Saturday, January 17, 2015

When Good Things Happen to Bad People

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 11, 2001

Sometimes, it’s hard to read the newspaper and not get outraged. There are just so many examples of the injustice of the world. A family loses six children in a fiery car crash, while O.J. is still out there golfing, and his lawyers are still pulling in the big bucks. A former President is accused of selling pardons to drug dealers and tax evaders, while death row is still crowded with the poor, the powerless, and those like Leonard Pelletier and Mumia Abu-Jamal who didn’t have a prayer of a fair trial.
Some of the vainest, shallowest, narrowest individuals-- entertainers and athletes and what-have-yous become multi-multi millionaires, while millions of people work so hard, day in and day out, yet seem always to remain one paycheck away from homelessness. We’re confounded when people who engage in shady business deals don’t get caught; when these who lie and gossip go their merry way, polluting our moral and social environment.
Life isn’t fair. We know about the tragedy of bad things happening to good people (that’s what we talked about last week), and that really rends our souls. But it really peeves us off, too (in a different way, perhaps) when we look out at the world and see good things happening to bad people-- or at least to people who don’t “deserve” them. Life doesn’t seem fair sometimes, does it?
This sense of life’s injustice bothered the Old Testament psalmist, too. Listen to his lament:
“For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong... they are not plagued by human ills... This is what the wicked are like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.”
Or sometimes we might feel like the faithful workers in the parable of Jesus we shared earlier this morning. We show up on time. We do our jobs. We work-- work-- work, all the long day. But then, we get the same pay as these Jehosophat’s-come-lately who only show up for the last hour! “Where the heck is the justice in that?” we might well ask.
Sometimes, it doesn’t seem as though God (or whoever is in charge) is listening.
We see the evil prosper and, you know, the idea of a hell-- to set things right in the next life, if not in this one-- doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
The problem is, as Universalists, we’re not supposed to believe in hell...
That was, after all, the thing that set our religious forebears apart. The faith of Universalism-- the deep and profound and radical belief in universal salvation emerged out of the Reformation, and eventually took root in the New World. Universalists believed that in time-- God’s time-- everyone would be saved-- because God was a God of Love who would not sentence any of His children to everlasting torment in the fires of hell. No mater how horrible or heinous the life you lived here on Earth, a just and loving God would not send someone to hell eternally because of it. No one can be ultimately separated from God, Universalism taught-- and no matter what you’ve done-- no matter how horrible your crime-- no matter how great your sin-- the Love of God eventually wins out! God eventually wins (even though the game might go into extra innings sometimes), and eventually everyone is forgiven and reconciled to God. So, according to Universalism. there’s no Hell. It was said that that’s what the bells of Universalist churches used to proclaim to all the world “No hell, no hell, no hell...”
But then it seems that we Univeralists are (as often is the case) in a distinct minority in comparison to our fellow Americans of other faiths (no surprise there, I suppose). According to a recent Time magazine survey, when asked the question “Do you believe in the existence of heaven, where people live forever with God after they die?”, a rather astounding 81% answered yes. Even more noteworthy, I think, is that when people were asked, “Do you believe in hell, where people are punished forever after they die?”, 63% answered “Yes.”-- that’s 18% less than said “yes” about heaven-- but it’s still a pretty sizable majority.
But here’s the really interesting statistic: When asked “Do you think you will go to hell after you die?”, only 1% said yes! Sixty-three percent believe in hell, but only 1% think they’re going there... So, it’s not just that “Hell is other people,” as Jean Paul Satre declared in No Exit; it’s also that “Hell is for other people-- but not for any of us personally!”
This seems to fly in the face of the reasoning behind this Very Important Piece of e-mail I received recently. It reads:
“There are only two things to worry about:
Either you are sick or you are well.
If you are well, then there is nothing to worry about.
If you are sick, then there are only two things to worry about:
Either you will get better or you will not.
If you get better, then there is nothing to worry about.
If you do not, then you will die, and there are only two things to worry about.
Either you will go to heaven, or you will go to hell.
If you go to heaven, then there is nothing to worry about.
If you go to hell, then you will be so busy shaking hands with all your friends that you won’t have time to worry.”
But unlike this Very Important e-mail, most people, according to Time magazine at least, believe themselves to be in the category of the righteous-- the saved-- to be among the “good people”-- not the “bad people” we’re speaking of in this sermon.
But I really think we need to ask ourselves what basis are we using for our labels? On what basis are divvying up the human race into “good” and “bad”?
Now, apart from the really evil people that history has spawned-- the obvious, always-cited examples like Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Barry Manilow (only kidding; just seeing if you were listening)-- what possible basis do we possibly have for judging the “goodness” or “badness” of another human being?
I’m not talking about individual actions, where I think we can often discern whether their motivations and consequences are positive or negative, life-supporting or life-denying, just or unjust. Rather, I’m talking about deeper considerations like the character or inherent worth of a person.
Take, for example, our former President, William Jefferson Clinton. Now, all but the most partisan Clinton supporters could deny that certain actions in which he engaged during his term of office (all the way from the nasty affair with Monica Lewinsky to Pardongate in the very final days of his administration) were downright stupid, reprehensible, and vile. Likewise, many of us might also claim that certain policies of his administration (the homophobic “Defense of Marriage Act”; the asinine “don’t ask/ don’t tell” policy for the military; so-called “welfare reform” which pulled the rug out from under millions of poor children; the expansion of the federal death penalty and the stepping up of the terribly misguided [some of us might even say “fascist”] “War on Drugs”) represent flagrant betrayal of the progressive agenda which he and Mrs. Clinton (supposedly) hold so dear.
So, looking at all this, we might say that, based on his actions, Bill Clinton is lots of things-- dumb, out of control, undisciplined, opportunistic, greedy-- but can we say that he’s “evil”-- a “bad” person? Who’s to judge? Who of us haven’t done things in our lives (maybe over and over again; maybe we’re still doing them) that were dumb, that showed a lack of discipline, that attempted to make use of our position for personal gain, that weren’t always true to the better side of our natures?
Who is to say that even “good” people-- everyday people like you and me, who do our best most of the time; who remain true to our values most of the time; who probably don’t live lives interesting enough to give us the opportunity to do anything “really evil”-- even good people like us can do some pretty shady, not-very-ennobling things sometimes. Things we know we shouldn’t have done. Things we feel terrible about afterwards. Things we wish with all our hearts we could make up for (and maybe we try to).
Are those (relatively) few lapses of character enough to cast us down into the pit of hellfire and damnation?
I don’t think so.
But maybe it should teach us a little humility when we deal with imperfect creatures like ourselves.
We see the innocent suffer, and that bothers us, and well it should. It rends our heart. “Why do bad things happen?” is a deep, deep spiritual question that should haunt us and make us wonder.
But I’m no so sure anymore about whether we should spin our wheels worrying about the converse-- worrying too much about the question I’ve posed this morning: “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
Maybe part of our problem is that we’re trying to fit divine, cosmic considerations into human, worldly categories.
Like I’ve said, I think we’re on very thin ice, most of the time, when we try to judge who’s naughty or nice, who’s “good” and who’s “bad”. As in most things, most of us are somewhere in the middle.
Does it really matter, cosmically, who has the $150,000 house and who has the million dollar one? Does it really matter, in God’s eyes, who makes the $30,000 salary and who gets $10 million a year to pitch a damned baseball?
Those are questions which might rile us on an earthly plain, but they’re hardly Great Cosmic Questions.
I think if you have an idea of an all-powerful, all-controlling Father God in Heaven, zapping His way across the calendar of our days, controlling each and every little event in our lives, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” of the divine crossword puzzle, then the question of who gets more could be a troublesome one. I mean, if one has that idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing God, and “Heck, I work hard. I go to church every week. How come I don’t make as much as the moron next door who has the bigger house, the newer car, and a brand-new snow blower instead of this old, bent-up, broken shovel that I’m forced to use?”-- then that could be a troubling religious question, I suppose.
But for most of us, I would guess, that image of God isn’t all that powerful. God, for us, doesn’t care which of us have snowblowers and which have shovels-- who drives BMWs and who drives old, beat-up Hondas. For most of us, those items don’t figure at all in “God’s plan” (if such a plan there be).
Perhaps we have to stop kidding ourselves that there’s such a thing a “cosmic justice”, and instead use the limited hours we have upon this planet toward doing what we can (and that’s a lot more than we realize) to secure more down-to-earth, this-worldly justice for our brothers and sisters all around us.
Maybe justice is about “just us”-- and we shouldn’t wait around for God, or the Universe, or the Eternal Hand of Being, or whatever-- to correct situations which our own human avarice and cowardice and greediness and stupidity have screwed up and have pushed out of whack. Maybe it’s time for our hands-- our frail, callused, supple, beautiful, gentle, strong, human hands to tip the scale back toward justice.
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No Hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one...
Maybe we have no well-manicured suburban vision of Heaven to which we can cling. Maybe we have no fiery pit of Hell to which we can (intellectually at least) send all those we don’t like. But maybe such ideas would be distractions, anyway-- pulling our attention from the real work we have to do here and now: to make this world a little more heavenly for our brothers and sisters all around us; to make this world a little less hell-like for our sisters and brothers all around us.
“Heaven and hell and all the gods and goddesses are within you,” Joseph Campbell once said.
In these little lives of ours, we choose where it is that our souls will abide. And we choose whether, through our lives, we will worship a God of compassion and love-- or a demon of avarice and hatred. We choose. In everything we do, we choose.

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