Most of us cannot now hear a particular passage from the Prophet Amos without thinking of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The passage reads: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The prophet’s words are carved into stones memorializing Dr. King’s legacy, and, I suspect, will always be linked to the martyred leader’s ministry.
What may not be remembered, however, are Dr. King’s fascinating characterizations of the Prophet Amos, and some others, which appear in some of his greatest writings and sermons. In Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (a text that should be considered essential to the “canon” of sacred documents in our national life), Dr. King speaks of the role of the extremist in our culture. “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction,” he writes, from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love…. Was not Amos an extremist for justice…. Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ….” (James Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 297; all quotes from Dr. King in this blog are from this invaluable volume.)
Dr. King’s characterization of the Prophet Amos as an extremist reminds me of Abraham Heschel’s portrait of the prophets, as persons with a divinely gifted apprehension of evils among us to which we have become insulated to the point that we “may be dying without being aware of it.” “The prophet’s word,” Rabbi Heschel once wrote, “is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” (The Prophets, New York, Harper & Row, 1962, Vol. 1: pp. xii, 16) Amos, like the other prophets, feels the world at a higher intensity than most of us. All of the prophets are as Dr. King observed, “extremists”: extreme in their sensitivity, extreme in their unwillingness to accept the harm done to others as “standard operating procedures.”
In several other writings, however, Dr. King uses another term to characterize the work of the Prophet Amos and others: “maladjusted.” Dr. King is being deliberately ironic in these writings, taking a term used to dismiss behaviors as odd or pathological and breathing into that term a new and deeper ethical understanding. Dr. King observes that there is a technical sense in which the word “maladjusted” can be usefully employed. In psychological terms, none of us want to be thought “maladjusted,” he observes. “But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination,” he writes, “I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.” (Washington ed./ King, “The Current Crisis in Race Relations” 1958, p. 89)
A prophet, like the Prophet Amos, according to Dr. King, is and ought to be “maladjusted” to the injustices of the age. Amos’ maladjustment led him to cry out, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In various sermons and addresses across the years, Dr. King included Lincoln and Jefferson in his list of the socially and ethically maladjusted, along with Jesus of Nazareth. But, in his last sermon, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination, Dr. King does something very interesting as well as prophetic. He seems to assume that his audience has heard his previous comments about the maladjusted prophet, and he becomes even more personal, even more intimate in his invitation to those listening to his address. “We need all of you,” he says. “And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel…. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.’” (Washington, ed./King, “I See the Promised Land” p. 282)
Abraham Heschel, in a fascinating chapter in Volume 2 of his study of The Prophets, reflects on “Prophecy and Psychosis.” Interestingly, he titled a section of this chapter, “The Prophets are Morally Maladjusted.” He writes: “The prophet is a person who suffers from a profound maladjustment to the spirit of society, with its conventional lies, with its concessions to man’s weakness…. The prophet’s maladaptation to his environment may be characterized as moral madness (as distinguished from madness in a psychological sense).” Rabbi Heschel’s analysis helps us understand the genius of Dr. King’s ethical insight, and, by extension, of Dr. King’s invitation to us all. Heschel writes: “The prophet claims to sense, to hear, and to see in a way totally removed from the normal perception, to pass from the actual world into a mysterious realm, and still be able to return properly oriented to reality and to apply the content of his perception to it. While his mode of perception may differ sharply from the perceptions of other human beings, the ideas he brings back to reality become a source of illumination of supreme significance to all other human beings.” (Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 2, 188)
Let us give thanks for the maladjusted prophets with whom God has blessed us. And let us pray that we may share in their spirit of maladjustment for the sake of the reign of God among us.