not have been reached and Mr. Chauvin would be a free man and possibly still a police officer.

But while we celebrate the verdict in this case, we must not allow this one victory to lull us into a false sense of thinking that the moral arc has once and for all bent towards justice. This verdict, while giving hope, is not the end of the racial and social justice work that still needs to be done in our nation and in the world. The guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin should give us pause and lead us to consider the crimes that our nation is still guilty of and for which we must be held accountable: the almost daily killing by white police officers of our black brothers and sisters and of people of color; the mass incarceration of mainly black men for the for-profit prison system; the egregious disparity in health care between the white population and communities of color; the woeful educational system that favors white communities and white children over communities of color and provides little in the way of the technology required by students to succeed in a rapidly changing society; the lack of access to quality mental health care including addiction resources and the continuation of the false narrative addiction is a moral failing and a crime; the reversal in many states of voting rights aimed primarily at black American citizens and people of color. The list goes on. But these conditions and many others all intersect to perpetuate the systemic racism that is our national disgrace and our national sin.

Yes, we can be glad and celebrate that one battle has been won and some ground gained in the struggle for racial and social justice. But we’ve seen all too often in recent years how that ground is easily lost as racist policies pushed by an increasingly pro-white supremacist, right wing Republican party have foisted their agenda on the American public in the name of making America “great again,” a code for keeping America a predominantly white nation or at least keeping white people in control.

The moral arc will not bend towards justice any more easily now than it has in the past without our continued dedication to helping it do so. The struggle continues. And with patience, courage, and especially, fierce but uncompromising love, the victory will come. As Parker wrote: we may not see it now. Our “eye reaches but  little way.” We can “divine it by conscience” and be “sure it bends towards justice.”

Rev. Paul Dodenhoff