“You must help them until the LORD gives a rest like yours to your fellow Israelites and they too take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving them.” — Joshua 1:14b-15a.
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a timeless speech that not only cemented his place in history as a master orator but also gave new perspective and language to the struggles and hopes of Americans living in exile in their own land. Though we can affirm that the wheels of justice have not remained static over the last six decades, the reality presented before our eyes reminds us that neither have they turned enough so all can claim the truth that indeed “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As with all societies, serious challenges can arise when the lived reality of some does not confirm the suffering experienced by others. In our American society, we have long understood that many individuals who have enjoyed the blessings promised by the Declaration of Independence can hold a certain impatience and a lack of empathy toward those who continue to hope for a day when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will be theirs too.
As people of faith, we must always be attentive to the call to justice and dream with the prophets who hoped for a day when justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). We must also remember that challenges of inequality in the world and our nation are not new. Yet, those best equipped to speak of a nation’s love for justice are not the well-to-do but those “who need the law’s protection most!” For the treatment of the least of these is the proof “not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.”
Joshua and the people of Israel embraced the concept of justice as they moved into the land the LORD had promised their ancestors. As the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh prepared to settle east of the Jordan, the other tribes had to continue the journey to conquer the land. It seems that Moses and Joshua had a deep understanding that unless the whole people remained united, the nation would perish. Furthermore, the tribes for whom the promise had been fulfilled were to lead the way, helping the others receive the same blessing they had already attained.
This concept is without question an odd one for many of our Western minds. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos often practiced in the life of our nation offers the illusion of a leveled playing field where all people travel the same distance, and some make it while others do not because of some innate flaw. But the truth is more complicated, and solutions cannot be singular or isolated. We must embrace the truth that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Only when we understand that we are all a part of the same community, we will arrive at a place where Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness can truly be available to all.
What does our faith have to say to those who suffer? Whether we look at the Old Testament or New Testament, the witness of the Holy Scriptures reminds us of a God who cares for those who have their backs against the wall and calls all people to work towards a reality where all can enjoy the grand oasis of freedom and justice.
The racial and social challenges faced by our nation were not created today. But yet, here they are. We discount their existence at our own peril. We give an ear to the voices of ignorance and raise them to positions of power to the detriment of our own progress. Every generation is faced with the opportunity of ushering in a new reality for all people. As the great poet proclaimed, “An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill."
What role are you willing to play so this new world can grow in health and goodness? Remember the call of Moses and Joshua to the Israelites, “You must help them until the LORD gives a rest like yours to your fellow Israelites and they too take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving them.”
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream.” March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963, Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC.  U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (August, 27, 2023). Declaration of independence: A transcription. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.  James Baldwin. No Name in the Street (Vintage International) (p. 149). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  Ibid.  See Joshua 1:12-15.  Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in Clayborne Carson. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (p. 189). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.  Baldwin.(p. 196).