Several years ago, I worked at a big-box retail CD store, which I believe is no longer in existence. Once, at a store meeting with our district supervisor, we were told why theft prevention is so important. It wasn’t for economic or practical reasons, either. Our supervisor went on for about twenty minutes about karma, karmic principles, the manifestations of karma in various world religions (she cited “You reap what you sow” as the Bible’s support of the ideal of karma), and how it was our responsibility to prevent individuals from harming themselves through actions like shoplifting. She was very, very earnest about this.
But what really surprised me was after the meeting, when the majority of my coworkers (none of them particularly religious) didn’t find the whole thing bizarre. It made perfect sense to them, and they more or less took for granted that karma does in fact guide our lives, and when bad things happen to someone, it is driven by the universe’s need to achieve balance. They seemed to find some amount of comfort in this idea.
But the more I think about karma, the more I am convinced that it can only be bad news for us.
Because there is an obvious dilemma to anyone who looks around. Bad things happen to good people. The amount of good and bad is lopsided in individuals’ lives as well as in communities. So if karma is an actual universal law (as opposed to an obvious general principle that a nice guy will have people around who are willing to help him out and a jerk will have few friends), one of two things must be true. Either, our notions of right and wrong are overwhelmingly misguided, or we accrue points across multiple lives. The eastern religions teach the latter, but most people I know don’t believe in reincarnation but maintain a belief in karma.
Why is this bad news? It either means that we are being punished for things “we” did in past lives, but have no memory of or means of atoning for (except through accepting our bad karma presently), which is in effect like being punished for a stranger’s choices, or it means that our moral reasoning is broken, and it’s impossible for us to even identify what is right, let alone do it (and this is why it seems as though bad things happen to good people; they are not actually good). If karma it exists, it is as cruel and indifferent to our suffering as a garbage disposal, and our world is full of dark crevices we have to reach our hands into, with no way to predict whether the blades are running. Karma, if it exists, does not teach; only maims.
This also serves as a critique of the view of God which some Christians hold. According to some, no event transpires that is not directly shaped by God (how this is different from panentheism is unclear to me), so anything painful that happens to you is either God teaching you or punishing you. Only, there is no very clear way to know which, or to learn what the lesson was supposed to be. This god is not so very different from karma, in the end.
Buddhism is wise in this regard, and sees itself as a path leading out of the karmic pattern and into nothingness (because in a world ruled by karma, nothingness is a sort of paradise). Christians have another option, though. According to the Christian view, there is a general tendency of things to work a certain way, but no universal law demanding it. Quite to the contrary, God has fixed the game and introduced grace, which always trumps karma. This is why God is willing to look at the church and instead of seeing our faults and punishing, chooses to see his own love and power to forgive instead.