Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters
A sermon by The Rev. Bill Carroll at a "Raise the Wage" rally in Athens, Ohio, October 19, 2006.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
These words are filled with FIRE. They were first spoken more than 2700 years ago, by the prophet Amos. But they were also spoken, again and again in our own time, by that uniquely American prophet, Martin Luther King. Dr. King was able to speak in the public square in a way that invited ALL people to join in a sacred movement for justice. King was a disciple of Jesus and a martyr of his Church. He was also a gift for all humanity.
Bill CarrollKing was not afraid to speak out of the distinctiveness of his own Christian tradition. He spoke as a pastor, indeed as a Baptist preacher in the prophetic tradition of African American Christianity. King was a leader among an oppressed People, who had survived slavery only to face systematic segregation and violence. He was the descendent of Christians who were taught "Slaves, obey your masters" but instead heard "Let my People go." He was an apostle of love, who lived out the Good News of Jesus in a way that speaks powerfully, if dangerously, to us today. King spoke as a Christian, but, in so doing, he appealed to deep longings of every human being for freedom and righteousness, for brotherhood and sisterhood, for what he called the Beloved Community.
King also had a unique ability to appeal to the better instincts of this country. He referred to the unfulfilled promises of America, which has never fully matched its rhetoric with its ACTION, especially when it comes to people of color, to women, and -- yes -- to working people . "I have a dream," he said, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'"
Our passage from Amos makes a fierce indictment against God's People. In it, God condemns our worship if doesn't serve justice. God says: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . 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." When King spoke these words, he was indicting America, just as surely as Amos indicted God's people Israel. King lived, as we do, in an America where people dare to worship GOD, but ignore the prophetic demand for justice at the heart of the Scriptures. Year after year, we see politicians who stand against everything Dr. King fought for, making pious speeches on the day of his birth. We have made him a saint, perhaps, so that we might dismiss him more easily.
How easily do we forget that King's vision was not limited to ending legal segregation! How easily do we forget how he confronted our nation with a shining vision of a beloved community that has not yet arrived! King's dream was not limited to racial justice, though we should be quick to add that even here, his dream, like America's promise, remains unfulfilled. If anything, in the last thirty years or so, we have moved backwards. King's dream included peace and justice among nations. It also included justice and fairness for working people.
King stood with working people, as they fought for better wages and working conditions. He was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers. Frequently in speeches, he connected the labor movement to the movement for civil rights. In a 1965 address, he said that the labor movement was "the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life." In another speech, he said that he knew "of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage." King went on to say that "a living wage should be the right of ALL Americans."
It is therefore fitting that the nationwide campaign for a living wage is called "Let Justice Roll!" We are continuing in the legacy of Dr. King, as well as that of the biblical prophets. It is no accident that the NAACP has endorsed this campaign, along with the National Council of Churches of Christ and many religious bodies, including my own Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Unitarian-Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the American Friends' Service Committee, the American Baptist Convention, and many, many more. These bodies have endorsed this campaign, which is working toward initiatives similar to Ohio Ballot issue Two throughout the United States, because this is the right thing to do. Many of these traditions have strong and explicit social teachings about economic justice that single out a living wage as a basic goal that members and congregations should pursue.
The Roman Catholic Church has been advocating a living wage since Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2006 statement speaks in a particularly eloquent way in favor of what amounts to a growing ecumenical consensus:
Work has a special place in Catholic social thought: work is more than just a job; it is a reflection of our human dignity, and a way to contribute to the common good. Most importantly, it is the ordinary way people meet their material needs and community obligations. In Catholic teaching, the principle of a living wage is integral to our understanding of human work. Wages must be adequate for workers to provide for themselves and their families in dignity. Although the minimum wage is not a living wage, the Catholic bishops have supported increasing the minimum wage over the decades. The minimum wage needs to be raised to help restore its purchasing power, not just for the goods and services one can buy but for the self-esteem and self-worth it affords the worker.
This statement resonates not with an isolated proof text or two, but with the central themes of the whole Bible. It also agrees with the best moral insights of many who claim no particular allegiance to the God of Abraham.
Again and again, the Hebrew prophets remind God's People that they were slaves in Egypt until God set them free. Again and again, the prophets call God's People to more faithful observance of the covenant. Central to this task is establishing justice for poor people, immigrants, and the oppressed, especially widows and orphans. The New Testament continues in the prophetic tradition, and it is equally clear and unambiguous: "If you do not love your brother or sister whom you do see," says John, "You cannot love the invisible God, whom you don't" Jesus teaches us to pray "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." He also teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the Bible, love means action. Our worship must serve justice or it is offensive to GOD.
My friends, we are gathered here in part to reclaim economic justice as a religious and moral value. God forbid that when we hear of "values issues" or "Judeo-Christian values," we think primarily of who is sleeping with whom. In the Bible, God is concerned with issues of war and peace, with preserving human dignity, and with establishing basic norms of justice and fairness. Why do we forget this so easily? A living wage, defined as a wage sufficient to sustain life with dignity for oneself and one's dependents, is a crucial moral issue in our time. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. To treat them as expendable commodities, who may be bought and sold for a price, with no thought given to their well being, desecrates God's image and is an affront to our Creator. In the second creation story in Genesis, work is presented as part of God's intention in creation. There is no one to till the beautiful and abundant garden of paradiseso God makes Adam, the earth creature, to till the soil of the ground. The world and everything in it is a gift from God, given into our care. By our labor, human beings cultivate the earth and bring forth our daily bread. After the expulsion from paradise, labor becomes more difficult. We earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brow. But the ability to provide for ourselves and our families is a gift from God, which God never takes away.
Of course, this is taken away. But, when it is, it is taken away by sinful human choices. Then as now, the grasping greed of human beings leads us to appropriate more of God's gifts than we need. Our rapacity is at the root of the environmental crisis, which now threatens the very ability of the earth to sustain life. It is also at the root of a grave and worsening distortion of interpersonal relationships, which destroys community among those who were created brothers and sisters, and ends in poverty, hunger, sickness, and death.
Those who have too much acquire the ability to put people to work for less than a living wage. They also acquire the power to keep them working, even when it is killing them. The Bible names this oppression, literally the pressing down and crushing of others under heavy burdens. The People of Israel were oppressed in Egypt. Because there was famine and they were hungry, they sold themselves to Pharaoh, who put them to work making bricks. As they began to seek freedom, Pharaoh added to their burden, forcing them to make more and more bricks with less and less straw.
I have a feeling that those who work for minimum wage in our country today feel a bit like the children of Israel did. I also believe that our choices as a nation and indeed as a global economy have gotten us into such a mess that many feel they have little hope. All of us are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. But friends, there is always hope for justice. My faith tells me that justice will one day spring up from the earth. Dr. King taught us that "The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice." It may be longer than some of us hoped, but what he said is still true. Working together, by the grace of God, we will begin to make choices that will one day establish liberty and justice for all. I still believe, as King did, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed, that all people are created equal. Year after year, the purchasing power of the minimum wage goes down. It does not keep up with inflation. People work harder and harder for money that will buy them less and less. Issue Two, the Ohio Minimum Wage Amendment, does not yet establish a living wage. It will, however, be an important first step in the right direction. It will give a three thousand dollar a year raise to those who are living on two hundred dollars a week. It will also secure an annual cost of living increase for the poorest of Ohio's workers, so that they are not forced to make bricks with less and less straw. Issue Two is a small but significant step toward restoring people's God-given ability to provide for themselves and their families with dignity. It is a small but significant step toward fairness. I urge you to get out and vote "Yes on Two" this November 7th. And, after we pass Issue Two, which we will with your help, let's think about what's next and work like hell to make it happen. Movements are not stationary. Unless we fall asleep, this will only be the first small trickle of the waters of change.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Bill Carroll is Rector of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Athens, Ohio.