The West’s Love Affair with Fairness
The concept of fairness permeates Western society. Westerners like conditions to be impartial and equitable. There is something innate to humanity (in western culture at least) where fairness is concerned, that drives our moral and ethical compass.
Young children are quick to cry out “Unfair!” when playing with one another, and it is possible that the cry has merit. It may be that one of the participants gained an unfair advantage by violating the established rules of the competition. It is equally likely that a child played the Unfair card because he or she lost, and knows that the accusation of unfairness is a powerful tool for getting a do-over, or for eliciting parental intervention.
Fairness and justice, though related, are not synonymous. Where fairness references impartiality, an even playing field, freedom from bias, or perhaps the use of bias to bring about the aforementioned even playing field, justice is more concerned with giving each person what is their due. As far back as the Greek philosopher Plato’s Republic, the idea of fairness and justice has driven discussions related to ethical behavior.
This same discussion continues today with strength and momentum through figures like perennial United States presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an openly Socialist contender who makes fairness the central theme of his runs for the U. S. presidency, though his definition of fairness seems to be focused more on equality of outcome than with equality of opportunity. What is truly amazing about the Sanders candidacy is that his message of fairness resonates deeply with the populace of a country that in very recent history largely despised the idea of Socialism. Sanders connects with a pain point in the voter rolls, and he plays to his audience masterfully.
The notion of fairness, or the lack thereof, can be observed in numerous pockets of Western culture. Just as the children cry “Unfair!” on elementary school playgrounds, that same objection is employed to gain attention wherever injustice, real or imagined, is purported to exist.
Some assert unfairness from an ethnic perspective, believing one ethnicity or another has an unfair advantage in life. Others declare inequalities from a gender platform, believing that one gender is given preference over another in hiring practices or compensation for work performed. Still others bemoan educational inequities, whether at the elementary or secondary level, or in access to or preferences granted in post-secondary education.
Economic unfairness is an oft-heard protestation from those who object to the economic classes in society, something the Communists believe they can solve by mandating a classless society. They believe that giving all people equal status and opportunity will resolve any issues of unfairness. This assumption is made despite the reality that those who dole out such determinations of status are, by default, placed in positions to abuse that power for their own benefit.
These and similar battles continue to generate heat and unrest, with some believing the government must legislate equality into each circumstance, while others believe the government should not be involved in the discussion at any level.
Grumbling Against God
The concept of fairness and justice, however, does not limit itself to the political, educational, or economic realm. Our concerns regarding fairness bleed into the spiritual realm where we struggle to understand the interaction of God with humanity and to reconcile his love with the life-struggle drama being played out before us.
Why did God let the tornado wipe out my town? Why did God let my child die? Why does God allow earthquakes? Why is my country filled with obesity when men and women in third-world countries can count their bones? This is not fair. God is not fair.
At the risk of sounding a little cold, I will assert that what is truly fair is whatever God decides is fair.
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
– Romans 9:20-21, NIV-1978
In Matthew 20, Jesus related a story about a man who owned a vineyard and hired several crews to work it. Early in the morning the landowner recruited workers for his vineyard and negotiated a specific wage for a day’s work. About nine o’clock that same morning, the owner found more workers who were willing to work his vineyard, so he negotiated a wage with them as well and sent them to work his vineyard. The same thing happened at noon, and then again at three in the afternoon, in each case, the landowner negotiating a wage with the workers, and then sending them to work in his vineyard. Even later, at five in the afternoon, the landowner came across some men standing idle. He hired them and sent them into his vineyard.
At sundown, the landowner called the vineyard foreman and directed him to pay all the workers the negotiated rate, beginning with those who were hired last. For their brief time of labor, those hired last were paid a full day’s wage. Seeing this, those who were hired first excitedly expected they would be paid more. When they also received the same full day’s wage, they grumbled about it, saying it was unfair for them to work the full day, bearing the heaviest load of the work, right through the hottest part of the day.
But the owner of the vineyard was having none of this, essentially saying, “Your complaint is invalid. You agreed to a day’s wage and you have been paid what you agreed to. If I choose to give the same wage to someone who did not work as long as you did, it is my money and my business. So, take your pay and go.”
We look at our lives and compare them to the lives of others, and we conclude that we are being treated unfairly, inequitably. Why is it that my nephew had to suffer brain cancer twice before he even reached the age of twenty before it took his life in his early thirties? That is not fair. Why was I born into a comfortable and loving home in Kansas while others are born into poverty in Somalia? That is not fair. Why do I live in a city where I can walk with little concern for my safety while others live in cities where they rarely leave the confines of their homes for fear of being mugged, raped, or shot? That is unfair.
If we measure fairness using a human-divined system of equability, it is true that everything above appears very unfair. In such a system, the cold reality is that life is grossly unfair, and nowhere do I find Jesus claiming otherwise. As soon as sin entered the human equation, selfishness was set free to run rampant in human relationships, and with selfishness, there is blatant inequality, unfairness, injustice, and evil. Selfishness is a ravenous beast whose hunger is never satisfied.
Life is not fair. People are not fair. And God is not fair – at least not by our standard of fairness.
God is not constrained to operate on a human system of merit even though we appear to believe he should do so. However, if we examine our case more closely, I believe we will see the flaw in our argument regarding God’s unfairness, and feel a bit silly for making it.
God most certainly is not fair.
It is not fair that the creator of all that exists should become one with what he created, only to be deeply despised and rejected by his own creation. It is not fair that Immanuel, God with us, should be beaten beyond human recognition and torturously fastened to a cross as a payment for my misbehavior. It is not fair that Jesus should die as a payment for my sin debt.
No, God is not fair at all. But he is just.
God deals with us not according to what is fair, but according to the depth and breadth of his love for us. He deals with us according to his mercy and his grace.
If we were to have our calls for fairness and justice heeded, not one of us would survive because we are all guilty of sin. Justice and fairness would demand payment of our debt, and the wages of sin is death. God forbid that he should ever deal with us according to fairness. Thank you, God, that instead, you extend to us mercy and grace.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
– Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV-1978
Many years ago, I was talking with another pastor about the death of his son. In that discussion, he said something so shocking, so matter-of-fact, and so profoundly true that I have never forgotten it. He said, “The question is not, ‘Why did God let my son die.’ The question is, ‘Why does God let me live?’” The answer to his question is, “Because God is not fair.” If God were fair, we would all be paying the price for ourselves, rather than relying on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in our place, and on our behalf.