It rained this past Tuesday and the kids next door played games on their front porch. It reminded me of when I was a kid, how on rainy days we’d gather on our front porch and play this game we called Imagine. “Imagine,” we would say, “you were the President of the United States for one day. What would you do?” Our friend Kevin always said the same thing. He’d pass a law to make everyone give him all their money. We had another friend, Curt, who said he’d ask Raquel Welch for a date and she’d have to go out with him because he was the President. Both Kevin and Curt vastly overestimated the powers of the presidency. My brother, Doug, who was more virtuous than the rest of us, always said he’d rid the world of poverty and injustice, except the time he said he’d make it so the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series.
There was a man named John Rawls who used the principle of imagination to help assess the quality of justice in any given society. He called it the justice as fairness theory. Here’s how it worked. Imagine you had to create a society without knowing beforehand the role or position you would fill? Would you then be willing to occupy any social position in that society? If so, that is an equitable and just society. If you were unwilling to occupy any social role or position in that society, if you didn’t want to risk being born into a particular role or position, then you’ve created an unjust society.
Here’s an example. Would you be willing to be born in India, knowing you might be born into the lowest caste, the untouchables, and therefore given the worst jobs in the society, with few rights and opportunities. Of course, you wouldn’t. Consequently we would say India has failed to create a just society. Let’s look a little closer to home. Would you be willing to occupy any social position in the United States? Would you happily be born a poor African-American with few opportunities and legal protections in an openly racist nation, or would you rather be a well-off white person with ample opportunities for advancement, promotion and legal safeguards? Would you be willing to be born Native American on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, living in the poorest county in the nation, making $7,773 a year. Would you be willing to occupy that social role? How would you feel about being an unemployed coal miner in Appalachia? If you’re not willing to be African-American, Native-American, or an unemployed coal miner, that means the United States has failed to create a just and equitable society.
Jesus taught something very similar. We know it as the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don’t put someone else in a role you wouldn’t occupy yourself. Don’t put someone else in a situation you wouldn’t want to experience yourself. This rule is so obviously beneficial, we can find it in almost every religion. Almost every religion has arrived at this great truth.
The Jewish people say “What is hurtful to yourself, do not to another. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.”
Islamic people say “No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
Buddhists say “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.”
We in America have allowed another golden rule to take root and inform our decisions. This golden rule was first coined by Johnny Hart, the creator of the cartoon strip The Wizard of Id, who famously said, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” So here we are today, torn between these two visions of what America can and ought to be. One vision calls us to justice through fairness, in which we ask ourselves, “Could I inhabit any position in this society and still be happy? Do I want to live in the society I am helping create?” This vision calls us always to consider the plight of our neighbor, and is determined to leave no one forsaken or forgotten. I will do unto others as I would have them do unto me. But there is another vision contending for the soul of America. This vision has as its goal personal wealth, power, and privilege, and judges each action on its contribution toward that aim. If it enriches me, if it empowers me, then I will do it, no matter how it affects others. Furthermore, I will work to construct a society that blesses some and curses one, so long as I am numbered among the elite, because he who has the gold makes the rules.
These past several weeks, we’ve been thinking about the qualities of grown-up people, so let’s add this to our list. When people are grown-up, when they are morally, relationally, and spiritually mature, they fall always on the side of justice, they labor to create societies whose blessings flow to all and not a few.
On the evening of May 23, 1908, in Girard, Kansas, the great Hoosier Eugene Debs, gave a speech and said these words: When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other’s throats, when we have stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends. We will be comrades, we will be brothers, and we will begin the march to the grandest civilization the human race has ever known.
We were taught under the old ethic that our business on this earth was to look out for ourselves. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” …
Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe to myself. What would you think of me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death?
If it were raining today, and we were on a porch playing the game of “Imagine,” what kind of world would we imagine? Would we gorge ourselves while others starved? Of course, we wouldn’t. So what are we doing today and tomorrow to help our ideal world become real?