Good Karma (7/24/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
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University Congregational Church
When I was quite young my grandfather lived in an upstairs room in our Indiana home, and he loved to play his old records. I heard all the great big band music from a very early age. He also occasionally played some newer music—music that was not played on 78 rpm, but rather the new-fangled 33 rpm record format. One of the songs I heard many times had a chorus that maintained, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”
My grandfather was not an especially religious man, but much later in life I came to realize there is some great theology in that old song. In fact, if we examine the world’s great wisdom traditions, we discover they all point to a universal truth that can be summarized in the chorus of that song: When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.
There is something about the way reality operates—something about the way God created the universe—that makes those words from the song a reflection of some important cosmic law. And that law is sometimes called the Law of Karma. Less religious and more scientific minds would call it the Law of Cause and Effect.
This universal law is not limited to smiles. We could just as easily say, “When you’re frowning, the whole world frowns with you,” or, “When you’re crying, the whole world cries with you.” Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion, has a saying that goes, “He who injures others is sure to be injured by them in return.” Or, if we want to paraphrase in a way that goes with our familiar melody, “When you’re hating, the whole world hates with you.”
The notion of Karma is usually considered the domain of Eastern religions such as Taoism and Buddhism, but it is not their exclusive property. They just have the best word for it. The Apostle Paul was quite familiar with the concept behind Karma, if not the word itself. His friends once brought him word that the church he had started in Galatia had become dysfunctional. People were arguing among themselves and gossiping about one another. Paul wrote them saying, “If you bite and devour one another, you will be consumed by one another.” Karma. Cause and effect.
When we turn to the teachings of Jesus, we see the Law of Karma taken out of this world. Jesus had a knack for that—uniting the world in which we live, and the future that awaits us beyond our time in this mystery, into one vast kingdom—the kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “If you forgive others for their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.”
That puts a sort of “eternal” spin on things, but most of Jesus’ teachings were very down to earth. He seemed to be much more concerned with the effect our thoughts, words and deeds have on our own lives and the lives of those around us, than with their consequences for our futures beyond the grave. May of the teachings of Jesus deal with what happens to us and the world around us when we choose not lot love.
Consider his words from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but I say to you, do not return evil for evil.” What is Jesus saying here? This is pretty radical stuff! We all know that if we allow evil to go unchallenged it will run us over. But we should be cautious here about reading Jesus’ words too lightly. It is after his command not to return evil for evil that he says to turn the other cheek if we are struck. He is not telling us to run away from evil. He is not telling us to ignore evil. He is telling us to stand tall and face it down, without becoming evil ourselves.
Jesus was painfully aware of a truth God has built into the universe. We cannot fight evil with evil. Reduce things to their simplest terms. If evil battles evil, what wins? Evil. There is no other option. It is only when somebody has the restraint, wisdom and love to bring love into the equation that something other than evil has a chance to triumph.
Back to Karma—the law of cause and effect. If I am slapped on the cheek, my impulse—my natural inclination—is to strike back. And by the way, so my adversary will know not to do such a thing in the future, common sense says I should strike him back at least as hard—perhaps a little harder—than I was struck in the first place. There is a lesson here that he must learn. Strike me, and there are consequences.
But what happens next? Well, my opponent, slow to learn the lesson I have so gallantly tried to teach him, decides to belt me with a club. Such slow learners must be dealt with in the harshest of terms, and so I take an even larger club, and try to remind him with a good hard blow to the noggin that I am not one to be trifled with. So he takes a gun and shoots at me, to which I respond in the natural way—by taking a stick of dynamite and blowing his house to smithereens. So he gets a tank… and I get a jet fighter… and he gets an atomic bomb… so I get some biological weapons…
Where does it end? It doesn’t. We have entered into a cycle of violence and retribution that perpetuates itself indefinitely. It will never end until somebody stops hitting back. And honestly, the preceding scenario would have ended much better if I had simply refused to return evil for evil in the first place, after that first little slap on the cheek.
The Law of Karma is merciless, and unless we recognize it and use it to our advantage, it can destroy us. It destroys relationships between neighbors, fostering hatred and resentment over matters as trivial as overgrown trees, shabby fences, or trash cans left too long at the curb. And between nations the results can be catastrophic. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. I don’t know how or when that situation will resolve itself. But it will never resolve itself until both sides quit saying, like a couple of childish siblings, “He started it!” I’m reminded of an old saying my very wise friend Rabbi Davis once used to describe the thinking of both sides in that situation: “It all started when he hit me back.”
Well, we can’t solve the problems of the world, no matter how devoted we may be to the teachings of Jesus. But we have a lot more control over our personal lives, and the world we encounter day after day, than we usually acknowledge. God designed the world to be an ongoing creation. And in a very real sense, each of us shapes our own world with our thoughts and our actions. God really has built that truth into the fabric of the universe. We have been given the right to be affected by our own acts. Karma.
If you ever doubt the truth behind the Law of Karma, just drive your car around Wichita for a few days. For me at least, if I am running late, and not feeling very well, and just had an argument with some family member, I can assure you of one thing: every driver I meet as I travel across Kellogg is a horse’s patoot. Some of them are driving too fast, and some are driving too slowly, and some are not paying enough attention, and there’s a guy talking on his cell phone—ooh that hacks me off—and some are playing their stereos so loud I can hear them two blocks away, and who wants to hear that garbage anyway… And I become convinced that most of these people were born for the lone purpose of making my life miserable.
But then again, on an almost identical morning, if I’ve spent some time in prayer, enjoyed a nice breakfast with my family, and left the house with time to spare in order to make my first meeting of the day, well, the song says it best: When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you. The whole city is filled with courteous drivers hoping I have a great day!
Now let’s give this a little thought. This is indeed a mysterious universe, but it is highly unlikely that the manner in which I spend my morning before getting in my car has any real effect on the hundreds of drivers I encounter over the course of my drive. But there is something going on here—something real. This law of cause and effect—it’s not just ancient religion, and it’s not just new-age nonsense. It’s real. My actions, my thoughts, my moods, have a real effect on the way the world appears to me.
Many of you have read Deepak Chopra. He’s written many books. Well, like many writers, at least in my opinion, he’s written one book, and he keeps writing it over and over again, under different titles, and making lots of money with each publication. But I really like Chopra. He’s a Hindu who is very much into the Law of Karma, and one of his books is called The Seven Spiritual laws of Success.
I read this book many years ago when I was working ridiculously long hours for a division of ITT. It caught my eye because I had heard of Deepak Chopra, knew he was a respected religious thinker, and I was spending a lot of time on the road in motel rooms. Although they were critical to my business, reading technical manuals on engineered products involving the measurement of oil and gas had grown tedious. So I spent most of my evenings reading philosophy and religion, and decided I’d give Mr. Chopra a try.
In his book, Deepak Chopra suggests the reader try this experiment. One day, all day long, give something to everybody you meet. It may be a compliment, a flower, or even a silent prayer. But make a conscious effort to give something of yourself to every individual you encounter through the course of the whole day.
So that’s what I did. On the elevator, I silently wished peace and happiness to every person I saw. Whenever possible I complimented co-workers on their job performance. By the way, those who deserved no such praise still got the silent prayer!
At the end of the day, I was in a fantastic mood. I was energized, content—it was great to be alive. It had been one of those days when everybody I met seemed to love me. They were friendly, and helpful, and kind. Even the ones who received from me no more than a silent blessing themselves became a blessing to me!
This is one of the wonders of God’s glorious creation, and one of the great miracles of life. Karma is a good thing. The law of cause and effect is not a trap—it is a gift. It is not something that controls and regulates the movements of our lives. We control it! The Swami Vivekananda was right when he observed, “It is our thoughts, words and deeds that shape the world in which we live.”
And so we have our answer now, right? We know how to live a good and Christian life. Bless everyone we meet, and don’t return evil for evil. And if an Adolf Hitler comes along and decides to eliminate an entire race of people from the face of the planet, then… then…
I pause here not for effect, but rather because I was hoping somebody would slip me a note and tell me how to finish that thought. Because I don’t know. Our impulse is to say, well, we’ll be peaceful whenever possible, but when confronted with evil, we’ll fight it with everything we’ve got. The fight against true evil cannot itself be evil.
Of course, that leaves us with a gigantic problem. Who gets to define evil? For most of us in this place today, we know it is evil when we see airplanes filled with innocent people flown into buildings filled with innocent people, all for the purpose of killing as many innocent people as possible—for the shock value. That is evil, and I won’t be convinced otherwise.
At the same time, there are those who believe the United States of America is evil, because the people of this nation consume too much of the world’s resources, contribute too much to the pollution of the planet, enrich themselves by selling military equipment to nations all over the world, and spend less than one percent of our tax dollars on aid to the impoverished billions of people with whom we share this planet.
I certainly don’t think we are evil. Perhaps a little callous toward the plight of others, and perhaps a little too caught up in the culture of consumerism—but we are certainly not evil. But that is the way we are defined by many people in this world, so we had better be cautious about claiming that the battle against evil is just cause for death and destruction. That’s the type of thinking that flies airplanes into skyscrapers.
Do not return evil for evil. Now why did Jesus have to go and say something like that? I have no idea how Jesus would have handled Hitler. I really don’t. I suspect Jesus would have been one of the first into the gas chambers. I think Jesus was so completely aware of the Law of Karma—the universal law of cause and effect—that he believed with all his heart it was better to die right than to live wrong.
So he was quite explicit. He told us to never, under any circumstance, violate the greatest commandment: Love God with your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. He was that determined to initiate the reign of love—the kingdom of God—in this hurting world.
I’m glad I don’t have to deal with the really big problems—the Osama Bin Ladens of this world. Because I honestly don’t know how to respond to such people. I think we must be very careful about deciding who is and who is not evil; but I am still confused about the proper response when I see it before my eyes.
I want to say to Jesus, “You don’t know what it’s like in the crazy world today. We have evils you could not have dreamed of!” But then I would have to remember what happened two thousand years ago in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an unholy alliance of religious and political leaders interrupted Jesus in prayer, and how Jesus ordered his disciple to put away his sword, knowing that when evil battles evil, only evil can win.
And then I would have to remember the trial, where Jesus stood silent as false chargers were raised against him, sealing his horrible fate. And then I would have to remember what happened the next morning on a hill outside Jerusalem, as the forces of evil drove spikes through his wrists, and how Jesus looked at those people and said the most unbelievable words in human history: Father forgive them, they know not what they do.
Because then, then, Karma—the universal law of cause and effect—was thrown entirely out of balance. The endless spiral of violence which draws us into its maelstrom was destroyed once and for all.
Now, a couple of thousand years later, we walk through our days, knowing that evil exists, but also knowing that we really do shape the world around us with our thoughts, words and deeds, and that our love is the most powerful weapon at our disposal when it comes to battling evil.
The way we respond to the world around us—even its evil—is what defines each of us as a human being. And now we know we have nothing to fear—not in the grand scheme of things. The battle between good and evil has already been fought. Jesus fought that battle with his love, and he won. All we need do is choose sides… and remember God loves us even when the line between good and evil gets terribly blurred.