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Friday, January 13, 2012

Like a River

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
   Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
   Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
   But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
-Amos 5:21-24

This weekend, my son will take the test for Select Enrollment high schools. These are Chicago public high schools that rank among the best schools, public or private, in the state of Illinois. As you can imagine, competition to get a spot in these schools is tough. Seats go to the students who score the highest in their seventh grade GPA, their seventh grade state school assessment tests, and this exam that Josh will take this weekend. It’s quite an accomplishment that Josh has even qualified to take the test. (Fortunately, he inherited his mom’s brains, along with her looks. He got a cowlick from me. You’re welcome, kid.)
    Of course, it’s not exactly true that the highest scores get the seats. The school system tweaks the qualification criteria each year to try to make sure that kids from more disadvantaged family situations have equal access to these great schools. This year, that means that the scores needed to get in will vary somewhat depending on what “tier” a student’s neighborhood is in. And we’re in the one that requires Josh to score the highest.
    All that raises conflicting feelings in me, honestly. Ordinarily, I’m all for initiatives that recognize that some kids come from more challenging circumstances than others, and that allowing and enabling inequities to continue to exist is neither right nor constructive. Sorry, it’s just not necessarily true in America that everyone has an equal opportunity to better their circumstances, or equal access to the kind of education that makes that possible. As they enter high school, kids can get easily derailed by a poor educational environment.
    So, ordinarily, I’m for that.
    Of course, it’s not ordinarily my kid who stands to lose a seat in the high school he wants to attend.
    While I still think that somehow trying to ensure that kids from disadvantaged circumstances have access to the best public schools, I guess I’m a little less enthusiastic about that right now.
    If we’re reminded of anything a few days before we recognize the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s that justice is sometimes costly, and that the costs of it can be very personal. King, of course, paid for his convictions with his life, which kind of puts my concerns this weekend in perspective. A just society requires sacrifices, certainly by those who are victimized by injustice, but also by those who stand to gain the most from injustice. Justice almost always demands that those who have most of the power give some of it to those who have the least. It requires us to be honest about the ways realities like wealth, race, gender, and education are tied to power and opportunity - or the lack thereof. It mandates that those in a society who could choose to hoard power and opportunity instead give access to it away.
    The Old Testament prophets knew that Israel couldn’t truly be the people of God until they understood justice and were willing to pay its cost. Amos reminded the people that religious assemblies, feasts, music, and observance could not fill the hunger God has for seeing justice done. The American church - especially in those places where it’s mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly educated - might need to hear his message anew: God doesn’t care much for church services when they’re only cover for us to sidestep the sacrifices that justice demands while holding on with both hands to our comfortable standards of living.
    King cited Amos in his famous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. He also cited Isaiah 40:4-5:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

    The consistent witness of Scripture is that human beings will only see the glory of the Lord if we see it together, and that his people best be known for being committed to the justice that so clearly and inarguably matters deeply to him.
    Even when it costs us.
    Especially when it costs us.      
    It cost our Lord everything, after all. The One who by right had all the power of deity gave it all up to be born poor among a conquered people, and he gave up still more and still more, until he was arrested, tried, and executed. He did it to free human beings from bondage, sin, and death, and to give us the blessings of a new life.
    May we endure our own tests, carry our own crosses, and give up our own lives to do the same. Out of love for people, and love for righteousness, and - even more - love for him.

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