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October 5, 2020

(Photo credit: Soe Zeya Tu/REUTERS. A statue of Buddha wears a face mask at a monastery following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Pathum Thani, Thailand May 8, 2020.)

This weekend my social media feed was filled with memes on karma. In the wake of the news that President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the internet seemingly went wild with schadenfreude. And, it was not only Twitter and Instagram. Political pundits and journalists alike invoked the Dharmic notion of karma as a form of cosmic justice, wondering if perhaps the President was now simply paying the consequences of his actions (or inactions).

Perhaps for some, it felt like a little levity in a year that desperately needs comic relief. Yet, I confess, the multitude of memes made me feel uneasy. As an educator who seeks to foster religious literacy, I felt uncomfortable by the easy acquisition and appropriation of this tenet of faith for political commentary and as someone attuned to matters of the heart, I wondered what casual cruelty might do to ours.

Karma is a complex concept arising from Dharmic traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In Sanskrit, karma simply means action. Taken within religious frames, it refers to the cause and effect between people’s actions and consequences, usually in cycles of death and rebirth.

Despite social media’s speculation that RBG may have won her first heavenly court case, karma is not divine punishment for wrongdoing. The idea that karma is a...well, you know the phrase...may be a Western imposition of Christian notions of sin and retributive justice. (Though, I would argue that those notions need a bit of troubling, too.)

The problem with ascribing why bad things happen to individual action is that we end up blaming the victim for their own suffering.

Imagine how it feels for those struggling with COVID-19 to scroll through meme after meme suggesting their illness may in fact be due to something they did. It is true we know how viruses spread and there are scientifically proven means to prevent contagion. Yet, for the 209,000 people in the United States and the million worldwide who perished, do we really want to blame them for their own suffering and death?  It’s not just those with COVID, but imagine all you know who battle cancer, bear a debilitating genetic disorder, struggle with mental health diagnoses, or have lost a pregnancy. Do we really think it is their fault? I don’t. But, our language and theology suggests it is.

Blaming those who are ill has a long religious history. In Christianity, the Bible is filled with texts connecting sickness and sin. "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" With this idea lingers the notion that the afflicted one can, if they try hard enough, reverse course and heal themselves whether through homeopathic remedies, lifestyle changes, or prayer. Yet, anyone who has faced traumatic or chronic illness, understands how powerful and damning these tropes are as the burden for their suffering weighs heavy on their shoulders.

It is lazy theology to simply ascribe suffering to one’s actions. For while it might feel good or just in one case, it most certainly will be painful or even sinful in another.

In Dharmic traditions, whether in one lifetime or many, karma is fundamentally about cause and effect. It is not a form of punishment, but rather the idea that our actions, our concrete, moral and ethical decisions make a difference.

Buddhist scholar and teacher, Pema Chodron, reframes karma as a form of heart teaching.  

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”

This weekend I was reminded of a quote by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” I have to wonder if the karmic lesson for us all lies in that. While it may feel like a temporary high to take joy in someone’s folly, in the end, it is our own hearts that pay the consequence.

For all the cheap laughs we might get, how have our hearts been opened? Or closed?

Dean T.L. Steinwert
Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life