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The River of Justice Flows Downhill

We have a basketball hoop on a pole in our driveway. Our toddler cannot yet shoot or dribble, but he watches the big kids and chases the ball for great lengths of time. He tries to climb the pole to get closer to the net, and he waves his arms for someone to hold him up for a slam dunk.

Fighting for justice in a broken world sometimes feels like trying to sink a goal that’s out of reach. We have different strategies for how to get there, and we may inch nearer to resolution as we flap our arms, but true justice—God’s justice, the kind of flourishing for all that we want so badly—resides at an impossible elevation.

By our own strength, we cannot bring down God’s justice. Even Martin Luther King Jr., the giant of the American civil rights movement, understood this. His constant call was not for human force but for “unarmed truth and unconditional love [that] will have the final word in reality,” as he said when he accepted the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. All the way until his moving final speech in Memphis in 1968, in which he declared he’d “been to the mountaintop,” King seemed to know that justice would not come by his own efforts, but that God would ultimately prove his efforts worthwhile.

King’s message was anything but passive. But his pursuit of justice in many ways mirrored the ministry of Jesus: It was more a descent than a climb.

On their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, God’s people sang songs that included Psalm 120: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace” (v. 6). It foreshadowed Jesus’ holy complaint in Luke 9:41, “How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” Yet Jesus took on our hate, our pride, and our enemies to be sure that there could be hope for us when we sing. Jesus made the descent for us, making it possible to cry out in the times when we are overwhelmed.

When fear and cynicism threaten to steal our joy—when we allow our consumption of bad news and media to overtake our participation in prayer—we need only to look to him and to sing back his own song of justice, to remember what he already accomplished on the cross. His lament becomes our praise; his descent, our resurrection.

Wherever you are holding anger, when you have been betrayed, when you see the vulnerable overlooked or commodified, he is near. Look for his compassion to rush into the places of disunity, war, and dissonance. While we may not have the power to fully defend and correct what is broken in the present, he is still God in our midst.

“Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12–13. “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”

Recently, I climbed up a rusted old water tower in southern Texas with some musician friends on a break while recording. We caught the last moments of the sunset. From up there, we could see across the border into Mexico, and I thought about how prayer lifts us to the heights, where we can see across borders for a wider view of God’s redemption.

When I sing about justice, when I think about borders and wars and family divisions and the hidden wounds of racism in our cities, it feels like I’m waving my arms like my toddler. But our cries are not empty. Through prayer, community, and the Scriptures, God’s Spirit enables us to see as he sees and to participate in his justice.

I can see it in the faces of my friends who have leaned in close to Jesus amid suffering: These are the ones who have the greatest capacity for both compassion and truth-telling, who exhibit the character and hope of Romans 5:4.

When I get weary, I think of the prophet Amos’s river of justice that King preached about often. I imagine the New Jerusalem, where the new heavens will not rise from us but will be brought down to earth (Rev. 21–22). I consider what it will be like to see the full radiance of God in that place, to see the healing of the nations on the banks of this justice river. From high to low, the new order of the kingdom is coming down to meet us, right where we need it most.

Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter in Nashville and author of the forthcoming Send Out Your Light: The Illuminating Power of Scripture and Song (B&H).

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