This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: “. . . You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. . . . You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. . . . You oppress the righteous and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. . . . 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)
This over-seven-foot-tall batik (dyed cloth artwork for hanging), called Thirst for Justice, was commissioned in 2001 by Bread for the World, an organization that seeks to end world hunger.
The artist, Solomon Raj, set the focal point at the center, at the man in white. This man—a prophet, maybe Amos—points to a flaming wheel, which represents God’s coming judgment on all those who fail to uphold social justice on the earth, who continue to oppress society’s most vulnerable people. With each turn of the wheel, his righteous anger burns. As God has said, “Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrant, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19), and to those who ignore the plight of the hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
In his book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Tim Keller points out that the Hebrew word most often translated as “righteousness” in scripture (tzadeqah) refers not to private morality, as many people wrongfully think, but to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity. Righteousness is considered “primary (or distributive) justice”—that is, right behavior that, if exercised by everyone, would eliminate all of society’s social ills. A much-related term in scripture is mishpat, often thought of as “rectifying (or retributive) justice”—punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. “Just” and “righteous” are some of the most common adjectives the Bible uses to describe God, and they often appear side by side (e.g., Psalm 33:5, Jeremiah 9:23-24). If God is just and righteous, shouldn’t God’s people be too?
God the Father is represented in the batik by a giant hand (a common motif in Jewish and Christian art) that rolls the wheel of justice onto the scene.
To the left of the prophet is some kind of vegetation. If you start at the cluster of green and then follow the trunk up, you’ll notice that it’s an upside-down tree with its roots in the sky. Raj borrows this image from the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 15), a Hindu sacred text, to suggest that we are to be rooted in God and bearing fruit on the earth.
Now let’s circle around to some of the details.
At the top left is a row of factories, their smokestacks belching out pollutants into the air. The black veins in the sky are the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. This is a critique on those companies whose thirst for productivity and profit outweighs their concern for the environment.
Below that are two women, carrying heavy loads in baskets. Scan down to the bottom left, and you see another laborer: a man pulling a rickshaw seated by two apparently well-off individuals. Although these scenes don’t scream “unjust labor laws,” they do highlight the disparity between rich and poor and may prompt you to consider, repentantly, those ways in which you are involved in exploitation. For example, many of the clothes you own may very well have been produced in overseas sweatshops, by children who are forced to work long hours for low wages under hazardous conditions—all so that you can pay a low price for what you wear. Goods like chocolate and diamonds are also known to come at a high human cost. You may contribute more to human suffering than you think.
In left center, there is a family of three being embraced by Jesus. It’s unclear what their story is, but there are a few possibilities: It could be that their son is sick and they’re seeking physical healing for him. Or maybe they’re refugees seeking asylum. Whatever you imagine their context to be, we can see that Jesus welcomes them and comforts them in their suffering. Would you—do you—do the same?
Directly opposite this group is a prisoner, weary and degraded from years of captivity, whose chains Jesus has come to break. Behind them is a solitary figure sitting pensively at the river’s bank. Because he’s dressed in the same red garment and has the same black beard, I assume this figure to be Jesus as well, interceding for the world.
At the bottom right is a group of three people pleading, in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer, for God to make manifest his kingdom right now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At their feet are three birds on a flower bed, who likewise yearn with groaning to “be liberated from [their] bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Even the natural world suffers until Christ’s second coming!
Now, zooming back out, consider all the different forms of oppression people are suffering under today: homelessness, displacement, slavery, debt, chronic pain or disability, racism, sexism, mental illness, corrupt legal systems, no access to clean drinking water, and the list goes on and on. Raj asks: Who will advocate for these disempowered peoples? Who will point to and embody the ideals of God? Raj wants us to picture ourselves in the role of the prophet, who stands in the river of justice and brings others into its flow.
The river is the dominant feature of this work: a flood of cool blue cutting through hot, dry reds and yellows. A deeply needed, deeply desired source of life, refreshment, and flourishing.
Do you thirst for justice? Are you as passionate for it as God is? In what ways has this river nourished you? How might you channel it to others?