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‘Let Justice Roll Down Like Water’

Faith and Environmental Fairness

First Unitarian Church of Memphis – Church of the River with river visible through window
First Unitarian Church of Memphis – Church of the River

By Trisha Tull, TAF Coordinating Committee Member

LAST MONTH, I SPENT a long weekend discussing faith, environmental justice, and water both actual and metaphorical with members of the First Unitarian Church of Memphis – Church of the River on the eastern bank of the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2021, this congregation had helped defeat the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a crude oil carrier that would have routed through an earthquake zone, under several mostly Black neighborhoods, and over the city’s water source, the Memphis Sand Aquifer what one industry spokesman called “the point of least resistance.”

When protests in Memphis caught the attention not only of their U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, but also of former vice president Al Gore, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Poor People’s Campaign co-chair William Barber, everyone learned what “least resistance” looked like. Speaking at a spaced and masked 100-person “No Oil in Our Soil” rally in April 2021, Reverend Barber emphasized the “least resistance” quip, and the pipeline was defeated. But true to politics of late, Tennessee legislators soon passed a bill to “override local laws blocking fossil-fuel projects in other communities,” even those already overburdened by polluting industries.

I had been looking forward to visiting the city where the twentieth-century quest for environmental justice found its precursor in Memphis’s 1968 sanitation strike over pay and working conditions. The ancient words “let justice roll down like water,” well loved by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had rung from his lips a final time there on April 3, the evening before he died. When I mentioned this to Ron Peck, my host, he made a point of arranging a tour through the National Civil Rights Museum at the iconic Lorraine Motel where Dr. King had been assassinated. Since we were of the same age but different colors, Ron and I had much to discuss. Pointing to a photo of sanitation strikers’ “I Am a Man” posters, he said a congregation member’s uncle had printed them.

The church’s sanctuary overlooks the Mississippi through enormous picture windows, a weekly visual sermon. Like the river itself, “let justice roll down like water” communicates the collective power that has sometimes transformed our country and our world. Scattered raindrops and isolated individuals don’t alter a landscape much. But when people get moving in the same direction, we roll with unstoppable force. That’s what water does, what civil rights workers did and still do, and what environmental justice advocates have done since their spiritual father, sociologist Dr. Robert Bullard, first drew attention to this intersection between social justice and environmental defense. From time to time we see the world-shaping capacity of such moral rivers.

THE ANCIENT JUDEAN HERDSMAN and tree-trimmer Amos, the one who first said “let justice roll down like water” some 2,700 years before Dr. King, knew well the power of thirsty land. The nearby River Jordan was, and still is, neither deep nor wide. Amos envisioned mighty waters because he knew their lack. From his village south of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, this farmer who claimed no prophetic status but who inspired Judaism’s first prophetic book walked north to what was then the center of Israelite devotion, the temple at Bethel, whose name meant “the house of God.” There Amos called out greed:

They sell the righteous for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and push the afflicted out of the way….
You have turned justice into poison
and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood. (Amos 2:6-7; 6:12)

He could have said that today.

Biblical scholars often ponder the relevance of words more than twenty centuries old. The more thoughtfully we read religious texts, the thornier our attachments are, troubled by divine violence, women’s abuse, misstatements on sexuality. But sometimes these ancient words press us to ask how we, heirs of generations of insight and experience, can at least live up to our forebears’ best hopes.

Like Rev. Barber, like Dr. King and many prophets, Amos modeled fearlessness. In God’s own sanctuary he criticized worship tainted by injustice. Daring to speak for God, he said:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
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 offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

We can be sure that neither Amos nor God hated worship as such. What Amos said God despised was hypocrisy, giving lip service to faith while cheating neighbors. Closing eyes to pray, and during the prayers imagining how to make an extra buck, or how to avoid spending a buck, buying sandals cheap from an anonymous sweatshop in someone else’s backyard, or planning any of a thousand other activities embedded in society, actions too common to note, corner-cutting acts trampling neighbors and the land itself.

We keep hearing that we have the means to forge a carbon-free future on earth.  The necessary technology is in our hands, and citizens are more committed than ever to stemming climate change. Our future isn’t written yet. We don’t know how fast we can move, especially since industry supporters labor to impede us, and we don’t know how much justice our neighbors will see. Healthy outcomes will take all the democratic, economic, and ethical tools in our reach. We know that addressing local pollution benefits climate health as well. It’s a double win, as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign says, and as pipeline fights demonstrate. True, common sense can be overrun by economic incentives for the rich and temptations to indifference and cynicism for the rest of us. Yet compassionate justice calls persistently, and as we embody this ethic in specific, real-world actions we can, like the great rivers, alter our landscape.

MY FIRST ENVIRONMENTAL BOOK was Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013). I thought it would be out of date by now, but it makes its way every year into new congregations seeking to link creation care to faith. So I welcomed the invitation from the Presbyterian Church (USA) organization Presbyterian Women to expand the book’s justice themes into a new Bible study in their annual Horizons series. Let Justice Roll Down: God’s Call to Care for Neighbors and All Creation went to press as I was driving to Memphis and will be available from presbyterianwomen.org in April.

The study travels in concentric circles outward, beginning with scripture’s clearest metaphor, in Ezekiel, of environmental damage that harms neighbors. Four lessons explore nature’s spheres, each of which invites its own stories: land—and with it, food—water, and air: What do these necessities do and signify for us? Who has the right to live securely in the land, feed on its bounty, drink its water, and breathe its air? What specific challenges face us? How do communities succeed in claiming their needs over others’ greeds?

The book then turns to the climate crisis: the present danger, global calls to equity, U.S. laws that fund industrial and social changes, the fear and forcefulness of our youngest generation, and the spiritual, economic, and advocacy tools available for citizen response. Its final pages explore the world we can create, one in which we manage not only to stem the global climate threat, but also to flourish, nature and neighbors together. The study’s nine lessons are enriched by suggestions for leaders by the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Hunger Program, and colorful textile imagery by Canadian artist Lorraine Roy.

CLIMATE JUSTICE IS A GENERATIONAL MARKER. Eleven years ago in February 2013, three students and I rode one of many buses to Washington D.C. for the “Forward on Climate” rally. At 40,000, it was small by D.C. standards but, back then, the largest climate march yet. We were to gather before the White House and ask that President Obama veto the Keystone XL Pipeline, a line extending from Canada’s tar sands over the Ogallala aquifer that provided drinking water to eight states, following the path of a smaller pipeline that had already suffered 14 spills. The rally helped bring KXL to nationwide attention, where it teetered for eight years until 2021, when President Biden canceled it.

Trisha Tull and students standing by MLK memorial wall engraved with quote from Amos.
Trisha Tull and students at the MLK Memorial.

Bundled against the icy wind, the four of us walked first to the new MLK memorial, where Dr. King had been sculpted as a giant emerging from unhewn granite, signifying his own words, “out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” We snapped photos, clutching our homemade signs beside his words, “We are determined … to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

Warmed by this pilgrimage, we listened to contemporary leaders, indigenous and immigrant: Chief Jacqueline Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation; Michael Brune of the Sierra Club; Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Bill McKibben; and the event’s emcee, the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus. Daring to compare our gathering to the 1963 March on Washington empowered by Dr. King’s dreams of racial justice half a century before, Rev. Yearwood said, “This rally is more important than that rally then. While they were fighting for equality, we are fighting for existence.”

It seems we can take neither equality nor existence for granted. Over the years, I’ve heard many elders reminisce about being Freedom Riders in 1961, proud to have tested their courage and won. Most of them have passed on now, and our generation hesitates to step up. But I hope we will yet inherit their courage, taking our place between those who advanced democracy before us and those who will defend it when we are gone.

About Trisha Tull

Patricia K. Tull is a Presbyterian minister and A. B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Hebrew Bible at Louisville Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the 2016 recipient of the William Gibson Eco-Justice Award for faith-based environmental work and a 2019 distinguished alum of Austin Seminary. She teaches, preaches, and leads workshops on earth care and lives in a net-zero home outside Henryville, Indiana with her treehugging companion, the Rev. Don Summerfield.

Trisha Tull’s Books

Copies of Let Justice Roll Down: God’s Call to Care for Neighbors and All Creation, published by Presbyterian Publishing House, may be ordered from Presbyterian Women at this link. Those interested in Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis can find it through numerous distributors, or at inhabiting-eden.org, where leader’s guides and workbooks are also available.

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