December 13, 2005

The Seven Deadly Sins

[Ed: this is another of my articles which was first published in the November issue of the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine.]

For the past 40 years or so, those on the Christian Right have proclaimed the exclusive franchise for moral values. And during the 2004 election, the election results were bandied as being due to the ability of Karl Rove to bring out those conservative evangelical Christian voters who worried about the moral decay of the country. Indeed, the narrative was that these voters were determined to rescue the country and return it to its roots as a God-fearing Christian country. Yet, the Republican claim to the moral high ground is on very shaky ground, particularly if one believes as I do that we and our country could be better if we were more genuinely moral.

Once more we are faced with a problem of semantics. What does it mean to be moral? Surely, not all people who proclaim to be bringing the word of God to the world actually understand what it means to be moral. After all, the Taliban believed that they alone owned the franchise on morality and through their reading of the Koran they created a bleak hell on earth for women. They believed they had the exclusive truth of what was acceptable behavior for people who submitted themselves to God.

Within our own country we have fundamentalist preachers that preach a mean game on morality, but some of the most prominent like Pat Robertson have been personally involved in decidedly sinful activities. Or how should one judge someone who used funds raised to help the unfortunate people in Rwanda to funnel money to fly equipment into the diamonds mine he owned via a concession given by Mobutu Sese Seke, the notorious dictator of Zaire? So how do we judge the claim that these fundamentalist preachers own the meaning of morality?

Can we use an old doctrine, the seven deadly sins, to provide a scaffold to hang a discussion on morality? According to the early Christians, the seven deadly sins were sins that endangered one’s immortal soul. The seven deadly sins ranked for their seriousness (ordered from least to worst) were: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride. In the 6th Century, St Gregory the Great taught that the sins were deadly to the soul because they stood against love and that it was upon this set of sins all other sins arose. For instance, out of lust grows the temptation to commit adultery.

So let’s look at the seven deadly sins see what they tell us about our country, our times and ourselves. And what would we do to create a more moral society?

"Lust — Unlawful sexual desire, such as desiring sex with a person one is not married to (fornication). (Dante's criterion was "excessive love of others," thereby detracting from the love due God)."

Lust objectifies love. When lust is used to dehumanize another, it demeans not only the object of the lust, but one’s own self as well. Lust overrules our empathy and compassion which is the type of love that Jesus practiced and asked his followers to practice. Much about our entertainment media and our society encourages lust and the licentiousness of our times is truly worrying. But it seems today, some of the worst misuse of sexuality can be found in the homes of some of the most righteous self-proclaimed Christian leaders. How is it that the parts of our country that are the most outspokenly Christian are the parts of the country with the greatest problem in misusing sexuality: the highest divorce rate, the most child abuse, the highest number of teenage pregnancy? Somehow the words (what’s preached from the pulpit) are not matching up with the actions (hypocrites tend to create cynics that do what you do, not what you say) nor the genuine love needed to end some of these trends.

"Gluttony — Wasting of food, either through overindulgence in food, drink or intoxicants, misplaced desire for food for its sensuality, or withholding food from the needy ("excessive love of pleasure" was Dante's rendering)."

Yes, we have a country that does indeed overindulge, but what I found interesting about this definition is that is goes right to the heart of another area where we are failing if we are truly to be an example of a “Christian nation”. We are miserly when it comes to sharing food with others that are poor in this country. And as our "faith-based" government cuts food stamps for the poor while giving tax breaks for the extremely wealthy, it is clear that this sin is another real problem for this government.

"Avarice (covetousness, greed) — A desire to possess more than one has need or use for (or, according to Dante, "excessive love of money and power")."

Who can deny that greed runs roughshod over our country? So often we’ve been told that we live in the richest country in the world, yet too many people in our country have very little. Others seem to have more than enough but still have an overriding desire for more, more, more. Here it is clear that the morality of the Right is upside-down. Believing that wealth and power comes from God, they have lost sight of the fact that it is not wealth nor power that makes one whole with God, but how we care for the poor, the sick and those who have little.

"Sloth (also accidie, acedia) — Laziness; idleness and wastefulness of time allotted. Laziness is condemned because:

  • Others have to work harder
  • It is disadvantageous for oneself, because useful work does not get done
  • It, like gluttony, is a sin of waste, for it wastes time, implicitly due to pride
  • An equilibrium: one does not produce much, but one does not need much either

(in Dante's theology, sloth is the "failure to love God with all one's heart, all one's mind, and all one's soul" - specific examples including laziness, cowardice, lack of imagination, complacency, and irresponsibility)."

For people distracted by the media circus, understanding and acting on our roles as citizens is given short shrift. Who can deny that we no longer do the hard work of working with others in our communities to create a more humane and compassionate society? We are hardened against the trials of others. Yet, there is more than enough honorable work for all if we were to focus on what we could do to improve our society. One consequence would be that people tend to believe their work is worth the effort when they are involved in actions and activities that have real value (such as cleaning up our neighborhoods, teaching children the love of reading, participating in our own city governments).

"Wrath (anger, hate) — Inappropriate (unrighteous) feelings of hatred, revenge or even denial, as well as punitive desires outside of justice (Dante's description was "love of justice perverted to revenge and spite")."

When our answer to challenges and attacks is anger and revenge, we diminish ourselves. The torture that has been done as part of Bush’s war on terror is clearly an offshoot of too much anger and hatred. And now we see how our military and our country’s reputation have both been damaged by the actions of our Government.

"Envy (jealousy) — Resentment of others for their possessions (Dante: "Love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs")."

The politics of resentment is one of the nastier parts of our current political climate. How much of the anger directed toward Bush after Katrina by those from his base was based on the misdirected envy that the poor have gotten too much from our country? Indeed, today too much of the power of the right has gotten has been based on targeting the poor as the cause of their own problems.

"Pride (vanity) — A desire to be important or attractive to others or excessive love of self (holding self out of proper position toward God or fellows; Dante's definition was "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride is referred to as superbia. In Jacob Bidermann's mediaeval miracle play Cenodoxus - superbia is the deadliest of all the sins, and led directly to the damnation of the famed Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus."

Here the early Christians judged pride as being the worst of the deadly sins. In this they agreed with the Greeks who believed that the gods would destroy those who put themselves up as gods. Indeed, the worst sin that Lucifer was guilty of was the sin of overweening pride. Pride of what we have accomplished can be tipped into blaming others for their failure to not do the same. Furthermore, being too full of ourselves, we cannot and do not listen to those who are affected by our edicts and actions. Those who reek of self-righteousness (it’s my way or the highway) set themselves up for the sin of hubris. And it is the sin of pride that makes fundamentalist Christian Right preachers believe that God only speaks to them.

What does it mean to have moral values? It means understanding the frailties of our human nature and working hard to overcome the temptations that trap us into slighting our obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves. Today, the self-proclaimed owners of morality fail the test when it comes to practicing moral values.

Posted by Mary at December 13, 2005 12:28 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

Very nicely done, applause.

Posted by: Thomas Ware at December 13, 2005 10:19 AM

Much applause.

Thank you for the much needed breath of fresh air.

Posted by: David Aquarius at December 14, 2005 12:56 PM