I had a great conversation with my middle child about the difference between fairness and justice this week.
Middle kids are acutely aware of fairness. They’re used to getting the short end of the stick. So they develop keen sensitivities to smaller glasses of milk and shorter time allotments on the Playstation.
Wise parents enforce the rule: “whoever cuts the cake chooses last”. This, of course, maximizes equity. Allowing one child to portion the last of the ice cream AND choose the first bowl is a recipe for a disaster sundae.
My middle is fourteen, the age that our frontal cortex begins developing the ability for abstract thought. Before then we’re confined to concrete ideas and black and white answers. It’s not until later that we develop the capacity for nuance.
One of my favorite examples of this came from the Children’s Pastor at a large Baptist church in Hoover on why she believed 6th graders shouldn’t be in youth ministry. A speaker at a weekend event was preaching on prayer and told the kids they should know what the carpet beside their bed smelled like. The next day the 6th graders came in talking about what their carpet smelled like.
Our conversation started when my son said it’s not fair that folks who make more money pay higher tax rates (at least in theory). I guess he’d learned that at school. And he has a point. The fair thing would be for everyone to pay an equal percentage. After all, the Bible commands a 10% offering from our fields.
Only that’s not where it stops.
The Bible also commands that those who have extra should loan to those who don’t, interest free. It commands that every fifty years the books are wiped clean, debts erased, prisoners released, and everyone starts over on first base. It says if you have two coats you have one too many. And it says the rich man who ignored his poor neighbor, Lazarus, spent eternity in a hell of his own making.
I know. The Bible has up and gone woke.
I asked him if he thought groceries should be taxed at the same rate as vacation homes. I explained how a cheeseburger at McDonalds cost the same to the person making minimum wage and the person with a trust fund. But as a percentage, that Big Mac costs way more to the poor.
Fairness wants everyone to pay.
Justice wants everyone to thrive.
I’d argue that the kingdom Jesus dreamt of wants the latter.
Of course not everyone’s frontal cortex matures this far. Development is often disproportionate to wealth. And of course our economy is built on the “whoever cuts the cake chooses first” model ensuring that golf courses pay taxes at farmland rates and that politicians are going to keep fear-mongering fairness at the expense of justice.
Perhaps we need more middle children in charge.