Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is Life Fair? A Sermon

Is Life Fair?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 14, 2011

But something more I have seen on the earth:
at the very seat of justice there is wickedness;
in the very place where righteousness should be,
there is transgression.

Then I looked again and saw all the oppression
that was taking place on the earth.
See the endless tears of the oppressed
for whom no one provides comfort!
Since their oppressors wield all the power,
no one can ease their suffering.

If you witness social oppression of the poor—
the denial of justice and human rights—
do not be astonished at what goes on.
it’s because one bureaucrat is subject to a higher one,
and still higher ones lord it over them both.
and remember that land is of value to everybody,
so every cultivated field has someone ruling over it.

Indeed I have seen wrong-doers buried with pomp;
and because they frequented the holy place
they were praised in the very city where they did their evil deeds.
This also makes no sense.

Wherever judgment for evil deeds is not carried out promptly,
people’s minds are filled with ideas of crime,
and a malefactor may commit a hundred crimes and live a long life.
Oh yes, I know what they say:
“It will be well for those who fear God,
and show reverence before him;
and it will not be well for the wicked,
for their days will not lengthen like a shadow
simply because they show no reverence before God.”
But what occurs here on the earth is absurd.
Some righteous people get what the wicked deserve,
and some wicked people get what the righteous deserve!
This too, I say, makes no sense at all.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 3:16; 4:1; 5:8-9; 8:10-15


Is life fair?

Probably not.

It doesn’t take much observation to come to the conclusion that things are not equal on Earth. As Qoheleth said long ago:
Some righteous people get what the wicked deserve,
and some wicked people get what the righteous deserve!
It wasn’t until seminary that I learned why Christians developed the doctrine of Resurrection. It had little to do with life after death. It was about justice. The point being that there is precious little justice on Earth. Human lifespans are not long enough for humans to get what’s coming to them. Resurrection was invented so that we could take comfort that if God can’t reward the righteous for their faithfulness in this life, at least they will be rewarded in the life to come.

As this tradition developed, it also accounted for the judgment on the wicked. Contemplating the fate of the wicked became even more thrilling than the fate of the righteous. If you look at medieval paintings of hell they are far more imaginative and exciting than paintings of heaven.

Our enduring religions wrestle with and most attempt to provide an answer for the vexing problem of injustice. The problem is solved for the most part by having that which survives our bodies suffer reward or punishment via resurrection or karma. That is not to say that notions of karma, resurrection, or the flight of the soul do not have reality to them. I am agnostic regarding such speculations, but they do serve to solve the justice/injustice problem.

Religion has largely answered the question, “Is life fair?” by saying,
“No. But hang with us and you’ll get justice in the life to come.”
This is no small hope. Many thinkers and fighters for justice have made that hope more nuanced. For them it isn’t simply one or the other, either justice in heaven or none at all. These thinkers have taken the language of heavenly hope and placed it in the struggle for justice on Earth.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said,
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Many of the struggles for justice in this world, whether for civil rights, for fair economic policies, for justice in courtrooms, for justice against tyrants, or for justice on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable whoever and wherever they may be, puts its hope in a trust that the cause of justice is larger than those who fight for it.

The forces of injustice are strong. In fact, overwhelming. It is easy to get discouraged. As Qoheleth wrote:
Then I looked again and saw all the oppression
that was taking place on the earth.
See the endless tears of the oppressed
for whom no one provides comfort!
Since their oppressors wield all the power,
no one can ease their suffering.
Qoheleth came to that conclusion without the benefit of 24 hour news from around the world that highlighted pain, ignorance, atrocity, and meanness at the speed of light.

Life is not fair. In Qoheleth’s words,
“It makes no sense at all.”
But I think there is another reason why we have religion and why we have developed notions of justice, resurrection, karma and so forth in the first place.

The hope of justice…the hope that inspires people to risk and to sacrifice and to persevere in the face of great odds is real.

It is lodged somewhere within us. It is part of our DNA of survival.

The very language of justice is our language. We created it. Compassion and fairness not only for ourselves or for our kin but for others not related to us and for our non-human relations are all a part of what makes us alive.
  • We aren’t fully human until and unless we weep over injustice and feel its sting.
  • We aren’t fully human until and unless we allow ourselves to trust in the hope that we can relieve that sting.
The world is cold. The world is dark. People suffer.

So what do we do?

We become human beings. We discover within us that combination of compassion and sheer orneriness that enables us both to feel the hurt and to discover the grit to do something about it.

We are reaching a point of limits all over Earth in all areas of life or almost all areas. We are reaching our peak of energy and other natural resources. Some are suggesting that we have reached the peak of economic growth. None of this is apocalyptic in and of itself. There are many things we can do. We can learn to live within our means. We can face our situation squarely and with cooperation and collaboration work to make our communities resilient and sustainable. We can develop an ecological economics that focuses on quality of life, preservation of Earth, social justice, and simplicity.

Instead, at the national political level, we see a movement to balance budgets on the backs of the poor, the elderly, and the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the inequity between the obscenely wealthy and the poor and middle classes grows. Meanwhile, the world continues to militarize. If what Qoheleth said 23 centuries ago in Palestine was true then, it is most certainly true today:
If you witness social oppression of the poor—
the denial of justice and human rights—
do not be astonished at what goes on.
it’s because one bureaucrat is subject to a higher one,
and still higher ones lord it over them both.
and remember that land is of value to everybody,
so every cultivated field has someone ruling over it.
Is life fair?

No. But…

I said we have reached the point of limits all over Earth in almost all areas. We have not reached the limit in the most important areas.

We have not reached the limits of compassion. There is still plenty of compassion left on Earth. There are untapped reserves of compassion all over the globe.

We have not reached the limits of creativity. There are wells of creativity that we have not yet even discovered. There are many creative ways we can and will discover to manage our house, our home, Earth, for the good of all the inhabitants.

We have not reached the limits of grit and determination. Our species has survived these hundreds of thousands of years in large part because of grit and determination. We never give up.

Our literature, the stories we tell about each other, about our ancestors, and the mythologies we created about the gods, attest to the very qualities that will turn an unfair existence into an existence that while not wholly fair, has at least a bit of kindness to it and as such brings a smile amidst suffering and offers hope of a new day.

One individual who embraced compassion and orneriness was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She cared for the homeless and was an outspoken advocate for compassionate economics and for non-violence. She used her gifts as a writer to speak her truth.

On November 6th, 1965, at the age of 68, she gave the following speech at Union Square in New York on behalf of those who were burning their draft cards. She found in her religious practice, inspiration to take a controversial and dangerous position. It is her answer to, “Is life fair?”
[1] When Jesus walked this earth; True God and True man, and was talking to the multitudes, a woman in the crowd cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that bore you and the breast that nourished you.” And he answered her, “Yes, but rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

[2] And the word of God is the new commandment he gave us–to love our enemies, to overcome evil with good, to love others as he loved us–that is, to lay down our lives for our brothers throughout the world, not to take the lives of men, women, and children, young and old, by bombs and napalm and all the other instruments of war.

[3] Instead he spoke of the instruments of peace, to be practiced by all nations–to feed the hungry of the world,–not to destroy their crops, not to spend billions on defense, which means instruments of destruction. He commanded us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, to save lives, not to destroy them, these precious lives for whom he willingly sacrificed his own.

[4] I speak today as one who is old, and who must uphold and endorse the courage of the young who themselves are willing to give up their freedom. I speak as one who is old, and whose whole lifetime has seen the cruelty and hysteria of war in this last half century. But who has also seen, praise God, the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, and Latin America, achieving in many instances their own freedom through non-violent struggles, side by side with violence. Our own country has through tens of thousand of the Negroe [sic] people, shown an example to the world of what a non-violent struggle can achieve. This very struggle, begun by students, by the young, by the seemingly helpless, have led the way in vision, in courage, even in a martyrdom, which has been shared by the little children, in the struggle for full freedom and for human dignity which means the right to health, education, and work which is a full development of man’s god-given talents.

[5] We have seen the works of man’s genius and vision in the world today, in the conquering of space, in his struggle with plague and famine, and in each and every demonstration such as this one–there is evidence of his struggle against war.

[6] I wish to place myself beside A. J. Muste speaking, if I am permitted, to show my solidarity of purpose with these young men, and to point out that we too are breaking the law, committing civil disobedience, in advocating and trying to encourage all those who are conscripted, to inform their conscience, to heed the still small voice, and to refuse to participate in the immorality of war. It is the most potent way to end war.

[7] We too, by law, myself and all who signed the statement of conscience, should be arrested and we would esteem it an honour to share prison penalties with these others. I would like to conclude these few words with a prayer in the words of St. Francis, saint of poverty and peace, “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
That was Dorothy Day, filled with compassion and orneriness.

Is life fair?

No.

Qoheleth knew life made no sense at all.

But, he also knew something else. He knew that it is wise to live life, to enjoy what is possible, to enjoy life while we have the time to live it.

I think it is pretty amazing that we have consciousness and that we are here at this time in Earth’s history and in human history. I cannot imagine a more exciting adventure to undertake than the one in which we are engaged at the present.

We have available to us due to our clever technologies, information and ideas with the stroke of a key. I don’t know how long that will last but we have it now.

What will we do with it?

We can do a lot of things.

But if we ever are disillusioned about life, that it isn’t fair, then that disillusionment itself could be an opportunity.

We could do worse than to develop and nurture those twin gifts of compassion and orneriness, kindness and grit, and give ourselves over to making life a little bit more just, fair, and joyful for ourselves, for others, and for generations to come.

Amen.
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