Mark Herringshaw is a friend of mine. He is an author and Christian, minister and speaker. I respect him very much. He wrote a book called THE KARMA OF JESUS and it is a very powerful work. But if you believe in Karma and not so much Christian beliefs it will provide a challenge for those beliefs. The term Karma is unavoidably present in many conversations and works in this world. The concept of it is perhaps often misstated or misunderstood, but it too exists in great numbers. This is a work that addresses a phenomenon in popular culture, and I felt it a worthy issue to discuss at a site such as our own. That and I got a copy of it to read and I read it cover to cover without break, it was compelling, and, a bit troubling.
Alex Ness: Whatever possessed you to write a booked called “The Karma of Jesus?”
Mark Herringshaw: The brainstorm sideswiped me after I was heckled in church. I am a pastor and I was speaking during a worship service when a young man in his twenties spoke up out of the audience and began peppering me with questions about the differences between Christianity and New Age thought. I invited him to come up afterward to talk. He told me his personal story, and along the way I discovered that he anchored his life on his understanding of Karma. As I listened, I suddenly thought of a way to explain the Christian way of seeing the world in his language. That’s the backdrop of the book – the essence of our actual dialog, where I introduced to him the idea that Jesus invites us: “dump our Karma.” I don’t know how our conversation has ultimately impacted him, but it changed me and the way I understand my role as a follower of Jesus.
AN: If Karma is so intertwined with popular cultural thought, do you write this in attempt to detach culture from that? How is that working out for you?
MH: I believe I’m following an ancient tradition of Christian communicators who’ve dared to borrow pagan language to communicate orthodoxy. In the New Testament itself the Apostle John used the Greek concept “logos” to explain Jesus. He starts his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos… and the Logos became flesh.” Logos came from Greek philosophy and it meant “the organizing principle of the world.” John swipes this word and uses it to describe Jesus. No, I’m not trying to detach “karma” from the popular parlance; I’m doing with Patrick in Ireland did when he baptized Celtic symbols like the shamrock to explain the Christian vision. Christianity is very elastic. What we believe doesn’t change but the way we “incarnate” it in culture always does. My job, as a Jesus-follower is to translate Jesus, without distorting him. Our culture now idolizes elements of the ancient idea of “Karma.” Ask people and they will tell you: “Good comes to those who do good, and trouble comes from trouble.” That’s our ethical system today. So, in The Karma of Jesus I present a classic interpretation of Christ’s life, teachings and death starting from the language of modern New Age spirituality. It’s my assumption that Jesus is always the answer; I just have to know what the question is. The question today is, “Karma’s a bitch; What the hell can I do about that?” Answer: “dumpyourkarma."
AN: People use the word “Karma” in many ways. What does it actually mean, in your frame of reference?
MH: Karma is an ancient Hindu word; the complete concept is very complex. Most religions, including Judaism and Christianity include some tenet similar to the concept of Karma. When we experience trouble, we imagine there must be some cause. A shattered relationship, financial struggles, health problems, family strife – Why? What’s the reason? We also want to know if there is a way out? It’s almost instinctive to explain our troubles by saying, “We reap what we sow,” or “The piper has to be paid,” or “The chickens always come home to roost.” We seem to understand that if we act well, blessings come back to us; if we act badly, problems come back to us. This, in its simplest form is “Karma.” Again, I know it’s much more nuanced than this for those who spend a lifetime exploring the depths. But in a popular sense, this is what I mean when I use the word.
AN: Why is our culture so fascinated with Karma?
MH: The word “Karma” is chic. It seems to explain everything, I suppose. And more, it promises me some control over my own destiny. Karma gives me a kind of roadmap for mastery. It may take me a eons, but at least it gives me direction. We like this. Google “karma” and you could get 106 million results. Not bad for an arcane word coined 4,000 years ago to describe a concept almost impossible for westerners to fully grasp. Now alongside belief in a God who communicates, cares, makes choices and prefers one thing over another, many have added faith in “Karma” – a belief in the sovereignty of cause and effect. In order to communicate the gospel in this environment, we have to take into account the belief in Karma and go from there. Again, I’m starting here and using this as a bridge to talk about – and hopefully better understand – Jesus. That’s the essence behind my book.
AN: You suggest in your book “The Karma of Jesus” that there is a certain symmetry by which karma works that is broken by Jesus. What do you mean by that?
MH: I’ll defer to Bono. We know Bona as one of the most recognized icons in the world. In recent years the lead singer of the rock group U2 has leveraged his astounding pop status to become a potent political voice and advocate for social justice and humanitarian causes. At any given moment he might be spotted lampooning a rogue third-world dictator, serving soup at an inner city shelter, doing a benefit concert for a 400 year old pub housed slated for demolition, or spewing challenges to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Bono claims a moral anchor for this influence on his deep conviction in the necessity of justice in the world, here and now. And he builds this conviction from a forceful, consuming faith in Jesus Christ. Bono sees himself as Jesus’ agent of revolution. In my preparation for writing “The Karma of Jesus” I read Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Assayas, who is not a confessing Christian, records an interview with Bono in which he discusses the implications, here and now, of the sacrificial life of Jesus.
Bono: …It's a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma… I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace… You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff…. I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep shit. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity…. But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled… . It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven…When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s--- and everybody else's. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that's the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.1
From Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, by Michka Assayas, copyright © 2005 by Michka Assayas, Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Page 225-227, 228.
AN: Doesn’t the fact that with Karma you get moral people and with Christianity you get guilty people seeking forgiveness suggest to you that one is a positive belief and the other negative? How do you suggest we view this otherwise?
MH: I guess I’m not convinced that Karma is really about morality. It’s about functionality – what works. And yes, most religions include some tenet compatible with the ancient Hindu concept of Karma.
By that definition Karma represents the accumulation of all the effects of all the actions of my body, mind, and intuition. As ocean waves rolling toward the shore build up sandbars beneath the surface, so my actions and their results accumulate and build up tendencies that determine the course of my future. Karma is also more than personal… It encompasses the action-energy of everything that has ever occurred past or present, connecting every event back to the influences causing that event, and forward to all results triggered by it. The universe enforces this responsibility one way or the other.
The piper has to be paid. The chickens always come home to roost. Meaning… If I tell a lie, a lie will be told to me. If I give, something will be given to me. When someone slaps me on the cheek they deliver payback, not offense. I am at fault. I bring my own reward. I hold power. I bear responsibility. When I make a mess, I have to dispose of it… somewhere. I own my own garbage.
But… Here’s the crunch: Karma creates problems as well as explains them. If I reap what I have sown, I’m accountable for every consequence – even an unintentional one. How can I escape living with and paying for mistakes I’ve made? What escape do I have when Karma exacts payback for the smallest white lie? What pardon can I gain when even when my best efforts to do good generate more trouble?
Karma brings bad news. The problem is real. My garbage has to go somewhere. I cannot wish it away. Is there any way to remedy the curse of Karma? Eastern religions offer the solution of reincarnation: We return to try again, and eventually – hopefully – escape the cycle of perpetual action that perpetuates Karma. But even the wisest teachers of this philosophy doubt if salvation is assured.
AN: You’re saying that “Grace trumps Karma.” Isn’t it a bit foolish, to argue one unproven religious principle with yet another one? Karma exists or doesn’t every bit as much as Jesus.
MH: I won’t argue that from the realm of ideas. I can only say what I’ve experienced, personally. Karma leaves me in debt, but Grace in Jesus really works, practically I mean.
AN: How is that working out for you, personally?
MH: I’ll offer a story, not an argument: Somewhere a woman named Roxanne sits alone at night trying to silence the voices in her head. One of those voices is mine. I no longer know where she lives. I don’t know if she beats her children, cuts herself, drinks vodka for breakfast, or writes hateful emails to advice columnists. I wouldn’t be surprised at anything of the sort. I wouldn’t be surprised at worse.
I have not seen Roxanne since a clear, crisp Friday afternoon in March, 1974 when she got stepped off our school bus for the last time, the day she left our school. I drove her away.
I never intended to hurt Roxanne. We were bumbling through our 8th grade year at Soulsbyville School in the Gold Rush country east of Sonora, California. Roxanne had a disability. Her right hand hung at her side and she walked with a limp. She had large beautiful sad eyes, and she seldom spoke. We rode the same bus every morning and afternoon 40 minutes each way, weaving in and out of the little valleys where hearty and reclusive Californians had tucked away their homes. I got bored on those long drives. Generally, when I get bored I make trouble.
I grew up in a family of teasers. My father, who had the kindest of hearts loved to raise reactions with little ornery jests. I learned early that affection comes with a jab and a snicker. Herringshaws give this kind of attention. We tease.
I remember feeling uncomfortable with Roxanne’s sullen silence. She would sit in her seat alone, coddling her useless hand looking guarded and suspicious, staring out the window at the green and rocky hills of the Tuolumne. No one spoke much to Roxanne. She said even less. I remember thinking she needed attention. I decided to give he some. I started to joke with her.
I gave her a nickname which I can’t recall now. I sat near her whenever I could and peppering her with playful banter. She’d tell me, beg me to leave her alone, but her rebuffs only made me more resolved. I know now – and probably knew then – that some of my barbs crossed the line into meanness, some even to abuse. But no one corrected me and I never corrected myself. Then one day Roxanne stopped riding the bus. Her parents removed her from the school and she disappeared from my life.
At the time I didn’t see a connection between my banter and her departure. I felt no responsibility. I never intended to hurt anyone. It was all in good sport. But in the years that followed, as my conscience and imagination matured I sometimes playing back the mental tape of those bus rides and I saw clearly the brutality I had helped heap on Roxanne. I had not caused all her pain. I had not intended to chase her off. But that was the result.
And what is life for her today? I don’t know. But I do know that I am part of a vast and complicated equation of pain she almost certainly still lives beneath and perhaps passes on to others. If tried fairly in a court, I would suffer conviction by a jury of my peers because my teasing had brutal unintended consequences. I might plead “I never meant to…” But that would not matter. I’d be made to pay reparations with interest and I’d go bankrupt.
I should be damned to hell or if I were Monist to 10,000 reincarnations to pay for this. But the reality is, I’ve been released of culpability. I know it! I couldn’t live with myself but experientially, I don’t have to! That’s what Jesus has done…
AN: Have you considered whether or not this treatment by you of Karma is just another in a long line of attempts by Christians to co-opt powerful, indigenous positive moral structures to replace them with Christian ones?
MH: I’m co-opting the language but not the moral structure of Karma. I admit this up front. As I said, I’m following an ancient tradition of Christian communicators who’ve dared to borrow pagan language to communicate orthodoxy. Christians have no problem admitting that Truth can reside in other belief systems. The Bible doesn’t tell us details of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, though the worldview offered in the Bible is thoroughly consistent with this scientific reality. Truth is truth. We’ll take it and leverage it wherever we find it. There’s a certain self-evident element about elements of the Karma principle. Christians offer a different solution to the problem – we don’t accept reincarnation as a solution for instance. We believe reincarnation simply stalls off the fundamental issue while Jesus’ death and the offer of grace settles the matter in time and space. We like to say that “Jesus is the answer; what’s the question?” In this sense Christians feel free to play in any sandbox. And when we do we’ll find ways of seeing Jesus there. There’s a Christian sociologist named Don Richardson who says that every individual and every culture has “eternity written within.” Christians can therefore readily engage any religious or moral system in conversation, because almost all of us agree upon the root of the problem – humans have screwed things up. But then Christians will offer a different solution, a unique and surprising one of grace and forgiveness in one perfect and divine human being who lived in real time and in a real place.
In the New Testament itself the Apostle John used the Greek concept “logos” to explain Jesus. He starts his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos… and the Logos became flesh.” Logos came from Greek philosophy and it meant “the organizing principle of the world.” John swipes this word and uses it to describe Jesus. No, I’m not trying to detach “karma” from the popular parlance; I’m doing with Patrick in Ireland did when he baptized Celtic symbols like the shamrock to explain the Christian vision. Christianity is very elastic. What we believe doesn’t change but the way we “incarnate” it in culture always does. My job, as a Jesus-follower is to translate Jesus, without distorting him. Our culture now idolizes elements of the ancient idea of “Karma.” Ask people and they will tell you: “Good comes to those who do good, and trouble comes from trouble.” That’s our ethical system today. So, in The Karma of Jesus I present a classic interpretation of Christ’s life, teachings and death starting from the language of modern New Age spirituality. It’s my assumption that Jesus is always the answer; I just have to know what the question is. The question today is, “Karma’s a bitch; What the hell can I do about that?” Answer: “dumpyourkarma.”
AN: If Karma isn’t necessarily correct, it is at least a more consciously moral way to live than Christianity. How many wars were fought over Karma versus say, doctrinal difference or ritualistic Christian debate?
MH: I’ll give you your critique that wars have been fought over Christian doctrine. That’s irrefutable. But to assume from that Christianity itself is morally inferior to other systems is an illogical jump. We need only examine history to discover that proportionately, Christians have, on the whole contributed to more than they have diminished the world’s status. Christians have built more hospitals and schools than adherents of any other belief system. We rescued unwanted babies in Rome, set up make-shift hospitals in the middle ages in plague inflicted European cities, and today, in the battle against human trafficking we’re doing much of the dirty work of rescue in the back allies of Bangkok.
Karma of course does offer an alternative moral standard, but it’s a standard of utilitarianism that has no bend in it. No bend but a lot of break. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has written a book called “Souls in Transition” about the religious and ethical views of young adults in America. Smith did a longitudinal “National Study of Youth and Religion,” using statistics and face-to-face interviews to paint a picture of the moral and spiritual lives of 18- to 24-year-olds in America. Smith concludes that "emerging adults" tend to hold to a vague moral reasoning. The dominant metric they seem to use in deciding right from wrong, is a strange marriage between “if it feels good do it,” and “karma” – “do it if it works.” The problem, answered one of his respondents: “Karma’s a bitch.”
Indeed it is. I agree that Karma is a predictable moral standard, but it’s a brutal standard that never bends or makes exceptions or takes appeals or tardy slips. Screw up and there’s a price to pay. The Bible offers a similar bold exactness it calls “righteousness.” But the difference is that for in Christianity there’s a Person behind the standard, a Lawgiver behind the Law who can, out of love and mercy find a way to both keep the Law and bend it, which is what he does in Grace and in Jesus.
AN: Can a Christian believe in Karma too?
MH: I think Christians have to believe in the verdict that Karma levels against us: we screw up and we have to pay for the price. We don’t however believe that the universe is merely mechanistic. We believe that a person, not a machine lies behind things. So yes, I as a Christian do accept that all actions have consequences and I’m responsible for all of mine. But it’s God, a person, who hold me to that standard and can, by choice, intervene in his own established process. This, we believe is where Jesus comes in. If Jesus lived perfectly, he also loved perfectly. Such perfect love came with a perfect desire to share that love and to share the outcomes of his perfect life. In the language of today’s New Age culture Jesus had “perfect Karma.” His perfect love would lead him to want to give this away for the sake of others. So when Jesus died on the cross he became the “toxic waste dump of the universe.” He takes all the horrible consequences of our choices and gives us his purity in exchange. Jesus gets my punishment; I get his goodness, peace and joy. His grace trumps my Karma.
AN: As you know I am a Christian. But my worry is that in an attempt to write what is a very interesting book, and one that I find convincing, it could wound instead of heal. How do you leave people unbruised but interested enough to explore further?
MH: I don’t think there’s any way around getting bruised. Life is tough. We get beat up. The unique thing about Jesus is that he blatantly brings the bad news before the good news. He offends us, but the truth sometimes really is inconvenient. I find Jesus refreshingly honest. There’s no blind Pollyanna platitudes in his words. He’s straight up about injustice and the dark intentions of the human heart and corruption in powerful places and the grief inherent in the death of the young. Jesus faces facts and I find that this gives me courage to be honest as well, about my life and my world. Stuff is screwed up and I’m partly to blame Okay. That’s the bad news. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes forward to solve the problem. He bruises us with a naked blast of truth, then he resolves it in a surprising and loving way: He takes the bruises on himself.
700 years before Jesus lived the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote about the one day coming Messiah. Christians believe Jesus is that promised One. Isaiah said (Isaiah 53),
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
There’s no promise we won’t get bruised. In fact, the bad news is we all are and must be. The good news follows though. Jesus takes the bruises for us. We can trade places. He already has. We just need to follow suite and make the exchange.