Inklings of Truth


It Just Isn't Fair!
(Justice, Mercy, and the Great Gulf between Them)

By Audrey Stallsmith

A woman in my church recently objected to the parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus.  She pointed out that the beggar's family should have cared for him, and she didn't see why the rich man should be punished for refusing to do so.

This woman also expressed resistance to the idea of us Americans sending money and supplies to those suffering from the floods in Pakistan.  And, looking back, I recalled she had also resented the money contributed to Haiti after the earthquake there.

I was at first inclined to attribute her vehemence on the subject to the racism that tends to be more prevalent--or at least more overt!--among the elderly.  But then, considering her statements more carefully, I realized she most disliked what she considered the "unfairness" of charity.  The fact that its recipients would never be able, or perhaps even inclined, to repay us.  She was, after all, perfectly willing to help out friends and neighbors whom she knew and loved.  Since she could feel confident they would do the same for her.

So her increasingly bitter harping on fairness was, I suspected, her way of protesting against the sufferings her own family members have had to endure.  More than their fair share, certainly.  But I was strongly tempted to say to her, in paraphrase of a similar Lewis statement about tolerance, "if you are looking for fairness, I certainly wouldn't recommend Christianity."

Most of the stringent justice in the Bible, after all, comes in the Old Testament.  And our New Testament religion is based on the ultimate unfairness of history's only sinless Man taking the punishment for all the rest of us.  Then there are the more peculiar aspects of that Man's teaching, which we have a hard time swallowing.  The parable of a boss paying everyone the same, for example, no matter whether they'd worked long or little.  No doubt a reference to the fact that those who repent on their deathbeds will be rewarded with heaven, as surely as those who were saved as children.

I suspect my friend from church would have trouble with the parable of the prodigal as well.  The rebellious kid who wastes his father's money on fast living and is still welcomed home with a party.  Not to mention those constant injunctions to give, share, forgive.  In fact, the story of the sheep and the goats seems to imply we will be judged on how well we treated the suffering, no matter how deserving or undeserving those suffering may have been.  "The pagan virtues [such as justice and temperance]," G K Chesterton points out in Heretics, ". . .are the reasonable virtues, and. . .the Christian virtues [faith, hope, and charity] . . .are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be."

When Chesterton refers to "pagan" virtues, he means those that are espoused by the majority of mankind, whether Christian or not.  And justice is obviously one of them.  In other words, it requires no special effort to advocate fairness.  That comes naturally to all of us.  God obviously believes in justice as well, because He held it necessary that someone die for the sins of mankind. 

"It is because he is just," George MacDonald writes, "that we have the idea of justice so deeply embedded in us."  But God's conception of that virtue obviously extends far beyond our own, as He is exceedingly intemperate in the amount of love and forgiveness He doles out.  That is what it takes, however.  After all, how often does punishment really dissuade people from their wrongdoing?  As with rebellious children, it may instead incline them to cling more tightly to those sins.  No, I think we Christians would have to admit it wasn't punishment that finally made us drop ours, but the fact that God loved us anyway.   

"Do you think you deserve credit," Jesus asks in Luke 6:32, "for merely loving those who love you?  Even the godless do that!  And if you do good only to those who do you good--is that so wonderful?  Even sinners do that much!  And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, what good is that?  Even the most wicked will lend to their own kind for full return!"

He then goes on to make what may be his most outrageous demand of all.  "Love your enemies!  Do good to them!  Lend to them!  And don't be concerned about the fact that they won't repay.  Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as sons of God:  for he is kind to the unthankful and to those who are very wicked." (LB)

No, it's not our idea of fair play.  But just who's in charge here anyway?  "I dethrone him [God] in my heart," Elisabeth Elliot points out in Through Gates of Splendor, "if I demand that he act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice."  Elliot, you may recall, is the woman who went to live with the tribe that murdered her missionary husband. 

As she and we know too well, the demand for payback can often just lead to a vicious circle of vengeance-taking by both sides in a conflict.  Until there seems to be no way out for anybody.  As in a Charles Todd mystery, somewhat wryly titled A Matter of Justice, where a man's plot to get revenge for his brother's murder ended in the deaths of four people and the probable hanging of another one.  Granted, the original crime had been an awful one, but what did all that violence years later really accomplish?

I recently read a memoir by Laura Munson, titled This Is Not the Story You Think It Is,  about a difficult period in her marriage.  Like many males, her husband had a hard time dealing with the failure of his business, and threw what amounted to an extended tantrum.  Threatening to move out, implying he had never really loved her--that sort of thing.  If Munson had lashed back, as would have been natural, she may well have lost him. 

This wasn't a Christian book.  Munson is apparently a New Age type who subscribes to a mishmash of religions.  She was developing a theory that her happiness depended on herself, and she couldn't allow her husband to destroy it.  So she chose to patiently "ride out" this period, without giving her husband any excuse to leave her and their children. 

But, deep down, she just seems to have loved him enough to be willing to put up with unfairness for a while.  If that was what it would take to save her marriage.  Such forbearance seems more natural between people who have lived with each other's foibles for a long time.  But it is entirely unnatural when we Christians are required to exercise it for people we don't even like!

It helps, however, that most of us got a good look at our own sinfulness at the point of our conversion.  So we know that, if we insist on fairness--on everybody getting what they really deserve--we will be in big trouble, indeed.  "Like the unmerciful servant," Dorothy Sayers reminds us, "you get what you give."

Of course, even mercy can be carried to unchristian extremes.  If we are granting people the means to destroy themselves or others, for example.  Crimes obviously must be punished for the safety of society, as well as for the dignity of the criminal. (A person not held responsible for his actions is thereby reduced to the status of less than human.)

And Munson wisely drew a limit to her own tolerance, stipulating that she would never allow her husband to become abusive to  herself or her children.  Parents who give their drug-addicted child the money to feed that addiction definitely aren't showing compassion either.  We should also do everything within our power to assure that the aid we send to Moslem countries doesn't fall into terrorists' hands.  As C. S. Lewis warns, mercy completely detached from justice "grows unmerciful."  In other words, our love is no longer love if it encourages other people's ungodliness.   

And, though some people will respond to it, others won't.  The more extremist Moslems caught up in this latest disaster may well have to take our charity to survive, think us "weak" because of it, and curse us behind our backs.  But that doesn't relieve us of our obligation to help them if they genuinely need us.   

We recently watched a movie called No Greater Love.  The film does have a few weaknesses.  Christian cinema still tends to make its Christian characters a bit too nicey-nice!  But the plot contains a cute twist.  It concerns a husband whose alcoholic wife deserted him and their son years before.  When, after becoming a Christian, she shows up again, her non-Christian husband has to decide whether or not to take her back.

It's natural to assume all the concessions will have to be on his side.  But, as the movie progresses, the audience becomes aware that the husband's neglecting his wife in favor of his business was what caused their original problems.  And it becomes increasingly obvious that, if she goes back to him, she will have to tolerate such neglect again.  But her willingness to do so is what finally tips her husband into an "I want what you've got" decision.  So I'm guessing that the "no greater love" in the title refers to hers rather than his!

That title probably derives from the verse, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."  (John 15:13, KJV)  In most cases, I suspect, that won't mean literally laying down one's life, as Jesus and Elliot's husband did.  But the giving of oneself from day to day--which Elliot herself attempted--without any guarantee of return.   

That sort of thing is, of course, impossible unless we have some other well of love to draw upon. The woman in the movie wasn't as needy as she had once been, because she had God's love to sustain her.  So, although her husband's neglect would still hurt, it wouldn't destroy her. 

And even the New Age Munson had it partially right when she said we can't allow other people's actions to determine how we are going to respond to them.  If we do so, they control us. Instead, we want to be controlled, always and only, by the ultimate Love.