The Moral Universe

Theodore Parker, Unitarian minister, reformer and abolitionist, died 147 years ago today. To save you from having to do the math, the year was 1860. He did not live to see emancipation, nor even the election of Abraham Lincoln, which caused the slave states to secede from the Union. I wonder if he even knew Mr. Lincoln was a candidate. The political season was not so drawn out in those days.

Rev. Parker is remembered -- or not remembered -- as the man who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of Rev. Parker's sermons, often quoted the line and so people now misattribute it to him, which is why Rev. Parker is not remembered.

Rev. Parker must have been a bold man to make his statement in the time and political landscape that he did. That Dr. King would quote the phrase in the depth of the struggle for civil rights speaks to his own audacity.

Both ministers were defiant of the laws of the day. Rev. Parker actively sheltered runaway slaves in his Boston home and routed them to Canada, in violation of the federal Fugitive Slave Act. When he preached, he laid a pistol on the pulpit in case any slave catchers should try to apprehend fugitive slaves in the congregation. Dr. King advocated open, non-violent resistance to the Jim Crow laws restricting the rights of African Americans and was jailed on numerous occasions.

The ministers both lived in eras when our government had lost its moral underpinnings and sacrificed the liberty of its citizens for advantages of a few narrow minds.

Here's a contemporary example. On Tuesday, Harper's magazine (which was around in Rev. Parker's day) published a short article on its web site (which was not around in Rev. Parker's day) about Louis-Pierre Dillais. (

Mr. Dillais is an arms dealer. He is the president of FNH USA, a subsidiary of the Belgian arms manufacturer FN Herstal. FNH USA sells guns -- pistols, assault rifles and machine guns -- to several branches of the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department's Secret Service.

Mr. Dillais is a French national and a former military man. In 1985, he coordinated an operation in which French divers placed two bombs on the hull of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in the harbor of Auckland, New Zealand.

Greenpeace was in New Zealand as part of its Nuclear-Free Pacific campaign; the Rainbow Warrior was scheduled to sail for Murarora, where the French were to detonate a nuclear weapon. Mr. Dillais and his team were dispatched to stop Greenpeace's protest and sink its vessel.

Bombs, nuclear or smaller, are always chancy things and the French bombs killed a Greenpeace photographer, Fernando Pereira. The French plot was discovered and the French government was covered in shame.

Mr. Dillais was never arrested for his role, but he has never tried to deny it. The questions for today: how does a terrorist gain entry to the U.S, much less government contracts for weapons to be used in the so-called "war on terror"? Attorneys at Greenpeace last year alerted the federal government to the presence of a terrorist among their arms dealers, but no action has been forthcoming.

In these post-911 days, ordinary citizens are subject to wiretaps and airport searches, passports are required when flying to Toronto or Montreal - and the government buys weapons from terrorists.

Another terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile who is accused of killing 73 people in 1976 by bombing a Cuban airliner, has just had all charges against him dropped by a federal judge, even though he's acknowledged that he improperly entered the U.S. Had he been a Mexican worker trying to feed his family, he'd have been jailed or deported, but instead Mr. Posada sits in a villa in South Florida.

To believe as Rev. Parker and Dr. King believed requires faith in both a moral universe and justice, two concepts that have taken a severe bruising in the past six and a half years.

The times we are in -- nuclear weapons abounding and civil liberties curtailed - require more Parkers and Kings, people with the audacity to scan the sky for an arc that bends toward justice and a willingness to defy governments gone wrong.

This article is also available on Mark Floegel's website.

(c) Mark Floegel, 2007

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