On Sunday, Franklin Graham — a prominent evangelical, the son of Billy Graham and heir to his evangelistic organization — tweeted the following message, along with a corresponding Facebook post:
I read this tweet — or, more accurately, some exasperated responses to it — that night and sighed. This was not the first time that Graham had essentially blamed the victims of police brutality for the violence they incurred, but it was the clearest, most succinct illustration of his belief in a just world and how problematic that belief is.
The belief in a just world, or the just-world hypothesis, was first studied empirically by social psychologist Melvin Lerner in the 1960s. Lerner was curious about why, in cases of violence, people had a tendency to denigrate the victim instead of the perpetrator. What he found was that our brains tend to cling to the belief that the world is a fair place — that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In this line of reasoning, people who experience bad outcomes must be to blame for what they have incurred. Our minds hold onto this idea because it’s comforting — it makes us feel that the world is predictable and we have control over what happens to us. If something bad happens to someone, it must be because they deserved it. And since most people believe themselves to be good, they are thus immune and protected from experiencing similar things. The belief in a just world makes us feel safe.
Though everyone is susceptible to this idea, Christians seem to be especially so, at least in my experience. We read verses in the Bible about how God rewards the righteous and destroys the wicked. We’re told from the pulpit that God blesses those who are faithful to God and withholds such blessings from those who are not. The passages where that is not the case — in Ecclesiastes, for example, where the author mourns that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer — are glossed over, if they’re mentioned at all. We take these isolated passages of Scripture to validate the idea that the world is a fair place where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
This belief in a just world, in the face of a sexual assault, leads people to ask what the woman had done to invite it. Oh, she was wearing tight clothes — as though a woman’s clothing is an invitation for a man to force himself on her. Oh, she was drinking — as though being intoxicated gives a man permission to penetrate her without consent. The litany of questions that Brock Turner’s lawyers asked the woman he raped is a nauseating and only partial list of all of the reasons why people blame the victims of sexual violence instead of the men who perpetrate them. We want to feel as though our daughters, our wives, our girlfriends, our sisters, our mothers — and we ourselves — can avoid a similar fate as long as specific behaviors are avoided.
This belief in a just world, in the face of economic disparities between different communities, leads people to blame poorer ones for their circumstances. Oh, they’re just lazy — as though that’s an accurate characterization of people who work blue-collar jobs, often several at a time, to make ends meet and do not have family resources to fall back on. Oh, they could go to college if they wanted to — as though decades of denying communities of color access to education has no residual effects. We can sleep better at night if the victims are the ones to blame for their lot in life — and not, say, centuries of oppression and racist legislation that have created a system that advantages certain people over others. (A system that, to make us even more uncomfortable, may have given us privileges that we didn’t earn on our own merit.)
This belief in a just world, in the face of the police gunning down yet another black person, leads people to ask what that person was doing wrong. Oh, he had just stolen from a convenience store — as though pilfering a bag of Cheetos is a crime worthy of execution. Oh, he was selling cigarettes — as though death is an appropriate punishment. Oh, he had a gun in his pocket — as though that is not a constitutional right but a capital offense. Oh, he was playing with a toy gun. Oh, he was walking away from the officer. In their attempts to maintain the belief that that world is a fair place, people look to the victim to explain why the injustice happened and latch onto whatever evidence they can find. Thus, Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamott Scott are the ones scrutinized for what they did to merit being shot instead of the police officers who actually did the shooting.
This belief in a just world leads to statements like Graham’s. Oh, he wasn’t following instructions — as though in America, refusing to heed authority is ample cause for execution. Graham directs blame at Crutcher and Scott, not the police officers who killed them. As long as you do the right thing, he argues, nothing bad will happen to you.
It’s understandable why people want to believe that the world is just; it makes us feel like the world is safe and predictable and we are protected from bad things happening to us. It helps us get out of bed in the morning and walk around in the world without being plagued by fear. However, this belief simply isn’t true. It’s a delusion, to use Lerner’s words. As lovely as it would be if bad things only happened to bad people and we could avoid bad things just by being good — and as lovely as it would be if people could be neatly classified into such categories — that is simply not reality.
The process of coming to terms with this reality is usually a painful one: A parent is diagnosed with cancer. A beloved classmate is killed by a drunk driver. All of our best efforts do not lead to the outcome we desire. My training as a therapist both exposed my subconscious belief in a just world and destroyed it: As I sat with client after client as they shared their stories, their traumas, and their deepest pain, I came to see that sometimes, bad things happen to people who have done everything right. Though I thought I already knew this, realizing it fully was wildly disorienting, because it meant that I was no longer safe from these outcomes. I could do everything right and still suffer in the end. I emerged from my existential haze with a few options: I could double down on this belief and deny the experiences of my clients — which was not really an option, given how profoundly these people and their stories had impacted me. I could despair about the injustice of the world and let it paralyze me; I could throw up my hands and say that there’s no point in doing anything when the problems are so big and seemingly insurmountable. Or I could accept this uncomfortable reality and do what I could to try to correct it, even if my best efforts would make only the smallest of dents.
The world is not a just place. If two years of videos of police officers shooting innocent black people has not convinced you of that, then I suspect that you are working very hard to cling to the belief that the world is fair. I can understand why you might. But pretending that the world is just renders you incapable of doing anything to address the fact that it is not — and there are millions of people who need you to get to work. We can’t begin to fix the injustices in our society if we can’t acknowledge that the world isn’t fair. And this is why Franklin Graham’s tweet is so deeply troubling to me: In reinforcing the delusion of the just world, he tells thousands and perhaps millions of people that there is no problem to fix — when in reality, this problem is killing hundreds of people. Graham’s refusal to see isn’t just willfully ignorant — it’s dangerous.