Every school-aged child knows the description of the United States that closes out the pledge of allegiance: “one nation…indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” These days it’s hard to get through those phrases with a straight face, isn’t it? We are “one nation indivisible” only literally, only inasmuch as the United States of America is still a single country. But our political and ideological divisions, our deep social inequities, and the evil of racism embedded into our country at all levels, makes ours a precarious union, an unhappy marriage.
But even with our deep differences, most Americans have been able to unite around the phrase “liberty and justice for all.” Liberty, Justice, Equality: these are our nation’s unbreakable vows. And even when we disagree on their particulars, we usually agree on the concepts generally. It was to that deep sense of American Justice that Martin Luther King Jr. appealed when he stood in our nation’s capital in 1963 and reminded those listening of the words of the founding fathers: “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, which thousands of Americans gathered with Dr. King to support during the March on Washington, was seen as the natural fulfillment of America’s promise for liberty and justice for all.
Other than the Civil Rights Act itself, which was eventually signed, King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is probably the March on Washington’s greatest cultural legacy. At the pinnacle of that speech, after his visions of a common table for former slaves and former slaveholders, of black children and white children joining hands, of America living up to her belief that “all men are created equal,” he recites a vision from the book of Isaiah:
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.”
That Biblical vision wraps up the most famous section of King’s most famous speech. After casting Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory, King declares, “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, Christian minister, grounds his hope for justice in his faith in God. For him, the vision of God’s glorious return is intertwined with a vision of total racial reconciliation. But it is not simply a vision of a far-off, heavenly hope; it is also his literal hope for America — a dream, he says, “deeply rooted in the American dream.”
I believe that King’s use of Isaiah 40 is far more than the rhetorical flourish of a Baptist preacher. That Messianic prophecy of valleys being raised and mountains being flattened provides an image of justice not only in the future Kingdom of Heaven, but also right here and right now.
A Highway for God
Let’s break down the metaphor from Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah’s words here contain a promise of comfort for an enslaved people. Israel is in captivity, and the prophet speaks of a future hope when his people will be free. God himself will deliver them, taking down any obstacle on His path. The “social justice” issues of Isaiah’s day form the primary context for this passage: God promises to intervene on behalf of a people caught in a horrifying political reality.
But most scholars also see this passage as a Messianic prophecy. This is not just any political deliverance, but the salvation brought by God’s anointed. Not by accident did John the Baptist quote this passage when he spoke of Jesus. Most Christians, then, read Isaiah 40 as a reference to Christ, both in His arrival the first time, and in the promise of His return.
Because of the emphasis on preparing for Christ’s return, many scholars read the image of flattened mountains and elevated valleys as a metaphor for spiritual change. After all, John the Baptist coupled his Isaiah quotation with a call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The idea is that we should make ourselves ready for God’s arrival, removing any impediment to his reign in our lives. One Bible scholar puts it this way:
All the changes enjoined are then in the spiritual life: valleys, crooked places, ridges, and the like are all sinful things, problems in the life that need to be straightened out. The “straight highway” is the spiritual believer who through repentance and amendment of life leaves nothing in his spiritual condition that would hinder the appearance of the LORD…
This idea of personal repentance and spiritual improvement fits well with Martin Luther King Jr’s “Dream.” The first step toward justice is repentance from hatred, prejudice, and ignorance. This inner spiritual change is surely part of the “soul force” that King endorses earlier in the speech.
But personal change alone is not enough to accomplish justice.
Justice means changing the landscape
Let’s look at Isaiah’s imagery more closely. Surely God’s glory needs no paved road to reach everyone. Why must the crooked places be straightened and the rough places be made smooth? Why must the low places be raised and the high places be lowered?
Why? Because justice requires changing systems of inequity in order to give every person — “all flesh” — the same fighting chance. For those born along the highway, equality comes easily; those languishing in the valley or stranded on a mountaintop lack that privilege.
And so every valley must be exalted.
Every valley of poverty. Every valley of prison. The valley of years of slavery and Jim Crow and systemic oppression carving itself on the bodies and minds of the human beings trapped under its weight.
Every mountain and hill must be laid low.
Mountains of privilege. Mountains of bias. Mountains of decades of benefitting from other people’s pain.
Yes, we must repent, and yes, we must seek personal change. But we must also recognize that the very landscape of our world must change. As a recent meme has reminded me, justice requires “fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities.” It involves razing mountains and lifting valleys.
And when we have done that hard work of preparing the way, then we may begin to see “liberty and justice for all.” And we may even get a glimpse of God’s glory along the way.
Next month, I’ll tackle part two of this series, “Liberty.” In the meantime, here are several resources that have been useful to me as I’ve been working through what I can do to help facilitate justice.
75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Injustice
What You Can Do: A Response to George Floyd and Racial Injustice
Trevor Noah on the Domino Effects of Injustice
Racism and Where Whites Should Start
Racism and the Debt of American Christianity