I remember repeatedly reminding my children that, as Christians, we believe in grace, not karma. One instance remains vivid in my memory. One of my children climbed eagerly into the back seat of the car after school. She was giddy, hardly able to wait until the teacher shut the door to tell me about a happening on the playground. A classmate, one with whom she had a strained relationship, one who had that very day teased her about her relative lack of athletic skills, had, while showing off her own athletic prowess, unceremoniously fallen face first out of the swing. My child finished off the telling of this morality tale of instant retribution with a loud, satisfied, sing-songy, “Karrrrrrrmaa!”
Parent face palm.
“No,” I said, “We believe in grace, not karma.”
Kid eye roll. Steadfast smile undeterred for the remainder of the trip home.
What is striking about this exchange to me, both then and now, is how a cultural notion of karma was embedded in my children’s thinking from a very early age. The world is awash with the idea of retribution, someone getting what’s coming to them, or getting their just desserts. Small children understand the concept, even when it isn’t explicitly taught to them. (I know, I know, total depravity.)
My children had been exposed to Bible stories, knew the Lord’s Prayer and even the Apostles’ Creed by heart, sung “Amazing Grace” more times than they could count and yet, when it came down to the day-to-day interactions on the playground and in the classroom, their default organizing principal was, “Karrrrrmaa!”
Week after week we recite a prayer of confession and hear an assurance of pardon, but do we pray and receive them? Are we aware to our marrow of our need for mercy – God’s and others’ – or are we secretly (and not so secretly) hoping for some karma, because, compared to most, we aren’t that bad? I fear we have lost sight of the radical nature of the words we say on Sunday, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Maybe the children in our orbits are reflecting us, doing what we do rather than what we say.
Unless we have a deep sense of our need for God’s grace and mercy, we cannot extend it to others. Until we recognize the depth of our own sin and the price paid for our forgiveness, we may well speak of grace but we will live out of and long for a post-modern, cultural version of karma. Instead of realizing that not one of us is righteous, we will imagine that none but us – and those we deem like us – are righteous.
More and more, Miroslav Volf’s assertion that we live in a “culture stripped of grace” rings true. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. We salivate for not just karma, but for payback pressed down, shaken up and running over. Too often it isn’t justice we want to flow down like an ever-running stream, but revenge, humiliation and punishment.
Need evidence of this? Read through a random comment section on virtually any online article (religious websites are often especially vitriolic). Check out a Twitter rant or two. Pay attention to your own thoughts when you see that bumper sticker or listen to that family member at the holiday gathering. Grace, mercy and forgiveness aren’t the top three responses, are they?
And yet, if we look to Scripture, if we look to our Savior, forgiveness is paradigmatic for Christians. Not just forgiveness, but seven times seven, enemy-loving, radical forgiveness – this is the behavior that distinguishes us from a culture that so often cries with self-righteous satisfaction, “Crucify!”
In “The End of Memory,” Volf writes, “In light of Christ’s self-sacrifice and resurrection, the future belongs to those who give themselves in love, not to those who nail others to a cross.” Living into that future begins when we recognize – no, understand to our marrow – that Jesus took our place there, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That’s the debt that Christ paid for us. Will we respond with calls for karma or with demonstrations of grace?
Grace and Peace,