Grace and Karma

In the book, Bono on Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, U2’s Bono speaks of the good news that God calls us out of the realm of karma to that of grace. As Bono sees it, karma is at the heart of all religions and the universe. But God’s grace intervenes and interrupts the cycle of karma that we also find in physics where every action is met by one of equal force or measure of compensation. (Riverhead Books/The Penguin Group, 2005, pp. 204-205).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims that his kingdom entails overturning the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth cycle of compensation (Matthew 5:38-39), which I believe was intended to guard against an escalating cycle of vengeance. His followers are called to a more noble way, the way of grace: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

Acting out in a gracious and non-retaliatory manner toward those who strike you does not entail groveling in the dirt. Far from robbing their dignity, it causes the offending party to have to look at those they slapped as equals. To slap someone on the right cheek most likely entailed in that culture a humiliating strike with the backside of the right hand intended for an inferior. If one is to slap you again, make them do it on the left cheek where they must treat you as an equal (See NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part I, Chapters 1-15, 2nd ed. {London: SPCK & Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004}, pp. 49-53.)

Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus’ articulation of the Golden Rule. This rule is not “Do to others what they have done to you” but rather “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” There is a very big difference between these two ways of approaching life. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:9-12, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We often give good gifts to those we deem good, but God gives good gifts even to those he deems evil—namely us!

Jesus practiced what he preached. He absorbed evil in his person when attacked rather than retaliate toward his enemies. In this way alone could he end the cycle of evil. As G. B. Caird has argued, “Evil is defeated only if the injured person absorbs the evil and refuses to allow it to go any further” (G. B. Caird, Principalities and Powers: A Study in Pauline Theology, with a foreword by L. D. Hurst {Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003 [1956]}, p. 98). Jesus as the Son of God and the Son of Man makes possible a new way of being in the world—one not defined by retribution but redemption involving reconciliation, where we are to love our enemies as ourselves: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

So, where does this lead us? Perhaps in many directions, but there are a few items to note as we proceed on our way: To the extent that we see ourselves in our enemies, we see ourselves as those in need of God’s grace in our lives. To the extent we love and forgive our enemies, to that extent we understand and experience the grace of God in our lives. To the extent that we love and greet and pray for our enemies, we demonstrate that we are children of God. Like Bono, I am holding out for grace. I am holding out for Jesus. But I cannot experience Jesus’ grace it if I am withholding it from others. If you and I want to experience God’s grace and not be devastated by karma, we need to love by forgiving and praying for those who have hurt us. Otherwise, the cycle of karma will never end and grace and dignity will be missing from our lives. Jesus absorbs our evil. May we absorb his grace before karma absorbs us and brings us to our knees.

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