“But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos 5:24 has been flooding through my mind a lot lately, an immortal line of scripture that has been a favorite among many preachers over the millennia, including Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
We often think of water as something peaceful, like the still waters of Psalm 23, or gently rolling waves, or a relaxing swim on a hot day. We cannot live without water and because we use it so often, sometimes we begin to take it for granted.
But sometimes water is terrifying and overwhelming. I’ve lived through floods and storms that left a lot of damage behind in their wake. I was stranded outside of New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, unable to get back to campus for almost a week, but I will never forget the surreal landscape that I watched from the window of the train when I was finally able to return.
Water in and of itself is not bad or evil or malicious (in fact, it is literally life-giving), but it can be devastating nonetheless, especially when we’ve downplayed its power and failed to prepare for natural disasters or sustain infrastructure to be strong enough to handle them. Destruction and suffering can, at times, be a side-effect of the rolling and ever-flowing nature of water.
Water is also constantly changing and moving and being transformed (into ice, into steam, back into water). Sometimes that change is gentle and gradual, but sometimes, when water has been dammed up and suddenly breaks through, the pent-up power behind its movement is nothing less than shockingly, world-shakingly breath-taking.
And it has occurred to me recently that the prophet Amos’ comparison of justice to waters is far more fitting than I’d ever thought, because while sometimes, justice is simple or straightforward or widely accepted, there are times when the movement of justice leaves devastation in its wake.
No one can deny that our country has a long history of giving less value to people of color than to people whose skin is white. At times, that tendency has been very literally written into law, valuing some people at 3/5 the value of others, denying some people the right to vote or to live freely or to live on their ancestral land, creating legal systems that literally separated citizens by the color of their skin. Yes, things have improved over the centuries, but creating and maintaining a fair and equal society is an ongoing process.
I’ve said before that all institutions are inherently broken, no matter how much we love them. We have been betrayed by heartbreaking scandals in our governments, in our sports leagues, in our military, in our scout troops, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our schools. I have had some wonderful teachers in my life, from my third grade teacher Ms Davis, who inspired me to fall in love with theater and the spoken word; to Mr Grate, who inspired me to earn a history degree; to Dr Barram, who changed how I read the Bible; to Dr Waters, who is the kind of compassionate and brilliant priest whom I still aspire to be when I grow up. I want every school to have teachers like them and I want every student to have teachers who inspire them in similar ways. But I have also had some awful teachers, from the fifth grade teacher who told me in front of the entire class that I should be quiet because no one cared about what I had to say, to the high school drama teacher who sabotaged the production of the play I wrote, to the college professor who only ever called on male students, to the seminary professor who made assumptions about me and brushed off my unique insights on a very specific topic.
Those bad teachers should be held accountable and held to a higher standard. It doesn’t help anyone for their actions to be swept under the rug: not me, not other students, not the schools where they teach, not the communities they serve. A handful of bad teachers has made me less likely to trust people, even though I know it isn’t fair. I believe in education. It is exactly because I believe in education that I want for all schools to have the resources they need, for all students to have the teachers they deserve, and for all educators to be accountable for their actions. I support teachers and I am deeply proud of my friends who are teachers (hi, Caitlin and Desiree! you’re awesome!). A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and without accountability, some teachers and some schools and districts damage the overall system by providing subpar education and weakening trust.
When we set up standards and guidelines and accountability, we pave the path to justice, so that it can be ever-flowing, rather than being dammed up until the floodgates open and people take to protesting.
I believe in education, like I believe in the Church, and in democracy, and in our military, and in our police force and that is why I want them to be the best that they can be. I want to live in a society in which police officers seek to serve and protect the people and only use force as an absolute last resort. I want justice for the unarmed citizens who have been killed by police and I want a reckoning across society until we see all people to be of equal worth.
Justice and change do not always come easily. Despite the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr as an American hero today, in 1966 (two years before his death), a Gallup poll revealed that only one third of Americans viewed him positively. As many of you may remember, riots and anger exploded across the country when he was murdered. It was a difficult and a dangerous time; some communities still bear the scars. But after less than a week, the national response was to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1968 into law.
Until justice begins to roll down like waters, we cannot be surprised when the dams break and generations of resentment and anger flood the streets.