Sunday, December 2, 2012

On Fairness, Equality, and Father Christmas

Snow now covers the mountains around me, my Christmas tree gleams and sparkles, and eleven stockings hang expectantly up my staircase. I’ve been knitting and sewing and shopping, trying to find fun and suitable gifts for everyone. I try my best to be fair, but that’s a tall order. Despite old lump-of-coal traditions, I believe Christmas is a time to commemorate God’s gifts to us.

In fact, twice each year we celebrate the overwhelming fairness of God – at Christmas when we remember His grace in sending His son into this fallen and hopeless world and at Easter when we celebrate the resurrection and its signal that all our debt has been paid.  Such amazing justice – by one man all sin came into the world, and by one man all sin can be forgiven. It doesn’t get much fairer than that.

(Though we must also remember that what happened to Jesus Christ on that fateful Passover was not fair; He was perfect, yet He went to the cross and took the punishment that was ours – the greatest unfairness ever buying the greatest grace ever – an odd and amazing balance.)

Fairness is a balancing act; we must weigh evidence, measure effort, make ourselves aware of mitigating circumstances, and erase all of our pre-conceived notions. Look at Lady Justice holding her scales high, insisting on perfect equilibrium. Of course, for God, perfect justice is possible because, in His omniscience, He has all the facts – He knows what happened in Benghazi; He knows how the Koch brothers and Warren Buffet acquired their wealth. He is as aware of motivations as He is of actions. We don’t have that luxury, so our fairness is never perfect.

And lately it’s been quite clear to me that we suffer from a national confusion about what fairness entails even in its simplest form. Amidst all the holiday excitement there lurks in my soul a terminal annoyance with the infantile drum beat about the successful and their “fair share.”  What does it mean to be fair?

Fairness is not equality.  Fairness has nothing to do with amounts. Only 5-year-olds think that. Picture a fat, trembling lower lip and crocodile tears, “Johnny got 5 and I only got 3. That’s not fair.” It’s not equal. It may be fair. Maybe Johnny worked longer or harder or is older. Fairness is connected to balance – we want to balance the work with the wage agreed upon, the crime with the appropriate punishment, the reward with the results. Equality is just a mathematical term and is, in its literal sense, only about numbers and things that can be counted – money, percentages, lollipops. When we conflate the two ideas we rob justice of its soul, reducing it to some merely material substance that can be stacked up and tallied. We use the term fairness sloppily when we make it about equality: we use the term equality dishonestly when we make it about race or gender or wealth.