Karma: How we imagine the universe seeks justice.

Matthew 5.38-42, Luke 6.29-31.

KARMA 'kɑr.mə noun. The sum of one’s deeds in this life (and previous lives), used to decide one’s fate in future lives or the afterlife.
2. The sum of one’s deeds in this life, used to decide one’s fate in this life.
3. One’s destiny or fate, seen as the result of one’s deeds.
[Karmic 'kɑr.mɪk adjective.]

Karma is a Hindi word, from the Sanskrit karman, “fate.” Because Hindus and other eastern religions believe in reincarnation, karma has to do with why you’re born into your particular family, class, comfort level, or caste: You deserved it. Not from anything you did in this life; it’s the actions of your previous life, and when you got reborn, the universe assigned you to the place you deserved. If you were good in your previous life, now you’ve been rewarded with a blessed life; if your life sucks, it’s your own fault for being bad in your past lives. Be good now, and maybe next time you’ll be born into a better caste. ’Cause evil means the universe will assign you a worse life. You might even be reborn as some icky creature, like a cockroach or gnat.

When Hindus talk karma, it’s usually in that context: Why they need to be good. Why they deserve to be in the caste they’re in. Why others deserve to be in the castes they are. (And how they justify treating lesser castes like crap, even though proper Hindu teachings frown on treating anyone evilly; it’s bad karma! But just as there are many sucky Christians, there are many sucky Hindus.)

But when westerners speak of karma, most of us aren’t thinking of reincarnation. We’re thinking of the afterlife: Goodness gets you into heaven, and badness puts you into hell. No that’s not how it works, but that’s the popular pagan idea. And when we look into every human culture, we find this idea there: Goodness earns you a good destiny, and evil gets you a bad one.

But we don’t just use this idea to describe the afterlife. Humans believe it applies to this life as well. Be good, and good things will come to you. Be evil, and some day there will be a reckoning. It’s how the universe works, they claim. It’s a natural law. You get what’s coming to you. You reap what you sow. What goes around comes around.

It’s in the bible, isn’t it?

Galatians 6.7-8 KWL
7 Don’t deceive yourselves: God isn’t sneered at.
Whatever a person plants, they’ll harvest.
8 Hence those who plant things in their own flesh will harvest gangrene out of their flesh,
and those who plant things in the Spirit will harvest life in the Spirit in the age to come.

Various Christians who believe in karma insist it certainly appears to be in there. Unlike pagans and nontheists, who figure it’s how the universe naturally works, Christians are kinda divided as to how it works. Some of us think God built it into the universe, and others think God’s personally dispensing the blessings upon good people, and bad stuff upon bad people.

Other Christians figure God’s holding off on these judgments till the End. In the meanwhile, any good things experienced by good people are either coincidences, or the result of people wanting to reward good deeds and punish evil deeds. Because let’s face it: There are a lot of good people who get crapped on, and a lot of evil people who get away with stuff. Life is unfair that way. And yeah, that’s in the bible too.

Ecclesiastes 4.1 KWL
I came back and looked at all the oppressed people under the sun.
Look at the oppressed’s tears!—and no one to rescue them.
Power in their oppressors’ hand—and no one to rescue them.
 
Ecclesiastes 7.15 KWL
I saw it all in my vaporous days:
There’s a righteous man getting destroyed because of his righteousness.
There’s a wrongdoer living large thanks to his wrongdoing.

Much as people wanna believe in karma, believe the universe sorts out good and evil people and gives them what they deserve, we know plenty of cases where that’s not happening; where people live as “exceptions” to this rule of karma. I would argue we mostly know “exceptions”; for some of us, we know nothing but “exceptions.” And I’d also argue most of the reason they remain exceptions is because nobody lifts a finger to bring justice to the situation, ’cause we assume the universe is gonna do it for us. Meanwhile evil people keep right on doing evil, and good people keep suffering.

In fact there are a whole lot of evil people who are counting on the rest of us clinging to karma. Because it’s how they justify their prosperity and wealth. “I’m doing well because I deserve to do well; I’m doing something right, and you’re not.” It’s the very same thing as the Hindus who insist they deserve to be in their castes… and the poor and needy deserve to be ignored and mistreated for the same reason. We may not be Hindus, but we’ve fallen for the same fiction.

God does grace. Not karma.

Whether we call it karma, reciprocity, eye for an eye, Ex 21.24 tit for tat, or balance in the universe, it’s a human idea. It’s how we work.

Well, on our better days. Left to our own devices, humans want satisfaction: We wanna punish evildoers till we feel better. Frequently with a punishment which doesn’t remotely fit the crime. Somebody offends me, so I ruin his life and drive him to despair. Somebody insults my honor, so I duel her and shoot her. Somebody raped Simeon and Levi’s sister, so they murdered the rapist’s entire city. Ge 34 Humans are creatures of extremes, and we take vengeance to extremes too. It’s why the LORD had to mitigate these extremes by telling the Hebrews “eye for an eye”—if you’re truly seeking justice, you don’t go overboard.

But God’s ideal has never been reciprocity. It’s always been grace. It’s what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5.38-42 KWL
38 “You heard this said: ‘Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21
39 And I tell you: No standing toe-to-toe with evil.
Instead, whoever punches you on the right cheek: Turn the other cheek to them.
40 To those who want you judged, to take your tunic: Forgive them, and let go of your clothing.
41 Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.
42 Give to one who asks you. Don’t drive off one who wishes to borrow from you.”
 
Luke 6.29-31 KWL
29 “To one who hits you on the cheek, offer the other also.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

Now, have you ever seen someone turn the other cheek in real life? Probably not. Most of the time, when someone gets socked in the jaw, they don’t get back up and offer the other side of their face. They punch back. Christians included. People simply don’t follow this instruction: They retaliate. It’s human nature. You hit me, I hit you. Bruise for bruise. We’ll justify it by quoting the bible verses which let us return bruise for bruise.

Now, in movies you sometimes see someone turn the other cheek. But the reason they do it actually isn’t because they’re trying to follow Jesus. It’s ’cause they’re trying to intimidate the person striking them, “Look what a badass I am. That was the best you could do? Your mother kisses harder. I could stand to take another punch. Go ahead. Hit me again. I dare you.” Yep, it’s a hostile act.

Ever seen someone have an item taken away from them, and in response they offer to give up something else? Again, they’re not doing this ’cause they’re following Jesus. It’s part of a tantrum: “Oh, so you’re repossessing my car? Well here! Why don’t you take my driver’s license while you’re at it! Take my bike! Take my bus pass! Take every means I have of getting anywhere! Here, you can have my shoes!” Again, it’s not done for any other reason than aggression and a lack of gentleness.

“Hit me again!” or “Go ahead, take it all!” are never done in the spirit Jesus wants of us. ’Cause when we interpret Jesus’s teachings, we primarily have to remember Jesus’s character. He wants us to do these things out of the Spirit’s fruit—out of love, patience, kindness, gentleness. Not rage. Not pique.

Μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ/Mi antistíne to poniró, “Don’t stand up to the evil,” tends to be interpreted, “Do not resist an evil person.” (NIV). But that contradicts “Resist the devil.” Jm 4.7 We’re meant to resist evil, not kowtow to it. There’s your sign we’re dealing with a bad interpretation. Do resist evil. But the way we resist evil varies, and sometimes the best way to do it is not to stand up to it. It’s not to face off, be self-righteous or passive-aggressive (or even full-on aggressive). It’s to be like Jesus, and overcome evil with good. Ro 12.21

So I interpret Jesus’s statement as “No standing toe-to-toe with evil.” Don’t adopt evil’s tactics. Don’t reciprocate with violence or vengeance. Don’t give in to the temptation to help karma along. Be gracious like our heavenly Father is gracious.

I’ve heard preachers point out more than once: A right-handed opponent is likely to hit the left side of your face. The only way they’d hit your right cheek is if they backhand you. For some reason, preachers assume this is worse than getting hit or punched any other way. More degrading; more insulting. But the fact is, people tend to be outraged when they’re hit in the face, no matter how they’re hit. And Jesus’s instruction tells us to stifle that outrage, our dignity, our vengeance… and expect more.

As for suing your tunic off: Jesus is actually using hyperbole. He didn’t mean someone who was literally suing you to get your tunic; he meant someone who was suing you for every cent you had, and if you had no money, they’d supposedly take the shirt off your back. But if you gave ’em your robe too… well, they actually couldn’t accept that. Because the Law required creditors to give back one’s robe every night at sundown, so people could at least have something to sleep in. Dt 24.12-13 Giving “thy cloke also,” (KJV) was therefore also hyperbole: If creditors wanna take everything, stop fighting and give ’em everything.

Why do people assume Jesus means giving people more than what they ask for? ’Cause of verse 41, going the extra mile:

Matthew 5.41 KWL
“Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.”

Under Roman law, a Roman soldier had the right to draft non-Romans to carry their gear for 1,000 paces. (Mille/“thousand” is where we get mile—even though it’s now more than 1,000 feet.) Problem is, Romans would cheat. They’d miscount the paces. Or, once you did your thousand and put down their gear, they’d immediately draft you again for another mile.

But rather than embrace the hurt feelings and outrage—“Hey, I’m done with my service!”—Jesus instructs us to quit thinking, “What’s the least I have to do before I’m done?” and just fulfill the whole obligation. If you have to carry a burden a few more steps, don’t pile a grudge on top of it. You’ll be carrying the grudge long after you put down the other burden.

Anyway, Christians read that extra-obligation idea back into the previous verses. And they don’t necessarily belong there. If someone sues your pants off, you do owe the money, so accept your circumstances. If someone punches your jaw, don’t escalate things; again, accept your circumstances. If a Roman makes you walk 1,300 paces, that’s annoying, but don’t let it eat you up inside; accept your circumstances.

None of this is about inviting extra abuse upon ourselves. It’s about the fact life will sometimes suck. Stop looking to balance the score. Stop seeking karma or reciprocity, whether it’s merited or not. Accept the circumstances, embrace serenity, and get on with your life.

Fairness, justice, and grace.

I’ve heard this preached many times: “The word ‘fairness’ isn’t in the bible. Go ahead and look. You won’t find it.”

Well no, not in the KJV or NKJV. But better not give ’em an ESV or NASB (appears twice), or the GNT (four times), or NLT (seven times), or NET (14 times). See, it all depends on the translation. The specific word might not be found in your bible. The concept is definitely there. It tends to be translated “justice.” You did know “fair” and “just” are synonyms, right?

But like karma, westerners redefine justice so that it no longer means “fair or reciprocal behavior”—like eye for eye, tooth for tooth. When people say they “want justice,” what they now mean is they wanna see people get what they deserve… in the negative sense. Someone did ’em wrong, and they want the wrongdoer punished. More accurately they want revenge. Since revenge isn’t allowed under our laws, they’ll settle for the next best thing: “Justice.” Meaning a great big fine, prison, or the death penalty. Given the option, they’d prefer the death penalty. But that’s what “justice” has become in our culture: Fair punishment.

Justice means more than that in the scriptures. ’Cause God wants us to be fair with one another. When we see things going wrong, he wants us to make things right. He’s more pleased with that, than when we offer him sacrifices. Pr 21.3 What more does he want of us than to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God? Mc 6.8

I bring up justice and fairness ’cause I’m trying to explain the cultural baseline which Jesus was starting from. Our culture does karma, which is kinda like justice. But unlike the scriptures, we expect the universe to make things right. We expect God to punish evildoers, reward the righteous, or help the needy. Not us; that’s not our job. We’re fellow recipients of karmic payouts.

Just goes to show how disconnected we are from God.

Meanwhile Jesus is trying to teach grace. If someone punches you, don’t punch back. If someone penalizes you, don’t try to get out of it. If someone obligates you, don’t perform the bare minimum. If people ask your help, don’t drive ’em off. You know, like Moses said in the Law:

Deuteronomy 15.7-11 KWL
7 “If there’s a needy person among you—one of your brothers, at one of your gates
in your land which your LORD God gives you,
don’t close your mind. Don’t shut your hand to your needy brother.
8 Open, open your hand to him. Promise, promise whatever he needs, whatever he lacks.
9 Watch yourself, lest there’s this useless thought in your mind,
saying, “Sabbath year is near—the year debts are canceled,”
and you eye your needy brother warily, and won’t give to him.
He’ll call to the LORD against you. It’s a sin for you.
10 Give, give to him. Don’t do evil in your mind in giving to him.
For this reason, your LORD God blesses all your work, all your hand creates.
11 There will never stop being needy people in the land. Therefore I command you,
saying: Open, open your hand to your brother, to your poor, to your needy, in your land.”

This attitude flies in the face of popular culture. Including popular Christian culture. Plenty of Christians will likewise insist we should offer the needy “a hand up, not a handout.” Plenty of people—both in Jesus’s day and now—take advantage of generosity, and accept handouts regardless of their own ability to provide for themselves. They milk the system. Jesus knows this. Knew this when he taught us to give to those who ask of us. Yeah, they might scam us. Even so. Fight your tendency to want to get your own back. Put others first. Do for them. Be generous. Even if it’s “unfair.”

It’s a hard command for a lot of Christians. One we tend to ignore: Look at all the Christians who are insistent, even proud, that we stand up for our rights, and stop people from taking advantage of us. In American culture it’s considered shameful to let someone have the advantage over us. Yet Jesus orders us to let ’em.

Yes, we have rights. No, it’s not fair when others exploit us, or take from us. Karma fans expect when we’re mistreated this way, the universe will step in and rectify things. When they’re Christians, they’ll even preach it: “Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek because, at the End, that cheek-slapper will get his. Jesus’ll see to it.” In fact Jesus said no such thing. In fact Jesus wants the opposite: He wants that cheek-slapper to repent, turn to him, be saved, and beg forgiveness. Jesus wants that cheek-slapper to get away with it, and enter his kingdom.

Same as you. And me. And everyone. How many cheeks—literal or figurative—have we slapped? And Jesus wants us all to get away with it. That’s what grace means.

Jesus wants his followers to demonstrate this grace. Yeah, we can try to make things equitable, balance things out, or get even. Might feel really good about ourselves for doing so. Might feel great satisfaction. But he wants us to be bigger people than that. Let it go. Forgive, in favor of people who need saving. Be merciful instead of “fair.” Seek to help the needy instead of seeking “justice.” Show ’em grace instead of righteous anger.

It’s why Jesus caps off this teaching, in Luke, with the “golden rule”: Do as you’d like done to you. Lk 6.31 You want God to show you grace and mercy when Jesus takes his glorious throne? Show grace and mercy to others. You want people to give you the benefit of the doubt? Go and do likewise.

Be generous. Not because they’ll then owe you, but because it’s how our Father works. It’s how his kingdom works—and you wanna be ready for it, right?