Fairness. We want fairness, and we want it from an early age. “It’s not fair” is among the first phrases toddlers learn. They may not know what fairness is, but they do know that something is out of whack, unbalanced, and not in their favor. That life is not fair is the tough lesson most people learn as they begin to mature, but fairness is still the measure of things, and we want things to be fair. What is fairness?
Drawing from the ancient philosophers, we might say that fairness is having all that we rightfully deserve in a world where everyone has all that they rightfully deserve. Some might have more, but not too much more, and some might have less but not too much less. Under conditions of fairness, all things balance out naturally over time without artificial stimulus or restraint. As toddlers know, it doesn’t work that way. However little they understand fairness, they do know that what’s fair is supposed to be satisfying to them, with little regard for how satisfying it is to others. They also know power exercised by adults imposes arbitrary rules of fairness that are not always in their favor. It doesn’t take long for them to discover how to manipulate conditions of fairness in a world where different adults have different rules. Nor does it take long to discover the brutality of competition with other children for satisfaction of fairness to self no matter the cost of injury to others. Ideas about fairness in the adult world often appear to differ only in degree, not in kind, from those of the toddler world.
Ancient philosophers also held that a mature understanding of fairness as having all that one rightfully deserves meant not desiring to have more than that, even if more comes into one’s life – it’s OK to enjoy it, but not to desire it. It also meant not despairing if less was one’s lot in life. It requires discipline that comes only with maturity. Greek and Roman philosophers developed schools of discipline. The Stoics, for instance, taught the principles of disciplined fairness, but they recognized it would benefit only the elite few. The masses would remain as undisciplined as toddlers, and that’s the way the world works. It’s not fair.
Early Christian leaders had a different understanding. God’s immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have the means of grace and hope of unending new life has created conditions of holy fairness under which all other conditions are subsumed, if we allow it to be so. As St. Paul said, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4) It’s true, but it also has limitations.
Unfairness is the natural state of affairs in the human world for all the reasons intuited by toddlers and discerned by philosophers. Those with power and wealth are able to structure society to work in their favor, to the disfavor of others, and they do. Societies compete with each other to tilt the scales even to the point of destroying each other. Excessive socioeconomic unfairness often ends in revolution when the disadvantaged turn the tables, not to make things fair, but to take revenge. It’s a toddler’s melt down battle royal over toys, treats, potties, and teacher attention acted out on the world stage by adults who should know better.
It’s hard to live with Pauline confident contentment, but Jesus calls us to live, as best we are able, into conditions of fairness even as we are subjected to the unfairness of the world around us. It’s to be an active way of living, not passive. We have a responsibility to do what we can in the places where we are to move conditions toward fairness so that each person is able to have all they rightfully deserve without obstacles deliberately placed in the way of some, and the way deliberately eased for others. Some might have more, but not too much more, and some might have less but not too much less.
Christianity lives into and out of the story of God’s people as recorded in holy scripture. It suffers no illusion that fairness will balance out naturally over time without artificial stimulus or restraint. God has told the peoples time and again what is needed for a full and blessed life. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5); “…do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6) It’s only within the structure of a society governed through wise laws that it’s possible to move in that direction. A government of wise laws is not easy to come by because toddler like competition for laws to be favorable to me, but not necessarily to you, makes movement in a godly direction difficult.
In America, as in many other countries, that means Christians must be active in political engagement, not to make the country a Christian theocracy, but to encourage the application of godly principles of fairness in public policy as illuminated by Jesus. And just to be clear, they have nothing to do with homosexuality, abortion, or the subordinate place of women. They have everything to do with economic and social justice, as God has revealed in holy scripture. Some may be called to political activism, others to simply demonstrating the way of love in daily life, some to service as elected representatives, others to the civil service, some to leadership in business, others to leadership in education, each to the work for which they are fitted, but all as followers of Jesus Christ.
The question of fairness will be a struggle for those who worship in churches this Sunday when the parable of ten maidens, five wise and five foolish, who waited to greet the homecoming of a bridegroom (Matt. 25). There’s little fair in it. It’s not fair that the bridegroom was rudely late in coming, not fair that five maidens with oil were unwilling to share with five who had not brought enough, not fair that after patient waiting some were refused entry to the feast for trivial errors, not fair at all. The parable is set in the midst of many warnings about civil unfairness and the end of times when each will be held accountable to God. The warnings reveal that issues of godly fairness are to be taken seriously. Perhaps the lesson of the five foolish maidens is that complacency in an unfair world is no excuse. Will the door be closed forever? Probably not. Only a few moments later, the text will turn to the Last Supper when Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, gave the gift of Holy Communion to those who were about to betray him. It is the holy food and drink of new and unending life proclaiming the forgiveness of the sins of the world. In it, “steadfast love and faithfulness wil meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. …Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.” (Ps. 85) They are the steps we are called to follow.