Selma and Participatory Eschatology

Participatory EschatologyI’m not a professional movie critic, but I recommend you go see the movie Selma. In addition to being a moving film, it educates in a non-didactic way about a crucial moment in American history.

What really jumped out for me beyond even the movie itself was the closing credits song and its theological profundity. Titled “Glory,” and written by John Legend and Common, this award-winning song expresses the relationship of our actions and hope for a better world. It is a work of eschatology.

You may have never heard that term before. Don’t worry: no one has outside of seminary. Eschatology literally means “study of the last.” Simply said, it’s about what we can hope for. Some religious traditions emphasize it as an ultimate fight between good and evil, or look beyond our earthly existence for an ultimate meaning. More careful thinkers have talked about how the fulfillment of God’s intentions for the world have an “already but not yet” quality to them.

Both the film and song reflect this tone. So much has been accomplished, and there are genuine victories achieved through inspirited human actions. But history doesn’t end. Struggles continue. “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” for example.

Some thinkers like Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren add that this hope that keeps us going is fundamentally a participatory one. It is not merely watching and waiting in assurance that one day it will all work out, or that the Divine will swoop in and solve the evils of our world. Instead, it is only by participating with what the Divine is already doing in the world that what I call the Divine Commonwealth (i.e. Kingdom of God) and what King called “The Beloved Community” becomes realized. But it’s not a once-and-for-all event. It is something we do, moment-by-moment, step-by-step, bridge-by-bridge, with each other. This is a participatory eschatology.

timothy-murphyBoth Selma and the song “Glory” exhibit simultaneously a profoundly secular and profoundly religious sensibility. This shouldn’t be surprising for those of us who fight for justice out of spiritual grounding. Indeed, the work of eschatological participation is at once secular and sacred. The Selma campaign was a historical moment of these two undividable sides. The work is not done, but it only gets accomplished through our participation.


Timothy Murphy, Executive Director
Progressive Christians Uniting

About Timothy Murphy

Rev. Timothy Charles Murphy is the Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting.