“The year was 2081 and everyone was finally equal.”
So begins Kurt Vonnegut’s incredible dystopian short story, Harrison Bergeron. The short, fictional piece prophetically depicts the extremes to which an authoritarian government might go in order to create a society in which each and every individual is “equal” to all others on every conceivable plane. Under the watchful eye of the Handicapper General, who exists to ensure utter and complete fairness, the strong are laden with heavy bags of shot upon their larger frames, so as to reduce their strength to that of a lesser man. The beautiful are forced to wear hideous masks so as to reduce their genetic advantages in attracting a mate or getting hired for a well-paying job. The intelligent are forced to wear headphones with the sounds of shattering glass or shotgun explosions going off every few moments to prevent them from having an inordinate advantage in ratiocination.
Vonnegut’s point is fairly obvious: if we are to pursue a society in which all persons are radically equal, this can only be practically attained by cutting down the overachievers. After all, perpetually augmenting the underachievers is impossible, or at least more difficult to accomplish practically. Suppose we had a group of fifth graders. During gym class, we ideally want them all to perform well in dodge ball so that no one has their feelings hurt at lunch. We cannot easily make the less-skilled players throw harder or more accurately, but we can easily enough set the better athletes further from the center line to make the contest more fair. Or take a class of High School juniors with the math section of the ACT on their desks. If we needed to manipulate their scores so they are as close to the median as possible, we could simply give the more advanced students less time to perform the test. Why? Because this is far easier than teaching the duller students to solve algebraic equations.
Vonnegut wrote the story in 1961, with amazing insight, uncannily predicting some of the discussions that would center around the utopian ideas advocated and advanced throughout the 1960’s, often fomenting into acts of violence. Of course, with the renewed interest in socialism and Marxism that we are experiencing today, the story’s already sharp edge is whet for another generation of readers to consider. Discussions of equality and how to attain it have continued, if not intensified since then. Most who are serious about attaining these apparently desirable outcomes, under the rubric of secular social justice theories, believe that a “great reset” needs to take place. Some advocate violence. Others advocate restructuring traditional forms of democracy with a view towards socialism, or even full blown communism.
They want more than equality of opportunity; they want equality of outcome.
Harrison Bergeron, the protagonist of the story, has every natural advantage. He is intelligent. He is handsome. He is both agile and strong. He is exactly seven feet tall. Only fourteen (he also has youth on his side), the government had already handicapped him with every imaginable impairment: scrap metal hangs from his body, thick glasses obscure his sight, a clown nose brings his striking features into the range of normalcy. He must cope with nearly every conceivable device on his body to annul such brute talent (read: inequality). The government has him under their watchful eye. They’ve already imprisoned him once. A true talent like him must be cut down to size in every way possible. Most dangerous of all, he has inordinate intelligence; a gift no doubt passed down from his father who himself wears an audible handicapping device to disrupt his unfairly advantageous ability to think in linear fashion.
As the drama rises, young Harrison escapes from prison and heads straight for the television studio. His rebellion against the restraints imposed by society will be livecast. He interrupts an entirely unremarkable dance performance, live and in prime time. The dancers are uninspiring anyways, of course, since the more talented among them are weighted and masked so as not to induce any jealousy whatsoever from the audience, sitting passively at home. Jealousies and resentments can never be the moral fault of the beholder in a true utopia. Such responsibilities must be placed squarely, if not literally, on the shoulders of the gifted; a thinly veiled reference to the politics of resentment, engendered in most heartily Marxist discussions.
Daring, audacious and strong, Harrison interrupts the broadcast and takes his place before the camera unmasking the most beautiful ballerina and pulling her to his side. He joins the dance. Together they whirl in true beauty and splendor. In the denouement, he cries out with a haunting declaration of defiance, causing panic among the now-scrambling governmental officials: “Now watch me become what I can become!”
All restraints are off. He is free.
It probably sounds like I have something against equality. I really don’t. In fact, in the paragraphs that follow, I want to suggest a few ways that we are all already exactly and absolutely equal. There is no need to contrive it through social engineering. In fact, in the three specifics below, there is not one discernable difference — none whatsoever — that we can detect among the broadest swath and most generous cross-section of humanity.
First, we all alike possess the Imago Dei. This is the very image of God impressed upon the whole of humanity at the creation (Gen. 1:26-27). Each and every one of us bears it equally brilliantly, and to the same degree. Not one bears more “image” than the other, nor any the less. The child with Down’s Syndrome retains the indelible image as much as the Olympic athlete. The broadest panoply of racial colors and kinds all bear it. The tribes and nations are all so decorated with this intrinsic beauty. It is detectable in both male and female in regard to gender; and high and low on the economic scale in regard to standard of living. Here, there is no talk of the privileged or the disadvantaged; no handicapped or gifted. Of course, this completely destroys any grounds of resentment upon which fascist fantasies are contrived, and reduces such tribal self-aggrandizement to shameless dribble.
Racism, as such, is to be condemned and rejected as so much foolishness and indefensible disdain for the Maker. Where we see glimmers of racism in our waking or conscious thought, we must repent of it immediately. Actually the Bible makes very little of race, skin color, or ethnic background, though it does often discuss nations, tribes, and the content of individual person’s’s hearts; drawing a distinction between the covenant people of God and the pagans. The latter is the emphasis — the internal person so much more so than external factors.
Think for a moment of how few Biblical characters are described physically. Sarah was beautiful and David was ruddy; Esther remarkable among 10,000. But these are memorable only as outliers. Scripture hardly mentions anything as superficial as skin color, shade, or tone. Race is simply not a category with which the Bible is eminently concerned. Conversion is however. If there is a great division, an obvious striation, it is between those who believe and those who reject God’s Lordship as over against any other mitigating factors.
Secondly, we are exactly equal in terms of our original sin. Original sin is that stain upon our nature, making us disposed to transgression, inherited through our First Parents, Adam and Eve. Since Adam fell as our federal head, we have all become sinners, both in our nature and in our actions. Since we all possess that same depraved nature, we cannot be so easily divided up into the all too common categories of “the good” and “the bad.” All stand in need of a Redeemer. All must turn to grace to be saved.
We don’t confuse original sin with actual transgressions, and our better Confessions speak directly to both, making clear distinctions between them (see Westminster Confession chapter six, especially points three and four). Obviously, some men are more wicked than others in terms of their actual transgressions; Sennecherib was worse than Hezekiah. But in terms of our nature, we are all plumb even. All ground is level at the cross of Jesus Christ, and no one may stand up taller and straighter before Him. All must bow down low to the ground in His presence.
Third we are all equal in terms of the eventuality of death. All human beings die, and this is the sine qua non of what it means to be mortal. We are temporal and finite. Whether we live one hundred years or die on our first birthday, the grave will pull us downward inevitably. Disease, aging, viruses, or tragic accidental death; one of these will master us eventually. Though we stave it off with exercise, vitamins, or pandemic masks, death is the irresistible force that will overwhelm the immovable object of our instinct towards self-preservation. King Herod died a wicked king; and so did James, a faithful apostle. Swords and bullets pierce flesh at the same capacity whether high-born or low. Both the famous and the unknown can contract a disease like cancer. Though the rich can pay for more treatments of chemotherapy than a pauper, a malignant tumor can claim them both despite their most valiant efforts to avoid it.
In the doctrines of the Imago Dei, Original Sin, and mortality (death); Christianity offers a far more comprehensive worldview regarding fairness and justice than its Marxist rivals who think almost entirely in categories of race and economics. It is my contention that Christianity has far more solid ground to build upon to create a fair and just society. We regard one another as equally beautiful in God’s sight (imago dei), equally needy of divine grace (original sin), and equally susceptible to our own mortality (death). Thus, a pure equality exists, but not on Marxist grounds.
Despite all of this, there are always going to be ways that we cannot and ought not strive to be equal. God metes out gifts and graces, and likewise withholds them as He wills (Rom. 12:6). Some are born with an aesthetically pleasing form and we call that “beauty.” Others are given gifts of mental comprehension and retention and we call that “intelligence.” Still others are born with physical capacities for labor and we call that “strength.” These are given by God and bequeathed to man, that man might yield them back up to the glory of God (Rom. 11:34-36). In our twin doctrines of sovereignty and providence, we accept the fact that these are not equally distributed among men.
Therefore, resent not the temporal gifts of any other. Praise God for them though they be not your own. Mortify resentment and jealousy, and vivify praise and thanksgiving. Be content to trust God’s wisdom in distributing gifts to others — even riches — for money does not bring true happiness or lasting joy anyways (Ecc. 2:1-17).
At the end of the short story, Harrison Bergeron is shot. Martyred. Killed in cold blood by the Handicapper General and her henchmen. He dared to live fully into his gifts and graces, despite dwelling among a godless society that clamored for mediocrity and resented one another’s blessings. True enough, whatever gifts and graces we have, it is our duty to soar and dance like Harrison and his unmasked ballerina. Whether you have been given much or little, live fully to the glory of God, and yield to Him the honor that He alone deserves. Let a resentment-laden culture sulk and plot against us. The Bride of Christ lives for the glory of Jesus alone and declares for all to hear, “Now watch me become what I can become.”
Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, just north of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Unknown: The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary Christians and A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity. He is currently writing a book on Edwards’s seventy Resolutions for Hendrickson Publications.