Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters and Righteousness Like a Mighty Stream: Pulpit and Pew Speak to 2020 Presidential Hopefuls, part 2, David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

excerpts from spiritual reflections at Silverside Church, March 10, 2019

I

While looking through some Ancestry online links, my parents’ 1953 marriage license popped up, and the minister who performed their ceremony was Paul Turner. I wanted to know more about Turner so I started my search, and without much effort at all, news articles popped up. Turner had nearly lost his life standing with the Black students who were ordered to attend classes at the entirely segregated Clinton High School in Anderson County, Tennessee, near Knoxville. At first the students didn’t go, but there was no other opportunity for education. Rev. Turner walked with them to class, and along the way some white racists claiming to be Christians beat him.

Turner, hat and tie, nearest front
Photo by Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Thankfully, the students made it to school physically unscathed. The story of their courage must also be told.

When he was able to be back in his pulpit, CBS News was there. Among other truths spoken he said, “There is no color line at the cross of Jesus.”

Eventually, Turner engaged in more study and became a professor at the Golden Gate Seminary (Southern Baptist) near San Francisco. He carried his equality values with him; there were internal politics. He was terminated, and shortly thereafter he took his own life at the age of 57.

When I was pastoring in Baltimore, at least in my early years there, there was only one African American musician in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He played the violin. I never met him, but saw him on stage the few times I attended a symphony performance. Sadly, the HIV with which he had been living became what was referred to back then as “full blown AIDS,” and his health deteriorated rapidly. A couple, Rosemary White and Carolyn Foulkes–also remarkable professional musicians, volunteered to be his caregivers.

When death came, they were stunned to discover that no Baltimore City churches of any size, able to accommodate the probable number of people who’d attend the memorial service, were willing to allow a gay person who’d died from AIDS–I don’t know which was supposed to have been more damning–to be memorialized on their holy grounds. Or maybe some had been willing to host for substantial fees. There was money, but it was supposed to be unavailable for some extended period of time. How sad! The plague of Voltaire repeated, though for different reasons. Carolyn and Rosemary shared a close friendship with our organist and his partner; they called and asked if I knew of anyone at all who would help. I said, “My church will.” They said, “We wouldn’t want you to be put in an awkward position because of this.” And I said, “This church loves awkward and even finds awkward beautiful.”

So University Church hosted Bruce Wade’s memorial service and took such great pride in having had the opportunity to provide that ministry. We found out at the memorial service why there wasn’t much money available to pay for a big sanctuary funeral. Bruce Wade had willed all/most of his money to a music program for impoverished black children in Soweto township of South Africa before apartheid had really begun to be cleaned up. One of the major news networks set up a feed–I’m pretty sure it was a feed rather than a video–of the music teacher whom this money would support expressing his gratitude for the utterly remarkable gift from Bruce Wade. Snubbed in dying and rejected at death, Bruce Wade with the help of Rosemary and Carolyn found a way to live on, as it were, despite the injustices heaped upon him.

Read a newspaper article about Bruce Wade here.

II

“…let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 NRSV).

We work backwards in terms of when you may have heard this powerful image to where it originated in Hebrew scripture:

  • James Comey said it was his favorite scripture verse. 
  • Martin Luther King Jr. used it along with other biblical allusions in his world-changing “I Have a Dream” sermon/speech.
  • It was first uttered by a fed up eighth century BCE Hebrew prophet Amos

When I read it in English I get an image of a gush of waters powerful enough to wash away all the debris in its path, a Niagara Falls kind of power, and there may be something like that here; if so that isn’t on the front end of the metaphor.  An ancient Hebrew way of emphasizing points in writing about an image or an idea would be to repeat it in a slightly tweaked way for clarity and emphasis; we could have such an instance of Hebrew parallelism here.

So if I look up how Jewish translators translated it in the standard Jewish translation of 1917, which should at least be taken into account since it’s their language—right?—some finer points begin to emerge.  This is what I get:

  • For part one:  “Let justice well up like waters….”  I get the picture of plenty of rain coming into the sources that fed the wells from which villages drew waters; indeed, around which many villages were built.  In this case, even if droughts came, there would still be well water when drinkable water sources on the surface of the land, rivers and streams, had dried up.
  • For part two, I see in the same translation, the “ever-flowing” stream part a picture of consistency; there’s enough water, and it keeps flowing no matter what.  But the Septuagint translation has this as an “impassable torrent.”  A veritable flood in a rainy season.

So, I offer you a literary/theological buffet today so that you can choose how you want to digest these powerful images; and sometimes the both/and option is AOK. 

  1. Justice makes its mark when there’s plenty of it including a backup supply, and it flows consistently into the life experiences of the people of goodwill in this world, and those for me include the ones who have made mistakes and are genuinely trying to make things right.
  2. Justice functions when it floods out injustice—an impassable torrent, meaning every way any one turns she or he bumps into justice doing its work.

III

I’ve fretted all week about what the most heinous injustices are that currently infect humanity.  Lots of things keep me awake at night, literally.  Hungry people. Children in cages. Corrupt governments, which sadly describes most currently in power.

It occurs to me that most expressions of injustice grow out of one root, namely the devaluation of human life. 

  • Racism, yes—from inequities of punitive measures in the criminal justice between white people and black people, especially big money white people and poor black people; to the ethnic praise of all Jews in the modern nation of Israel no matter how atrociously they treat non-Jews especially innocent Palestinians.  At the root, both of these among many other expressions of racism could only happen because power people don’t value the lives of those they cram into cells or shoot dead while trying to live by the rules the power people forced upon them.
  • Taxation WITH representation.  Our forebears demanding representation if they were going to pay taxes never imagined, could not have imagined, that representation would ever become elected officials making money on the backs of those they pretend to represent.  A culture of filthy-rich so-called lawmakers taxing the working class people while they spend the time their constituents pay them to “work,” looking for ways to make money for themselves that will increase the tax burden on those barely making ends meet who elected them.  Highly privileged people don’t know what increased governmentally imposed financial burdens mean to those struggling to pay rent or feed families; these kinds of laws rob rank and file people of life–literally!  They couldn’t happen if there were a respect for the value of human life and a commitment to enhance the quality of life for all.
  • Friday was the day of celebrating women internationally.  I wanted to celebrate women, and I understand why this celebration began—to call attention to how women are still treated like second class citizens if not servants in many parts of the world.  But in some respects it’s laughable because how many of us would be here if it weren’t for a woman?  It could be called International Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Day, Men, after You Make Your Own!  Is there a moment we can even pretend that anything of significance has been maintained if not at least in part created and maintained by women even though the male historians liked to leave out the chapters on women’s contributions?
  • Same in a way with Black History “month.”  Month?  If the only time we think about the integral roles black women and men have played in the good that evolved on these shores and abroad, something is terribly, terribly wrong.  That’s my concern.  I’m not advocating that we stop as long as we recognize that it’s kind of a slow way of playing catch up—because of how people of color have not been valued as full and equal human beings all along.
Bloomington, Indiana’s Black History Month Poster

Silverside Church, your church/our church, came into being as Second Baptist Church by opening the floodgates of theological reflection and justice, telling the poohbahs at First Baptist Church that their idea of a god who didn’t think children counted enough to be taught about God was a god they couldn’t worship; and a god who set the plight of non-Americans who hadn’t heard of God’s love and should be left in that divinely ordained state was a god First Baptist had concocted without reference to scripture, reason, or compassion so they’d take–only eleven of them I think–their tithes, offerings, and justice-energies elsewhere.

Rev. James Stokes Dickerson, pastor of this congregation during the Lincoln presidency, challenged the whole southern half of the not-so-United States along with a significant portion of the Delaware population in his nation-changing sermon, “Duties of the Hour,” when he preached, my summary, “The time is now to divest, if what you’ve invested in are human beings.” And President Lincoln said, “The little pastor of Second Baptist Church changed minds and thus changed history. If not for him, Delaware would have fought for slavery.”

The only way this church has survived almost 184 years is because of the energy and financial investment of people too numerous to count and unknown to most of us by now, who believed that only way to be people of God was not by talking about what Amos talked about but being what Amos talked about:  living, breathing forces for justice that wells up so the supply cannot be baked away and for righteousness like an mighty stream, an impassable torrent. 

My gentle friends, evil, injustice, will not politely excuse itself and disappear.