But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Amos 5:24 (ASV)
Last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. After I finished volunteering, I decided I would take a little walk in Montgomery. Downtown Montgomery is such a historic place. In March, there was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March that lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Dexter Avenue, the main street leading to the Alabama State Capitol, is within walking distance of only a few blocks either way from other historic sites, including the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Memorial Center (pictured above), the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, and the Court Square Fountain. Downtown Montgomery is where the history of the Civil War and Civil Rights merge into one place, side by side.
One of the most moving tributes is the the Civil Rights Memorial dedicated to forty-one people who died in the struggle for the equal treatment of all people, regardless of race, during the Civil Rights Movement between 1955 (Emmett Till) and 1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr.). The LGBT Rights Movement has had its own martyrs. The Civil Rights Memorial Center lists Billy Jack Gaither, a 39-year-old gay man, was brutally beaten to death in Rockford, Alabama, simply because he was gay. But there are many others: the thirty-two people who died when an arsonist burned the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, Harvey Milk, Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, Barry Winchell, and so many others who were killed because they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The list is further expanded when you add in the number of LGBT suicides, especially of teenagers, because of bigotry and hatred often fueled by religious fanaticism.
The Civil Rights Memorial may only list the names of those who died because they believed in equality for African Americans but it also stands as a testament to all those who have died because of differences perceived by others. It is to remind us of the fight for equality. The concept of Maya Lin’s design of the Civil Rights Memorial (Maya Lin’s most famous design is the Vietnam Memorial) is based on the soothing and healing effect of water. It was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s paraphrase “… we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. …”, from the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. *We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.”* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
No matter who is fighting for rights and equal treatment, the message is basically the same. The Supreme Court gave us marriage equality, but we cannot be satisfied with that. We need to end discrimination of any kind and for those who claim that they can discriminate because it is their religious right and they are only fighting for their religious freedom are in reality fitting for their own bigotry, no different then the white supremacist of the 1950s and 60s. Amos is a very appropriate prophet to look at when discussing equality. Throughout the Book of Amos, Amos voices prophetic rage against the injustices of the day. The entire book is given to denouncing the excesses of eighth-century B.C.E. Israelite life and reminding people of their true covenantal obligations. Those who are “at ease in Zion” and “feel secure on Mount Samaria,” who “lie on beds of ivory” and “eat lambs from the flock,” will “be the first to go into exile” (Amos 6:1-7) because they have forgotten the plight of the poor and mistaken religious observance and piety for moral responsibility.
If Amos were alive today, what might he say? Perhaps the most famous line from the book is the one King paraphrased from Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” The context of this powerful statement is a prophetic denunciation of the “sacrifices and meal offerings” of a people who have failed to keep the covenant, which is constituted by justice and fairness. Throughout Amos 5-6, the prophet lashes out against those who have become rich at the expense of the poor and against public—but hollow—displays of piety. According to Amos, God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Religious devotion is meaningless if it is accompanied by unfair taxes on the poor, backdoor bribes, and working against those in need (Amos 5:11-12).
Because of these sentiments, this passage has become an important source for some observers of contemporary American religious and political culture. I think Amos would disapprove of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding increase in poverty, and he would rage against the displays of self-importance and exceptionalism in some quarters of American life.
According to Amos, a nation is exceptional by the measure of how it cares for the lowest members of society; and a nation of religious hypocrisy and injustice is one that will perish. John Winthrop expressed the message of Amos in his famous work “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630); he knew that for the Puritan legacy to be a “light unto the nations” and a “city upon a hill,” the community would have to be based upon principles of justice, fairness, and regard for others, “that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.”
No matter what religious fanatics and bigots say, God is on our side, and one day, truth, justice, and equality will prevail throughout the United States, and instead of the death and destruction that the bigots proclaim will happen, God and His peace and love will be there instead.