The idea that the universe is a vast moral mechanism, mechanically rewarding virtue and punishing vice, has often felt appealing. According to the mechanically moral universe theory, if virtue goes in, reward comes out; wickedness in, punishment out; as if the universe were a great moral machine, a cosmic meritocracy.

We humans have, throughout our history, and probably before, been very attracted to this idea that if something bad happens to us, we must have done something to deserve it. And if something good happens to us, we must have done something to deserve that, too. Well, sometimes we have. Many times, it’s just dumb luck – good luck or bad.

Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible has for thousands of years reminded readers that life is not all about getting what one deserves. First, from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 11:
“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
Second, the Book of Job. Here is Michael Sandel’s exposition.
“A just and righteous man, Job is subjected to unspeakable pain and suffering, including the death of his sons and daughters in a storm. Ever faithful to God, Job cannot fathom why such suffering has been visited upon him.... As Job mourns the loss of his family, his friends (if one can call them friends) insist that he must have committed some egregious sin, and they press Job to imagine what that sin might be. This is an early example of the tyranny of merit. Armed with the assumption that suffering signifies sin, Job’s friends cruelly compound his pain by claiming that, in virtue of some transgression or other, Job must be to blame for the death of his sons and daughters. Although he knows he is innocent, Job shares his companions’ theology of merit, and so cries out to God asking why he, a righteous man, is being made to suffer. When God finally speaks to Job, he rejects the cruel logic of blaming the victim. He does so by renouncing the meritocratic assumption that Job and his companions share. Not everything that happens is a reward or a punishment for human behavior, God proclaims from the whirlwind. Not all rain is for the sake of watering the crops of the righteous, nor is every drought for the sake of punishing the wicked.... God confirms Job’s righteousness but chastises him for presuming to grasp the moral logic of God’s rule. This represents a radical departure from the theology of merit.... In renouncing the idea that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, God asserts his unbounded power and teaches Job a lesson in humility. Faith in God means accepting the grandeur and the mystery of creation, not expecting God to dispense rewards and punishments based on what each person merits or deserves.” (The Tyranny of Merit 36)
SERMON, part 1

I submit to you that two words name a large part of the richness and goodness of life: grace and solidarity.

Grace: the freely given, unmerited gifts you did not earn and do not deserve. Like being alive. Like being more or less healthy – healthy enough and pain-free enough to be able to be here – or listening online right now. Like air, and the feel of breath in your lungs. Like sunlight, rain, trees, the beauty of the seasons: autumn leaves, winter snow, spring, summer. You didn’t earn those things. You’ve done nothing to deserve them. They are free gifts – grace. You might not notice them. But a life of richness and depth is one that is constantly seeing grace everywhere – the beauty all around us.

And: solidarity. We’re not in it just for ourselves. We’re in this together. We are here for each other – what else? Comradery, companionship, neighborliness, friendship – all the different ways we are in relationship, all the different forms that love takes – this is the goodness of life.

If grace and solidarity name a large part of what makes life good, then it behooves us to attend to whatever undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity. These days, the growing overemphasis on merit, on deservingness, undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity.

Merit is generally conceived as the product of two factors, called (1) ability or talent or capability, and (2) hard work or effort or motivation. We use merit, as best we can assess it, to determine who gets into the top schools, and who gets the high-paying, high-status jobs. There’s a lot of competition for school admissions and for jobs.

Now: there will always be a place for competition. I’m not going to stand here on Super Bowl Sunday and say we should, or ever could, abolish competition and the rewards of victory.

But the winners have been over-rewarded, and the losers way over-deprived, and we need to lower the stakes for that part of life that is a meritocratic contest. We just need to lower the stakes of the merit contests because as those stakes have been growing, they’ve been crowding out grace from our lives -- crowding out solidarity.

Last week I talked about Distributive Justice – how, since 1980, we’ve been distributing more and more of the wealth to fewer and fewer of the richer and richer, and that’s unjust. A more just distribution, a greater income equality, is essential to social health, for our flourishing as a people. Today I want to add to the picture Contributive Justice – the justice of everyone being able to meaningfully contribute to our city, our state, our nation, our world. Those who have been deemed not to have the merit to get into the good schools – or, indeed, those who maybe don’t want to go to college – need jobs they can feel contribute to something more meaningful than a paycheck. Michael Sandel, in The Tyranny of Merit, says of the meritocratic ethic:
“Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified. The relentless emphasis on creating a fair meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it).”
The meritocratic ethic produces a
“smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.” (25)
For those on the bottom, the meritocratic ethic means either frustration or humiliation and despair. Either they believe that the system fails to recognize their merit and denies them opportunities to use it – or, perhaps worse, they accept that meritocratic sorting has been more-or-less fair, and they just aren’t good enough to have earned any better than they got.

The grip of the meritocratic ethic has been growing through the post-World War II era.

The word “meritocracy” was coined by British sociologist Michael Young in this 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young described meritocracy as a dystopia. When he wrote in 1958, the British class system had been breaking down for some time. The old aristocracy had been giving way to a system of educational and professional advancement based on merit. In many ways, this was a good thing. Gifted children of the working class could develop their talents and escape from a life of manual labor. But the old system at least had the weird advantage that everybody knew it was unfair. Neither the Lords nor the working class believed they deserved their status – which tempered the arrogance of the upper-class and precluded despair for the laborers. The working class knew their situation wasn’t their own fault.

Michael Young wrote his book from an imagined position in the year 2033 -- projecting out 75 years, 3 generations -- into the future from 1958. That’s how long he figured it would take for meritocracy to lead to a mass revolt. He wrote, describing conditions in the 2033 of his imagination:
“Now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism. Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class. They know, too, that not only are they of higher caliber to start with, but that a first-class education has been built upon their native gifts.” (The Rise of the Meritocracy 106)
Meanwhile the losers in the meritocracy are resentful at the arrogance of the winners while also humiliated with the knowledge that they have no one to blame but themselves.
“Today, all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance.... Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they ARE inferior? For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.” (108-9)
Michael Young’s tale from 1958 predicted that the less-educated classes would then rise up in a populist revolt against the meritocratic elites. We can now say that the revolt that Young predicted came 17 years ahead of schedule, in 2016, when Britain voted for Brexit and America voted for Trump.

While Democratic candidates, and many Republicans were intoning that everybody ought to be able to go as far as their talent and hard work could take them, and therefore we must level the playing field, Trump has never said that. His fans know that the meritocratic game casts them as the losers, that their work no longer has much dignity, or even affords much of a living any longer. Their feelings of both humiliation and resentment have proven potent.

If the game being played on the field is one that inherently has winners and losers, then leveling the playing field does nothing to revitalize civic life, does nothing to foster a sense that we’re all in this together, does nothing to shore up solidarity. Indeed, the more level the playing feeling, the more the winners may feel justified in their arrogance, and the greater the humiliation of the losers.

Sandel brings us back to grace and solidarity. He writes:
“a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule.” (The Tyranny of Merit 25)
We’ll always have some competitions, and we’ll want to make those playing fields level and fair, but when we make the levelness of the playing field the only concern, we forget that public life isn’t entirely about the competition. It’s also about recognizing that we’re in this together. It's about contributive as well as distributive justice. It’s about standing as equals with each other as neighbors, engaged in the work of citizenship (whether we are legal citizens or not). It’s not all about standing as competitors.

SERMON, part 2

As meritocracy has grown increasingly emphasized, the greater our inequalities of income and wealth have grown. Or maybe it’s the other way around: as our inequality has shot up since 1980, we’ve responded by rationalizing it with an increasingly dominant rhetoric of merit. Either way, the rise of emphasis on merit and the rise of inequality correlate.

Earlier, I mentioned contributive justice. Distributive justice is needed for fairer, fuller access to the fruits of economic growth and a reduction in inequality. Contributive justice is also needed: the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to others. It’s contributive justice that fosters the sense that we’re in this together. Human beings require the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value. An adequate wage is part of that. It’s hard to feel your society really values your work if they won’t pay you much for it. But the point isn’t just distributing income and wealth. It’s that people should get a good income because they’re doing work that really matters to other people. The distributive justice and the contributive justice need to go hand in hand. As Sandel writes,
“The fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life. The dignity of work consists in exercising our abilities to answer such needs.” (The Tyranny of Merit 212)
Robert F. Kennedy understood this. Campaigning in 1968, he said,
“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.”
They come from
“dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’” (RFK: Collected Speeches 385-86)
Politicians don't much talk that way anymore.

Meritocracy puts competition at the center of public life, instead of putting our shared civic enterprises at the center. Meritocracy also puts that competition at the center of our individual sense of who we are. Meritocracy defines us – to each other and to ourselves -- by what we deserve, what we earn. It teaches us relative disregard for all the range of life that isn’t marketable.

It may help to look more closely at the two factors that make up merit, or deservingness: talent, ability, natural gifts on the one hand and effort, hard work, training on the other.

First, let us ask: from where did the talent come? Some of it came from genes – that’s luck. Some of it came from childhood experiences. But growing up in the right sort of environment to bring out a given ability is not something the individual made happen. That’s also luck.

The other factor – effort, hard work, motivation, training -- isn’t always possible to separate from native talent. But whether you have the opportunities for training, have good coaches available, and training facilities, have encouraging people around you, and an environment that yields enough reward for hard work early on so that it develops as a habit – that’s all luck. There may also be a genetic component in predisposing some people to focused work and delayed gratification, and, if so, that would also be luck.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself motivated, and lucky enough to find yourself talented, then you’ll be said to have merit. The supposed distinction between unearned luck and earned deservingness collapses under scrutiny – so merit is always a pretense.

There are certain spheres of life where the pretense is necessary. When it’s time to ask the boss for a raise, you go in and make the case for how you deserve it. But later, when you're back home, in a moment of calm reflection where you can step back from your work life and can view it in your spiritual, holistic capacity, then you can appreciate that, really, there is no deserving. It’s all grace. You just happened to have some skills – including the skill called “motivation” – and you just happened to live in a world with market demand for your particular skills – and just happened to have the boss and the company that you do. All luck. All grace.

Now: Can you hold on to that spiritual truth even as you return again to the sphere of markets and work? It’s like the capacity to play a game -- parcheesi or gin rummy or chess -- while at the same time knowing that you’re just playing a game. Or like the capacity to watch an engrossing movie, while a part of you retains the consciousness that what you’re looking at is just lights on a screen. In the case of games and movies, it's pretty easy. In the case of merit, it takes a special spiritual maturity to resist the tendency to convince ourselves that we somehow deserve our luck. As Max Weber observed back in 1915:
“the fortunate person is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience their due. Good fortune thus wants to be 'legitimate' fortune.” ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions" [1915])
To be able to hold before you unwaveringly the insight that your good fortune really is just good fortune -- really is utterly undeserved -- to never forget that for a moment -- even when you’re in the middle of an intense round of the game called, “demanding what you deserve,” – that is a difficult spiritual challenge. I regularly bring myself back to this awareness that it’s all grace, that none of it is deserved or earned, but that bit about “never forget for a moment” is beyond me. I do regularly bring myself back to remembering, but that’s because I do regularly forget.

This might be your first glimpse of seeing through the illusion of merit – the first time it came to your notice that the distinction between deserving and lucky is illusory. If so, I urge you to hold on to that. Don’t let it slip away. Rest in that new way of seeing, and imagine what it might be like to live that way – with awareness that merit is a fiction, a game you are sometimes called upon to play, but which you recognize isn’t real.

If you imagine holding that awareness in your mind, what difference would that make for your life? For one thing, if you’re sharply aware that it’s all luck, then you’ll be less caught by surprise when the luck changes. Market shifts can make your particular skills no longer in demand. A sudden accident or disease can make your body no longer able to play the violin, or hold a scalpel steady – or can make your mind less able to concentrate. In the vagaries of fortune, if you’ve thoroughly grasped that your success is not deserved, then you’ll be prepared to see your failure, when it comes, isn’t deserved either.

And something else. Not only do you not deserve your failure, but you’ll more clearly see that other people don’t deserve theirs. Under the meritocratic ethic, my success is my own doing, so other people’s failure must be their fault. Meritocracy thus corrodes commonality. It traps me within the delusion that we aren’t in the same boat. Meritocracy says that I built my boat, and you built your boat, so there’s no particular reason I need to be concerned if yours is sinking. But if I see my situation as wholly an undeserved grace, then I can imagine a new and harsher grace that might put me in someone else’s shoes. (Ram Dass, after the stroke that left him wheelchair-bound, called it 'fierce grace.') And if I can have that clarity, then my life turns in a different direction, turns toward a different task. My task is not to out-compete others for the prizes of success and status. Nor is it to facilitate my children in out-competing others. My interest shifts from the prizes available only to the winners to restoring the dignity of all work.

There is a possible world in which everyone, whatever their talents and training, can meaningfully contribute their work to our shared public enterprise, and meaningfully contribute their voice to democratic deliberation that forms that enterprise. It will be no easy thing to get there from here. It will take, at best, several generations to reverse the effects of the last several generations.

Meanwhile, here in the microcosm of a congregation, we practice. Week in and week out, we embody a communal life without meritocracy, where we stand together on ground of equality, where everyone can meaningfully contribute to our shared enterprise, where we learn together an ever-deepening appreciation of grace and our inherent solidarity. Week in and week out, we are demonstrating to the world a better way.

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