This was my opening invocation for the annual Southern NH Outreach for Black Unity Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast on January 21, 2019.
I am so honored to be invited to join you for some opening words today. My name is Jon Spira-Savett, and I serve as rabbi for the Jewish community in our area through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua. I’m a member of the executive board of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council and one of its recent past presidents, and it’s because of that network that I have met many of you.
Rev. King is one of my own most important religious teachers. I call him Rev. King because though he was Dr. King, a scholar and theologian, he was a pastor and a preacher and a teacher, for his own communities and for my community, the Jewish community of America.
Rev. King’s voice in our nation, and his many visits to synagogues and rabbinic conventions, inspired and mobilized people in the Jewish community, from college students to older rabbis. He inspired many in the Jewish community to march with him in Alabama, to travel down to Mississippi in that Freedom Summer, to work the pressure points in Congress for civil rights. There is even a story of a rabbi or two running into a Midwestern Senator at the airport in 1964, just by chance, quote-unquote, having been tipped off about where to find a man trying to hide out and to remind him there was no hiding from a vote for justice.
And the last interview of Rev. King’s life took place at the national convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, just ten days before he was taken from all of us. There Rev. King spoke a verse from the prophet Amos that you have heard from him many times: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
and righteousness like a mighty
Rev. King had preached those words in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and he had written them to send to religious leaders from his cell in Birmingham Jail, and he would preach these words of Amos again the night before he was killed, in Memphis. In front of the rabbis Rev. King didn’t preach them, he said them soberly, as quiet as he had ever said them, as he was in a tough time – let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
What was it about these particular words from Amos? I could read you fifty other equally beautiful verses about the virtue of justice, the glory of righteousness. But these words.
First of all, Rev. King was saying that justice is a power as natural as gravity, which just pulls the water down from the mountains into any place that is not already raised high. Justice is built in; it’s the hardware of our system. Just as gravity can take something small, and the longer it moves down, the more force it gathers, the harder it is to stop – so too justice can take any single person, any group no matter how small, and make them unstoppable.
In the verses before this one, Amos was talking about the so-called power of oppressors, all the work they have to do to twist justice, to feast on bribes, to take what they have not earned, to look away from the poor and drive them out of their community. The hard work it takes to look so pious and religious, when you are complicit in so much injustice.
Amos is saying: That so-called power -- that’s what’s unnatural. That kind of power is a wearying power, a power that spends itself and takes us constantly away from the Divine and from one another.
So why does that power seem so real? Because the verse from Amos really says that justice swells like waters -- like a rolling wave at the edge of the sea, like the piling up of the waters at the bottom of a waterfall – and behind that surge is an emptiness, an undertow, until the next wave. A depression where the so-called power of the so-called powerful can slip in.
So when Rev. King spoke about justice rolling down like waters, he meant that we have to get down from up high where we see things so clearly but we are smaller than we could be, and we have to roll together and make ourselves more powerful. We have to plunge down together so we can surge together, and we have to keep grouping up and keep on coming, to leave no time after one wave of justice until another, no lull that makes it easier for the other so-called power to just slide in there. When I said yes that I would presume to stand in front of you and say some words, it is because I wanted to tell you that I am tired of being a small wave and seeing small waves, and I want to be with you and roll and surge together. Let justice roll down like waters.
And as for the mighty stream, there is only other place in the Hebrew Bible where that particular phrase occurs and it will knock you out. It’s in a remarkable law in the book of Deuteronomy that happened to be the text at my Bar Mitzvah, so I’ve never forgotten it.
Deuteronomy talks about the case of a dead body found in a field between towns, and no one knows who is responsible. The elders of each of the surrounding towns are required to measure from the body to the edge of their town. Whichever town is closest, the elders of that town have to take a pure young calf, one that has never pulled a yoke, and bring it to a mighty stream that has never been worked or tilled – a stream that is mighty only during the rainy season, when it gushes with water from the heavens that overflows onto terraces and fields, and the rest of the time is just the memory of a mighty stream, or the hope for one to come.
And there the elders wash their hands and sacrifice the calf, and they lead a call and response. The later rabbis of my tradition say the gist of what they say, back and forth to each other, is this: We, the leaders of the town closest to here, we swear that this man did not pass through our town without anyone noticing. We swear that in our town it’s not possible that no one offered him a place to stay, or a meal to eat, or protection when he was ready to leave and go out into the dangerous world. For if we had failed in any of those ways, then it would be as if we had killed him ourselves, and his blood would be on our hands.
This particular mighty stream was hiding in the background every time Rev. King preached from Amos. It’s the stream where the elders of the city go down together to ask: Have we been responsible for every person, every single person – or have we washed our hands and just pretended that our righteousness is flowing like a mighty stream?
Have we been responsible for every person we don’t know personally, but we know she is here, he is here, yet still isolated from the rest of us, and we let that be all right?
Have we been responsible for education in every school, have we been responsible for dignified housing in every neighborhood, have we made it clear that no one can be bullied or harassed by another kid or by someone in authority because of how they look or how they speak, or where they were born, or who and how they love?
Have we been responsible not just to run after problems righteously, but to build the community that can sustain and love every person who passes our way?
Maybe we are the elders who ought to go down to the river, to the mighty stream that runs just a few hundred feet from here, maybe every year right around Martin Luther King Day, and see who else is there and ask these questions.
I believe Rev. King would say to us that the very same stream, the same place, can be a place of sorrow, or it can be flowing mightily with righteousness. All it takes is for us to be those leaders who gather there, who between us blend the wisdom of elders who have seen it all, the sweep of history and the big picture, with the freshness that comes from seeing people one at a time in dark corners. The mighty stream is a place for leaders who come for rituals that rivet us, and words that drive us, with measuring sticks of analysis and loving eyes. The mighty stream is a place for all of us, and not just on this one day a year.
Let justice roll down, like waters
and righteousness, like a mighty
These are words to hear preached in hope; and these are words to say soberly in difficult times. There is a hydropower in justice, and it is time for us to generate it together, to harness our power together.
Holy One of love and mystery, known to us by many names, or by no name at all – we pray that we will be blessed by the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught us how to be sisters and brothers, to be colleagues and teachers for each other in justice and righteousness, to be the leaders we need with each other and for each other. Amen.