Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. —Amos 5:24
Like most people, I’ve heard Martin Luther King, Jr. invoking the prophet Amos in old film footage. In the 1960s, this particular verse inspired many people to advocate for civil rights, and later to advocate against US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Even now, Amos’s words are almost synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work for justice. Yet King’s reason for calling up Amos was to petition his own followers to become “maladjusted.” That’s an astonishing call, not what I’d expected.
So often the verse from Amos is quoted exclusively, and out of context. What King said as preamble is this: “I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generations.” What does King mean, maladjusted? I don’t think I’d ever heard that word used on a positive note, until my minister brought it into a proclamation a few weeks ago.
King turned the word into a call to righteousness, when he asked his followers to refuse to “adjust” to segregation and discrimination, to mob rule, violence, and militarism. He went on to name others who in their own era were “maladjusted” or “extremist,” who refused to adjust to a society’s injustices:
Lincoln, “who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free."
Jefferson, who declared that “all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Jesus, “who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man."
In the last year, it’s been troubling to hear the name-calling and degrading language used to describe recent immigrants and people of color and women, the veiled and outright calls to violence against those who are different from us. In my heart, I fear that people will become accustomed to the anger and vitriol that so marks the US political process now. This kind of language has been on the fringe for many years, not in the mainstream. This year, hatred in its various expressions has invaded the larger conversations of our society. I believe that language underlies, and underscores, people’s beliefs and intentions. We use language to make ourselves clear about what lives in our hearts. And this is where I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the prophet Amos.
While I’m not a great leader or a great thinker, I do have the power to let others know what is on my mind and in my heart. I hope that we never become accustomed to the vitriol, and more importantly, to the anger and hatred that underlie such speech. I don’t want to “adjust” to a mainstream call to cut down the stranger, the immigrant, the person who doesn’t look like me. So let me be maladjusted, and let me ask you to be maladjusted, too.