Karma. We tend to think of it as a Hindu or Buddhist thing; though Jesus’ teaching is shot through with the idea.
In eastern religion, it is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. In the west, it’s used more informally, in the sense of ‘What goes round, comes round’. Behave badly, and it will come back and bite you. Behave well, and around some future corner, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. ‘That’s karma, that is,’ we say, when someone gets their comeuppance.
And it’s subtly different from western morality. Western morality posits right and wrong as the reason for doing things: ‘Do this because it’s right and don’t do that because it’s wrong.’ And there’s a big authority figure – god/father – standing over us, making sure we do. But karma has no authority figure but ourselves. The only authority is the choices we make; the judgment is inbuilt.
Jesus drew on this karma principle in his teaching. It isn’t about right and wrong, but about the consequences: ‘If you do that, this will happen. Simple as.’ So he just points things out, noting the karmic consequences.
‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also. Please don’t imagine otherwise. So be honest about your treasure.’
‘Don’t judge – and you won’t be judged. Start judging others and you’ll be the cruellest judge of yourself.’
‘If you practice your piety publicly, with a view to applause, there’s no reward; just an emptiness, a hollowness, a void.’
‘Happy are those who weep, for they shall laugh; tears are a gateway, so that’s how it will be.’
‘Give and things will be given to you. It’s how creation works, how relationships work.’
‘Love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and reward will appear.’
The message is clear: What you do to others, you do to yourself. Call someone a fool – and you become the same. Our insincerity, our negativity, our self-righteousness, our judgments – these things find us out. We send them off to visit someone else… and they come back and bang on our door! Just as the goodness we send out showers us with blessing.
Karma. It’s not Buddhist, or Hindu, or Christian, or anything, really. It’s just true. For instance, all the powerful people I’ve met, whether in business, politics, the media or the church, are made anxious by their power, because the ego always seeks more. As we’ve been told: ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.’
I remember writing about a murderer who dumped a body in a beautiful lake. In his childhood, he had loved the lake; and it had been a sweet refuge for him as an adult. But from that day on, whenever he drove past, all delight was gone, and the sweetness was bitter, choked by fear and guilt. Others still sat on its banks, laughing. But not him, not now. He could only sweat at the sight of it.
Karma. It’s less about right and wrong, less about some big judgment figure with a stick, and more about helpful and unhelpful, like a nutritionist saying, ‘If you carry on eating those pies, you will get obese.’ Or, ‘If you do that, this will happen. Is that what you want?’
Karma is a savage and immediate truth, a most present thing, making us authors of both our happiness and despair. It is a terrible freedom to possess, for we don’t always act well; and we can no longer blame anyone else for the lives we create.
Though fortunately, there’s more than mere karma in the world; there is a different magic. In the story of the prodigal son, karmic unhappiness and despair, when the grabby son ‘gets his comeuppance’, is trumped by grace.
What goes round, comes round… this is true. But sometimes it comes round better than before, and the vicious circle is made kind.