Weekend Open Thread: ‘Let Justice Roll Down Like a River’

Weeks of drenching water and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend and weeks of drenching water. Is there a theme for this open thread? Ahhh, here we go:

“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement from his address at Lincoln Memorial was a take on the Bible verse Amos 5:24 — on which he often riffed — that has a variety of delightful translations, from the staid archaic to the informally paraphrased contemporary:

King James Version: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

American Standard Version: “But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

One might readily wonder: what precedes the “But” at the beginning of this (and many other) translations?

Some suggest that Amos 5:24 must be read in the context of Amos 5:21-23, in which the prophet purports to speak with the voice of God:

21: ‘I loathe your festivals; I reject your assemblies;
22: I do not accept your burnt offerings or your meal offerings; I pay no heed to your
offerings of fatlings;
23: Remove from Me the sound of your songs; and let Me not hear the music of your lutes.’

And that’s when we get to letting justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

A note to Christian readers: I know that many of you believe that all admonitions from the Hebrew Bible were overridden by the acceptance of the divinity of Jesus as the necessary and sufficient basis for salvation. But we’re not talking about salvation here: we’re talking about social justice — you know, the concept that professed Christian MAGA Republicans in Congress and elsewhere spend so much their time mocking — and what does or does not please God. I’ve studied the Christian Bible, and Jesus’ calls for social justice, rather than for the sorts of public performances described in 5:21-23, seem pretty much in synch with Amos, right?

Our state has been experiencing the waters rushing down these past weeks — a phrase that suffers from its ambiguity as regards waters, which perhaps might better be translated as “a deluge.” The notion of a “mighty stream” seems to me like a worse translation, because streams (though enough for the very young, feeble, and intoxicated to drown in) are generally thought of as calm and meandering rather than mighty and swift, like a river. I will be guided by the fury expressed in Amos 5:21-23 in translated verse 24 as:

But let justice pour down like a deluge, righteousness flow like a mighty river.

That, I suspect, is more the level of power that Dr. King had in mind. And we, less so than our cousins to the north, have a better sense of all that that means than usual.

That power, the downpour of social justice, is intended to be destructive — and in the best possible way. Destructive of the liars and hypocrites, destructive of those who benefit from and reinforce injustice.

This isn’t my idea; I’m taking it from a 2016 article in the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning — not usually my cup of tea, but on Dr. King’s birthday I broaden my horizons — by Thomas P. Dixon, of the Princeton Theological Seminary. It addresses on Dr. King, and Amos Chapter 5, and Psalm 46 (to be addressed soon) under the title “Breaking the Backbone of Oppressive Power: Martin Luther King, Jr., the State, and the Wrath of God.”

Dixon notes that, compared to Amos 5, “fewer recall his use of Psalm 46 as a warning to unjust leaders that God would ‘rise up and break the backbone’ of their power.” He continues:

“King speaks Scripture to proclaim that God works outside the walls of the church in judgment for the establishment of justice, even when—or expressly when—the church does not live up to its calling.  Here King makes another appeal to Ps. 46:10:”

God comes in the picture even when the Church won’t take a stand. God has injected a principle in this universe. God has said that all men must respect the dignity and worth of all human personality, “And if you don’t do that, I will take charge.” It seems this morning that I can hear God speaking. I can hear Him speaking throughout the universe, saying, “‘Be still, and know that I am God.’  And if you don’t stop, if you don’t straighten up, if you don’t stop exploiting people, I’m going to rise up and break the backbone of your power.  And your power will be no more!

We are not called upon, in King’s view, to passively await the downpour of waters and the mightification of the humble stream. We are supposed to embody it, make it happen, break the backbone of the oppressive power structure. (This is called “the prophetic voice” for good reason!)

So, during a fortnight-to-a-month where we are trembling at the destructive power of water, let us tremble all the more at the the destructive power of God (whom I choose to employ at least as a metaphor on this holiday weekend.) Read Dixon’s powerful article. If “God does not suffer fools gladly,” we may suppose that neither does God suffer knaves.

About that question of whether we’re going to get deluges a lot more than previously, I have a couple of good articles for you.

The first article came out before the recent water onslaught, and addresses the prospect of another California “Megaflood,” which turned the Central Valley into a lake for a while back in 1862.

Picture of California flooding in 1862. It’s either an early photo or a very detailed illustration. (Or a mix?)

The second article gets more deeply into the science at hand.

One thing that neither paper addresses (at least so far as I’ve seen) is how we can protect ourself from the worst of, and even make the best of, these sorts of destructive storms. Everyone seems to be convinced that we should do a better job of saving water from deluges for a less rainy day — rather than letting it flow into the ocean. I haven’t looked deeply into how people propose that we can do this — or into whether it can be done in a way that neither (1) unduly despoils the environment, (2) multiplies the numbers of mosquitos or other water-breeding pests, nor (3) makes the rich richer (and probably the poor poorer, even if perhaps less thirsty for a time. We seem to have missed our opportunity here this year, but — now that we know what’s potentially coming — does anyone know what water storage ideas are, uh, “floating around”?

This is your highly saturated Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend Open Thread. Talk about that, or whatever else you’d like within reasonable bounds of discretion, decorum, and dryness.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)