Panoramic justice

Principal author:
John L. Clark


Panoramic views—where we strive to see both broadly and bravely—of both the destruction that we wreak on the world as well as the beauty of a potentially just world are each astonishing, although in quite different ways. Understanding the first can help us work for and teach effectively about the second.

We don't know exactly how Jesus talked with His Father on those occasions when He would retreat to a mountain. Matthew wrote simply that “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23), and beyond that we cannot pierce this divine intimacy. Other moments with Him on a mountain are definitive, where it becomes imperative that we see clearly. When the Lord was transfigured to reveal His full glory, the faith of the Father in His Son was also fully displayed (cf. Matthew 17:1–8). That moment of glory was a promise; we must now manifest what we first glimpsed there, on the mountain.

Even just physically, being on a mountain inspires awe. Mountain pinnacles provide glorious, spectacular views of the entire surrounding world. Perhaps such a panoramic vista seems so beautiful because it provides such a broad perspective on that world; it looms large, and we seem to recede, cradled between vast sky above and expansive Earth below. Is it possible to gain a similar perspective on the flow of events in the world? Are we even willing to see with that much clarity? Here, instead of with the mountaintop, we often yearn to remain close to specific scenes within this panorama, to focus in on our particular concerns. We worry about our families, or our surrounding area, or a specific issue that has seized our attention. As a church community, though, we need to make sure that our work makes sense when taken as a whole, that we are in fact contributing to panoramic justice.

Perhaps from my earthy analogy you can discern that I have an affinity for environmental issues. I was—and remain—shocked to learn about the effects of environmental destruction.[1] A basic but useful primer for consciousness here is to consider what we—people—consume and what we produce (and where it goes), as well as the trends in the scale of those streams. Consider any one thing that we use casually right now and examine how much we used that thing, say, fifty or a hundred years ago. For example, in 1995 the world produced about 1.4 billion metric tons of cement. In 1945 the world produced about 45 million metric tons, and in 1895 the world produced about 22 thousand metric tons. (Perhaps you can take a guess how much cement we produced recently; I leave it as an easy exercise to find the actual figure.) As emotionally jarring as this awareness can be, it should naturally lead to a question. Why have we done this (and why do we continue with such abandon)?

It may be instructive to repeat this exercise for other consumer items, particularly things we take for granted. In truth, we should not take anything for granted; the point here is that everything deserves careful examination. We should look at where these things originate, the processes that deliver them to us, the trajectory of the magnitude of our consumption, and, critically, the social mechanisms that enshrine and serve these ends.

One reason we conceive of an environment is to mentally separate ourselves from it. Thus we can exploit it, for we covet the wealth and power that it can provide us. From the recent past through the present, for example, nearly everything that we enjoy is facilitated by fossil fuels. Of course, our environment is not really separate from the world as a whole, and neither is our greed limited to what we can take from this environment; in noticing this we climb a good way up the mountain.

Our greed knows no limits. With brutal quickness, it spills over onto other people when they get in the way of taking what we want, at which point we invent ideas about these others to enable us to take from them directly. We so often want power, land, and other forms of wealth, and it is for these that we attack and kill others in war, or in exploitative violence (or a credible threat of such violence) on more intimate scales. This is often managed through some form of justification, commonly including devaluing others (which appears as racism and sexism, among other forms), striving perpetually for progress, or by setting up these others as a threat from whom we need protection. These techniques are often combined.[2] To take these steps is to seize control of our own reality and our own salvation, and thus it is to appropriate the role of God for ourselves. This is prohibited, for increasingly obvious reasons.

When looking at the vista of panoramic justice, there are additional useful tools for understanding what we see. What do people expect, or even hope, will save them? Stay alert for very explicit language about salvation. Whatever—or whomever—we expect will save us is what we worship. In some cases this source of expectation or hope will come back to some quality that we seek in ourselves, such as innovation or strength, and this goes back to setting ourselves up as replacements for God.

Instead of falling into despair under the weight of the reality of these sins, it is vital to remember that repentance and forgiveness—taken together, reconciliation—are an explicit gift from God (cf. Matthew 6:14), and they empower us to be free of seeking to personally atone for these grievances, which is impossible. Instead, truly embracing this reconciliation means that we rejoice in having the burden lifted, and thus we cannot but desire and strive for justice (cf. Matthew 5:6). Indeed, Jesus supplied this complete message in his call to “[r]epent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The vista of panoramic justice looks very different from the world we currently inhabit. Jesus called this vista the kingdom of God, and He invited everyone to this entirely new way of living (cf. Matthew 6:33). In some of his parables, Jesus describes this new world as worthy of complete commitment, giving up everything from our old world out of our passion for the new (cf. Matthew 13:44–46). Life in this new world is stunningly beautiful and joyous! I pray that we may experience it together in its full splendor, as from the summit of a mountain, looking out into a world ordered not by our sin, but rather by the will of the Father, who orders all things rightly.


For example, many in the environmental justice community have been focused recently on the Alberta Tar Sands exploitation; Garth Lenz gives a viscerally visual and emotional overview of the destructiveness of this exploitation in his presentation The true cost of oil.


Reflecting on panoramic justice will hopefully bridge different movements for justice, such as environmental justice, social justice, and economic justice, by exposing the way in which sin ramifies into a broad and deep pattern of related destructive consequences.

This page was first published on 2012-03-21 22:45-05:00.

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