This passage in Amos has always resonated for me. It’s incredibly poetic, and really captures the imagination. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. It brings to mind Jesus calling himself the living water, and the water said to flow from Jesus’s side when the spear pierced him on the cross.

But it’s also a little frightening. We think of justice as a tame, blind woman holding scales balancing things out. It’s a precise, elegant image, reinforces the idea that justice something we control or mete out. After a steady diet of action films we think of it as swift, like a sword striking blows. But Amos characterizes justice as like water. On the surface that seems safe. Water nourishes life, but it sweeps away as well. Drowning is inevitable when waters start to roll from the sky or well up from the earth. It takes massive human engineering, like the Hoover Dam, to hold back a river. Any child who’s played in a creek knows that whatever rocks and sticks and earthen dams you erect, the water will eventually find a way around the dam, or destabilize it and wash it away.

That’s Amos’s view of justice, and I think it’s why institutionalized forces tend to fear social justice movements so much. “The way we’ve always done things” and “God ordained it that way” and “It’s too much work to change something” are the rebar inside the concrete of the dams holding back the waters of righteousness, but everyone with a vested interest in that dam knows that in the end, the water will win.

Whether the waters win sooner rather than later is actually up to us, and lives at the heart of Amos’s message in this passage. We can bring our offerings and sing our songs, but what God calls from us the sweat and strain of swinging pickaxes at the dams in our culture. Because when the waters roll, we’ll really have something to celebrate.

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