Let Justice Roll
“Let justice roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” These are ancient words penned by the prophet Amos. That word is made famous again in our own time by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his historic 1963, I Have a Dream speech. It was destined. After all, famous is just “Amos” preceded by the letter F.
Most of us remember these words, “Let justice roll like mighty waters” from Dr. King’s iconic speech. But they come to us from this old prophet in a deeply religious context.
Amos, in about 750 BCE, was criticizing the temple gatherings of his time. Speaking as if he were God, Amos spoke cruelly of the religious gatherings, the singing, the incense burning, the using of all manner of religious pageantry, but without having at its core the call for justice. This criticism that Amos lobbied for in his day is as important now or anytime, which brings me to the thesis for today. The purpose of our congregation at core, or at very least in part, is to raise up young radicals and future revolutionaries who would rail all institutions, laws, and cultural practices wherever they prohibit peace with dignity.
Our job is to raise up young’uns that would take on this task even if it doesn’t appeal to their self-interest. Our job is to raise up young ones who are so committed to truth and justice that even fear of their own death is less than their desire to do what is just and compassionate and full of grace.
For young people, the call to the radical life is inspiring. It sounds like a life lived without caution. A hand played bold and glorious. As we get older, these words become more threatening and leave us asking questions: was I, have I, can I still someday be in some way able to consider myself truly heroic in my commitment to justice? Some of us ask these questions. But, more likely many of us are going to feel as if, by virtue of our continuing to survive and being comfortable in some way or another, we failed the dramatic test. As we get older, the radical call of the Gospel leaves us asking the question, did I ever really put it on the line? Did I do enough? Did I get anything done at all?
Or maybe we even start to rephrase the question by getting angry and saying, “Isn’t being a pillar of my family calling enough? Didn’t seeing my cousin through tragic times count for anything? Cannot caring for my aging parents or doing all the shopping all the time without any kind of reward count for something?” You could even get more aggressive still and say that those who pursue the heroic commitment to justice do so for their own ego gratification.
Now in my old age, as I begin the years of the dawning of my wisdom, honestly I do not know any more what is radical and what is not. Is radical only in the protest line? Under threat of physical pain? Or is radical earned by the bedside in the hospital?
I remember being humbled once in college by a roommate of mine. I was sitting in our house on an absolutely beautiful day agonizing over the right words to put in this manifesto that we were writing together that, according our imaginations, was going to free the world of injustice. I got on my roommate’s case because he was three hours late for a date we had set to work on this together. I asked him, “What have you been doing for three hours?”
Well, what he had been doing was volunteering at the Wonder Workshop in Manhattan, Kansas, where we went to school, which is an interactive museum for underprivileged children. At that time in my life, I was pretty heavy on thinking and pretty small on volunteering. Since that manifesto never got completed, I pretty much would say that my roommate was doing the better half for that day.
I know personally from my own introspection that as a young person my commitment to heroic faith was one-half ego, and one-half righteousness. These days, I am 34 and I have outlived Jesus. If I make it to 40, I will outlive Dr. King. My house, the little shack by the river, as unusual as it is, is getting quite comfortable, especially in this mild winter. Being a community minister and serving the church is beginning to seem less likely to get me asterisked or martyred than I thought it was when I went into this profession. Yet, it is coming to mean something deeper than what I had imagined, too. As much as any of you, I ask myself, “Am I, have I, or will I someday be able to count myself among those who are committed truly?”
There are a lot of good reasons to round off the short corners of Christ’s call. But, don’t you dare do that! My friends, do not be tempted to round off those edges. This gospel of ours is radical. It is our job to raise up the revolutionaries of the future. No doubt, we will need them.
Dr. King considered himself the fruit of the church. He is a representative example of the caliber of people a community like this can produce. Listen to these words that he said in a1961 interview with Redbook magazine: “I am first and foremost a minister. I love the church. I feel that the civil rights movement is a part of it, and for me, at least, the basis for my struggle for integration is something that began with a religious motivation.”
My addition to his quote, is that it is our part today to keep religion making that deep call that got to King. The struggle for justice is far from over and each succeeding generation is a generation that is won or lost to the call for justice. Each succeeding generation must be taught that there is a sisterhood and a brotherhood of humanity regardless of color or whatever else might get in the way. Such learning is not magic and does not happen by accident. Hard won gains can be easily lost by brief neglect.
The importance of Martin Luther King holiday is that it provides for us a time and occasion for memory and reflection. The importance of a Martin Luther King holiday is that it reminds us to be ever vigilant.
I think at core the wonder of Martin Luther King was that, far more than most, he was able to live out the Jesus ethic. When his very home in Montgomery, Alabama, was fire bombed, he did not call for vengeance, but called for reconciliation. Before an angry mob that was assembling, he said, “If you have weapons, take them home and if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence but we must meet violence with nonviolence. For Jesus still cries out, love your enemies. Pray for those who curse you. Pray for those who despitefully use you.”
These, my friends, are the words that we must live by to be followers of Christ. These are the words that are more important than bread to feed your children.
Pastors for a long time have been asked questions by parishioners like: Where is God? Am I supposed to see God in the sky or in that rock? Am I supposes to believe that God is going to talk to me in a human voice or am I going to see God? Pastors for a long time have answered by saying: Do not look for God in the sky, or in a rock, or as a human voice, nor is God coming in glory, but instead, look for God in the hearts of the faithful.
Not many of our lives will stand out with the ringing clarity of Dr. King’s; but if you love the truth with the spirit of Jesus for the children of this congregation, they will see God in your heart. And who knows what will come from it? After all, they said that Jesus came from Nazareth, what good could he be?
I have studied Dr. King a little less than the life of Jesus, and I am convinced that Dr. King saw in the life of Jesus, and also in what Gandhi was doing in India, an understanding of the power that defined his approach to the civil rights movement. This understanding of power is something that has drawn me to the scriptures, as well, and something I hope that we teach our children in their time here.
In school we learned that there are many kinds of power—military power, economic power, political power, ideological power. But most people only really tend to think that there is economic power, political power, and military power. In America, we have our own special emphasis on the power of might.
In the Bible we learned mostly what might be called academically “ideological power.” I think there is a better description and it is called, “soul power.” Soul power is the only power for me; so let me show you how it is described in this holy book, The Bible.
First off, Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire. Three hundred years later, this tiny moment became the certified religion of the very same Empire that crucified him. So tell me, who won? You might say that Jesus lost his life, but I’ll tell you what—Jesus was more into spreading the message than preserving his own life.
One of my favorite stories in the scriptures that inspired me as a child is the one of the persistent widow who couldn’t get justice from the judge because she was a nobody. So she stayed at the door of the court and pled her case to anyone who was willing to listen, until finally, presumably by the power of embarrassment, her case was heard and justice came late. From that story, I have come to believe that the richest, most connected person in the world has less power than a single bent-over woman from a lifetime of unfainting work, if he ignores her plight and the moment is right.
I didn’t learn about that kind of power from the great social organizer, Saul Alinsky, and I didn’t hear about it in Harvard Negotiations Principle Theory, and it’s not in the book, How Poor People’s Social Movements Work, and it’s not anywhere in the HM281 section of the library where all the social movement theory books are; it is in the Bible.
Daniel had a vision of a tall statue made of bronze and iron, stronger than any blade could break. But the feet were made of clay and one day a stone was thrown from far away that put it all in disarray.
At the right moment, schooled in the stories of our past, nothing can outreach, nothing can outlast. You can’t run enough fast. No bomb blast or way you could broadcast can help you to bypass this truth which is vast by contrast!
By coming to know of this kind of power, we become empowered.
Earlier I said that each generation is won or lost for the cause of justice. It is our job in the church to provide this religious motivation and understanding of power to each new generation in the hope that, when the time is right, our youngest will know how to fight dark with light.