Thoughts About Justice and the Christian Life…

There is no peace without justice while we are living “east of Eden.” If shalom (universal peace and flourishing ) is the end goal of all of creation (human and non-human), then peaceableness is the top floor of shalom and justice is the bottom floor, the foundation; they are book ends if you will (read my thoughts about peace here).

So what is justice? In the Greek culture, justice most likely referred to the Greek goddess Dike, who would have been the personification of the virtue. This is where the Greek (and biblical) word díkaios would have come from, which means, “to be just, or right.” In the biblical sense, the word justice would imply not only the just execution of the law of goodness, but right living on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

The words “righteous” and “justice” seem to go hand in hand in the biblical narrative, and they actually could be defined by the term justification. In salvation terms, to be justified, is to be declared “right and good” before God and having been justly acquitted of one’s rebellion and brokenness because Jesus paid for what we deserved (justice) with his sacrifice.

So justice, in part, means to be free and forgiven of one’s inner and outer brokenness, and empowered to do what is right based on the freedom one has received. This is the long and difficult way of simply saying: justice is that state in which everyone receives what is rightful and appropriate. Since humans are created with certain rights (food, clothing, work), then a society is just when everyone in the society enjoys the goods that everyone has rights to. But a society is also just when there are consequences for those who have disregarded or kept others from these certain rights as well. A city that is just is a city that respects the dignity of every human, especially within the Christian worldview that believes that every human is created in the image of God.

At the least, in the talk of renewal, justice is absent whenever basic needs go unmet. This means that liberation from in-justice and repairs made because of the wrongs done are at the very core of justice. If one skimmed the Old Testament to search out who were some of the people whom God had special concern for in view of justice, you would see that it is the most vulnerable of society: widows, orphans, aliens, sojourners, the homeless, the naked, the hungry and the afflicted. And this justice was never a nationalistic priority that made one nation or one people group more important than another. Actually, we can see in the narrative of Scripture, when Israel took their nationality too seriously, or saw themselves as more important or elite and selfish, correction swiftly followed. Humans, universally, who are a part of the demographics of God’s special concern are to be an integral part of our every day relationships.

If we followed this theme throughout the Old Testament, it would be hard to ignore the loud and clear message that justice happens when the marginal ones are no longer marginal. And this Old Testament understanding of justice is fully embodied in Jesus, who was very concerned with those who were on the margins of society, those who were vulnerable and exploited by people who had the power, and in many cases, Western Christendom has been more about law and power than justice and service.

This can also be teased out to include all who have ever come to Jesus for salvation (the forgiveness of one’s sin and being declared right before God). We are all marginalized because of our brokenness, cut off from God, but because of God’s mercy and love for us, Jesus became one of us, to once and for all, deal with the rebellion and tyranny that we created, both internally and externally. God brought justice to humanity through the advent, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The righteous demands of the law, or in other words, the legal expression of God’s justice, were satisfied when Christ was put to death and suffered the torment of separation from God, in our place. In simpler terms, it is because the “just” paid for the “unjust,” that we can be granted mercy and grace as people on the margins, and be brought near to God (no longer making our home in the margins).

This is justice, which flies in the face of a Western view of justice, condemns all of us, if we indeed held ourselves to the standard of justice that we hold others to. Justice does not make sense to a world committed to the four P’s: power, progress, profit, and pursuit of happiness, and within this world view, many forms of churches in the West have been engrafted.

When we see injustice happening in our city, it usually means that we will have to miss out on one or all of the four P’s if we’re going to stand against it. There’s no money in it for those who want to plead the case of the widow, feed and clothe the naked, or stand against oppressive systems and structures that abuse and exploit the weak. Actually, downward mobility is to be expected if one is going to give their lives to this kind of justice, and it’s hard to build a church when downward mobility is one of the chief engines of church growth. This new ethos must be present in the renewal of the Western church.

The result of living a life of justice in the biblical sense in our 21st century Western society, most of the time, means that we lose ground on the four P’s of our culture and this is not very attractive, at least not long term. To see renewal happen in churches then, I am convinced that we will need an uprising of men and women who are willing to not be controlled by the P’s within the old institutional church model, and begin courageously living as an alternative community in the midst of our over-indulgences and commitments to the bottom line and financial sustainability of church business.

This will not be an easy lot for the pioneers of renewal, but justice has never been an easy virtue to live by. After all, justice on God’s part was very costly. The promise of comfort is very seductive, especially when faced with needed changes in lifestyle to begin standing against injustice. Ultimately, justice will always prevail, with or without us, but we do have a choice to get in on the fight for “justice.” It’s not attractive nor easy these days to stand for what is just and right, nor is it always clear what we should be fighting for.

I hope in this short article I gave you the beginnings of a blueprint with which to pray and meditate about what justice looks life in your life and among those around you. We are living within a contemporary Christian culture that has lost much of the ancient orthodox faith that has painstakingly been passed down to us and made Christian worship more about events, projects, and business, but not justice. I believe this “norm” must be renewed to have not just a biblical view of justice, but a biblical life of lived justice.

Street Dwellers

It’s been a while since I’ve consistently walked to my appointments downtown, mostly because of insane heat (wisdom has a way of getting through every now and then). However, today I ignored wisdom, and felt it was time to brave the heat and embrace the sweat. So I walked to the meetings I had today, and, as usual, whenever I slow down and stop the hurry of life, I encounter people and see them through new lenses.

I was walking south on Central just south of McDowell when I encountered a band of street dwellers. They were full of energy and very outgoing.

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As I smiled and nodded a culturally acceptable “hello” to them, the gal in the pony tail (in the back of the picture) said to me, “Hey, what are you carrying that camera around for?”

I told them, “I have a blog and I like to tell stories of people in Phoenix. You guys want a group photo?”

Surprisingly, they all agreed and assembled very quickly for a family photo, and as they did, they said, “You can’t get our beers in the picture though.” They were all sharing two 40’s (that’s slang for 40 ounces of beer) wrapped in a sock, to keep them cool of course.

I said, “That’s alright… just get in there for a group picture. You’re going to be famous.”

Then the tall guy in the Nike shirt, his name is Dallas, said to me, “I’m already famous.” Then he  said, “I’m famous with the man upstairs. He’s the only reason I can wake up every morning and keep living.”

“Alright bro,” I said, and I gave him a high-five and told him to keep looking to Him.

Right at that moment, the light rail horn sounded off, it was coming, and they were in a hurry to leave. Then I said, “You guys look like a great family. Where you guys from?”

Then the same gal who asked why I was carrying around the camera said to me, “We’re homeless. Make sure people know that not all homeless people are bad.” She said it again as she was walking away quickly to catch the light rail. I said, “Will do!” (while I gave her a thumbs up).

Not sure what their lives look like day to day (I have my ideas), but today, the glimpse I got was one of correction that led to compassion.

Correction: Don’t have a single story of street dwellers. The term “homeless” is a bad term. They have a home, it just so happens to be bigger and less convenient than most of ours, and people ought never to be defined as homeless. Home is not always a physical structure.

Compassion: I am praying for street dwellers in a new way today as they navigate the street life, and I wanted to write this blog to allow some of to look at a snapshot of people who live radically different from us and suffer in ways that most of us never do, granted, some of their suffering is self-induced, but not all. We can say that when we stop having single stories of people. Not all street dwellers are bad.

Weekly @Switchfoot Song: Home

Home. I’m currently reading a book called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, and it is bringing out so much more from this song than it used. This is song # 5 on Switchfoot’s first album (The Legend of Chin) which talks about longing for home, a place to belong. Here’s the lyrics:

It’s a long way from Miami to LA
It’s a longer way from yesterday
To where I am today

It’s a long way from my thoughts
To what I’ll say
It’s a long, long way from paradise
To where I am today

All that’s in my head
Is in Your hands

It’s a long way from
The moon up to the sun
It’s a longer road ahead of me
The road that I’ve begun

Stop to think of all the
Time I’ve lost
Start to think of all the
Bridges that I’ve burned
That must be crossed

Over, over, over
Take me over

I’ve been poison
I’ve been rain
I’ve been fooled again

I’ve seen ashes
Shine like chrome
Someday I’ll see home

Home, home

I can see the stars
From way down here
But I can’t fall asleep
Behind the wheel

It’s a long way from the
Shadows in my cave
Up to Your reality to
Watch the sunlight taking over

Over, over, over
Take me over

I’ve been poison
I’ve been rain
I’ve been fooled again

I’ve seen ashes
Shine like chrome
Someday I’ll see home

This is a “gut” honest song. Confession you can call it, or maybe transparency, or both. “I’ve been poison, I’ve been rain…” Feelings of despair creep in so fast sometimes in life, especially when we make stupid decisions and get “fooled again” with the lust of this world, and the fraudulent beauty that lures us all in to destruction. Many times in life, I’ve felt a long way from home (physically and emotionally). I’ve felt displaced often. I am in a season of displacement (or one could call it homelessness). Things have been uprooted and what was home, familiar, safe… has changed. But it’s often in these season of life when we notice the “stars” from the bottom of our “caves” that we’ve been locked in (or that we’ve locked ourselves in). It’s in the darkness of the cave where we cling to the only thing we can… HOPE.

Hope. Home. As long as we have breath, we have the hope of going home. And in this sense, I mean home with God. To the “place” we’ve always longed for, where our deepest desires are met in one person, one being. Home is where you aren’t supposed to be fooled anymore. Home is the place you aren’t supposed to be worried about being accepted. Home is supposed to be a safe place. It’s a place where the vision of ashes can be seen as chrome (a metaphor for beauty). It’s a place where our sin can be forgiven. It’s a place where rivers of life and peace rush back into our souls.

This is the home I long for, and it’s the kind of home I long to offer (at least in glimpses) to my wife and kids and friends and family. A taste of home happens on this earth when we start being honest about where we are at, what we have done, and ask for help. It’s at this place where we will experience home; grace, forgiveness, mercy, peace. Home can be seen as a house, a neighborhood, a church, as family members, a city, or a country; but all these things have one thing in common… they can be taken from us, and when that happens, we become displaced, homeless, and we are found in a dark cave, longing once a gain for the hope of true reality with God. Home.

Just Tryin’ to Find a Way to Eat

IMG_0825This is Juan. I walked by him today while I was downtown and I asked him what he’s up to today, and he said, “Just tryin’ to find a way to eat man.” Then he asked me if I had any change. I gave him the change I had in my pocket. Some people make a commitment not to give money to guys like Juan because they are afraid they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. I normally feel that way too, but today when I encountered Juan (who was alone on a crowded street), I was reminded that Jesus gave much more to me, and he ‘knew’ I would waste much of it on things that brought death to my soul. So I thought to myself, “I’ll trust Juan with 89 cents and hope he puts it towards food. If not, it’s on him.”

Anything Helps

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First thing he told me when I asked him if I can take his photo was, “I’m you’re guy.” He went on to confess to me that he’s a heroin addict and showed me his arms with scars from the needles. He also said that he used to be a carpenter, but can’t find work anymore. I told him that I am on a journey to capture images of people; rich, poor, young, old, and colorful. I told him that his life has meaning; that he has something to share with people; and that he is not defined by a single snapshot of his life. He loved that I wanted a picture of him with his cardboard sign even though it had some of his blood on it with his greasy holding it. His words were actually, “That’s the sh*t man!”

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He left me with a smile and said that he’ll never forget this day. His sign was truthful: Anything did help. Looks like he needed a friend today more than anything else, and to be reminded that his life isn’t a ‘single’ story called homeless man.