Obama always snags me. I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness. Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”
What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me? Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.” He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom. We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.
Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better. She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.
Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak? Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper. Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.
Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus. He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do. He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.” Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.
But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.” It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.” They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense. God chooses an economic location for grace. Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.
Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then. It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world. It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.
Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night. While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit. We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it. We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.