Amos is a prophet whom Dr. King loved to quote. Verse 24 that I just read might sound familiar: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (or in other translations, “like a mighty stream”). You’ll also see it on the bulletin cover – that’s the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King, quoting Amos. We hear these words, and they inspire: Justice and righteousness like “an ever-flowing stream.” It sounds like one of those refreshing, water-in-the desert scriptures.
But we only have to read a little context – just those 6 preceding verses in Amos that I read just now – and we start to hear its prophetic edge. “I hate your festivals and your solemn assemblies, and your burnt offerings... but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman says that there are basically two parts to the prophetic task: First, the prophet critiques the dominant consciousness, and announces that God is dismantling and destroying every unjust structure, every system of oppression. Then, second, the prophet energizes the imagination, and announces the new, good, just thing that God is building or planting in its place. A tearing down, a dismantling – and only then, can there be a building up. Brueggeman calls this “the prophetic imagination.”
The prophetic writings collected in the book of Amos live almost entirely in that first task. In the dismantling and the tearing down. Other prophets will tell you the new thing God is doing. Read Isaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing, it springs up before you.” But Amos – no, no, Amos is confronting systems of oppression and injustice so massive that the Amos writings are devoted almost entirely to announcing the dismantling of the systems. Again and again, Amos denounces the systems of oppression: “You sell people for silver; you trample on the heads of the poor; you deny justice to the oppressed.” Systems and structures – economic and legal – that oppress and destroy. Everywhere – all around. And Amos says – over and over – God is coming to dismantle all that: “I will destroy your strongholds – your altars, your mansions, and your houses – houses you will not live in – vineyards from which you will never drink the wine.”
So when Amos then says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” this is no refreshing stream. This is a flash flood – this is a wall of water that will wipe out everything in its path – and specifically, the oppressive systems and structures that do so much harm.
So, no wonder, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, in the 1960s – confronted the many systems of oppression that white supremacy had built, and proclaimed the words of Amos: “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
So, today, as we stand in this Amos text, and also honor and give thanks for Dr. King’s living legacy, I want us to look at one aspect of the systems of American racism that Dr. King denounced – particularly the impact of US constitutional law and the systems it helped create. Let’s look at that system today, name our responsibility within it, and think of the Epiphany tools that we’ve been talking about for the past two weeks, and let's find for us, something to do.
Why constitutional law? Well, some of you know that I’m also a constitutional lawyer, so it is the system I know best. I love the promisesof the United States Constitution – the promise of Equal Protection under the law – freedom of speech, and religion, and protest – the right to vote and the notion of democracy by the people. But in too many ways we have fallen short of those promises – particularly with regard to the promise of Equal Protection under the law. With regard to that promise, as Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “the Constitution was defective from the very start.”
The promise of Equal Protection of the law wasn’t included anywhere in the Constitution as originally written. In fact, the Constitution as originally written explicitly and consciously chose UN-equalprotection under the law. The Framers wrote the Constitution intentionally to protect slavery. The Constitution counted those held in slavery as 3/5ths of a person – not giving them any rights, but letting the slaveholding states count them in the census so that slave-states could have greater power. Even as the Constitution granted “the privileges and immunities of citizenship,” in the same section, it required the return of those who had escaped slavery (Article IV, Section 2). “Privileges and immunities” for those we would come to call white people (particularly white men), and slavery and return to slavery for those of African descent. They even used the word “privilege” – “privilege” written right into the Constitution.
The Constitution was written, not for equal protection of the laws, but to protect the institution of slavery, and we know that it took almost a century and a civil war, until “equal protection” was finally written into the Constitution – in three Amendments. The 13th, 14th, and 15thamendments ended slavery, recognized the citizenship of those who had been held in slavery, promised equal protection under the law, and guaranteed the right to vote. They are powerful promises.
But we know what happened next. As African Americans had their citizenship recognized, and began to live free – there was a backlash. The brief hope of Reconstruction was replaced by Jim Crow laws. Southern states couldn’t stand that Black Americans could now vote – so they began to pass voting restrictions – like the efforts to impose voting restrictions across the country that we still see today. And, also in the South, official segregation laws were pass