Fairness may be a nearly universal value, something all seek to demonstrate in our dealings with one another, certainly something all expect to receive when we are being dealt with, whether by laws or government agencies or neighbors or family members. We love fairness in part because it promises predictability and order, no matter what: if you treat me fairly, I know I will be given what I deserve. While fairness may sometimes be painful in its results, especially if I am deserving of punishment, still fairness means I know what is coming, and why.
With six children to raise, my parents early on adopted standards of uncompromising fairness with my siblings and me. We would always be treated the same because, so my parents insisted, they loved us all the same, and household resources would be equally meted out. Birthday and Christmas presents were fairly distributed, each of us getting either the same number of presents or presents that cost the same amount. Infractions received the same punishment, from youngest to oldest child. And whenever the inevitable requests were made of my parents for some sort of special treatment, they had the same response: “if we do that for you, then we have to do that for all your brothers and sisters, and that’s not possible, we can’t afford that.”
In my work with congregations, I hear a similar response whenever a request is made to fund a new project or allow a deviation from church policy, namely to allow that deviation or grant that request will set up expectations for more deviations and requests in the future, and that cannot happen or else chaos will result. Fairness is a fine value because it makes clear which expectations will be met, or not be met, and why.
Yet I wonder if too much fairness, or placing fairness as the central guideline for decisions, can mean we miss out on another dynamic at work, namely the dynamic of grace. I am gratified when fairness means I earn what I deserve; I can even, sometimes, grudgingly admit that fairness means I suffer the consequences of unwise actions. But what I notice more than fairness are those times when I was spared some painful consequences because another showed me mercy, forgave me when I perhaps did not deserve to be forgiven. And unexpected blessings, surprising opportunities, have come my way that I did nothing at all to earn. How do I account for those experiences where fairness was not operative, where fairness might have limited me and my relationships? Do I really always want to be dealt with fairly—and only fairly?
Whenever fairness seems missing from our treatment or the treatment of others, we understandably protest vehemently. And the absence of fairness in life is a painful lesson we see our children learn and have to tell them sadly, “you know, life is not always fair.” Yet that truth, that life is not always fair, carries a paradox: the absence of fairness seems wrong; the absence of fairness opens the door for grace and mercy to enter. I do want to always be treated fairly. I also hope that sometimes something other than fairness will come my way.