Just Desserts

Liam sent me Jonah Lehrer’s piece, “Is The World Just?”

It turns out that we all have an intuitive belief in justice – people get what they deserve. This instinct makes all sorts of social contracts possible, but it comes with a perverse side effect, causing us to ignore stories of suffering that directly contradict that assumption. Because we believe in justice, we ignore stories of injustice.

This article has been sticking with me for a while. I meant to blog on it and with a few stories popping up about divorce and Christian persecution, the connections seemed to be clicking.

I suspect that everyone is predisposed to ignore injustice when it’s beyond their circle of comfort. Divorced people might have suffered any sort of abuse while they were married, but it was their own fault for getting married sleeping with the enemy in the first place.

The martyrs fared even worse. Even though this victim was supposedly performing an act of altruism – she was suffering for the sake of others – the witnesses thought she was the most culpable of all. Her pain was proof of her guilt. Lerner’s conclusion was unsettling: “The sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

Maybe Christian martyrs in the modern world are devalued. Even other Christians (but certainly secular media and government) can dismiss them as loony holy rollers who are too in-your-face about their faith. So they get what they deserve. Never mind that many martyred Christians in these countries have a religious legacy longer and deeper than, say, the United States.

The situation in Iraq is compounded by the Bush legacy. Conservative Christians seemed to align with adventurism in southwest Asia. That the Iraq War would lead to catastrophe for Christians is just incomprehensible to many. The war was supposed to be about extremism in Islam. Of course, Iraqi Christians may be easy to dismiss–they don’t profess in so many words Jesus as personal Lord and Savior. Plus they don’t look white.

What to do? Perhaps realize that it is human nature to have blind spots. When confronted with any possibility we are wrong, we can ask, “What have I missed?” We can also presume the best of any victim, regardless of ideology.

Read the whole Lehrer piece, especially the stories.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Just Desserts

  1. Liam says:

    And then consider the accounts of the Passion of our Lord with those studies in mind.

    And then consider how our culture relegates the suffering of anyone who is not like us – us in in this case meaning the stereotypical person with whom we have been conditioned to identify – to the margins. At best. And our Lord makes very clear that what we do to or fail to do for those is what we are doing to or failing to do for Him.

    Part of the core of discipleship is identifying, confessing and repenting of our cognitive biases that indulge this pattern.

  2. crystal says:

    I like Jonah Lehrer’s blog and he has some interesting videos too. It’s interesting how the just world hypothesis seems to be almost hard-wired into us. It’s Job’s situation, where his friends try to find reasons whu all the bad stuff deserves to happen to him.

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