Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Is Instant Karma a Thing?

Karma is a thing. All you need to do is Google it and you’ll run into scores of companies and NGOs that trade on the name, “Karma.” There is the ill-fated, all-electric supercar, the Fisker Karma, reincarnated last month as a Chinese brand. Karma Wellness Water has lots of probiotics but only 20 calories for long life. Karma Kreme orange flower and patchouli oil body lotion is to die for. There’s a Karma co-op, a Karma cafĂ©, and Karma condo, all in Toronto, and a hundred more businesses with “Karma” in the name. Karma is a thing. But what, exactly?

The word, “karma” has passed into popular culture as a trendy, hip thing that doesn’t have much to do with its roots. Now, what I want to talk about today is a specific kind of popular karma, Instant Karma. But for that to make any sense, you need to bear with me for a few minutes while I explain not Instant Karma, but ancient karma—its roots. Originally, in Buddhism, karma was a sort of moral bank account.

You see, Buddhists believe in reincarnation—that when we die our souls will be reborn into another body. What body we are going to be born into depends on our karma account: the sum total of the good and the bad we did while we were alive.

Evil actions, in this life, like killing, stealing, and lying are bad karma and will lead to rebirth lower down the social ladder, or perhaps even lower down on the evolutionary ladder. Good actions, on the other hand, such as generosity or kindness adds to your karma and leads to a step up in the next life.

In other words, in Buddhism, you are judged when you die, though not by a god, since Buddhists don’t believe in gods. You are judged by the very laws of nature, by the moral structure of the universe—however that works, exactly. So, for example, the Buddha himself once said:

Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea,
Nor by hiding in a mountain cave:
No place on earth is to be found
Where one might escape one’s wicked deeds.

On the other hand, traditional Christians do not believe in reincarnation. They believe, rather, that the soul, upon death, either goes to heave or some other such good place; or the soul goes to hell. I’m speaking of traditional Christian here, because actually there I a lot of debate about such things now in nearly all Christian churches. The idea of hell is definitely in decline.

But that basic idea about judgment is also present in our text from Galatians. It suggests that when we die, God will judge us for the good or evil we have done. If we live a corrupt life, we will die—eternally; and if we live a spiritual life, we will live, in bliss, eternally.

Now, there is a sermon or two here, on what really does happen when we die—reincarnation up or down the ladder of life, based on our karma; or, judgement to either heaven or hell or something like that. For now, as far as such judgment is concerned, suffice it to say that there is another Biblical theme that appeals much more to me—that is the theme of grace. We are “saved,” whatever that exactly means, not because we’re so good, but because the overwhelming picture of God in scripture is one on the side of life, redemption, and new beginnings. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5, one day all things shall be made new. When we die, the Biblical vision is that on the basis of grace we will awake to a whole new adventure.

So that’s the traditional thinking of both Buddhism and Christianity with respect to karma. But getting back to karma being a thing—it’s Instant Karma that people usually think of, rather than the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation.

Everybody’s favorite karma these days is Instant Karma, especially the karma that gets people back. I’ve picked three popular vine videos to illustrate what Instant Karma is all about.

1. A Man and His Cat

2. A Cat and Its Treat

3. A Boy and a Girl

Instant Karma is the idea that the universe instantly rewards people for the good they do and trips them up for the bad they do. Like these slogans suggest:

So what is going on? Well, we all want life to be fair. And looking for Instant Karma is a kind of magical thinking rooted in our deeply held desire that life be fair.

We do this sort of magical thinking all the time, though often unconsciously. Our pervasive and magical belief in Instant Karma is the subject of many psychological studies, too. For example, in one experiment described in the journal Psychological Science, some students at a job fair were led to think that the job search process was really beyond their control. That is, those hiring were picking resumes from the pile without scrutinizing them. Other students were led to believe that getting the job totally depended on the quality of their resumes.

Now, at the same job fair, a charity was soliciting donations from those who applied for work. Time and again, the psychologists observed that the applicants who did not believe that getting the job actually depended on their resumes donated more money to the charity than the applicants who thought it all depended on the quality of the resume. The big donors were counting, perhaps unconsciously, on Instant Karma helping them get the that job.

In a follow-up study, job seekers who were encouraged to see their job search as beyond their control were discovered to be measurably more optimistic about landing a job if they gave money to an unrelated charity, especially compared to those who did not give at all.

Instant Karma. We manipulate Karma to get what we want by offering Karma some delectable treats. We unconsciously scratch Karma’s back, hoping that it will scratch us in return.

But here is the thing. There is no such thing as Instant Karma, and we think about it, we know it, since life is demonstrably unfair.

For example, we all know that many innocent children have died in Aleppo, but that Bashar al-Assad nevertheless still rules. We all know that some unkind people get rich and some poor people are saints. We all know that some politicians go through multiple bankruptcies, spew innumerable racist comments, and don’t pay their contractors, even after they have satisfactorily finished their work, but nevertheless are major party candidates. Instant Karma is a nice thought, but it isn’t exactly built into the structure of life.

The Bible agrees. Jesus says, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Jesus, our ideal for doing the right thing was himself rewarded with death on the cross for his acts of love. How is that for Instant Karma? God isn’t sitting in his throne-room with a calculator, throwing out blessings or curses depending on your running score.

Life isn’t fair. Good deeds often go unnoticed and evil is rewarded. Sometimes—in war, when Tsunamis strike, or when we’re born mired in poverty—some of us suffer for no reason that we can see at all.

Life isn’t fair.

There are many mysteries here. There is the mystery of God. If God isn’t running the world on the basis of rewarding the good, punishing the evil, then what is God doing? We’ll examine this question next week.

Still, there is one crucial and hopeful thing I do want to say about life being unfair. We have an antidote, and you won’t find it far away in heaven. The antidote is here and now: living in community. For if God isn’t sitting up there with a calculator doling out blessings and curses based on how good we are, then we are going to have to rely on each other, instead. God may not have a calculator, but we have love and compassion, grace and kindness, resources of time and money. We can dole out such things to address each other’s unfair misfortunes.

In the absence of Instant Karma, we can support each other through life’s ups and downs, and even life’s endings. And, at root, that’s what church is all about. We are a community that picks each other up when we fall, that forgives those who fail, that holds each other accountable when we want to quit, that—like Christ—embraces those who have been rejected, suffers with each other when there is no cure, and visits when anyone is lonely.

Instant Karma, though superficially appealing, isn’t really a thing. But our church, Lawrence Park Community Church, is a very real thing. In the words of this morning’s scripture we “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill [not the law of karma] but the law of Christ.” God may not be in heaven with a calculator, ready to dole out Instant Karma, but as Jesus once said, where two or three are gathered in his name, here, living in community, God is with is nonetheless.

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