Covered by the Blood
On a Saturday in September, 2013, one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in history took place in an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Four Gunman, part of the Al-Qaeda affiliate al Shabab, took the lives of 67 people, with over 200 injured. It was by all accounts a horrible disaster. But one story of the shooting ended up receiving media attention. It was the story of a young mother named Sneha Kothair-Mashru. Sneha was at the mall having coffee with a friend when the gunfire began.
Having dropped to the floor she heard a cell-phone going off near her. Not wanting the gunmen to come closer, she reached under the person next to her to silence the phone. It was at this point that she realized the man next to her was bleeding heavily.
“When I put my hand under him that’s when I realized that this guy had been shot because he was bleeding,” she told NBC News. “He was bleeding heavily. There was a lot of blood there.”
At this point, the woman made a difficult, life-changing decision. She decided to smear the blood of the man on her own body, in hopes that the terrorists would assume she was dead and they would “pass over” her body.
Her grisly camouflage probably saved this woman’s life.
“I’d love to know who he was, because I think his blood protected me, saved my life,” she said.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from NBC News,
The Etymology of Justification
Justification is a legal or forensic term, belonging to the law courts. Its opposite is condemnation. Both are the pronouncements of a judge. In a Christian context they are the alternative eschatological verdicts which God the judge may pass on judgment day. So when God justifies sinners today, he anticipates his own final judgment by bringing into the present what belongs properly to the last day.
Equivocating on Promises: Pierre from Tolstoy’s War & Peace
In this excellent little character study, Tolstoy describes the inner monologue of the chacter Pierre from War & Peace, who is able to justify and convince himself that a promise made to avoid the hedonistic charms of gambling and partying was in fact, rendered useless by an earlier promise. The excerpt is an excellent example of the kind of reasoning we often use to justify sinful behavior.
“On the way Pierre remembered that Anatole Kurágin was expecting the usual set for cards that evening, after which there was generally a drinking bout, finishing with visits of a kind Pierre was very fond of. “I should like to go to Kurágin’s,” thought he. But he immediately recalled his promise to Prince Andrew not to go there. Then, as happens to people of weak character, he desired so passionately once more to enjoy that dissipation he was so accustomed to that he decided to go.
The thought immediately occurred to him that his promise to Prince Andrew was of no account, because before he gave it he had already promised Prince Anatole to come to his gathering; “besides,” thought he, “all such ‘words of honor’ are conventional things with no definite meaning, especially if one considers that by tomorrow one may be dead, or something so extraordinary may happen to one that honor and dishonor will be all the same!” Pierre often indulged in reflections of this sort, nullifying all his decisions and intentions. He went to Kurágin’s.”
There is a television show that has one of those beginnings that stick with you long after you’ve seen it. And it starts like this…A man, dressed like a cowboy enters an ultra sleek Miami club, looking completely out of place but seeming not to mind. He sits down next to this character, a hardened criminal, and goes on to remind him that he has two minutes to leave the city, otherwise he is going to usher him not just out of Miami but out of this world.
There is this showdown where the criminal tries to feel his way around the lawman…is he serious, will he actually shoot him in broad daylight? Finally, just as the two minutes are about to be up the criminal pulls his gun, but unfortunately for him, not as quickly as the officer, and three bullets are enough to end his life.
This understandingly doesn’t go over well with the marshal’s superiors and he is quickly transferred to the backwaters of Kentucky, also known as his former hometown…you can imagine he is not too happy about this…
While de-briefing with his new boss, the question of the shooting comes up. The officer provides a confident, if not curt response:
“He pulled first, I was justified”
And out of that line comes the title for the show, as Raylan Givens, the federal marshal continues his career, using his position to deal justice to bad men, even if at times that means crossing a line or two. Nevertheless, in the back of his mind, and definitely in ours as the viewers, is whether or not his actions truly are justified, even if the people he deals with are often rotten to the core. Does there badness warrant his provocations, his willingness to gloss over rules and regulations to put them away (in jail or this world). In other words, were his actions just?
And can’t you boil down most of our lives down to this truth: we are constantly trying to justify our behavior? To justify our decisions?
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The One Thing Going For Us
As for Christians, well, we really have just one thing going for us. We have publicly declared… that we are desperately in need of Another to give us his righteousness, to complete us, to live in us. We have publicly and flagrantly abandoned the project of self-justification that is at the heart of every person’s compulsion to manage perceptions…
This means telling the world-before the world does its own investigative journalism—that we’re not as bad as they think sometimes. We’re worse…If we’re being honest about our own beauty and brokenness, the beautiful broken One will make himself known to our neighbors.
Persuading Ourselves of the Truth
When we observe evil, sinful behavior from a distance, the inclination is simply to see people as acting with malicious intent. We assume they are “bad people.” But often the motivations that lead to significant lapses in moral behavior are quite different. Because most people want to see themselves generally as “good,” they engage in a complex game of rationalizing and self-deception that enables them to perform these sinful acts. Over time, what starts as a set of questionable lies we tell ourselves becomes capital T “Truth.” An excellent example of this from history took place during the Watergate scandal. In an interview from 1975, the whistleblower of Watergate, John Dean, explains just how this worked with those involved in the scandal:
INTERVIEWER: You mean those who made up the stories were believing their own lies?
DEAN: That’s right. If you said it often enough, it would become true. When the press learned of the wire taps on newsmen and White House staffers, for example, and flat denials failed, it was claimed that this was a national-security matter. I’m sure many people believed that the taps were for national security; they weren’t. That was concocted as a justification after the fact. But when they said it, you understand, they really believed it.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson was known as a master at the game of self-justification. His biographer, Robert Caro, described what would happen when Johnson came to believe something to be true, he would believe in it “totally, with absolute conviction, regardless of previous beliefs, or of the facts in the matter.”
George Reedy, an aide who witnessed the same behavior, described LBJ as having “had a remarkable capacity to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past. It was not an act … He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the ‘truth’ which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.”
Stuart Strachan Jr, with Source Material from John Dean, interview by Barbara Cady, January 1975; Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.886.
The Power of Justification
There are few words in any language that can equal dikaiosis for theological depth and resonance. It has been at the center of scholarly debate for centuries. Known largely as “justification,” it is still a key word in ecumenical discussion. Yet we have great difficulty in translating it into English. We need to absorb the teaching of Austin Farrer, who wrote, “God has no attitudes which are not actions; the two things are one.”
When a reader of the Bible discovers that the verb translated “justify” and the nouns “justification,” “righteousness,” and “justice” are the same word, the effect on that reader’s understanding can be revolutionary.
Ernst Käsemann opened up a new understanding of the term dikaiosis, traditionally translated “justification,” that continues to bear fruit into the twenty-first century. In his groundbreaking essay “The Righteousness of God in Paul,” he shows that God’s dikaiosyne is not an attribute but a power, namely, “a power that brings salvation to pass.” Thus, “righteousness” does not mean moral perfection.
…It is not a distant, forbidding characteristic of God that humans are supposed to try to emulate or imitate; there is no good news in that. Instead, the righteousness of God is God’s powerful activity of making right what is wrong in the world. When we read, in both Old and New Testaments, that God is righteous, we are to understand that God is at work in his creation doing right. He is overcoming evil, delivering the oppressed, raising the poor from the dust, vindicating the voiceless victims who have had no one to defend them.