Monday, March 7, 2011

What's Fair Is Fair

At the end of the day, after work and school, my family and I discuss what happened during our hours apart. We relate the ups and downs of our day. We congratulate a job well done or we offer encouragement if things didn’t go so well. Like any family, we share the joys and sorrows of each others' lives.

One day our daughter had received a piece of gum for good behavior. We congratulated her as she proudly held the still-wrapped reward in her hand. But our son was not so pleased.

“It’s not fair!” he exclaimed. “She gets a piece of gum and I don’t!” He wanted her to tear the gum in half and share it.

It may be tempting for a parent to impose an easy fix on this situation. To avoid a fight we could have simply demanded that our daughter share the gum so that everything remains equal. But what sort of behavior does this reinforce? Our daughter had earned that gum, and she had every right to enjoy it. In the past our son had earned similar rewards at school. Sometimes he shared, but sometimes he did not. That was his choice. His sister now had the same decision to make for herself.

Certainly as a parent I would like to see my children share with their siblings. To share with those who have less is a wonderful act of charity. Charity should be encouraged and as Christians we must teach our children to give to those less fortunate. But we must also teach them that charitable giving is not the same as “fairness.” My son’s exclamation, “It’s not fair!” was an inaccurate statement. It would have been perfectly “fair” for my daughter to keep and enjoy the fruits of her labor. She had earned her gum. It was hers to do with as she pleased. It would be unjust to demand otherwise.

Charity and Justice are two concepts that unfortunately are often confused even by adults. The term justice means “the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due.” Justice makes no further demand on us than to recognize what rightfully belongs to another and to respect that right. In the situation above, my daughter had earned her gum, and it was rightfully hers to do with it as she pleased. What’s fair is fair, to each his own. That is justice.

On the other hand, Charity means “to love God above all things for his own sake, and to love others for God’s sake.” So to perform an act of charity means to love others with the same type of sacrificial love with which God love’s us. Charity means that we go above and beyond justice and give to others from our own abundance. True charity would be for my daughter to respond out of love to her brother and to sacrifice half of her gum for him. Charity is not “fair” – charity goes beyond fairness, beyond what is simply just.

When my son appealed to “fairness” to make his plea for gum, he was wrongly claiming that “justice” requires his sister to give to him what is rightfully hers. But “justice” makes no such demand. What he truly wanted was not justice or fairness, but an act of “charity.” He wanted his sister to make a sacrifice on his behalf.

Now it is perfectly reasonable to expect those who have much to give to those with little. But we cannot demand, command, or decree it to be so, without doing harm to justice. In other words, we cannot enforce charity. Charity must be a free act of love.

We should certainly teach our children to love others and to make sacrifices when they see someone less fortunate. But we must also teach them to respect the rights of others and to not demand charity as though it is their due. We should not confuse justice for charitable giving.

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