Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, and author of the recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, states that, if you want to know why different people hold different positions on issues, you should "follow the sacred". That is, what different people hold as sacred (it could be a place, a text, an ideal, or so forth) is what will drive their arguments. And, as the title of his book suggests, these arguments can be over both politics and religion. He (and his colleague) identify six ideas fundamental to moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.
I was struck by one of those, and his discussion surrounding it: fairness. Haidt (in an interview) observed that all of us believe in fairness, it's just that Republicans and Democrats, by and large, view fairness through a different sacred lens. For Republicans, fairness equates to proportionality; for Democrats, it equates to equality. So, why someone from either group mights claim "It's not FAIR", a member of the other group might, in their minds, rightly claim, "Yes it is!" I've been playing with that distinction in my mind for several days now, having found myself in various contexts (and recalling the arguments about various election issues) that have related to fairness.
Fairness, of course, is pretty religious issue. Many of the stories of the patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures have questions of fairness at their base (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, etc.). And certainly a number of Jesus' more well-known parables challenged his listeners' (and our) concept of fairness. A chief example is know as "The Laborers in the Vineyard" (Matthew 20.1-16) in which a vineyard owner hires a number of day-laborers over the course of a day . . . and pays them all the same. Those who had worked all day didn't think it fair that those who worked an hour received the same wage. Most of us would agree.
Another of Jesus' well-known parables, that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32) also plays with the theology of fairness. The young son takes his half of the inheritance and squanders it, returning home, only with the hope that he'll at least get a meal. The older son, seeing the party their father threw for the young degenerate is furious! "It isn't fair!" he cries. "I've slaved for you, dad, and you've not thrown me a party. But for the brat? You've killed the fatted calf!!" Again, many of us would side with the thinking of the older son: "Work hard, and you'll be rewarded; party hearty and you'll pay the price. It's only fair."
What strikes me about both of these parables, and, indeed, a lot of our thinking about fairness, is that we have a particular perspective from which we evaluate the story. Probably none of the laborers in the vineyard felt the way the payment was awarded to be "fair". The long-working folks felt they were getting ripped off; the others felt lucky. The same could probably be said of the two sons. Both sets of characters believed and operated within a system that didn't seem to play right for any of them.
But there are yet other perspectives to consider: that of the vineyard owner or that of the father. For them, it didn't seem like "fairness" was the issue at all. Both of the parables are about generosity and/or mercy. And I've often thought that we really don't want a God who is fair. Because how many of us really want what we deserve? We more often want a God who is on our side of the fairness issue -- giving to the others their just desserts. And we're happy that we seem to be on the mercy-receiving end most of the time.
Much of the biblical witness, however, de-emphasizes fairness in favor of mercy. In Islam, a primary quality of Allah is mercy. One of the most popular figures in Buddhism in Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. We all want and need mercy.
So I wonder, what might it mean, in our religious and political debates, if we asked, not about whether or not something was "fair", but whether it was "merciful"?
I suppose it still would be something akin to looking at an Escher drawing. Are figures walking up? Down? Across? Each of them would probably have a different perspective on the other; they might consider their place in the drawing as "sacred". But from above? Different entirely.