Rev. Jeffrey B.
Why Good Things Happen
to Bad People
Sometimes, it’s hard to read the newspaper and not get outraged. The United States joins an international coalition to stop the
Libyan dictator Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people—and that’s probably a
good thing. But then, you have to ask: how did a God awful nut case like Gadhafi
get into power in the first place, and how has he held onto it for, like,
forty-something years? And think of the litany of other nutcases who have ruled
for almost as long: Ceausescu, Idi Amin, Kim Il Sung and his baby boy, Kim Jong
Il in North Korea—and we haven’t even gone beyond the 1980s, and haven’t even
touched upon your garden variety non-nutcase just plain dictators like Milosevic
in Serbia, or Mubarak in Egypt, or the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha (who was
actually probably a borderline nutcase, I think).
Now, history does provide the hope that, sooner or later, all tyrants
fall. They do; that’s an undeniable fact of history (so far, at least). But in
the meantime, think of the damage they wreck; and think of the power and wealth
they accumulate for themselves and their minions. Being a dictator is pretty
good work, even if it is just a temporary position of an indeterminate
And that makes me mad. Because as I’ve asked already: How do these bad
guys get into power in the first place?
But other things boggle my simple little mind, as well, and get me angry,
too. Why is it that some of the vainest, shallowest, truly uninspired
individuals-- entertainers and athletes and what-have-yous become multi-multi
millionaires, while millions of people work so hard, day in and day out, yet
seem always to remain little more than one paycheck away from homelessness?
In case you’ve been asleep for the last 30—or 50—or 70 years of your
life, let me let you in on a little secret about life:
Life isn’t fair. We know about the
tragedy of bad things happening to good people (that’s what we talked about last
week), and that is a question that really rends our souls sometimes. But it
really peeves us off, too, doesn’t it (in a different way, perhaps; on something
of a different level) when we look out at the world and see good things
happening to bad people-- or at least to people who don’t seem to
“deserve” them. No, I think you would be hard pressed to prove your point if you
were to argue the case that life is “fair”.
This sense of life’s injustice bothered the Old Testament psalmist,
too. Listen to his lament:
“For I envied the arrogant when I saw the
prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and
strong... they are not plagued by human ills... This is what the wicked are
like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my
heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.”
Or sometimes we might feel like the faithful workers in that parable of
Jesus: We show up on time. We do our jobs. We work-- work-- work, all the long
day. But then, we get the same pay as these Jehosophat’s-come-lately who only
show up for the last hour! “Where the heck is the justice in that?” we might
well ask. “What was Jesus trying to say in
Sometimes, it doesn’t seem as though God (or whoever is in charge) is
paying much attention to what’s going on here on earth.
We see the evil prosper and, you know, the idea of a hell—a great
divine comeuppance to set things right in the next life, if not in this one--
doesn’t seem like a bad theological idea.
The problem is, as Universalists, we’re not supposed to believe in hell.
That was, after all, the thing that set our religious forebears apart.
The faith of Universalism was marked by the deep and profound and radical belief
in universal salvation. Universalists believed that in time-- God’s
time-- everyone would be saved--
because God was a God of Love who would not sentence any of His children to
everlasting torment in the fires of hell. No mater how horrible or
heinous the life you lived here on earth, a just and loving God would not send
someone to hell eternally because of it.
But then it seems that we Univeralists are (as often is the case) in a
distinct minority in comparison to our fellow Americans.
According to a survey in Time
magazine, when asked the question “Do you believe in the existence of heaven,
where people live forever with God after they die?” a rather astounding 81%
answered yes. Even more noteworthy, I think, is that when people were asked, “Do
you believe in hell, where people are punished forever after they die?”,
63% answered “Yes.”-- that’s 18%
less than said “yes” about heaven-- but it’s still a pretty sizable majority.
But here’s the really interesting statistic: When asked “Do you think
you will go to hell after you die?”, only 1% said yes! Sixty-three
percent believe in hell, but only 1% think they’re going there... So, it’s not
just that “Hell is other people,” as Sartre declared; it’s also that hell is
for other people-- but not for any of us personally!
So most people seem to believe themselves to be in the category of the
righteous-- the saved-- to be among the “good people”-- not the “bad people”
we’re speaking of in this sermon.
Maybe we need to ask ourselves what basis are we using for our labels. On
what basis are divvying up the human race into “good” people and “bad”?
Now, apart from the really evil people that history has spawned--
the obvious, always-cited examples like Hitler and Stalin and maybe Gadhafi and
Simon Cowell-- what possible basis do we possibly have for judging the
“goodness” or “badness” of another human being?
I’m not necessarily talking about individual actions here, where I
think we can often (if not always) discern whether the motivations and
consequences of a person’s actions are positive or negative, life-affirming or
life-denying, just or unjust. Rather, I’m talking about deeper considerations
like the character or inherent worth of a particular person.
American presidents, for example, tend to be rather complex,
multi-faceted personalities. I went through the list, and I don’t think that any
of them (not even Nixon) fall readily into the category of “really evil people”.
Depending on one’s personal politics, you might think that they were good
presidents or bad ones; decent leaders or incompetent ones. For example, let’s
go way back in American history, to the 1990s, and take the case of our 42nd
President, William Jefferson Clinton. Now, all but the most partisan
supporters could deny that certain actions in which he engaged during his term
of office were downright stupid, reprehensible, and vile. So, based on these
actions alone, Bill Clinton might be described as lots of things: dumb, out of
control, undisciplined, opportunistic, greedy. But can we say that he’s “evil”;
that he’s a “bad” person? Who’s to judge? Who of us haven’t done things in our
lives that were dumb, that showed a lack of discipline, that attempted to make
use of our position for personal gain, that weren’t always true to the better
side of our natures?
Who is to say that even “good” people-- everyday people like you and me,
who do our best most of the time; who remain true to our values most of the
time; who probably don’t live lives interesting enough to give us the
opportunity to do anything “really evil”—that even good people like us can do
some pretty shady, not-very-ennobling things sometimes. Things we know we
shouldn’t have done. Things we feel terrible about afterwards. Things we wish
with all our hearts we could make up for (and maybe we try to).
Are those (relatively) few lapses of character enough to cast us down
into the pit of hellfire and damnation?
I don’t think so.
But maybe it should teach us a little humility when we deal with
imperfect creatures like ourselves.
We see the innocent suffer, and that bothers us, and well it should. It
rends our heart. “Why do bad things happen?” is a deep, deep spiritual
question that should haunt us and make us wonder.
But I’m not so sure anymore about whether we should spin our wheels
worrying about the converse-- worrying too much about the question I’ve posed
this morning: “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
Perhaps part of our problem is that we’re trying to fit divine, cosmic
considerations into human, worldly categories.
As I have said, I think we’re on very thin ice, most of the time, when we
try to judge who’s naughty or who’s nice, who’s “good” and who’s “bad”. As in
most things in life, most people-- most of us-- are probably somewhere in the
middle. In almost any field of human endeavor, there will always be greater and
lesser people than any one of us.
Does it really matter, cosmically, who has the $100,000 condo and who has
five million dollar mansion? Does it really matter, in God’s eyes, who makes the
$30,000 salary and who gets over $30 million a year to play baseball?
Those are questions which might rile us on an earthly plain, but they’re
hardly Great Cosmic Questions.
I think if you have an idea of an all-powerful, all-controlling Father
God in Heaven, zapping His way across the calendar of our days, controlling each
and every little event in our lives, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” of
the divine crossword puzzle, then I suppose that those questions could be
troublesome to you.
Maybe we need to let go of the idea that “cosmic justice’ is ever
going to manifest itself, in any kind of abiding way, in the affairs of this
human-made world. Instead, maybe we need to use the limited hours we have upon
this planet toward doing what we can (and I think that’s a lot more than we
realize) to secure more down-to-earth, this-worldly justice for our brothers and
sisters all around us.
Maybe questions of justice in this world are about “just us”-- and we
shouldn’t wait around for God, or the Universe, or the Eternal Hand of Being, or
whatever-- to correct situations which our own human avarice and cowardice and
greediness and stupidity have screwed up and have pushed out of whack. Maybe
it’s time for our hands-- our frail, callused, supple, beautiful, gentle,
strong, human hands-- to tip the scale back toward justice. To tip our own
little scales in our own little lives.
Maybe we have no well-manicured suburban vision of Heaven to which we can
cling. Maybe we have no fiery pit of Hell to which we can (intellectually at
least) send all those we don’t like. But maybe such ideas would be distractions,
anyway-- pulling our attention from the real work we have to do here and now: to
make this world a little more heavenly for our brothers and sisters all
around us; to make this world a little less hell-like for our sisters and
brothers all around us.
“Heaven and hell and all the gods and goddesses are within you,” Joseph
Campbell once said.
In these little lives of ours, we choose where it is that our souls will
abide. We choose whether, through our lives, we will worship a God of compassion
and love-- or a demon of avarice and hatred and fear and greed. We choose. In
every single thing we do, we choose.