My parents crossed a major milestone this past weekend as my dad prepares to join my mom in official retirement from long, beautiful careers in education. Atlanta Youth Academy held its 8th grade graduation on Friday morning, which was also my dad’s graduation from 11 1/2 years of service there. The following night, a barbeque was held in my dad’s honor at which an unexpectedly large number of former graduates showed up to thank my dad for his role in their lives over the years. Many of them looked, in appearance, like the kids I see walking the streets in my neighborhood, and I was grateful to be given the corrective for my perspective to my typical assumptions about “those” folks in my neighborhood as I stood in the presence of these amazing kids. It was a night that celebrated overcoming stereotypes and division for the future health of everyone involved. My dad woke up the next morning, back in our neighborhood, to find his car window smashed and glass distributed so thoroughly over every part of the car that we both found ourselves bleeding just trying to clear to his seat of the shards.
Terrell, having just processed our own most recent car break-in, recognized his personal frustration that is would be Dad, who exuberantly gives to more people without any prioritization of skin color, financial holdings or social status, who is the one to continually have his car ravaged (stolen twice) or flower pots stolen. He then acknowledged, however, that thinking this way is karma, not the gospel. The belief in karma is that good people will have good things happen to them and bad people will be paid back for the bad things they do. It is because most of us somehow subscribe to this notion that we are so startled and undone when harm comes to us by the hands or words of another. Our mistaken assumption is two-fold: First, we assume that we deserve to be treated with mercy, kindness and generosity at all times and second that all people are inherently good and can be expected to make self-sacrificing choices to benefit others in most cases. Instead, reality proves what the Bible has declared true about humanity from the beginning.
The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. Gen. 6:5
The serpent tempted God’s image to image itself (himself and herself) rather than God, to build one’s own image, to feed one’s own image, to serve one’s own image above all others. In the past week alone, I have heard repeated in several different contexts the sentiment that different individuals must “look out for myself because nobody else will”. This is not the ruling principle for a beloved child who belongs to parents who take full responsibility for them, but the mentality of an orphan. When I determine to be my own god, determining for myself what is right and wrong according to the appetites of my own will, nobody around me matters as much as me. I don’t care if the house is a mess if I need a nap. I don’t care if I make my children cry by speaking harshly to them if I am stressed and in need of power and control. I don’t care if I am disrespectful to Terrell if I can blame him for some trouble that might justify myself.
But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matt. 15:18-19
In our neighborhood, selfish ambition and vain conceit shows up in the form of smashed car windows or physical assaults. But this manifestation of a self-serving heart is only different in kind but not in value from the affluent, white businessman who is rude and condescending to the hostess or waitress at a restaurant because he is entitled to be served while simultaneously disregarding the dignity and humanity of the person before him. Mockery of fat people, ugly people, poor people, country people, uneducated people is no more in line with imaging the humility, strength, love, mercy, nurture, compassion, self-sacrifice and dominion of God than the more physical acts of violence we see “in the ‘hood”. In all these things, we see evidence of humanity that seeks to elevate self above others, disregard others for one’s own gain and prefer destruction and division to the flourishing hand of an expert gardener who toils to bring flourishing life.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. Psalm 130:3-4
The story of redemption is the opposite of karma. The Good Man took all the repercussions for wickedness giving the wicked folks all the good He earned. It tells of a people who rejected Goodness to worship themselves, who murder, lie and commit adultery in all forms and fashions. It tells of a people who would rather slander, blame and make excuses than ask for forgiveness and seek restoration. And it goes on to tell of only One who was Good, who received all the pay back for all the destructive, divisive, deadly behaviors and offered life, healing and peace in return. As long as I continue to believe that people are basically good in need only of enough rest and food, I will continue to be discouraged by evidence to the contrary. When I begin to recognize that no behaviors or attitudes will ever change apart from changed hearts, hearts that would rather belong to God than be orphaned, I may then begin to seek God’s hand of redemption rather than fretting over the solution on my own by my own power.
Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. John 6:43-45