Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
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 5:16a, 23-24; New Revised Standard Version
This passage from the prophet Amos was the scriptural warrant that girded the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. In his time of relative prosperity and stability, Amos was a clarion voice, strongly denouncing corruption, hypocrisy, the enormous gap between wealthy and poor, and systemic injustice. He warned people that for God, religious traditions and worship were unacceptable in light of their continuing participation in oppression, whether direct or indirect, caused by their apathy to the plight of others. God demands justice be provided for all and by all, so that justice is like a river, sustaining life, flowing in and around the people. Justice requires turning around, doing mercy and striving to provide basic needs, access to opportunity and giving respect for all.
God still demands justice flow as a river today; in our present cultural climate, our political climate and our environmental climate. Unfortunately, due to human greed, manipulation of the truth, exploitation for profit and security, and the desire to subjugate and conquer rather than steward and shepherd, the river of justice does not flow freely. It is impeded by our collective pollution of arrogance, injustice and apathy.
From the beginning of European arrival in this hemisphere, warfare on people and the environment has been engaged. The Pilgrims developed a strategy of genocide in purposely introducing small pox and other diseases by presenting blankets laced with infection as gifts to Indigenous People. Thus the first biological weapons unleashed here in Massachusetts were employed in the Caribbean, bringing near extinction of the native populations there also. Disease, pollution and exploitation of land, sea, air and people continued unabated by the exploration, colonization and slavery of the Third World by the First World. Technological advances and methods such as strip mining and fracking have made exploitation more massive, grounded in the lack of care for the planet, for those living now and those coming in the future.
Cleveland, Ohio, is my place of birth and formative years. I remember the major river of the region, the Cuyahoga, catching on fire several times from the industrial pollution dumped in it. Great Lake Erie was closed to fishing and swimming because of pollution; in the 1980’s it was deemed as “dead.” Moving to Chicago, we lived through the pungent yearly Alewife die-off in Lake Michigan from invasive species being introduced by opening the St. Lawrence Seaway. Ground-level ozone events, burning eyes, throat and lungs, were common in the summer before the Clean Air Act. In several coastal areas where I have been and lived, there is the annual explosion of red algae. Discarded plastic has become a small continent in the ocean; an open coffin taking life from the sea.
Environmental crises due to inaction on pollution, and attacks on wildlife and Earth’s resources, such as the Amazon, continue to affect us. Too many refuse to care about personal decisions or policies of business and government that degrade the planet. Blood of Black and Brown people is spilled and their homes destroyed for the extraction of minerals and precious stones. Too many do not want to tie stewardship of this planet to justice demanded by God. Some would rather care only for today, or regard this planet and all life on it only as something to dominate for their benefit.
Environmental justice calls us to reckon with our past, present and future. People of color and their home areas are regarded as toxic and nuclear waste dumping grounds. Infrastructures of resources are not provided equally. In the majority Black city, Flint, Michigan, the crisis of lead in the water has yet to be fully addressed. Hurricanes have increased in number and strength because of global warming. In the aftermath of hurricanes news coverage has exposed how little of resources and relief are distributed to neighborhoods and areas where people of color are the majority within the United States and its territories.
Changing the courses of rivers and elimination of wetlands have increased the effects of hurricanes, such as Katrina. We have seen at Standing Rock, North Dakota, that White entitlement and economic expediency trumps the care of environment and the rights of Native Peoples; the construction an oil pipeline has leeched oil on sacred land and water. Here in Massachusetts the lack of maintenance and monitoring led to the gas pipeline explosions and fires in Lawrence and Andover in 2018. The health, culture and survival of the G’wich’in and other Alaskan Indigenous People are now being threatened by the opening of the ANWAR area to oil/gas extraction and by the increasing of commercial and tourist fishing and gaming which decreases their food supply.
As Christians, we stand on the shoulders of our forebears; on their faith and their doubts, on their good and their evil, on their compassion and their cruelty. We live benefiting from and having to deal with all that they did and did not do. We cannot escape this heritage, nor separate ourselves from the past. We are also the ones that those who come after us will look to for inspiration and, I hope, thanksgiving for our efforts toward justice in all its forms.
We are Easter people, resurrection people. We are God’s people, called to justice, who can and must turn our attention and efforts for today and tomorrow. We have already done much: the air in some areas and many lakes and rivers are cleaner than 20 years ago. But there is much more to be done. Justice, for people and this planet in which all life is interdependent, requires vigilance, accountability and commitment. Let it be said by the next generations that we strove for justice, removing the pollution of greed and indifference that destroys life, that justice can flow freely now and in the future, as a pristine river, replenishing all life on this beautiful and awesome planet, created by, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry proclaims, a “loving, liberating and life-giving God.”
Holding onto the Resilience of People of Justice Seeking Justice for 500+ Years in the Americas,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris
Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
The Season of Creation, Sept. 1 through Oct. 4, is celebrated by Christians around the world as a time for renewing, repairing and restoring our relationship to God, one another and all of creation. The Episcopal Church joins this international effort for prayer and action for climate justice and an end to environmental racism and ecological destruction. This year’s theme is "Jubilee for the Earth: New Rhythms, New Hope." In celebrating the season, we are invited to consider anew our ecological, economic and political ways of living. Learn more and find resources for prayer, worship, study and action here.