U.C. Berkeley recently unveiled a program to give greater preferment to African-Americans for admittance and for hiring of faculty, citing the Ferguson, Missouri unrest as a reason.
There is, to be sure, an innate human desire for fairness, treating everyone equal. We speak of being “equal under the law,” that regardless of race, religion, and gender we will be treated equally. Whether your hair is pink or blue, your skin is spotted or smooth, you are obese or anorexic, you are young or old, rich or poor, woman or man or something else, dwarf or giant, you will be treated equally (with the exception, of course, of the unborn).
We are wired to demand fairness, even if we are not always successful in our practice of fairness. From age seven, children say, “That’s not fair!” A sense of justice (often without mercy) flowers in childhood. We are born with the idea of fairness.
History is the story, in many ways, of peoples who believed they, or others, were unfairly treated, who demanded fairness through whatever means available – letters to the editor, peaceful protest, less peaceful protest, riots, revolutions. Always, there is the righteous belief that they are right and are seeking “justice.” God is on their side, and if they don’t believe in God, then a residue of Godly fairness inspires them.
After all, we have been made in our Maker’s image. We reflect his great love for us in our desire to love and be loved. We reflect his reason in our belief that we can reason things out, make sense. We reflect his justice with our own deeply held certainty that things should be fair. And lastly we reflect his mercy when we forgive our enemies, when we make amends, when we work to create justice for all, fair play for everyone, when we love one another.
But how do you right wrongs of the past? Christians do so by confessing and forgiving. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are sorry, we say to our God, we will change, repent. Then we move on, guilt-free to soar as a bird, at peace with ourselves and our neighbors, and with our God.
But what happens with a secular society with historical wrongs like slavery, when we do not believe in a God who will forge a peace between us, who will absolve us? How and when is national guilt forgiven? How long must the culture pay, make amends, before it turns in upon itself? How many reparations, how many preferments in education and employment, how many times must Lady Justice excuse crimes she would not excuse for others? She should be blind, weighing only the evidence.
There comes a time when these affirmative actions become divisive and racist, undoing all they were meant to do, turning upon the majority, and increasing alienation. There comes a time when these actions actually hinder integration.
A nation cannot be absolved by a priest or God. It cannot be forgiven its trespasses as a person can. A nation is left at the mercy of the aggrieved, where and when that group sees the opportunity to extort payment for their grievance. And in the process other minorities watch the rioting and the looting and the burning of their town and country. They become the aggrieved, a recipe for revolution.
It is time to honor fairness to all, a time when the reparations of slavery have put paid to the debt owed. We would hope, as citizens, that our government would sense that time is now and stand strong. We would hope that our educational institutions would as well, that they would honor each student, each admissions or faculty applicant equally, not by race, religion or gender, but by merit.
I was not born with a silver spoon, or a silver anything. I was born into the modest home of a pastor relying on the income from his church and their kindnesses. I never felt aggrieved with my economic status. I worked my way through college and couldn’t afford grad school so got an office job to pay the rent. I’m not saying I wasn’t envious of those who had it easier, but came to see that life wasn’t always fair. I counted my blessings, for, as my mother often reminded me, I had ten fingers and ten toes, two arms and two legs, wasn’t deaf or blind, and was pretty good at jumping rope and reading. So I just needed to do my best and that was good enough.
Sometimes I hear people speak of betrayal or greed or mistreatment and they end with the comment, “It’s just so unfair.” I have known all these things, again and again, and it is indeed unfair. By God’s standard, by our own standards, it isn’t fair. But God is the judge, and I’m glad of that, for he will judge me too.
Ever since Eve ate that forbidden fruit, mankind has acted unfairly, often without mercy. And so God destroyed the Tower of Babel, sent a great flood, and finally, in his mercy, called Abraham out of Ur to be the father of a great nation that would number as the stars. He gave Moses specific commandments to obey. He chose a people who wrestled with him and his challenges, with his justice and his mercy. At last, after all this loving preparation, he send the promised messiah, the Christ, his Son, Emmanuel, God-with-us. This Jesus of Nazareth walked among us, showing by his life, death, and resurrection how we are to love one another, how we are to be just and merciful and fair. He gave us a way forward with his words, his life, and his death, to heal the brokenness, the unfairness, the mercilessness. He gave us a way forward to union with his Father – through his body, the Church.
A Western tradition blossomed from this creed. It struggled with how to be fair in an unfair world, among people who loved imperfectly. The tradition of Judeo-Christian fairness enshrined in common law and courts was formed under monarchies. It birthed democracies. It formed the Western Canon, the foundation of higher education, so that the next generation, our future rulers, our best and brightest, would understand fairness and its child, freedom.
And so today we try to protect this great legacy. Fairness and freedom are ideals, imperfect, but vitally important to our nation and the West. It aggrieves me to see government bow to the extortion of the aggrieved, often for political reasons. Thomas Sowell of Stanford’s Hoover Institution recently called it giving in to bullies:
“No small part of the internal degeneration of American society has been a result of supposedly responsible officials caving in to whatever group is currently in vogue, and allowing them to trample on everyone else’s rights… Politicians who exempt from the law certain groups who have been chosen as mascots undermine the basis for a decent society… The goal of ‘the rule of law and not of men’ has increasingly been abandoned in favor of government picking winners and losers… a path that demoralizes a society, and leads to either a war of each against all or to a backlash of repression and revenge.”
Life is not fair. We must support a “rule of law and not of men” (John Adams). In this election year, it is good to keep this in mind.