Thursday, August 28, 2014

Selling Karma

Instant karma

Perhaps he was too young to pull off “Help a Vet” or “Hungry Kids”. Perhaps he had lost too much faith for “God Bless You”.  Or perhaps he just thought it was unique enough, clever enough, and guilt inducing enough that it just might work. I saw a beggar today holding a sign with the words “Selling Karma” neatly (but not too neatly) blacked in. His appeal to conscience, inked on a random scrap of cardboard (or was it the back of a campaign sign), like any entrepreneurial endeavor, was aimed at giving his customers what they want. Good feelings.

Karma is the politically correct version of “you reap what you sow” or better yet of Galatians 6:8-9. It appeals to the general sense of fairness we all share. But it avoids the uncomfortable implications that there is some personal, wise, and powerful being out there who will ensure that the impatient lady at the store who threw a tantrum when the clerk wouldn’t help her fast enough gets her just deserts. She’s gonna get hers, we sooth ourselves.  Karma’s a bitch, right? Instead of God, we have Evelyn Couch from Fried Green Tomatoes.

Yep. Karma’s a bitch.

It makes us feel better about the injustices in the world. It assures us the universe has a self balancing principle built in. It’ll auto correct. Karma. It’s a platitude we whisper to ourselves so we can process all the evil in the world without really facing it.

Karma poses several problems for Christians. Let me illustrate.

A few weeks ago I was being shuttled on a bus from the Oregon Zoo back to the overflow parking area. Two seats ahead, just behind the bus driver, was a young adult male with a little school age girl talking to two women, neither of whom were apparently mother to the child. As we approached the parking area, their conversation settled on their collective concern that a van that had parked too close to their own vehicle might have damaged it. One of the women chided the father for a threatening, albeit good natured, threat he made against the owner of the van.* He was going to incur bad Karma. He shrugged off the idea and gave two reasons for his lack of concern.

First, he had good Karma to spare. Three specific actions apparently led to this Karmic surplus.

  1. He doesn’t litter.
  2. He drives an electric car.
  3. He eats organic foods.

Really? Those are the things that made the list? Nothing about remembering his mom on Mother’s Day, or giving a glass of cool water to a thirsty child, or working to end human trafficking or tweeting to Islamist terrorists in a noble effort to shame them ‘till they #bringbackourgirls. None of that. Apparently, for this young man, good Karma has only to do with his efforts to not defile the environment. When Mother Nature’s happy, everybody’s happy. Treat her well and she’ll return the favor. Karma.

Second, the young man volunteered himself to become a bad Karma enforcer. He wanted to be Evelyn Couch from Fried Green Tomatoes. Key their car. It’s Karma, baby. My evils are justified retribution. Your evils need payback.

The problems with Karma are, 1) What counts as good or bad Karma? And, 2) who or what enforces justice or universal balance?

Who determines that the beggar and self-proclaimed dispenser of good Karma really represents an opportunity to earn good Karma? What makes this guy Karma-worthy of my dollar? Did he do a bunch of good deeds and has extra Karma stored up he’s just waiting to pass around? And what exactly counts as a good deed? Furthermore, how do I know he isn’t down on his luck as some Karmic payback for a past evil? Maybe instead I should be an agent of Karmic retribution (i.e. justice). I could drive by and yell an insensitive slur and glibly conclude Karma’s a bitch.

When bad things happen, what justifies our moral indignation? What makes it wrong for a person to steal a parking space or damage another person’s vehicle? And who is going to make sure all the evils are rightly dealt with? If it’s just a feature built into the universe, who put it there?

That’s why I prefer the biblical refrain, you reap what you sow. It reminds us that there are things that by their nature are good or bad. Some deeds are good seeds that over time will become good crop. Bad seeds grow bad crops. It reminds us that there should be a direct connection between the evil deed and the just punishment. Stubbing my toe on a rock is not the natural or appropriate punishment for littering. But under the Karma scheme, I never know what I’m paying for when I suffer. The imagery of sowing and reaping are also more concrete and remind us that the principles of good and evil and justice are part of the real, created order. They are not something mystical or ethereal. I cannot randomly volunteer to be the good or bad thing that you must reap anymore than I can volunteer to be the corn stalk you just planted.

So next time, instead of nodding along knowingly when you hear someone tsk tsk and chide, Karma’s gonna get him, offer up the biblical refrain, you reap what you sow. Then thank God that He is just. Then ask Him to be merciful.

* Perhaps I should start selling Karma credits. This is by far a better gig than selling carbon credits. It’s almost up there with selling indulgences. Give me a dollar and you’ll have good Karma for a week.

** My wife and I secretly feared it was our van.

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