America’s god of fairness

“That’s not fair!”
IMG_5291If you’ve been around a child, you’ve probably heard this. If you’ve been a child, you’ve probably said this. I know I issued the universal childhood grievance rallying cry more times than I care to remember. Our reliance on this claim does not end at puberty. Americans (say we) love fairness. We tell our children to treat each other fairly and expect their schools to do the same. We strive to create a legal system in which everyone gets a fair shake. One of our most venerable board games was designed as a protest of unfair business practices. Listen closely and you’ll hear it everywhere throughout your day.

There are some positive things to be said about this tendency in our culture, but I am increasingly troubled by how I hear fairness rhetoric in how we talk about societal problems in and around the disturbingly blurred arenas of conservative faith and conservative politics. Why is this seemingly helpful concept so troubling? Because there’s nothing fair about our faith. Society was designed by God to be based on love and working together (it is important to note the word used of Eve and often translated “helper” is used of God elsewhere). While we were still enemies of God through our abdication of our proper role in Creation, God moved to welcome us home and restore us when we didn’t deserve it. As John Mark MacMillan sings, we’ve been born again “on someone else’s dime.” Jesus dedicates a parable to this issue. In his story a servant is forgiven an enormous debt to his king, only to immediately throw a man into debtors’ prison for failure to pay a much smaller amount. The unforgiving forgiven man soon finds himself tortured and in chains when the king finds out. Unlike this hardhearted servant, we are to unfairly love even those who we don’t think deserve it.

Meanwhile socio-political conservatism, far too easily dovetailed with theological conservatism, has erected a false god of fairness to reign over us. No life is too precious or too vulnerable to be bled on the altar (the unborn being the glaringly sole exception). Compassion and dreams for a better world are routinely mocked. Cruelty is fetishized as proof of one’s standing in the cult. Conservatives have lashed out at Jimmy Kimmel’s tearful discussion of his son’s medical issues, calling it, “cheap.” HUD Secretary Ben Carson warned not to make housing assistance too nice, nodding approvingly as a homeless shelter described how they stacked beds. “America first” sells well because it sounds fair, but as described by the Secretary of State it means not caring about foreign human rights abuses when deciding with whom to do business. The president himself boasted during a debate that, “I can look in [refugee children’s] faces and say ‘You can’t come’. I’ll look them in the face.” As I write this, the House of Representative is trying to pass a healthcare bill enjoying newly-found GOP support due to removing preexisting conditions protections. As written, this means survivors of sexual assault could face higher premiums simply for seeking treatment and reporting their assault.. The false god of fairness demands that only the strong survive; any attempt to help the weak is a weakness itself.

It’s one thing to disagree on how to handle societal ills; it’s another thing entirely to confuse the true God with a false god of arbitrary human notions of fairness. When the church attaches faith in the Slaughtered Lamb to faith in the (false) myth of the American self-made man, nothing short of idolatry occurs. If we concede that God has (thankfully) acted unfairly in the spiritual realm but argue that such unfairness doesn’t extend or apply to us in the physical realm, we make a bifurcation and concession of territory that the Lord is not willing to make. If we try to cling to the things we feel we deserve or have earned, we forget that we are not our own. We were bought at a price.

 

Unfairness will go against every one of our naturally selfish instincts. Following Christ’s unfairness will isolate us from the kinds of political allies the church has used in recent decades to insulate its sphere of influence. We will lose things. Unfairness is hard. Unfairness isn’t safe. Just ask the Samaritan stopped on a road haunted by robbers. Just ask Jesus dying on the cross. But folks, the path of unfairness is good. God being unfair to us is good news beyond our wildest dreams. We live in a world desperately in need of good news. Let’s declare the good news; let’s be unfair.

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America’s god of fairness

What must be done

The news is rarely pleasant as we live in a fallen world and media coverage is greatly influenced by our inability to look away from train wrecks, but it feels like the last few days have been especially rough on our collective empathy. A backlog of thousands of rape kits has prompted Texas lawmakers to look at asking driver’s license renewers for donations to offset the cost of analyzing this critical evidence. Even when governments attempt to pursue justice, new moral issues arise. Arkansas has rushed to schedule the execution of eight men in eleven days, two per day on four days, this blistering pace caused solely by the impending expiration of one of the drugs involved. This is occurring while there are more questions than answers about lethal injection and states attempt to block our ability to ask those questions. For added darkness, the executions are set to begin in a heavily Christian state the day after Easter, a holiday commemorating Jesus’ resurrection after execution by the state. But of course, headlines have been rightly dominated by the Assad regime’s use of banned sarin gas on Syrian civilians, with the resulting images of gasping, dying children burned into our souls forever. It is all utterly overwhelming, the constricting weight of sorrow isolating and paralyzing us. What can we do?

3B42B699-26B3-49E4-A1C2-B120F7A05D06I’ve written and preached before on my firm belief that Batman is a wonderful metaphor for how the church, especially the Western church with its affluence, should operate. Vigilantes like Batman capture our imagination over and over again in literature and pop culture, and I think it’s largely because we desperately want the assurance they provide. We want to know not if but when evil occurs and the system fails to save us (or even aids the villains) that someone will still fight for us. That, after everything falls apart, someone still believes some things are simply the right thing to do, even if that stance runs afoul of human law or endangers their very lives. The good news, the very best news, is that One has come who that perfectly describes. The Kingdom message of Christ Jesus concerns itself only with what is right, not what is convenient, self-interested, legal, or even safe. Jesus, practicing what he literally preached, lived out this message and died a rebel’s death as a direct result. I use Batman to talk about Christianity because I see the Son of God who emptied himself for our world reflected in the mission and sacrifice of Gotham’s Dark Knight. And I see it in the defiant works of the church in Acts and throughout the church’s greatest historical moments. This path is for us, too. The nail-torn hands of Jesus are on the move when His church acts like Him, taking action because of what is right in sheer defiance of the broken status quo.

I hope you’ve started trying to connect that idea to my opening comments about recent evils; if you have, you’ve probably started thinking that these are ridiculously hard problems to solve. And you know what, you’re right. Evil is complex, entrenched, and ever hungry. There’s a lot of suffering I have no clue how to fix. But I am sure that God has blessed us with incredible gifts. Teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, accountants, doctors, nurses, scientists, social science experts, artists, lawyers, mechanics, and countless other skills and professions have found a home at the foot of the cross. Consider also the enormous educational and financial advantages many of us have compared to the rest of the world. What could happen if we more fully leveraged all of that for the Kingdom? What could happen if we devoted ourselves to building stronger Christian alliances rather than stronger political alliances, each of us learning from each other and across the divides of geography, affluence, and culture? Why stick to offering up “thoughts and prayers” while waiting on insulated, unfeeling governments to act despite already holding in our own hands amazing abilities from God?

It is a great tragedy that the American church has so greatly atrophied her capacity to dream and dream big. I’m furious that thousands of rape kits go untested solely due to funding, but I’m positive that’s something that’s within our reach. More complex evils can be conquered as well through coordination and use of our myriad talents. I can’t fathom the quagmire America’s death penalty has become on my own, but there are doctors, lawyers, and ethicists in our midst who can help us start by asking the tough questions they’re trained to ask, even on behalf of those who don’t deserve mercy just like we don’t deserve God’s mercy. Natural and manmade disasters can push us to our absolute limits and beyond, so we must count the cost now and prepare now as not to be caught flatfooted later. We can’t cure every evil, but we every inch claimed for God when we leverage the entirety of ourselves and our community proclaims in a way no sermon every could Christ’s resurrection and anticipated return to finish what He started. You may say it’s naive to think the church can take on complex sociopolitical tragedies, but I say it’s naive to think the status quo can ever be motivated to act against itself.

There are a few other things of which I am sure. I am sure that such devotion to God’s mercy and justice will inevitably cost us dearly. It may mean suffering. It may mean losing possessions. It may mean breaking the law. It may mean dying. Christ said we are to take up our cross daily and follow, and that’s what crosses mean. For the Christian it is not only what can we do but also what must we do. That same Jesus who calls for so much, though, has gone before us on the path, all authority has been given to Him, and He has promised to be with us always. It’s time to act like it. Some trust in chariots and some in horses and some in tanks and some in elephants and some in donkeys, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

What must be done