Printed in the Fall 2012 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 100. 4 (Fall 2012): pg. 122.
"Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness," we read in the Sermon on the Mount. All of us have heard this innumerable times, and we tend to take it as a metaphor. But what if it has a more literal force than we usually believe? What if we hunger after justice because it is a vital nutrient, something we need to stay alive just as we need food and water?
Sometimes justice is more important than food and drink, as we are reminded by the slogan of the Tunisian revolution of 2011, the harbinger of the Arab Spring: "Dignity before bread!" Tunisia was not in an economic crisis when the revolution struck: the nation's economy had grown at a respectable 2"“8 percent per year over the previous two decades, according to Foreign Policy magazine. Libya, whose authoritarian regime also toppled last year, was not hurting economically but was reaping the advantages of a boom in oil prices. Perhaps the best explanation of these events comes from Roza Otunbayeva, the president of Kyrgyzstan, who wrote in March 2011: "The Almighty provided us with such a powerful sense of dignity that we cannot tolerate the denial of our inalienable rights and freedoms, no matter what real or supposed benefits are provided by "˜stable' authoritarian regimes."
Thus it is not mere metaphor to speak of hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Over and over history has shown that people will sacrifice basic needs if they feel that justice and human dignity are at stake. These qualities are not luxuries; they are as vital to our existence as oxygen and protein.
So radical is this need for justice that people will sometimes forge a kind of imaginary justice if the real thing does not seem to be available. This occurs with many personal disasters. Struck with misfortunes"”which so often seem mysterious and inexplicable, so much at odds with any apparent justice"”people will search for faults and misdeeds in themselves that supposedly explain what happened. "I didn't love my daughter enough, so she was taken from me." "I must have been a bad person, because I came down with cancer." Many people who have gone through major tragedies have tormented themselves with thoughts of this kind.
A question then arises: does our need for justice correspond to something that is objectively real? Or are we projecting our own human concepts of right and wrong onto a blind and mechanical universe?
I believe the human thirst for justice corresponds to something real and fundamental in the cosmos. We do not, after all, have needs for things that do not exist. The fact that we must have oxygen in and of itself serves as evidence for the existence of oxygen. Similarly, the acute need we feel for justice attests to a cosmic order that is built on justice. This cosmic order has gone by many names in the world's spiritual traditions: it was known as Ma'at to the ancient Egyptians, and the Hindus call it Dharma.
The mechanism by which this cosmic justice operates is known as karma. You will often see "karma" defined as the law of cause and effect. This is not sufficiently precise. The concept of karma not only holds that specific causes have specific effects, but that the effect is like the cause in some fundamental way: good begets good, and evil begets evil.
It is this intuitive recognition of the existence of karma that, I believe, forms the basis for our deep-seated hunger and thirst after righteousness. Granted, this law doesn't always work the way we think it should: the wicked often prosper while the innocent suffer. Eastern traditions have devised a number of complex and ingenious solutions to explain why this should be so, speaking, for example, of "seeds of karma" that can take many lifetimes to bear fruit.
I myself don't know whether these theories are right. But even apart from them, the law of karma clearly plays itself out in an enormous number of cases, and it's probably safe to say that most people most of the time get exactly what they deserve. Sometimes it even seems that we blind ourselves to this fact by focusing on apparent injustices"”perhaps out of an unconscious fear that we too have scores to settle that we would just as soon avoid.
But all teachings about the law of karma insist that it is inexorable; it cannot be eluded. What sort of attitude should we take toward life, then, since we all know we have done wrong? Should we simply cower in terror of the sword of vengeance that dangles over our heads?
There is, it would seem, only one way out, and it too is indicated in the Sermon on the Mount: "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors" (to translate it literally from the Greek). Forgiveness is the way to turn the law of karma on its head, because if we forgive, it inevitably follows that we too are entitled to have our karmic debts wiped out. Although forgiveness is frequently admonished, this reason for it has often been overlooked. In the world as we know it, the law of karma has no exceptions, but it does have a loophole.