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

Giving up injustice for Lent


I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. I’ll be posting blog versions here, so check back for parts two and three. 

e2729f76-0acd-4be3-a360-f2d18f07ed09Mardi Gras season, the time of Carnival coinciding with Epiphany, is permanently ingrained in the history of the Gulf Coast. French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville upon landing inside the mouth of the Mississippi River and consulting the calendar named his arrival point Point du Mardi Gras. Soon after nearby Mobile was founded in what would be Alabama and played host in 1703 to the first organized Mardi Gras in the future United States (deal with it, Louisiana!). The very first Mardi Gras parade occurred soon after in 1711, also in Mobile. I’m not sure there was enough Mobile to parade through just yet, but they did it nonetheless. According to tradition, the famous colors of Mardi Gras were selected in 1872 by the Krewe of Rex. After Rex’s 1892 festivities specified the symbolic meanings of purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power as the theme in 1892, the attributions just stuck. This week we’ll be looking at justice.

God has a strong opinion on matters of justice. Justice is at the core of God’s identity and plan for redeeming Creation, yet we neglect it so easily. All of human history, even God’s physical nation,  has struggled with maintaining justice. In Isaiah 58 God confronts a people ready to fast to get what they want but wholly unprepared to reach for what God desires:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

The ancient Greeks gave us the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. The play opens with the assembled priests coming to Oedipus, deeply troubled by the plagues ravaging Thebes. Based on their anxiety they had presumably been doing their jobs as priests to follow worship rituals on behalf of the people and yet were met with a curse. The plagues [spoiler alert!] we later learn were caused by Oedipus’ acts of murder and incest though he was blind to his guilt at the time.  It seems even the ancient Greeks, apart from Yahweh of the Jews, understood the dangers of devotion ruined by injustice, the same concept with which Israel is confronted in Isaiah 58. It is from the Greeks and their plays, after all, from which we receive the word hypocrite, the charge Jesus places on the Pharisees for tithing spices yet forgetting the justice and mercy at the center of the Law.

Mardi Gras and Lent are inextricably linked, as for centuries Christians have reveled in then fasted from pleasure and indulgence in preparation for Easter. Though the fasting in Isaiah 58 isn’t aimed at Easter specifically, similar themes of self-denial and preparation are always present in the spiritual disciplines. So how is that God can talk about denying ourselves injustice as a fast? Injustice is always tied to someone else’s benefit. Often this benefit is something that doesn’t sound so bad. Financial stability. Commodities. Ambition. Comfort. Safety. But when these things come at the cost of someone else, they become idols under which our fellow humans are crushed. The benefits reaped are extra indulgences to deny ourselves in order to follow God more deeply. We have enormous privileges as Westerners. Note that we’re sharing this blog together using a computer or smart device and we’re educated enough to read it. These privileges can be so large as to let us turn away from seeing injustice like avoiding eye contact with a homeless person, but that doesn’t change reality. We, blinded from our own guilt like Israel and Oedipus, can hide in our comforts and empty devotion while wondering why our world burns. Or we can give up injustice for Lent and for always, constantly preparing ourselves for Easter. Only then will our light will break forth like the dawn.

Giving up injustice for Lent