The Perkins Perspective | Features | Spring 2013
What Does Justice Feel Like?
By Doug Thorpe
Singer/songwriter Sam Cooke was known as the King of Soul.
I sit at home late on a Friday afternoon in January, the sun almost miraculously shining in a blue sky, arcing low across the west as I transition from classes and my office to the weekend at home. I make myself a cup of tea, put on some music (Sam Cooke in this case) and pull out a notebook.
I’m thinking about justice but listening to Sam Cooke – and not the civil rights Sam Cooke but the partying Sam Cooke.
So what does justice feel like? What does it taste like? Does it sing? Does it dance?
I ask this, not coincidentally, as we approach the anniversary of the birthday of Martin Luther King, a theologian and academic steeped in the writings and arguments of non-violence. He could argue the abstractions of the idea of justice, but as a preacher and civil rights leader he knew that justice lives not just in the mind but in the heart and in the body –and he knew that you move people by literally moving them: across bridges, down highways and streets, but also in churches and on dance floors.
Justice is not an abstraction. It lives in how we touch and talk, in what we sing and in how we sing. The words matter but so does the swing.
In short, justice feels good. It feels good because it is good, both morally and aesthetically. It feels like heaven even when it hurts like hell.
I hate, I despise your feasts, the voice of Yahweh cries out through the prophet Amos. It was a time when Israel, according to the Oxford Annotated Bible, “attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never again reached. The military security and economic affluence which characterized this age were taken by many Israelites as signs of the Lord’s special favor toward them which they felt they deserved because of their extravagant support of the official shrines.”
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offering,
I will not accept them,
And the peace offerings of your fatted feasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
To the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
These words have toiled through the ages – and in English, in the King James Version – not simply in the ideas but in the power of the accumulated parallel sentences (I will not I will not I will not) all climaxing at last in the balance of these final lines and the natural simplicity of the images: It’s the power of the long o in roll, the two accents on roll down in the middle of that line, the relative softness of waters, and then the parallel expression in the final line with another simile (like) and once again that long o in flowing, the long e in stream, and the shift into a soothing iambic rhythm: an Ever-FLOWing STREAM.
Justice, Amos implies, is natural. It is healthy. It is life giving.
And it is beautiful.
The royal priest Amaziah sent Amos away after this outburst of poetry. Amaziah wrote to the king Jeroboam: The land is not able to bear his words.
Of course it is not the land that cannot bear his words; it’s the royal priest and the king he serves. The land hungers for his words. The land thirsts for justice, which is another way of saying that justice is not an abstraction but lives in how we treat all of the particulars of our world: justice rolls down like water and in the water. Justice is in the food we eat, in how we treat the animals and plants we depend upon to keep us alive. Justice is literally in the very air we breathe.
And it doesn’t take much of a prophet to recognize that when we do injustice to these there will be hell to pay.
Call it Poetic Justice.
Referring to the idea of symmetries of nature, Brian Greene notes that
physicists mean that nature treats every moment in time and every location in space identically — symmetrically — by ensuring that the same fundamental
laws are in operation. Much in the same manner that they affect art and music, such symmetries are deeply satisfying; they highlight an order and a coherence in
the workings of nature. The elegance of rich, complex
and diverse phenomena emerging from a simple set of universal laws is at least part of what physicists mean when they invoke the term “beautiful.”
We live and have our being from these laws. They are what the Navaho call hozho, often translated as “beauty” but, according to Gary Witherspoon, referring more broadly to “the positive or ideal environment. It is beauty, harmony, good, happiness, and everything that is positive, and it refers to an environment which is all-inclusive.” Hozho is health, which “involves a proper relationship to everything in one’s environment, not just the correct functioning of one’s physiology.”
In Christ, Paul says, all things hold together. This is what coherence means.
And is this not another way of understanding justice?
Doug Thorpe, PhD, is a professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. His books include A New Earth: Building in Metaphor in The Pearl, Herbert’s Temple and Blake’s Jerusalem; Work and the Life of the Spirit (an anthology); and Rapture of the Deep: Reflections on the Wild in Art, Wilderness and the Sacred.
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