By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“I ask you for justice.” That sounds like a prayer, a desperate petition for justice from someone who has been wronged, has exhausted all the worldly options for redress, and now has nowhere else to turn but to pray for some kind of dramatic intervention. And, in a way, it is such a prayer. Not to God, though; it is to the Godfather.
In the opening scene of the classic Oscar-winning film, The Godfather, a man goes to visit the powerful head of a Mafia crime family, Don Coreleone, who is called “Godfather” by those who seek his help as a sign of both respect and personal relationship. And the man goes to petition the Godfather for justice on, of all things, the day of the Godfather’s daughter’s wedding. Like the Godfather, this man is an Italian immigrant who came to the United States to make his fortune.
Unlike the Godfather, he made his fortune in a legitimate business, as an undertaker, and he has avoided the Godfather because he didn’t want to get in trouble through such an association. But now, his own daughter has been attacked and left permanently injured by several young men, and when he did what a good American is supposed to do and sought justice through the court system, the men ended up with a short suspended sentence at the end of the trial and were set free the same day. So the undertaker has come to the Godfather to ask for justice for his daughter, since the courts did not do it.
The Godfather asks him what exactly he wants done. The undertaker whispers in his ear. The Godfather sits back in his chair and shakes his head. “That I cannot do,” he says, presumably refusing to kill the men. The undertaker offers to give him anything he asks to do it. Then the Godfather points out that the undertaker has not been much of a friend to him until now, has avoided him until he needed something, and now comes without friendship or even the respect of calling him Godfather, asking him to kill people for money. The undertaker reiterates that he is asking for justice, but the Godfather says his request is not justice because his daughter is still alive.
The undertaker then asks him to make them suffer as his daughter suffered, and asks how much he should pay. The Godfather is offended by the question. “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? Had you come to me in friendship, then….by chance if an honest man such as yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies.” Finally getting it, the undertaker says, “Be my friend, Godfather?” and bows to kiss his hand. “Good,” the Godfather says. “Accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”
Aside from being one of the greatest scenes introducing a character in cinematic history, this scene illustrates so much of how we think about justice in our culture. First, justice is defined as responsive to injustice: someone does something wrong, and justice means an appropriate response to that wrongdoing. Which leads us to the second aspect of justice: that an appropriate response is defined as retribution. In other words, someone has done something wrong (in this case, the men who assaulted the undertaker’s daughter), and justice means proportionate punishment of the wrongdoer.
That’s why the Godfather refuses to kill the daughters’ assailants: that would be a disproportionate response when they committed a serious crime but did not kill her. But he agrees that justice does mean making them suffer as she suffered, and so he agrees to do so. Which leads us to the third aspect of how we generally think about justice: that it is a singular act. It’s not a coincidence that, when Justice is personified as a human being in the form of “Lady Justice,” the figure is not only blindfolded (signifying impartiality) and holding scales (signifying measurement of the arguments in the case), but also a sword, which signifies that justice is done through the stroke of one swift and decisive punitive action.
Given all that, it’s interesting how very different the Biblical notion of justice is, which Amos’ prophecy famously articulates. It starts out with a positive and proactive call to justice: “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” Amos proclaims. That last part sounds strange to our ears, but it’s really important to understanding what Amos is really saying. The “gate” in an ancient Hebrew city was a literal gate, but not simply a door through the city walls; it was generally a fortification in its own right, usually with an outer and inner doorway as lines of defense, and between them was an enclosed space that was often a sort of courtyard. Which is a fitting term for it, actually, because that space functioned as a court in many ways. Verbal contracts between people were negotiated and agreed upon there; more significantly, a governor or king would sit on a platform there and make judgments that, quite literally, established justice in the gates.
That might seem like an unusual location for a courtroom; why would they hold court in-between the city gates instead of a palace? Well, precisely for the reason that it seems a little weird: because the city gates were probably the busiest and most public space in those towns, not only being the place where so many people would pass through as they entered or exited the city, but often functioning as a marketplace and a social gathering place in addition to a court space, as well. Which means that everyone could see and hear what was going on there.
Verbal contracts were witnessed by many people, so nobody could claim that they didn’t agree to it or agreed to something different. And thousands of years before there were court stenographers creating transcripts of trials, court proceedings and judgments were publicly available. So: when justice is established in the city gates, as Amos calls for, it is not simply responsive, proportionally retributive, and/or a singular act. Amos envisions justice not as something that is simply meted out or done in response to injustice against individuals; justice is something that is established publicly for all, and as as a proactive, ongoing reality that does not so much respond to injustice as correct it: it restores and re-establishes the just social equilibrium that injustice throws out of balance.
That’s why, I think, Amos uses his famous image of letting justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. A stream is the very opposite of a singular and decisive action: the defining characteristic of a river is that it flows unceasingly, rolling down from its source along its path, sometimes making its own path. That is how I want justice to flow among you, God is saying through Amos: rolling down like waters.
And just in case that wasn’t clear, he emphasizes it with the parallel phrase “ever-flowing stream.” That just sounds like another way to say “river,” but it’s more than that in Hebrew. What it literally says is “a permanent wadi.” A wadi is not a river; it is basically a dry creek-bed that functions as a channel for water only during the rainy season. So God is saying that we are to let justice and righteousness flow not just periodically or seasonally, but constantly, like an ever-flowing wadi.
And such ever-flowing justice is not simply a good thing for people to have; it is the service that God requires and expects most from God’s people, which God makes very clear in this passage: “I hate, I despise your festivals,” God says, “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….take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
Now, what God is rejecting is the worship life of the people of Israel, the very things that the Law commanded them to do to honor God through worship: sacred festivals and ceremonies, different offerings to God, songs and music of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, God sounds a bit like the Godfather here: “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully, coming to me offering insulting payments of solemn prayers and burnt animal sacrifices and noisy songs?”
It’s not that those acts of worship themselves are the problem; after all, it was God who commanded them in the Law in the first place! The problem is that the people think they can dam up the rolling waters of justice for themselves and buy God off with offerings and prayers and songs to get and keep what they want. Justice, God is saying, is not negotiable or exchangeable for God’s people; it must flow unfettered for them.
So, justice is a constant call and requirement from God’s people for right relationship with God. And the Biblical witness is consistent and almost constant in saying that. Did you know that there are more Scripture verses about the word “justice” than there are about the words “pray” or “worship” or “believe”? Which makes it particularly odd that, in U.S. Christianity today, there are actually debates over whether Christians should engage in the work of justice at all, much less as one of our most basic expression of faith and devotion, as God indicates here in Amos. I think the reason for that is because we have let our cultural and political understandings of justice override the Biblical notion of it, and so when we’re talking about or debating justice, we’re not talking about it the way the Bible does.
You see, the Biblical understanding of justice is not punitive; it is restorative. It is focused on restoring the well-being of the one who was wronged and the person or system that has wronged them, as well as the bystanders and the beneficiaries, because all are always injured by injustice. This doesn’t mean accountability is erased or even minimized: on the contrary, it takes accountability so seriously that it demands the participation of the wrongdoer in the restoration, so that all can experience the healing power of justice that leads to true peace, because Biblical justice is always about adding enough to fully restore, rather than taking away enough to fully punish.
And so much of our contemporary debates about justice miss this essential truth because they are focused on blame and punishment. Much of white people’s resistance in the United States to acknowledging the self-evident reality of systemic racism in our society, for example, is our fear of being labeled as racist individuals ourselves if we acknowledge the reality of systemic racism and the fact that we, individually and collectively, derive unjust benefits from it even if our individual moral code rejects racism in all its forms; that, after all, is the very nature of a systemic reality.
And that is why our debates over racism often fall into the false dichotomy of whether the United States is a “racist country” or not, when the truth is that this is a nation whose highest ideals and laws are adamant about equality before the law and in society, and also a nation that continues to struggle with rooting out the insidious presence of racism in our systemic practices and cultural narratives and behaviors. The task before us for racial justice as Christians, then, like any form of justice, is discerning what God is calling us to add to our understanding and behaviors and practices and laws so that we can work for a reality that aligns with God’s will for everyone to experience true equity in opportunity and dignity and well-being, starting with ourselves.
Which brings us back to Amos’ vision of justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing wadi. Because water is the essence of life: water restores what has wilted and strengthens what is growing. Water washes away what has grown foul, and it reshapes and redefines the world around it. And water that is ever-flowing, by definition, never runs out. There is an abundance of it, so that no matter how thirsty you are, no matter how dry and cracked your land is, you can draw all you need and more to ensure life and growth and beauty.
That is the kind of justice that God wants for us, for all of us. And that is the kind of justice that God wants from us, from all of us, the kind of justice that gives life and authenticity to our very worship of God. So let us drink deeply, and share generously, and work arduously, so that the waters of justice may flow abundantly and constantly.