It was during the historic 1963 March on Washington, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his immortal I Have a Dream speech. At almost the exact center of the speech he evokes the words of the Prophet Amos, chapter 5 and verse 24 declaring, “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until — justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In the book of Amos, God condemns social and spiritual corruption as well as Israel’s apostasy. He says, Listen to this message, you cows of Bashan who are on the hill of Samaria, women who oppress the poor and crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring us something to drink.” (Amos 4:1 CSB) However, by time we get to Amos 5:3 God is calling out to His people to seek him and live. It is in the midst of this appeal for Israel to return that Amos asserts, “But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24 CSB).
The Biblical use of the word justice (mishpat; dikaiosyn) means “divinely righteous action, whether taken by humanity or God, that promotes equality among humanity. Used in relation to uplifting the righteous and oppressed and debasing the unrighteous and oppressors.” It seems to me that when some people think of justice these days, they are really wanting retribution or vengeance. And others only want justice if it furthers their own personal and political objectives. Simply put, justice means to be fair, and righteousness is to be correct.
The question is, have we become like Amos 5:7 (CSB), Those who turn justice into wormwood also throw righteousness to the ground? Here wormwood is used to express the idea of bitterness or poison. This verse tells us that a good thing, justice, can be executed in a way that is more like poison. And when a wonderful thing, righteousness, becomes self-centered, it ceases to be righteousness and instead becomes like dirt, filthy, thrown to the ground.
Justice and righteousness are paired in forty-two verses in the Bible (CSB). We cannot truly have one without the other. Justice without righteousness ends up as unequal favoritism. Righteousness without justice is mean and uncaring. Both of these are wrong. Justice and righteousness hold one another in balance so God’s greater purpose of redemption can be seen.
Sometimes people will raise the question of whether it is right for Christians and churches to push in on social justice issues. I have had conversations with some who told me we should only preach the Gospel and get people to be righteous before God. God will fix all the other things when we get to heaven, they would say. But remember Amos illustrates how these two, righteousness and justice, are inextricably tied together.
So, the Christian and the Church that is serious about God’s redemptive work and evangelism must do both.
• Psalm 103:6 (CSB) says, The Lord executes acts of righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
• In Luke 4:18-19 (CSB), Jesus declares this as his mission saying, 18 The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
• Proverbs 31:8-9 (CSB) challenges us to do the same. Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. 9 Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.
• Micah 6:8 (CSB) declares, Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
• Matthew 6:10 (CSB) tells us not to wait for heaven, but to start now, Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
So then, “teaching them to observe everything” from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:20 fits here as well. We have not become full disciples of Jesus until we have moved from being selfish “just us” adherents to being selfless social justice advocates in this world. Can you imagine the impact the church would have? More people would see God clearer. Our evangelistic efforts would be more effective. Justice would flow like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Mark Croston, Sr., General Editor for the YOU curriculum.