That’s Not Fair

Posted on January 3, 2012

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Someone bilks someone else out of their home and seems to go scot-free. A marriage partner reneges on religious covenants and the church does nothing about it. A child is born with a rare condition that ravages her body and diminishes her experience of life. A business partner embezzles funds then moves out of the country, precluding all possibility of restitution. Election results are falsified, costing a good man who rightly won the seat he worked so hard to fill. A man loses all his children, his home, his fortunes, and his health.

Our first response is often “that’s not fair.” Life should not be unfair, we opine. We devise strategies to make it more fair. We enact laws to make people behave fairly with one another, to punish them if they do not, to restore to people what we can for their suffering. We tax and program, institutionalizing our determination to make life fair. Much of this is likely a good thing, preventing much unfairness from occurring, but I think we go too energetically in the wrong direction.

A concern with justice is a lack of faith in the inevitability of justice.

When we grow to the point that we trust the flow of life, realizing that frequently the justice we seek comes in deeper, more intractable ways than we might want, ways that we may eventually wish to moderate, even to those for whom we were sure justice should come sooner, we tend to shift toward mercy. When we know that justice is certain, we quit worrying about it and can focus on building people instead of hedging against them.

The home unfairly gained frequently brings greater problems. The untrue marriage partner often suffers more for his infidelity than any could have imagined. The germ, so virulent in the child, is destroyed in the face of people determined to eradicate it. The fleeing embezzler is a fugitive for the rest of her life. The political office, falsely gained, proves the very public downfall of the one who inhabits it. Loneliness, poverty, and illness cannot overpower one who has the vision to outlast it. With the maturity of time, nothing is more powerful than a patient perseverance, because justice always comes. When it does, for the sake of the people it eventually finds, we would often blunt its horrible force and celebrate even more its kind generosity.

It’s no coincidence that teens are preoccupied with fairness. Their ethical structure is largely built and they want the world to conform to this very appealing order. They want life to guarantee them that this rightness will be consistent enough to keep them safe and allow them to pursue their dreams. Their egos are growing and they sense their potential to be an actor and to influence events and people, to steer their life independently. What a wonderful confidence! It’s only possible, they believe, if the world is fair. In their view, mercy robs justice and threatens their freedom to act on their new-found self-confidence. They have the drive, but not the reserve, to sustain them through droughts of experience.

A concern with justice is a lack of faith in the power of mercy.

Somewhere in their subsequent growth, they begin to develop more matured views of fairness. The reality that sometimes people change more thoroughly, aligning themselves more permanently with our shared cultural ethical codes when they are immersed in the power of mercy than when bludgeoned with the club of immediate justice, has played out enough times that they begin to have faith in both mercy and justice. They develop patience for justice, knowing that the ultimate fairnesses unfold after others have been shown mercy, that the ultimate justice only comes when everyone has had every possible chance to do right. They know then that mercy must always precede justice, even while we acknowledge the inevitability of justice.

Justice is a given; mercy is a choice.

That choice informs our maturity, our power, and our eventual just end. Even absent a belief in God, of whatever description, people culturally believe in justice: we will receive based on what we put in. If we plant, we reap. If we work, we prosper. The scales of justice are viciously fair and unrelentingly working, even outside any conception of the character of a divine being. In a rigidly fair place, this grim view, this harsh dystopian world, is unfettered and unadorned by mercy. It fails to take into account the incredible power of people who give first, who nurture and watch over tender things, who educate about justice while showering mercy. These are the people who truly change the world, not those who are gifted but withdraw with their arms folded when they are not treated fairly. We have known for millennia that the traveler removes his coat faster when the sun bathes him than when the wind whips him.

I am speed-reading Atlas Shrugged, spending a bit of time acquainting myself more thoroughly with Rand’s objectivism, and finding it almost as partly true and frighteningly incomplete an analysis of the way things are as  Marxism. While I agree that coerced altruism will eventually cause a society to self-destruct, I can’t understand why, to her, voluntary altruism isn’t embraced as the way societies prosper in perpetuity.

I am a Christian, and like all monotheistic believers, I accept a redeemer. For me, that redeemer is Christ, and I believe he has placed in motion the world’s redemption. I am so glad Christ did not shrug when the burden grew heavy, go on strike, and refuse to give simply because others misappropriated. I am glad that he understood the necessity of mercy preceding justice, that we could only be viewed fairly if we were given a chance to choose to embrace both mercy and justice in our own activities. I am glad that I can grow powerful while I take the leap of faith to embrace mercy without a guarantee that justice will immediately follow. I am glad that I can build beautiful things in the face of those who would steal or subvert or sideline them. And I am glad that, just as Christ will, I will triumph.

I appreciate Ayn Rand’s contribution to our understanding. Just as Marx noted that unenlightened big business and tyrannical monarchy steal the soul of a people, reducing them to poverty of mind and spirit and body, and yet then sought to institutionalize this dehumanization, Rand noted that altruism could be hijacked to serve special interests, “sanctioning the victim,” and yet then suggests that altruism should be discarded. Both are baby-out-with-the-bathwater philosophies, and both are horribly destructive outlooks. Both are teenage-level moral reactions to the vicissitudes of life when a more mature and stable approach to life will ultimately be most successful.

Voluntary altruism is as life-giving to society as sunshine is to our planet. Faith is more powerful than money. Hope is more life-changing than mandates. True freedom is essential – freedom from soul-destroying tyranny, freedom to reap the benefits of one’s labors. But in order to have it, one must give it. In order to preserve it, one must accept the possibility that someone will misuse it. In order to have security, we must surrender some of our guarantees and wait for people to choose to meet needs, accepting the possibility that nobody will. In order to ever own anything, we have to be free to fail, free to build, free to see and act and do of our own free choice. And, knowing that it will all eventually be fair, we have to be free to extend ourselves in mercy, or to fold our arms with Rand, shrug, take our ball, and go home. It won’t build any utopias, but it needs to be an option. And then when we do extend ourselves, when we embrace the incredible power of mercy, we can do more than be free – we can be divine.

Utopia is possible. It’s a fair place. It’s the only truly fair place. And it was built on freely given mercy. Justice was the end result, not the building material.

Don’t shrug. It’s not fair.

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