Let Justice Roll Down (Artful Devotion)

Misty Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain by Katsushika Hokusai
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849), Misty Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain, ca. 1833. Woodblock print on dyed paper, 37.6 × 27 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

God condemns the two-facedness of his people, who offer praise to him in song and sacrifice but fail to uphold his laws of social justice:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
 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;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
 I will not look upon them.
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.

—Amos 5:21–24

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SONG: “Instead of a Show” by Jon Foreman, from Summer (2008)

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I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle A, click here.

Non-Christians respond to Christian artworks

One of the art blogs I follow is Hyperallergic, “a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today.” It’s not Christian-affiliated, but because of Christianity’s vast influence on the arts, it’s not unusual for “Christian” works, or works that reference Christianity, to be covered. This past month two such features stood out to me for the outsider perspectives they offered:

(1) “A Meditation on the Ineffable Grandeur of Churches” by Jennifer R. Bernstein: An “irreligious, halfhearted Jew” describes “what it means to love church but not God,” to be transported in a way that she has never been in synagogue. By way of example, she shows a photo of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; an agnostic friend of mine had a similar experience as this author—he told me that when he visited that cathedral last year, he came very close to believing in God and falling to his knees right then and there in repentance, so moved was he by the architecture and what it signified.

La Sagrada Familia
Interior of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Here are some excerpts from Bernstein’s article:

Crossing the narthex of a cathedral is like starting a great book: You simply aren’t in your home world anymore.

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In my view, the truest kind of reader/viewer is not the intellectual, but the supplicant. To “consume” a work of art is really to be consumed by it: to surrender your will to the vision of the creator — or, in this case, the Creator.

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Organized grandeur makes us feel small and powerless, yet connected to something all-powerful.

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Church, if we take it seriously, if we give in to stillness, threatens to reorder what we care about. . . . An extraordinary environment forces us into a confrontation with a striking somewhere, reminding us that we can and should take care in choosing where we place our bodies, for there we also place our minds.

(2) “A Timely Performance of MLK’s Final Sermon Takes Viewers to Church” by Seph Rodney: Commissioned by BRIC for its inaugural BRIC OPEN Festival, The Drum Major Instinct is a dramatization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon accompanied by original music by Phil Woodmore, presented on April 30 by Theater of War Productions and NYC Public Artist in Residence Bryan Doerries. True to BRIC’s mission, it was followed by an open community discussion on race and social justice.

What was shocking, to me, about this article is the reviewer’s candid opposition to King on the grounds of his “rigid, hierarchic, conservative” Christianity. We’ll take the social justice he promoted, Rodney seems to say, but without all the God-talk. Does he not understand how integral King’s religious faith was to shaping his vision and motivation? And he achieved practical, world-changing results. If our “desire to follow our inherited religious templates” “dooms us,” then why did King’s template, taken from the Bible, usher in such positive change in America? Citing today’s (Muslim) theocracies as evidence of how religion and human rights violations go hand in hand is irrelevant.   Continue reading “Non-Christians respond to Christian artworks”

MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain

Holy Mountain III by Horace Pippin
Horace Pippin (American, 1888–1946), Holy Mountain III, 1945. Oil on canvas, 25.3 × 30.3 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

(This post was originally published on theJesusQuestion.org in 2014.)

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’d like to highlight the work of one who shared Dr. King’s vision, but whose microphone was a canvas.

The painting Holy Mountain III by self-taught African American artist Horace Pippin depicts the peaceable kingdom that’s prophesied about in the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 11. When the Messiah establishes his rule on earth, writes the prophet,

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (vv. 6–9)

In spring 2013, this painting was featured in the exhibition “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery,” curated by the now-defunct Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. A MOBIA commentator pointed out the shadows of violence in the forest: a lynched black man (left), planes dropping bombs above a graveyard of crosses (center), and two armed soldiers and a tank (right). Yet, the commentator writes, Pippin chose to foreground the Holy Mountain, demonstrating his hope that such a scene would one day be actualized: “Rather than turning a blind eye to the painful realities of a sad and violent world, Pippin presents a vision of mankind moving out of the shadows and into the brilliant light of a peaceful clearing.”  Continue reading “MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain”