Next time you share a severe personal tragedy with a friend who then explains that “everything happens for a reason,” here’s my suggested reply: “Yes, and that reason is to make it clear you’re an asshole.”
Well, maybe that reply is out of whack with my Buddhist compassion, so let me correct it. You might say: “Yes, and that reason is to make it clear that you need work.”
Those thoughts came to me after reading this morning’s Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me in The New York Times. The writer, Kate Bowler, is a 35-year-old assistant professor at Duke Divinity School who learned a few months ago that she has Stage 4 cancer. She found the diagnosis ironic, because she had recently written a book called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.
The article is a good read. I won’t try to summarize it here, but in the United States I think we are all blessed, or cursed, by strains of the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that our status, health and wealth come to us because God rewards the right faith and punishes those who lack it. So everything happens for a reason. One of my worst encounters with this doctrine came after street thugs stabbed a close friend of mine to death. A co-worker asked me if she had any bad habits, like drinking or drugs.
Not all Christian faiths preach the Prosperity Gospel. Although only a minority do, it has become so entwined with the American dream that it subtly makes its presence felt throughout the North American culture. We think you get what you deserve, so we’re baffled when bad things happen to good people.
I don’t mean to sound hostile to either Christianity or the American Dream. I respect the teachings of Jesus and the free-market economy, but our culture has strayed from both. Especially in the United States, both have been corporatized. American Christianity no longer seems to be about treating your Samaritan neighbor as yourself, just as the markets seem no longer to be free for the truly small business people.
The Prosperity Gospel shows up almost everywhere. Giving more to your church gets you into heaven, or at least gets you a plaque on the church wall. Big is better. Size means success. We pay our corporate executives more than they can spend because they “deserve” it. They earned it by making their companies larger and mopping up small entrepreneurs.
In Buddhism, of course, we have karma, which is often misunderstood in the West.The Buddha was a product of his time and culture, of course. What he added to the idea of karma was to base it on intention rather than actions. In other words, if you intend to help another and fail, you’ve earned good karma. It’s about what’s in your heart, not what ceremonies you perform or how well you perform them, as it was at the time in Vedic religions and Jainism.
I do have reservations about the Buddha’s teachings on what happens to your karma after you’ve earned it, but he also taught that we need to confirm everything through our own experience.
So, based on my own experience, here’s my answer to: Why do bad things happen to good people?
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine