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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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The Lonely Avenue of Integrity

March 26, 2012

Odds are that through the years trusted elders have offered you sage wisdom such as, "Wrong is wrong; and, there ain't no right way to do wrong." Or maybe, particularly amongst the dutifully Protestant, you have heard the admonition to "tell the truth and shame the devil." Either way, there is no doubting that we often live as though there indeed is a right way to do wrong and also that deceit pleases God, as silly as that sounds. I, for one, have been in and observed too many situations where the delineations between right and wrong were undeniable, clear as night and day. No ambiguity existed about the situation, nor the injustice contained therein. It was abundantly clear who acted justly, mercifully, and walked humbly with God[1] and who was a ravenous wolf.[2] It was a simple case of good versus evil.

Yet, unfortunately in many of these situations I have witnessed those who champion Christ as the sin qua non ("that without which there is nothing"), themselves called to a life of righteousness, who have stood motionless in terror on the sidelines of life as injustice reared its ugly head. Oh, of course, they may send an anonymous text-message or departing e-mail of regret to the employee who was released for refusing to shuck and jive his or her way into supposed significance. "We wish ________ well.", the letter from corporate said. They may gossip about how what happened was terribly wrong and express their frustration or shame that violations of its kind have happened before. They may follow nightly news stories that chronicle the lives that are discarded like used cigarettes, and while they grieve for the families they are never inspired to do anything to combat the injustice.

Perhaps many of them are well-meaning, but in the vicissitude of mayhem they embrace moral purgatory. Ignorance may be bliss, but being neutral in the face of wrong is as sinful as the injustice itself. In this way, one might say that neutrality is sin's accomplice. The eighth-century prophet Isaiah has words of warning for this state of mind: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."[3] And this brings the story of Judah and Tamar comes to mind. Give it a whirl in Genesis 38 the next time you find yourself in need of a cozy biblical drama.

In short, as scandalous as they come, Judah slept with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Of course, Tamar had deliberately set out to ensnare Judah by posing as a prostitute. She wanted him to sleep with her, which he did, so that she could then uncover his hypocrisy. In refusing to arrange her marriage to his third son, Shelah, after his other two sons died, Judah had denied her what customarily was hers. Judah's homeboy, Hirah, was there, too. We don't know that he was there through every step exactly, but we can reasonably conclude that Hirah was silent through Judah's wicked conduct, as he sought to exploit at every turn. When you really think about it, no one in the story had much in the way of integrity and Hirah was basically an errand boy. Some say that it is best to go along to get along, but English novelist and writer, George Orwell once shared this insight: "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." Doing the right thing is not popular and likely never will be, but it is always better than the alternative.

"Now my room has got two windows, but the sunshine never comes through."

Although also recorded by Ray Charles, Van Morrison, and Louis Armstrong, I am partial to Stephen Marley's rendition of "Lonely Avenue." An introspective ditty expressing grief over a failed proposal, this song that I love so much speaks powerfully to one of my biggest struggles--taking integrity seriously, which I do, is a weighty cross to bear. It is no doubt the road less traveled, yet a required path if the world is to see the results of the Redeemer in the lives on the redeemed. Standing up for right is no easy task, but integrity is about adhering to certain principles no matter the risk of loss. In the life of a Christian this ought to stem from the biblical revelation of Christ, reinforced with the experience of God's steadfast character.

I sometimes find little kids to be more authentic, more upstanding than adults, so you can give me a roomful of five-year-olds any day. They don't know much about integrity specifically, but the innocence of their age often gives them a sense of honesty and vulnerability that grown-ups could sure benefit from. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Strength to Love, "We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty."[4] We are reminded in Proverbs 19:1, "Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a fool whose lips are perverse." I understand temperance, caution, and discretion, but ultimately inaction to the evil that we see around us renders us co-conspirators and thus co-defendants in eternity's courtroom. Integrity is shaped by how we choose to respond to the inevitable good, bad, and ugly of this earthly sojourn. It is not honed in the comforts of one's cubicle or home office, but in doing right as wrong stares you down like a playground bully.

"I live on a lonely avenue."

Jesus knows this best of all, but becoming integrity's companion won't make you a celebrity. It isn't likely to score you hordes of new Facebook friends or faithful followers on Twitter. Unless you know of a loophole that I don't, the IRS won't give you a tax break because you live righteously. In fact, I hear that they take money early and often from do-gooders first, just to make an example out them to the rest of Caesar's flock. If anything, living with integrity will be a big sacrifice on you personally, professionally, and in all other conceivable ways. It will be an isolating experience. Nevertheless, struggle as I may, I can tell you that there is an undeniable peace and protection that you will feel when, with the Spirit's guidance, you earnestly strive to stand for right knowing fully that wrong sits just around the corner ready to sell you a nickel bag of pain.

No one is asking you to change the world, just to be used by the One who already has.

"Someone hear me, Lord."


[1] Micah 6:8.
[2] Genesis 49:27, Matthew 7:15,
[3] Isaiah 5:20.
[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1977), 22.


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