“Let Justice Roll Down”: A Short Reflection on MLK and Amos 5:24
The words of Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” have been inscribed on the American mind through our annual remembrance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This favorite verse of King’s presents a beautiful image. However, because King is generally thought of primarily as a civil rights leader and not a Christian theologian, in King’s speech this verse is often reduced to a platitude and taken out of its Biblical context. King surely knew that in the verses preceding his now famous quotation God denounced the nation of Israel and informed them that, despite what the Israelites might think, the coming of the Lord would mean not their salvation. Rather, it would herald their destruction. Let us examine this passage in the broader context of Amos chapter 5, beginning with verse 6:
Seek the Lord that you may live, Or He will break forth like a fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!… Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor, and exact a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, you who distress the righteous and accept bribes and turn aside the poor in the gate…Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Within this broader context, it becomes clear that Amos’ message to Israel is that they are bringing down judgment upon themselves. While they may say that they desire the coming day of the Lord, when that day comes they will be destroyed unless they cease oppressing the poor and righteous in their midst. The religious festivals and offerings that were supposed to turn their hearts to God clearly have failed to do so. Evil and sin, rather than righteousness, rule the land.
Given the original meaning of this text, King is not merely trying to provide pleasant visuals for those listening to him speak; instead, King suggests through the prophetic words of Amos that unless America makes justice and righteousness a reality, America will be destroyed in the coming day of the Lord. Much like Israel in the time of Amos, King saw that in America the poor were trampled and the rich stored up more than they could possibly use in many lifetimes. Additionally, through its international influence, America had exported its systematic oppression of the poor to the world, trampling on God’s children across the globe.
Because King was firmly rooted in the tradition of the Black Church, King knew that Amos’ words had meaning for those attempting to realize justice and righteousness in the present. As an institution “born in protest [and] tested in adversity,” the Black Church has historically seen the need to make the gospel matter in the spiritual and material realms and work to make social justice a reality . King loved America and he devoted much of his life to bringing America in line with the ethical demands of the Beloved Community, which for King was synonymous with God’s coming Kingdom. However, King also was painfully aware that America was far from meeting its obligations to the oppressed—that it was locked in the jaws of oppressive systems such as white supremacy, militarism, and extreme materialism. Thus, like Dives, the rich man, who ignored the poor man Lazarus at his gate, King saw that America was headed towards destruction. In a sermon in the final year of his life, King preached against America stating:
Dives finally went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty. And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If American does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell. 
Shortly after warning America of her impending damnation, King ends this speech by returning to his famous quotation of Amos 5:24, though this time with additional urgency, “Now is the time for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.” In other words, America must soon transform itself into a nation in line with the coming of God’s kingdom—the day of the Lord—or America will be destroyed by the cleansing conflagration that accompanies the Beloved Community.
King’s words preached more than 50 years ago are sadly relevant in America today, where extremism is on the rise, racism and misogyny are increasingly mainstreamed, and power and wealth are sequestered by a tiny elite class while many at the bottom of society struggle to access what they need to survive. So, if you remember King fondly today, know that his was a voice of prophetic fire, condemning America and the world for failing to respect the dignity and worth of human beings. King’s dream is far from realized. To change that, much of what America holds dear, including the lies we Americans value regarding our collective righteousness, must be committed to the flames, and a new world founded on justice and love must come into being.
If you’re interested in learning more about King’s dream and making it a reality, I’ve placed a few links below:
- The King Center has training courses in nonviolence and activism that can be completed online: https://thekingcenter.org/nonviolence365-education-and-training/
- Throughout his life, King was committed to ending the exploitation that accompanies capitalism and moving society towards democratic socialism. The Institute for Christian Socialism is recruiting members to participate in working towards a more just economy: https://christiansocialism.com/membership/
- King was also committed to building the strength of unions. Throughout his life, he organized with and supported unions, and was assassinated while supporting the strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee who were battling to have their union recognized. You can read more about King’s speeches to unions in this collection, and a great way to support King’s vision is to support local unions.
Image credit: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at Riverside Church in Harlem, NY in 1967. Wikimedia Commons.
- Diana Hayes, Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 93.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity: American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Memphis, Tennessee, March 18, 1968,” in All Labor Has Dignity, ed. Michael Honey (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011), 173.