Life is Unfair
Yesterday, my mother had to drop off a dinner for a woman in her ward who lives down the street and was sick and bedridden. My mother, however, isn't doing too well herself--she'd recently gotten out of the hospital for a hip surgery--and isn't supposed to walk long distances without a walker or a cane. (Actually, she's not supposed to walk short distances without a walker or a cane either, but she does anyway.) This made it impossible for her to carry a plate of food, so since I was there visiting for the holiday she had me take the plate over for her.
She then sat and visited with the ill woman for a while. I didn't participate in the conversation, but I was there and heard it; they discussed things such as the evils of the world and the problem of theodicy (though they didn't use that term), as well as more down-to-earth topics such as her son-in-law's struggle with cancer. At one point, though, the bedridden woman said something that struck me as frankly appalling. (I don't remember her words verbatim, of course, but this is the gist of what she said:)
"I remember those commercials I used to see--ten cents a day could feed a child. All that starvation and hardship going on there [in parts of Africa]. And I used to think, how could God be so angry at an entire country? But then [a certain senior couple from the ward] got back from their mission to Africa, and they talked about how evil the people there are. They just have no feelings at all."
Yeah. Her basic conclusion was that people are starving in Africa because they are evil. They deserve it. God is punishing them for their wrongdoings.
(Something that, unsurprisingly, didn't come up: if the sufferings of starving Africans were God's punishment for to their sins, what about her son-in-law with brain cancer that she had just been talking about? What had he been doing wrong? Incidentally, my mother, to her credit, after leaving the house talked to me how dismayed she was at what the woman had said, and how much she disagreed with her remarks.)
This isn't a new attitude, of course. It's mentioned in the Bible. In John 9:2, Christ's disciples ask him, "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Of course, it's mentioned in the context of Christ debunking their assumption, and assuring them that the man's blindness wasn't due to sin, but a lot of modern Christians apparently haven't taken this particular lesson to heart. (I'm sure it doesn't help, though, that the reason that is given for the man's blindness--"that the works of God should be made manifest in him"--isn't all that comforting and doesn't have a broad application, given that after all most blind people nowadays aren't miraculously healed.) So we get various stalwarts of the Christian Right blaming liberals, single mothers, and homosexuals for everything from the 9/11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina.
I don't usually say much in my blog about religions other than Christianity, mostly because I'm not as familiar with them, but in this case there's something I recently read about certain Eastern religions that goes right along with this theme. As research for one of the myriad projects I'm planning, I've been reading a book about everyday life in Early India. (In fact, as it happens, that's the book's title.) Now, the most prominent religions of Early India, which still survive today--Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, collectively (along with Sikhism) called the "Dharmic religions"--all have similar roots. And one of the concepts they have in common, and perhaps the one best known to outsiders, is that of karma. What you do in one life will affect the next. Live well, and you'll be reincarnated in a higher form. Live badly, and you'll come back in a lower. The karma concept has been appropriated by many people who don't belong to the Dharmic religions, but usually in a slightly altered form, that your good and bad deeds will bring good or bad repercussions on your head later in this life. No doubt we've all heard people talk of building "good karma", or of risking "bad karma", with their actions.
Karma may seem superficially like a warm and fuzzy, positive idea. After all, it should motivate people to do good, right? But the concept has its dark side, that I'd never really thought of before reading the aforementioned book (well, not that I'd ever given much thought to karma to begin with). Many people in early India felt justified in holding contempt for the poor and the afflicted (as presumably many members of the Dharmic religions still do today) because, after all, they earned their poverty and afflictions. If they were suffering so much in this life, it must be because they had committed terrible misdeeds in previous lives. They therefore didn't really deserve pity or compassion--or at least, not as much as would be merited by a righteous man. They were only reaping what they had sowed. Their suffering was fair.
Of course, it wasn't. Life very often isn't fair. But that's not a comforting thought. So religions--Abrahamic, Dharmic, and no doubt others--have established doctrines to restore fairness and justice to existence. The problem with this is that if you assume life is fair, that everyone does get what they deserve...well, that must mean that those who are worse off must deserve it. Ultimately, these doctrines, taken to their logical conclusion, lead to hard-heartedness and antipathy toward the poor and the suffering.
Life isn't fair. And it's especially unfair to the less fortunate to pretend otherwise.