Where Do I Want to Be When Justice Rolls Down?
By Derek Penwell
I had a parishioner write something the other day that I can’t quite get out of my head. Darla is an advocate in the state capitol on behalf of the rights of the disabled and the elderly, and had a bill go on life support -- the Adult Abuse Prevention Bill. (How do you not support that?)
In her disappointment, she wrote: “I sit here again thinking about exactly where do I want to be when justice does roll down!”
I’ll be honest: That question haunts me. Darla was referring to the famous passage from the prophet Amos, who , in a time where grave disparities existed between those in power and those on the margins, between those dining on bone china and those forced to eat leftovers out back from the dumpster, wrote:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24).
Apparently, God has become upset with Israel because of the way those in power have treated the folks at the bottom of the food chain. God’s anger stems from the fact that “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals -- they … trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6b-7a).
The irony in Amos, however, is that the people who oversee this oppression labor under the assumption that they’re on God’s side. The oppressors are God’s people, people who long for the “day of the Lord.” They believe that when God sets things right, they’ll be -- as they’ve always been -- on the winning side of things.
But God says something like, “Don’t be so quick to hunger for the day of the Lord. The justice you seek may not be nearly as pleasant for you as you imagine” (5:18).
In other words, the people God is most annoyed with are the people who’ve always considered themselves the heroes of the story, the ones whom God should be grateful to have on the team -- the ones who throw holy festivals, who gather in solemn assemblies, who offer up all the right sacrifices, who sing beautiful songs -- all to God. These are the people who’ve taken care to make sure they believe all the right things, who hold all the correct theological positions and whose liturgical prowess is unmatched.
What is God’s response to these pillars of the assembly?
“I don’t care about your spiritual virtuosity! Fine, you know your way around the scriptures. You know what fraction of an ephah of flour should be used to bake bread for the tabernacle. Congratulations! You have an exhaustive metric concerned with determining who’s fit to bother with, and who doesn’t measure up. Here’s the problem, though: none of that means anything, since you forgot that all that stuff is a tool to make you into the kind of people who seek justice by loving the people I love.”
When my daughter was about 4 years old, she’d just received (at our prompting, of course) the latest in what must have felt like an endless string of apologies from her older brother for hitting her.
“Tell your sister you’re sorry,” we said.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
And she said something that still calls out to me: “I don’t want your ‘sorries.’ I just want you to stop hitting me.”
You see, the thing is: It’s easy to do that which seems big and true and righteous, but costs me little. Doing something that costs me, really costs me, is difficult. And I’m not talking about money, except inasmuch as money stands as another way to control the world I live in.
Making myself vulnerable. Voluntarily surrendering power. Placing myself in someone else’s hands. Not getting to be the boss of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worth helping and who “should have known better in the first place.” These things cost me.
Being right isn’t a bad thing. I try to do it regularly myself. But when being right costs you nothing and someone else everything, Amos says you’re bound to get crossways with God -- since God seeks first to love us, and through us to love one another. Even God is less interested in being right than in being loving -- for Christians, that’s what that whole Jesus thing was about.
God says to the keepers of the keys: “For my part, give me justice. Justice. Let it roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
And for God, justice doesn’t mean simple fairness, flattening everything out so it’s the same. Justice means seeking for everyone what they need to flourish.
So, where do I want to be when justice rolls down? My first inclination is to say: “I want to be on the right side of it.”
If I read Amos anything like correctly, my heart says: “When justice rolls down, I want to be right in the middle of it.”