Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Fairness Doctrine

Dad and I are co-teaching a Wednesday night Bible study out of one of Max Lucado's books, The Great House of God. It's an examination of our relationship with God, using the Lord's Prayer as text and the metaphor of a house to examine different aspects of God.

Dad's part a couple of weeks ago was on the phrase "Hallowed be thy name". The gist of the lesson was respect for God, and being reverent. The text he used was the Book of Job, where Job makes the unfortunate mistake of asking questions of God at a time when God is prepared to answer. A humbling experience, as it turns out.

There's a lot about the Book of Job that "isn't fair". All his children die, his life's work is destroyed, all he's left with is a fairly unhelpful wife and three friends who are sure that Job brought the destruction on himself. I'm not sure we're far beyond Job's friends, many times as Western-educated people born of the Enlightnement and a rational worldview we assume a cause if an effect is noted. Even spiritually, it's hard for us to understand that bad things do happen to good people. Innocent children get cancer or have rotten parents, sometimes good parents die in car crashes or accidental drug overdoses or mysterious, lethal illnesses. So many unfair things seem to happen, at least they seem unfair to us.

This is such a common complaint with the people I discuss things with on the Internet. There is a burning desire to "make things fair", and what's interesting is how mutable the concept of 'fair' is depending on your position. Is fairness of outcome more important, or fairness of opportunity? There's one person who seems like a very committed 'social justice' Christian, and I can't help but marvel at what this good-hearted person considers fairness. As if it's a Godly requirement to support the increase of government-issued social benefits, rather than an individual responsibility to tend to the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor. I'm pretty sure their heart is in the right place, but it's wrong in my opinion to equate justice with fairness, and to consider that making the world fair through the support of one political opinion or another is the same as seeking God's Justice. The social Darwinists of the right don't come across much better but then most of them don't claim a moral imperative from God for their parsimony, either.

Another complaint of the left is that it's not fair that Westerners are so wealthy and those in the Third World so poor. An apparent lack of fairness in terms of equal distribution implies that the rules haven't been followed -- if it's not fair, someone must have cheated. And even if it's not the present generation that has cheated, all the inequity and unfairness in the world is pretty much due to white people exploiting other people. If fairness is your measuring stick, then yes, the world is unfair. And if the world is unfair, since everything should be fair (everybody just knows this, though there's little evidence for it), the search begins for the guilty party and the reparations are totalled up and an indigant bill submitted.

This concept of fairness is rather deeply ingrained, from early childhood. And for people that are determined to seek fairness in all things rather than God's mercy and justice, it's pretty easy to follow the Fair Fairy well off the straight and narrow. Because 'fair' is subjective, and flexible. For instance, it's fair for Al Gore to emit more carbon than some entire African towns because he's educating the rest of us, even though it's not fair for the average American to emit as much CO2 as we do. Al gets a pass, because...well, just because. Suddenly what is cut-and-dried fair is now a two-tier system of fairness: one for you enviro-sinners and one for a guy with a slide show and an Oscar. Some animals are more equal than others, and "fairness" is now no more of a guideline than any other, yet we sometimes hold to it like DiCaprio clinging to the door at the end of Titanic.

And so it got me thinking about fairness, and whether we can ever achieve fairness. I really don't think so, because fairness, despite its appeal to the objective, is inherently subjective. If you don't believe me, hang out with some five year-olds. If you want to see a discussion of fairness in action, give a group of them an unequal amount of some goody, and you'll get an immediate discussion of fairness. Scratch a kid and you'll find a lawyer underneath. Fairness is an unachievable externality, the only fairness we can hope to achieve on our own in this life is within ourselves, in the way we deal with others, and between our own ears. Even that requires constant evaluation of our motives and a careful ear toward our conscience. I certainly fail in this regard on a regular basis, and I'd be surprised if most of us don't manage to meet even our own definition of 'fairness' from time to time.

When it comes to Job, who had probably the best claim in the Bible to being treated unfairly, God is right there with the answer. God utterly destroys Job's claim of unfairness by pointing out how much Job doesn't know, how little he understands, Job's lack of divine perspective. Job to his credit, admits his mistake and shuts his mouth in the face of God's superior knowledge, and in faith with God's Justice (and more importantly at that particular time, God's Mercy). Job is a man of God, and manages to silence his inner five year-old. But the imperative to fairness runs deep, and it's hard to squelch. Some people in our society don't even try to stop it, it's a way of living for them. "That's Not Fair" is such a common rallying cry, and establishing fairness is justification for many things people otherwise might not do without the tug of making things fair. Selfishness is always present, fairness turbocharges selfishness by providing justification.

As Dad was discussing the difference between our fairness and God's justice, it got me thinking about The Judgement, the division between the faithful and the faithless. God divides the people, and the fact that God's been watching is a surprise to both groups. The sheep on the right hand, headed for Heaven and Eternal Life with God are just as surprised as the goats on the left, headed for Eternal separation. Both of them say, "When did we serve you, Lord?" and the answer is almost word-for-word the same to each. Equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcome. The decision is God's, made by his divine sense of justice and mercy.

That got me wondering about the Last Battle from Revelation, when Satan's forces and God's collide, and Satan eventually loses. Who is going to pick up a weapon and fight the God of the Universe alongside Satan? And I finally got the answer: people who, in the face of God's justice, will say, "That's Not Fair!" The concept of fairness, misused, is the key that unlocks selfishness instead of Godliness, self-righteousness instead of God's righteousness. Fairness is mutable, and mutability is a wonderful opportunity for The Deceiver to slip in and provide ultimately unhelpful suggestions.

This of course presupposes that something of our lives here accompanies us to the afterlife, and while I have little in the way of Biblical reference to support this, the story of Lazarus and the poor man suggests that maybe there is. I believe this life is an opportunity to get ready for the next, to bend and shape our souls into the kind of people that are ready to live in their Father's House. Not that salvation is to be earned, nobody can do that, but that as we grow closer to God and understand more of what His nature is, we'll be ever more at home in the next environment. If what accompanies you into the afterlife is a belief in fairness without a sense of God, a demand for fairness that supercedes the knowledge of your place relative to God's that Job understands at the end of the book, then I can certainly see someone committed to fairness trying to lock horns with God's justice, and being mad enough to fight about it.

Fairness is overrated. As a guiding force for public policy or personal living, it's not reliable.

I'd much rather have mercy.


Brian Cole said...

Your in-depth post about "fairness" left me wondering: why is there an afterlife?

I never understood why an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Creator would have the need for an afterlife. The concept of a reward for a good life of faith & actions seems (to me anyway) like a human fictionalization.

Wouldn't life itself be enough of a divine gift and therefore also be its own reward?

Please tolerate my basic argument. I was raised as a Christian by my Methodist family and through Catholic schooling; however, I haven't subscribed to religion as an adult. If I had to pinpoint why, I don't know if I could other than to say it just never appealed to me.

Nevertheless, I find the topic of religion fascinating and enjoy discussing it intricacies with those whom have studied and practiced their faith.

Thanks, Darren!

Anonymous said...

Good speech... justice is certainly a two edged concept. Most when hearing or reading of a particular "justice" event think -- well, he had it coming....

Mr.Munny (Eastwood) said it best... "We all got it coming, kid"

DSD(The travel size Duvall)