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 passed – notwithstanding the now-Constitutional promise of “equal protection of the laws.”
In the North and in places like California, more-subtle and insidious laws allowed homeowners to prevent the sale of homes to African Americans, and banks to refuse to finance mortgages for African Americans in white areas. Those laws created segregated housing patterns – like we see here in Marin County and the Bay Area. They are why Black Americans who worked in the wartime shipbuilding industry in Marin City couldn’t buy homes (or use their GI Bill benefits) in other parts of the county. And those segregated housing patterns, contributed to unequal funding for public schools.
The systems those laws created – segregated housing patterns and inequity in public education – remain today. According to July 2019 census estimates, San Anselmo is nearly 90% white, and .9% black. As recently as July 2019, here in Marin County, the Sausalito Marin City school district had to enter into a desegregation order after findings of racial segregation – and specifically that the school district had “knowingly and intentionally... maintained separate programs for separate communities.”
And we know that even after Equal Protection was first promised in the Constitution, it took almost another 100 years, and a mass movement of people –to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And even then, even after passage of Civil Rights Legislation, progress was again met with what legal scholar Michelle Alexander has detailed and named the New Jim Crow– a new system of racialized social control through the mass incarceration of African Americans.
Housing patterns, access to adequately-funded public education, the promised right to vote, the protection that is supposed to be provided by public policing, the freedom to move, the risk of being arrested and incarcerated, economic opportunity, the promised equal protection of the law – so many of the systems and structures in which we live and move and have our being – those systems are the product and continued embodiment of this centuries-long history of American racism. They are systems that have come into being through the specific intention to benefit some – to benefit white people – and to exclude and harm African Americans, and more broadly, people of color and indigenous people.
For white folks – as we live and move through these systems and structures – we continue to benefit – whether we intend it or not. For example, I attended public school systems in the suburbs of Washington DC that were not equally funded – predominantly white schools were funded better than predominantly black schools – like so many public school systems across the United States (and again, this was related to and compounded by discriminatory housing opportunities). I carry that benefit with me – whether I intend it or not – every day of my life. For those of us who are white in the room, for my life and yours, these systems and structures have provided unequal protection of the law – unequal benefit for us, and unequal harm for others. Whether we intend it or not. And here we are, all a part of it. And Amos and Dr. King say, “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And that can feel overwhelming. If we are a part of this (intend it or not) what could we ever do? And we can feel that and name that, that sense overwhelm, but we don’t get to stay there for long – because people are being harmed; we are benefitting; and we have work to do.
Remember, we’re in the season of Epiphany – as we experience things that are bigger than us – experience God’s presence manifest in the midst of us – and find our work to do. Here, we experience unjust systems bigger and stronger than any of us, that trace their origins back to before the writing of the US Constitution. And listening to the words of Amos – we experience God’s clear – and steely – determination that unjust systems and structures will be dismantled – so that all God’s children can live free.
So, I want us to use these tools of Epiphany that we’ve been talking about for the past few weeks to find our “something to do” – (1) looking for “light for the next step,” and (2) acknowledging our “200-year present” – the community of work over time.
Let’s use the 200-year present first. Last week, we talked about Elise Boulding’s concept of the 200-Year Present. First, think of the oldest person who would have held you when you were an infant, and then think back to the year of their birth. Then, think of the youngest person you might hold now, and project for them a robust life-span, what decade might reach. Our lives are held by and touch lives that span 200-years. Remember that; we will come back to it in a minute.
Two summers ago, the Board of More Light Presbyterians participated in an anti-racism training facilitated by Jessica Vasquez Torres – I have quoted Jessica here before – I believe she is a prophet of our day. Over the course of the training, she asked us collaboratively to write a timeline of the history of racism in the US around the wall of the room – from 1620 when Africans were first kidnapped and brought here into slavery to now. (The task was actually to detail all types of racism for all people of color and for indigenous people, but I’m going to focus today on the experience of African Americans.) Then she asked us to do the same for the history of the resistance to all that.
Now, I want us to use our prophetic imagination to envision that here, around this room. From 1620, and the first Africans forcibly brought to these shores, to the expansion of slavery, to the Constitution’s protection of slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Civil War, and then Jim Crow, and the violence of lynchings, and segregation, and redlining that kept black families from moving into white neighborhoods, unchecked discrimination in employment and in everything else, mass incarceration, the state-sanctioned killing of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and so many more.
Now envision the timeline of resistance. From the first person who escaped slavery, through slave rebellions, the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, the abolition movement, the Thirteenth Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, W.E.B. duBois, the NAACP, their legal work to end segregations, Thurgood Marshall, Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights movement, the SCLC, SNC, the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Black Lives Matter.
Now with those two timelines in mind, I invite you to put your 200-Year Present up there too. The 200-years of lives that your life will hold and touch.
I was talking about this over coffee with a friend, and shared that my great-grandmother was born in 1891. My friend thought for a moment and said, “My grandmother was born into slavery.” [Leave some time for silence]
How has your life touched these timelines? For white folks in the room, how have you benefitted? For persons of color, how have you experienced harm? For all of us? How have you helped resist? Up until now.
But don’t stop there – because your life will touch so many more years of life. What do you want that to look like? How can we make that look more like the timeline of resistance than the timeline of white supremacy that has brought us to this place? How will we join in God’s work of dismantling all that – all that White Supremacy has built – connected with all that has gone before.
And so, what is the light for the next step? I have 5 suggestions:
1. Say some true things. Before we do anything else, we have to acknowledge the truth of how American racism has been at work in this country from the very beginning, how it still is at work now (particularly in systems), and how we benefit. We name that – we confess that – so that, by the grace of God, we can then do something about it.
2. Learn more; do our work. Follow your curiosity. Is there something today that has raised a question for you? Made you wonder? Given you a knot in your stomach? Follow that. Find out more. Not only the history I’ve summarized, but what is going on in you – the obstacles in you that may be keeping you from doing the work. Next month, on February 8, Church and Society is co-hosting an event with SURJ Marin (Showing Up for Racial Justice), on voter suppression. During Lent, we’ll be having a 6-week Sunday Seminar series on anti-racism and reparations work. You can come to those, but you don’t have to wait till then.
3. Listen to non-white communities, to their goals and their objectives. This sunk in with me in another workshop that Jessica Vasquez Torres convened this past October. As we move into this work, it’s important that we don’t just re-center ourselves all over again. We need to do the work – but by centering on the needs of the communities harmed by racism – following their leadership – doing our work in accountability to them.
4. Show up. That February voter-suppression event – we’ll be hosting with a group called Showing Upfor Racial Justice. “Showing up” means putting our bodies – our whole selves – alongside black and brown bodies – in places where folk are most needed to stand against racism – even when it means standing in places of discomfort and risk.
5. Join the ongoing work of dismantling, and move into the work of reparation. As we engage the work of dismantling, we need to learn more about and enter into the work of repair – of healing – helping to heal the harm that has been done to communities and individuals – that continues to this day. And we need to grow in ourselves an openness to sharing the resources that it will take to do that.
That’s a lot. So before I sit down, I want to make sure I have said this:
This is good news. Good news in the name of Jesus Christ.
God requires nothing less than the dismantling of every system and structure that American racism and White Supremacy have built – and then the rebuilding of a just world, and the repair and healing of the lives that have been harmed.
That is Good News, of course, to those whom the systems actively oppress. And, it is Good News for us all, because we lose so much in a world where all people can’t live free. The world is harmed when any child is prevented for any reason from living into and becoming all that God has created them to be. That’s the bottom line. That’s why the words of Amos and Dr. King ring true today – hope for the day when their prayer will be our prayer too – and the whole world’s – “Yes, let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
May it be so in you, and in me, and in the lives we lead – so that all people may live free.
See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 13-14.
See Donald E. Gowan, “The Book of Amos” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. vii (Abingdon Press; Nashville, 1996), pp. 393-97. Gowan explains the verse likely refers to wadis (also known as arroyos in Northern California), which are dry stream beds in the dry months, but that then carry flash flood waters with the first rains.
The textual history recounted here is indebted to several African-American scholars, and particularly: (1) my constitutional law professor, Bryan Fair, and (2) Professor James Noel, and especially conversations that we had about our shared interest in this constitutional history. See also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011); and Derrick A. Bell, Jr., And We Are Not Saved (1987). For a similar constitutional summary see Scott Clark, “When Wait Means Never: American Tolerance of Racial Injustice,” National Black Law Journal (UCLA ed.), vol. 13, no. 1 (1993).
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011).
© Scott Clark, 2020. All rights reserved.