‘Ain’t no sin, ain’t no virtue’

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chair who contributes frequently to the Chico News & Review.

Everyone knows life is not fair. But growing out of that fact is a nagging puzzle: Why do so many bad things happen to good people, and why do so many good things happen to bad people?

Recently I had the opportunity to ask a well-respected minister about this puzzle. To the best of my memory, his explanation went like this:

Bad things happen to good people because we are all sinners, and although Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins, he could not do all the suffering. Therefore, all the rest of us must also do some suffering.

Good things happen to bad people because Satan holds dominion over the earth. God could slap Satan down but has not done so, mostly because he must let sin run its course. If God were to step in and end all sin while still allowing man to exercise free choice through the free will God had granted him, sin would just rise again, and we would all be back where we started for another go-around.

The minister’s explanation focused too much on sin to suit me. Where sin is concerned, I like the position of Casy, the former minister in John Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath. He tells Tom Joad, the hero in the story: “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. Some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.”

It makes sense that common sense would govern the simplest answer to the puzzle. That is, bad things happen to good people because bad people—including greedy, unprincipled politicians—constantly exploit and victimize them. Yet that’s only a partial answer because it doesn’t explain things like auto accidents, incurable or fatal illnesses, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Also, it’s important to recognize the importance of the business of scrambling for success. As Steinbeck wrote to a friend, it’s hard to convince your kids they should play fair and be honest when the tools of success are cheating, treachery, and chicanery. Unprincipled (bad) people use those tools to their great benefit, while good people hold to the meritocracy belief that if they work hard and do the right thing, success will follow. The bad people usually eat their lunch.

I’ll conclude by noting what I considered the minister’s most profound statement. After his explanation, he added: “These things are hard for us to understand.” Amen.