Notebook 6: Suffering & Justice
(As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.)
One of the largest obstacles to belief in a benevolent God or gods, and indeed in a meaningful world at all, is the apparent existence of unwarranted and undeserved suffering, and the similar fates meted out to the good and bad alike. As Job and Ecclesiastes put it:
…here is a frustration that occurs in the world: sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that is frustration.
One man dies in robust health,
All tranquil and untroubled;
His pails are full of milk;
The marrow of his bones is juicy.
Another dies embittered,
Never having tasted happiness.
They both lie in the dust
And are covered with worms.
The quotations below follow this pattern: first are those which are certain of divine justice, of a universal and seamless cause-and-effect; second are the equally absurd certainties which must follow from such statements; and third are the words of those religious scriptures and thinkers who are humble enough to have no answers.
The refrain is this: from the beginnings of recorded religious belief until now, no religion has ever explained the problem of suffering or injustice in any way other than to condemn the individual for deserving it, or condemn the world for being an imperfect place that should be shunned for a higher existence, or a better afterlife. Both options conveniently allow us to ignore the reality of life in the world, and ignore the fact that there is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret our own or others’ suffering as the result of their sins, or of divine displeasure. And so there is no basis for judging ourselves, or those of other religions, when suffering and setbacks suddenly appear. Each of the following quotations suggests the folly, and attendant human suffering (whether of death or simply mental anguish) of assuming otherwise.
1: The Certainty of Justice
How can it ever possibly be as simple as the following passages from a handful of religions:
[The god Thoth] will reckon each man for his deeds on earth.
For He pays a man according to his actions,
And provides for him according to his conduct;
For God surely does not act wickedly;
Shaddai does not pervert justice.
I the Lord probe the heart,
Search the mind—
To repay every man according to his ways,
With the proper fruit of his deeds.
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
These living beings who perform evil deeds
end up in miserable states;
But these others who perform virtuous deeds,
rise up to the triple heaven.
Karma ensures that everything happening in the world takes place in conformity with the immutable law of cause and effect.
What a man turns out to be depends on how he acts. If his actions [karma] are good, he will turn [be reincarnated] into something good. If this actions are bad, he will turn into something bad.
….their evil destiny is the inevitable retributive result of sins committed in their past mortal lives.
Good actions lead to happiness, and bad actions lead to unhappiness. Motiveless actions do not produce any affective consequences. The correlation of actions with consequences, however, is not directly perceptible because of the complexity of motives and the fact that the results of actions are worked out in long chains of life and death. Only the Buddha can perceive the workout of the law of kamma [karma]. It remains his firm teaching that men were constituted by their kamma. Their proper inheritance consists of their own past kamma.
Even though dozens of similar quotations could be added here, there is no reason to believe such a form of justice has ever existed. And the more we assume that it must exist, or that only special individuals are able to comprehend it, and try to prove this by propping up our religion only to denounce another’s, we move farther and farther away from actually dealing with our own or others’ suffering, and instead wrap ourselves in philosophy and endless questions, or in easy images such as this:
I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open. And another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved.
Indeed, what an uncomplicated and powerful image: a book of life from which everyone will be judged, with no mess at all! What does it mean to believe that someday the good will go up and the bad down, the good to the right, the bad to the left, and that is all?
But alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now. Alas for you who have your fill now: you shall go hungry. Alas for you who laugh now; you shall mourn and weep.
Why should it matter whether those who have a lot now will go hungry in the future, or why those who laugh now will mourn and weep later? How does this help us live? Why is there so much focus on everybody else, and not on ourselves? And shouldn’t we be loving our enemies here?
Ye give, shall be
Rendered back to you,
And ye shall not
Be dealt with unjustly.
Here is a Parable
Of the Garden which
The righteous are promised:
In it are rivers
Of water incorruptible;
Rivers of milk
Of which the taste
Never changes; rivers
Of Wine, a joy
To those who drink;
And rivers of honey
Pure and clear. In it
There are for them
All kinds of fruits;
And Grace from their Lord.
Can those in such Bliss
Be compared to such as
Shall dwell forever
In the Fire, and be given,
To drink, boiling water,
So that it cuts up
Their bowels to pieces?
Why are we so weak that we need this reassurance, why can we only hear of Paradise if also told that others will be below us, their “bowels cut to pieces”?
What would it mean, if we stopped looking for or expecting divine justice, or being sure of it?
What if we stopped and realized we just have no answer to it, and that we would do better to help each other, rather than think too much, and dream up elaborate revenge scenarios?
2: What Must Follow from the Certainty of Justice
The only answer to such notions are even more unrealistic expectations:
Is not your piety your confidence,
Your integrity your hope?
Think now, what innocent man ever perished?
Where have the upright been destroyed?
As I have seen, those who plow evil
And sow mischief reap them.
In famine He will redeem you from death,
In war, from the sword.
You will be sheltered from the scourging tongue;
You will have no fear when violence comes.
You will laugh at violence and starvation,
And have no fear of wild beasts.
For you will have a pact with the rocks in the field,
And the beasts of the field will be your allies.
You will know that all is well in your tent;
When you visit your wife you will never fail.
You will see that your offspring are many,
Your descendants like the grass of the earth.
You will come to the grave in ripe old age,
As shocks of grain are taken away in their season.
See, we have inquired into this and it is so;
Hear it and accept it.
Do you not know this, that from time immemorial,
Since man was set on earth,
The joy of the wicked has been brief,
The happiness of the impious, fleeting?
Because he crushed and tortured the poor,
He will not build up the house he took by force.
He will not see his children tranquil;
He will not preserve one of his dear ones.
With no survivor to enjoy it,
His fortune will not prosper.
When he has all he wants, trouble will come;
Misfortunes of all kinds will batter him.
Heaven will expose his iniquity;
Earth will rise up against him.
His household will be cast forth by a flood,
Spilled out on the day of His wrath.
This is the wicked man’s portion from God,
The lot God has ordained for him.
What evidence is there for any this, from the pages of history? How can a religious document honestly ask “What innocent man ever perished”? Perhaps this speaks to the afterlife, but the other passages do not: they speak of being released entirely, in this life and in this world, from various hardships; and they speak of evil people not just being punished after death, but of not succeeding in this world, and in this life.
How can a religious document—let alone one from Israel, where violence and starvation were frequent—honestly tell people, “You will have no fear when violence comes./You will laugh at violence and starvation”? This is how: by saying that those who are experiencing violence and starvation must deserve it.
The entirety of this outlook, from beginning to end, is either the worst wishful thinking and willful blindness, or simply permission to dismiss those who are suffering, since they clearly deserve it. How much human suffering has been ignored, or even justified, based on such ideas?
When someone knows these large-scale combinations as explained here—he will possess offspring, livestock, the luster of sacred knowledge, a food-supply, and the heavenly world.
Favour affects them not,
Thus those who know are honored in the world.
Why, in order to be decent or grounded or at peace, do we need to be told we will be “honored in the world,” or that we will have lots of food, livestock, or offspring? Who needs something as flimsy as “honor” from anybody, when they have something so tremendous as faith? And if honor in the world is the surest sign of religious standing, does this mean that all the religious people who have suffered greatly throughout history—were they actually not pious at all? Or are things like favor and disfavor, advantage and injury, honor and dishonor, not the point of religion? Might one of the points of religion be living decently regardless of whether we experience favor and disfavor, advantage and injury, honor and dishonor?
What else is there but humility and empathy for what we cannot and never will know? The point is not, as one writer has said, to make the problem of suffering “intelligible and hence tolerable,” but to make life tolerable despite the unintelligibility. Attempts at intelligibility, after all, usually end up sounding like this:
“Master Gotama, what is the cause and condition why human beings are seen to be inferior and superior? For people are seen to be short-lived and long-lived, sickly and healthy, ugly and beautiful, uninfluential and influential, poor and wealthy, low-born and high-born, stupid and wise. What is the cause and condition, Master Gotama, why human beings are seen to be inferior and superior?”
“…Here, student, some man or woman is of an angry and irritable character; even when criticized a little, he is offended, becomes angry, hostile, and resentful, and displays anger, hate, and bitterness. Because of performing and undertaking such action… he appears in a state of deprivation… But if instead he comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is ugly. This is the way, student, that leads to ugliness…
“…This is the way, student, that leads to poverty, namely, one does not give food … and lamps to recluses or brahmins…
“…Beings are owners of their actions, student, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.”
Incredible but true: if you are poor, sick, low-class, ugly, and stupid—it is because you’ve done something bad in a past life, or this one, and you deserve it; and if you are rich, healthy, beautiful, and intelligent—it is because you deserve it. Within the Eastern concept of karma (or kamma), such a ridiculous conclusion becomes unavoidable, and it continues:
Virtues create all kinds of pleasure in happy lives.
Avoiding killing leads to a long and healthy life.
Avoiding stealing leads to consummate wealth.
Avoiding sexual misconduct leads to freedom from marital strife.
Avoiding false speech leads to praise from others.
Avoiding abusive speech leads to the joy of pleasant conversation.
Avoiding slander leads to enjoying freedom from discord.
Avoiding gossip leads to one’s word being honored.
Avoiding greed leads to attaining one’s needs.
Avoiding malice leads to the delightful experience of peace.
If, again, a man who is about to be murdered calls upon the name of the bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World [Avalokiteśvara], then the knives and staves borne by the other fellow shall be broken in pieces, and the man shall gain deliverance.
For the person who shows respect
And always reveres worthy people,
Four things increase: Life span, beauty, happiness, and strength.
What do such easy notions make of the appearance in history of various people who did the right thing, and who showed great personal heroism, only to suffer greatly as a result? What do such easy notions make of the value and respect given to sacrifice in the face of injustice? How did the justness of their cause avail them in longer life, greater happiness, and the rest?
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why is this the only way to convince us not to judge or condemn, or to be forgiving or to give? Why does the reward always have to be mentioned alongside the decent act? And who has ever seen this measure for measure reaction to goodness actually take place in any reliable way to justify our hope, or justify the ways it allows us to judge other people by?
3: The Problem of Justice & Suffering is a Mystery
And now, from the very same traditions, and some of the very same texts, come suggestions of an entirely different way of thinking:
Man’s plans are never fulfilled; what happens is what god commands.
Praise, good repute, and honor lead neither to merit nor long life, are no advantage to strength or to freedom from disease, nor do they bring me physical pleasure.
But why don’t you see it as God’s will when your wife and children die? Why don’t you see His will in poverty, when you haven’t a morsel to eat?
Indeed, if we are uncertain as to why things happen the way they do, there is this uncomfortable conclusion: we have to view death, suffering, misfortune and all the rest differently than we do.
You have seen a terrible death
and agonies, many and strange, and there is
nothing here which is not Zeus.
Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?
Three passages from Christianity also emphasize how piety and godliness cannot simply be interpreted from how well someone is doing, materially or otherwise:
I do not want you to look for a peace that is free of temptation or one that never meets with opposition, but I want you to have peace even while experiencing affliction and while being tried by tribulation.
Blessed is the man who has suffered and found life.
Our great work is to lay the blame for our sins upon ourselves before God, and to expect to be tempted to our last breath.
But I say this to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.
To anyone who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek as well; to anyone who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from someone who takes it.
Treat others as you would like people to treat you.
If you love those who love you, what credit can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit can you expect? For even sinners do that much.
And if you lend to those from whom you hope to get money back, what credit can you expect? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back the same amount.
Instead, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return. You will have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.
What is just about any of this? Is it justice we should seek, or something much different?
The night after [my son] Alex died, a kind woman came into the house carrying about 18 quiches, saying sadly, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”
I exploded. “I’ll say you don’t, lady. Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had had a couple of beers too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights on that road and no guardrail separating that right-angle turn from Boston Harbor?”
For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist on knives, his hands on steering wheels. Deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden raise unanswerable questions… Never do we know enough to say that a death was the will of God.…
It is said that while the Germans were desecrating a church somewhere in Poland, some German sergeant, cockeyed with excitement, stood up in front of the altar and yelled out that if there was a God He would want to prove His existence at once by striking down such a bold and important and terrifying fellow as this sergeant. God did not strike him down. The sergeant went away still excited, and probably the unhappiest man in the world: God had not acted like a Nazi. God was not, in fact, a Nazi, and God’s justice (which everybody obscurely knows in his bones, no matter what he tries to say he thinks), is inexpressibly different from the petty bloodthirsty revenge of Nazis over one another.
Which brings me to perhaps my favorite Biblical passage. Joseph, after being sold into slavery by his brothers and only much later being reunited with them, has the following to say about the suffering he endured and the great harm his brothers caused him:
Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.
And Joseph reiterates later: “Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” What can this mean, other than that great suffering can also yield great happiness, and vice-versa?
What this doesn’t mean, of course, that we should sit back and do nothing amid great brutality and violence. Rather, it suggests that the ways in which we interpret events in the past and the present, especially in our own lives, cannot be simplistic, cannot be a matter of cause and effect. The strength and understanding we pretend to have in being able to interpret so many things so naively can only backfire immediately.
As a Buddhist text says: “It seems that when the task is difficult the will is sharp; hardship makes the thoughts deep. Eventually one can turn calamity into fortune, turn things into the Way.”
And there is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. For no reason ever given in Genesis, God favored the offering of Abel over that of Cain, and Cain was forced into the position of many of us, confused and hurt as to why God ignored him. After killing his brother, he is then marked for protection by God; and, as a commentator simply puts it, “The man who could not tolerate God’s inscrutable grace now benefits from it.”
And there is this passage from a guide to Jewish prayer, which admits that forgiveness by God enacts that most unjust thing: the situation “in which it is as if the sin never existed.” It is beautiful to finally encounter something other than the anger of deserved punishment:
The very notion of pardon and atonement contains a conception of reality that transcends the bounds of common rationality. The recognition that there is pardon for sins means that, in some way, the past can be changed, that acts which were done, which existed in reality, may be considered as not having occurred at all…. Forgiveness, therefore, is not only a change or reversal of the Supreme Law that defines good and evil but a violation of the laws of causality, an elimination and cancellation of the past. As it is said, “I have carried away your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins as a mist (Isaiah 44:22)…. Forgiveness becomes, then, the actual creation of a new temporal order in which it is as if the sin never existed. Moreover, it is as though by the very power of repentance “sins have become merits” (Yoma 8b), and the past is rewritten according to another scale of values.
And it is all right here, in these three stories from the Gospels, that follow. None of them are about justice or fairness in any human sense, but about compassion and decency. They are about giving people what they need, not what they deserve:
Which one of you with a hundred sheep, if he lost one, would fail to leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the missing one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance.
Now the kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard.
He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.”
So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same.
Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing around, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?”
“Because no one has hired us,” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.”
In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.”
So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each.
When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each.
They took it, but grumbled at the landowner saying, “The men who came last have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.”
He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius?
Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the lastcomer as much as I pay you.
Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why should you be envious because I am generous?”
Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.
What more clear example is there, that God does not deal with human beings the way we deal with each other? We cannot make God into a banker, a boss, a judge, a policeman.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.” So the father divided the property between them.
A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them.
Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property—he and his loose women—you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”
What is done here is marvelous. While the older brother’s logic is understandable (“I am good and responsible, my brother is not; therefore he deserves punishment and I deserve recognition”), he is nevertheless completely transcended by another notion: lives are not governed by equations or strict adherence to numbered laws. Neither religion or everyday life is experienced in anything like this mechanical way. If we are not to be robots, if we are not to be bureaucrats, if we are not to be fundamentalists and dogmatists, then we have to determine that compassion is more important than any sense of justice.
The refrain is this: from the beginnings of recorded religious belief until now, no religion has ever explained the problem of suffering or injustice in any way other than to condemn individuals, or condemn the world. Both options conveniently allow us to ignore the reality of life in the world, and ignore the reality of suffering. And so there is no basis for judging ourselves, or those of other religions, when suffering and setbacks suddenly appear.
 Ecclesiastes 8:14.
 Job 21:23-6.
 Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter, Egypt & the Egyptians, 2nd ed., 94.
 Job 34:11-12.
 Jeremiah 17:10.
 Matthew 7:2.
 The Buddha; The Life of the Buddha, by Asvagosa, tr. Patrick Olivelle, 410.
 Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, 100.
 Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 176; [Brihad 4.4.5-6]
 The Buddha; The Diamond Sutra, tr. A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, 36 (ch. 16).
 G. C. Pande, “The Message of Gotama Buddha in Its Earliest Interpretations,” in in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 1: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, 16.
 Revelation 20:12.
 Luke 6:24-5.
 Quran 2:272.
 Quran, 47:15.
 Job 4:6-8.
 Job 5:19-27.
 From Job 20.
 Taittiriya Upanishad, tr. Patrick Olivelle, 1:3:4.
 Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way, tr. Moss Roberts.
 Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, 97-98.
 Cūlakammavibhanga Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha), revised translation by Bhikku Bodhi, 1053-57.
 Quoted in Robert A. F. Thurman ed., Essential Tibetan Buddhism, 123.
 The Lotus Sutra, quoted in Michael Pye, “The Lotus Sutra and the Essence of Mahāyāna,” from Takeuchi Yoshino ed., Buddhist Spirituality 1: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, 180.
 Dhammapada, tr. Gil Fronsdal, 27.
 Luke 6:3-38.
 Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 211.
 Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, tr. Crosby and Skilton, 58 (6.89).
 Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 1013.
 Sophocles, The Women of Trachis, in The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles 2, ed. David Grene, 325.
 Job 2:10.
 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, tr. Joseph N. Tylenda, 92-3.
 The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 58, in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 3rd ed., ed. by James M. Robinson, 132.
 The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, tr. Benedicta Ward, 148.
 Luke 6:27-38.
 Reverend William Sloane Coffin, from the eulogy of his son, Alex; in James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 57.
 Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation. The Journal of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941, 220.
 Genesis 45:5-8.
 Genesis 50:20-21.
 Fojian; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 60.
 Jon D. Levenson’s commentary on Genesis 4:13-15, in The Jewish Study Bible.
 Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 195-6.
 Luke 15:4-7.
 Matthew 20:1-16.
 Luke 15:11-32.