Martin Luther King

One of the most iconic scenes from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is Martin Luther King, Jr’s I have a Dream speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The most replayed video and audio clip is his quote from Amos 5:24:

Let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[1]

It’s a wonderful sound bite, a powerful dream. But like with many biblical passages it has a context. It’s part of a larger picture – without which the interpretative process is interrupted and understanding limited.

The prophet Amos was called from Judah in the south to go to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to prophesy against the tremendous inequality between the rich and the poor, abuses of power, and betrayal of the Covenant relationship with Yahweh, their God. Amos went into the sanctuary of the temple at Bethel – which, in Hebrew, means House of God. There he delivered a series of condemnations of Israel, including this one.

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

22 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.

23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

24 But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[2]

I think of that condemnation when, yearly, we’re treated to numerous politicians, celebrities, and faith leaders attending festivals and assemblies – and with great solemnity claim the mantel of Dr. King and even mouth Amos’ lines about justice and righteousness – but who will return to their places of power and prestige and privilege on Tuesday where they’ll ignore the pleas and plight of the poor, the weak, and the powerless.

In many ways, MLK Day is a way of co-opting the legacy of the great struggle for jobs and freedom without doing anything to promote jobs and freedom – or a least not doing anything to foster jobs and freedom for the least, the last, and the lost.

Actions speak louder than words. This is the mantra of the biblical witness.

In our Old Testament reading today, Eli’s sons are accused of blasphemy. God said to Samuel:

13For I have told (Eli) that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.[3]

What was this blasphemy? It is described in the previous chapter.

Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord 13or for the duties of the priests to the people. When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 14and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or cauldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. 15Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the one who was sacrificing, ‘Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.’ 16And if the man said to him, ‘Let them burn the fat first, and then take whatever you wish’, he would say, ‘No, you must give it now; if not, I will take it by force.’ 17Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.[4]

The blasphemy wasn’t using bad words or speaking poorly about God. It was their behavior: stealing the offerings of the people, living easy, abusing their positions, only looking out for themselves.

The poor of the land would journey to the Tent of Meeting at Shiloh with their carefully fatted animals to give them as love offerings and worship to God – only to have their gifts taken away by the greedy sons of Eli before the liturgy was even complete.

What many forget is that Dr. King was a biblical scholar and theologian whose agenda extended far beyond the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow and segregation. He had an economic agenda as well.

  • The March on Washington was for jobs and freedom.
  • He was killed in Memphis in 1968 in the middle of his support of a Sanitation Workers’ strike – connecting Civil Rights with workers’ rights and anti-poverty.
  • At the time of his death he was preparing for a Poor People’s Campaign and March on Washington.

Singer, actor, and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte reflected on this in an essay. He wrote:

Harry Bellafonte | Christ Episcopal Church Dayton OhioMidway through the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that the struggle for integration would ultimately become a struggle for economic rights. I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”

That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle, and I asked him what he meant. “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,” he answered. “And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”[5]

Issues of race, poverty, and powerlessness continue to be in the forefront of our news. From Ferguson to New York City to Beavercreek we are reminded that racial strains abound. We can’t seem to get a grasp on matters of immigration reform and living wage jobs.

Although we keep hearing about an improving economy and decreasing unemployment, the reality is that there is growing disparity and a shrinking middle class. Here in Montgomery County 24% of men, age 25-54, are not working. Among those of prime working age, that amounts to 100,567 men. That figure does not include women nor does it count those who are under-employed.

Although these are matters that require powerful entities in business, government, banking, healthcare, education—every area of life for their solution, there seems little energy to do so. At heart they begin with a spiritual poverty that displays a broken moral vision. This is our – the Church’s mission: to pay attention to the biblical witness and continue to proclaim it.

From the revelation to young Samuel to the prophetic proclamations of Amos, from the teachings of Jesus to the Epistles of Paul, there is a continuous theme:

Amos: 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps. [6]

Paul: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”[7]

It is a call to authenticity: that the words our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be reflected in what we do for the welfare of all of God’s people.

Dr. King would often preach to and bear witness to the decision-makers who could make real differences to improve the lives of the poor. In one hand would be the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In the other would be a Bible. He would hold them both up in front of his audience and say, “I insist! I insist!”

So this is the context within which Amos’ demands:

24 Let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[8]

As we live into the year ahead, let us join in that insistence, continually reminding any who will listen that we, together, are called to live into that moral vision. . . . And then do it.


[1] Amos 5:24

[2] Amos 5:21-24

[3] 1 Sam. 3:13

[4] 1Sam 2:12-17

[5] Essay by Harry Belafonte. Source: accessed at 1:05 p.m. on 1/17/2015.

[6] Amos 5:23

[7] I Corinthians 13:1

[8] Amos 5:24