“God Is Not Fair”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Cain and Abel, that familiar pair of brothers from the story in Genesis, are where I begin today. It is a frustrating story in some parts. It begins with a problem that strikes me as a problem of fairness, or perhaps as a question of how to deal with disappointment in the face of unfairness. Cain, the eldest, tills the land like his father before him. Abel, the youngest, raises sheep. They both bring something of their work as an offering and God favors one brother’s offering over the other. There is no overt explanation given in the text, though over the generations explanations have arisen to justify God’s regard for one and not the other. But in the text alone, there is no indication. Instead of God offering any reason for accepting Abel’s offering and not accepting Cain’s, God chooses to issue Cain a warning. “Sin is lurking at your door.”
I’ve never liked this part of the story; it’s hard to work with. Later, Cain kills his brother. Cain rises up in anger and kills his brother and when God asks him where his brother Abel is, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s Keeper?” I can work with that part of the story. Yes, we are each other’s keepers. Yes, anger leading to violence is a core piece of what is wrong with the world today. Yes, forgetting that we are all brothers and sisters and that we have work to do to care for one another, that we are each other’s keepers … Yes, this is powerful stuff, great story, it’ll preach!
But the earlier part, the set up for Cain’s anger, that part of the story I have trouble with. I have a colleague who rewrote passages like this, like a modern UU psychoanalytic midrash. My colleague has Cain challenge God and God basically says, “Yeah, you’re right Cain. I’m sorry I’ll try to be a better parent.” Ed Freidman wrote a fun case study piece about the first dysfunctional family featuring Cain and Abel as well as Adam and Eve. It’s really unsatisfactory to me to reduce the story of Cain and Abel to a question of sibling rivalry and parenting technique. prefer the interpretations that see Cain and Abel as aspects of our human nature or of the evolution of society.
But I actually want to set all that aside for today and look at the character of God in this story, rather than Cain or Abel. Because in this passage, God seems quite unfair. This is the beginning of the “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s the beginning of the questions of “Why does anything happen to any person?”
Life is unfair, that’s not news. Everyone has noticed that. “Every night and every morn some to misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” (William Blake) These earliest stories in the Bible are records of the questions people asked thousands of years ago. So I work in the fields raising sheep and my neighbor works in the fields raising fruits and vegetables. Or maybe I catch fish in the bay and my neighbor hunts gazelle on the plain, it doesn’t really matter – but in this story one is a shepherd and the other a farmer. And life is unfair. One of us prospers at the work and the other does not. I and my family remain in good health while my neighbor grows ill, while disaster strikes, while trouble compounds. “Every night and every morn some to misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” Why?
I subscribe to a daily poem and one morning my poem was actually a brief story accompanied by a photo and its explanation. The photo was by Rashid Un Nbi from the MILK collection, MILK stands for Moments of Intimacy, Laughter, and Kindness. The MILK collection is quite remarkable. The photo I opened this particular morning was of a man carrying another man along a busy street. The explanation reads “These twin brothers were caught on film as they made their way down Elephant Road in Dhaka, Bangladesh. One brother, crippled since birth, is carried by his twin.”
The story posing as a poem to accompany my photo is this: There is an old Sufi story about three men who found a bag of 17 gold pieces in a field they could not decide how to share the gold so they went to Mullah Nasrudin and asked him to decide. He asked them, “Would you have me divide it as I see fit or as God would do it?” “As God would do it.” They all said at once. “Here, then,” said the Mullah, “ten for you, five for you, and two for you.”
Anthropologically, in pre-scientific times, God has been a place holder for any unexplainable aspect of life. If it doesn’t make sense, it is the work of the gods. If we don’t understand life, God is the clarifier. As our understanding of life and biology and psychology has grown over the ages, so our understanding of God’s place in it all also shifts. So much of what we had pinned on God we now understand to be the products of natural laws, physics, biology, sociology and psychology. And yet the question seems to linger: Why do I prosper when my neighbor does not? Maybe my neighbor did something displeasing to God.
In the story of Cain and Abel, there is no indication that God did not accept Cain’s offering because God was displeased with Cain – God is displeased with Cain later when he murders his brother. But the reason why God did not accept Cain’s offering is asking a different question. Neither Cain nor Abel did anything in particular to warrant God’s favor or disfavor. God’s actions at the beginning of this story come off as truly capricious! It’s not tied to what Cain or Abel offered or how they behaved.
The question is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?” in this story. The question is more like “Why do bad things and good things happen to people unevenly?” “Why is life unfair?” And the answer to that mystery in this story is that God is unfair. And why is God unfair? It’s a mystery. And isn’t that bit of circular logic frustrating and unsatisfactory. When you are faced with disaster and suffering and loss, and someone says, “God moves in mysterious ways,” it is bordering on cruelty. “Sorry for your loss, it is awful what you are going through.” That is helpful to say, comforting. “It’s all part of God’s plan, God moves in mysterious ways.” That’s akin to saying, “God is not on your side anymore. God has deserted you. And I’m going to be over here with God.” God had no regard for Cain’s offering and God appears to have no regard for your pain, your loss, your offering.
Surely it would have been better to say Life is unfair and leave God out of it. But then in a thorough monotheism, God cannot be left out of any of it. That is the problem. One brother can walk, the other is born cripple. What has God to do with it?
There is a classic conundrum in Christian theology called the theodicy issue. God is all powerful, and God is good and loving, and yet evil and suffering exist. Why? Many people have wrestled with this intellectual puzzle over the years. One of my favorite examples is from the movie Shadowlands, a portrayal of the life of C. S. Lewis, the children’s author and Christian apologist. In the movie, Lewis is regularly giving lectures explaining how suffering is God’s way of helping us grow up. When he finally experiences his own deep suffering, when someone he loves is dealing with a great amount of physical pain, he changes his statements to questions. He says, “even I want to take her pain away, why doesn’t God?” (paraphrasing) It all comes down to a question of either God’s capacity for compassion or God’s breadth of power. Either God can’t or God doesn’t care to.
There is a Bette Midler song from 1990 called “From a Distance” that I think offers a perspective on this. God’s view is the big picture, the whole universe. Our individual lives and worries are miniscule in that big picture. Harmony and beauty shine though from the big picture. It offers comfort in the sense that God is watching and ultimately all is well. The lyrics of the song, however, show what some see as the hidden negative inside an otherwise very elegant theology.
From a distance we all have enough,
and no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
no hungry mouths to feed.
It sounds like God doesn’t see the hungry mouths, the disease and war, what with being so far away from us and focused on the beautiful harmony of all life. I read somewhere that the artist who wrote the song (Julie Gold) interprets her song to be about an imminent and beneficent god. But when I hear the song it sounds to me like a very transcendent and uncaring god.
In exploring this issue among Unitarian Universalists, I have discovered many of us, if we do hold to a monotheistic sense of divinity, hold truer to the God of Universalism, the God of Love. And most Unitarian Universalists are ready to see limits in the scope of God’s power. We solve the classic Christian Theodicy issue by saying God is not all powerful. God cares, God’s love is true, but limited by our human capacity to bring fairness and justice into our lives – and thus allow God’s power to be manifest. God’s power is in our response.
In the story, God is used to show that life is unfair – on brother’s offering is accepted while the other brother’s offering is not. But a Universalist reading of this would say life is unfair and God’s role in the cause of that unfairness is irrelevant. Either God created the world this way or it evolved randomly this way, or God created the world so as to evolve randomly or chaotically or whatever. The greater point is that this is what we have. Life is unfair. God is in the response. God is love and love’s power is nothing in isolation, but when an opening is made, love can pour in.
In the story, God plays a second role. God warns Cain about how he can respond. “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When you most feel the bitter disappointment that life is unfair and seems to be unfairly tilted away from you, when disasters strike, when hurricanes destroy all you love, when tragedy tears your life to pieces, when one single simple loss hangs on your heart forever, be careful.
Be careful for in the midst of the suffering, there is something else also at your door waiting. In that story from thousands of years ago the author called it “sin.” I name it despair. And its desire is for you, but you must master it. God’s power is in our response. Despair turns us inward and tempts us to believe that no response is possible, the suffering is too great. Cain, the story says, grew angry. Some people turn their anger inward, others turn it outward. Cain turned his outward.
Our world is filled with anger over the injustice and unfairness of life. Fairness is a human concept. There is no fairness in nature. The cry for things to be fair comes early in our development. Children understand the concept of fair, perhaps better than adults. Justice is a human concept. Love transcends humanity. Dogs and deer and elephants show signs of love. The natural world is replete with indications that something like what we call love is well known and understand by all manner of life.
God is that spark of love within each of us; and more, God is that call of love to make the world a better place. Life is not spread evenly for all people, but by reaching out to others we can even it out more. Life is not fair, but by watching out for and supporting one another we can make it more fair. Blessing and suffering are not parsed out in an orderly fashion. There is always a little more here, less there, just barely enough for this and near overflowing for that. But that is not the end of the story, because how we respond greatly effects the outcome. It is not even or fair or just. That is our work: to bring more fairness and justice and love into life. And through this, God is fair. Through our work to make the world more fair, God is fair. God is in our response to suffering and disaster and pain and in this way, God is fair.
In a world without end,
May it be so.