But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. — Amos 5:24
In these times, the “not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God is felt most profoundly. At every turn it seems ours is a world gone mad. As a person of faith, I find myself groaning along with all creation (Romans 8:22), longing for God to move swiftly and justly against the forces of evil.
Justice is a universal human longing. From our earliest days, we cry foul, appealing to some innate sense of right and wrong, fair and not. And yet, I’ve come to believe that such an intrinsically human desire can only be satiated by divine intervention. Who among us can claim to deliver justice truly and impartially, bound as we are by the insufficiencies of our flesh? Who would you trust to render an absolute, ultimate judgment on even the most insignificant matters in our lives? Our longing for justice can only be met by an “other” – one possessing objective access to all truth.
What must it say about God that the embedded desire for justice cuts across all social and cultural barriers, uniting humanity in both protest and hopefulness?
And as we know full well, there’s plenty to protest. Justice was not served this week in the Stanford rape case. This is not a case about public intoxication; it is a matter of sexual assault. In an all-too-familiar headline, a young woman was victimized by the selfishness and recklessness of another. And while she lives with the physical and emotional burden of that horrific night (as she detailed in the courageous letter she read to her attacker), the rapist receives a mere slap on the wrist. As fathers, we shudder to consider the implications of raising daughters in such a culture.
This is not justice.
This morning, news broke of a nightclub shooting in Florida, evidently the work of a radical terrorist. This was a hate crime, plain and simple, born in the heart of one man who despised an entire group of people, those who were “other” to him. In what is being described as the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, the gunman assassinated 50 people, injuring dozens more at a gay nightclub in Orlando. This case is not about your beliefs about the LGBT community; nor is it a platform for you to sermonize about gun control. It’s about terrorism and hate. Some may find a morsel of satisfaction in the fact that Orlando police shot and killed the gunman.
And yet, this is not justice either, at least not in the fullest sense of the word.
Biblical justice is rooted in the righteousness of God. The two terms are linked linguistically and theologically. Hebrew scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
Justice is usually defined as giving every person his due. Greeks used numerical symbols like the number 8 to express the essence of justice: two contra-posited terms. 8 is divisible, balanced, like the image of the scales. In contrast, the biblical notion is rooted in the righteousness of God – a surging stream of never-ending movement. Obstacles must be washed away for justice to be done. No rock is so hard that water cannot pierce it. Justice is not a mere norm, but a fighting drive. God’s mighty stream brings life to parched land. Righteousness is a vast and mighty stream because God is its source.
Thus Amos cries out for the justice of God to “roll down like waters.” The prayer is actually a promise, coming to Amos in the voice of God Himself. Amos would have his audience hear these words coming from heaven, the voice of an “other” whose righteousness will one day wash the land clean of wickedness and evil. And heaven thunders, “What ought to be, shall be.” If this is not true, then God is neither righteous nor just.
I write this tonight because I need to remember. I need to remember that we should never turn a blind eye to the injustices all around us. We should never give in to the impulse to unnecessarily assess equal blame, to somehow imply that a victim is responsible for the harm inflicted upon her. But I also need to remember that I am incapable of meting out the true justice that my heart seeks. I am limited: by my perspective, by my understanding, by the boundaries of my own empathy. Therefore, I especially need to remember that bloodlust and justice are never the same thing.
For every woman who has been similarly assaulted, abused, blamed, and rejected…
For every person who has similarly suffered because of the deep-seeded hatred of another…
Tonight, my prayer is that justice would roll down.
Righteous justice from on high — Heschel’s “surging stream of never-ending movement” — is the only longing great enough, grand enough, and true enough to sustain us in our tribulation.
Come quickly, Lord.