The Other Seven Deadly Sins—Part 1 (2/17/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
The traditional date for Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after vernal equinox. This year Easter arrives unusually early—on March 31st. And because of the way the church year works, we back up six Sundays from Easter and discover that today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent, of course, is a time for self-examination. We are meant to look very closely at all of our sins, because it is only when we acknowledge our imperfections—our inner darkness–that the meaning of the resurrection shines through that darkness. To put it another way, the glory of God’s love becomes even more meaningful when we realize how often we are undeserving of that love.
Now, there may be a few people present who feel they are untouched by the sins of this world, and if you fit into that category, Lent is pretty much meaningless. But remember the seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Most of us have to admit that at one time or another we’ve pretty much covered all those bases. So for us, it can be helpful having a time dedicated to reminding ourselves of our need of God’s grace.
I have a feeling that I could send people running for the door if I said we were about to embark on an extended series on the seven deadly sins. And frankly, I’d probably be leading the charge out of the sanctuary. But I came across something several years ago that I put in my someday I’ll do a sermon on that folder, and decided this would be a good week to dig it out of the folder, and get it out of my system. The subject that so intrigued me is Mahatma Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Social Sins.
Just as Christianity holds there are seven deadly sins that can destroy a human being from within, Gandhi said that there are seven internal forces that can destroy a nation. These seven deadly social sins are: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.
That is a lot of ground to cover, and there is no way we can do it in a single week. So today we will look at the first two deadly social sins, and next week we’ll take up where we leave off today.
I make every attempt to keep from being overtly political in the pulpit. And I would never say that democrats or republicans, liberals or conservatives, or any of our other political orientations is closer to God’s will than any other. The day I decide I know the mind of God well enough to say how God’s love should be translated into politics and economics is the day you should tell me to become a politician, or an economist, instead of a Christian minister.
Still, it is important for the church—for those of us who attempt to place God before anything else—to keep from becoming so enmeshed in our modern culture that it’s impossible to tell where the church ends and where everyday society begins. If the church loses the ability to stand over against modern culture; if the church no longer applies different and higher standards to the world; then the church is no longer a tool of God. It is simply one more social club, blindly accepting the status quo. So, as a church—as the people of God—let’s look together at the seven deadly social sins as defined by Mahatma Gandhi, and see if they apply to the world in which we find ourselves.
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The first deadly social sin, which Gandhi defines as an internal force that can destroy a nation, is politics without principle. Why do I get the feeling that each and every one of you could step up here and take over for me at this point? I think it is a birthright of Americans to be at one time in love with the system and frustrated with politics. I doubt if any one of us would trade our system of government for any other system that has ever been devised. At the same time, how often do we watch the sometimes petty bickering and often mean-spirited wrangling that occurs at all levels of our system, and disgustedly say to ourselves, “Oh, that’s just politics.”
Because each of you by right of birth is a sort of expert on politics, and because any opinions I might hold on the subject have no more validity than anybody else’s, I see no need to spend much time expounding on this first of the seven deadly social sins. I will say just a few things on the subject, and move on.
There is something about us that wants to win at all costs. I wrestle with that urge in myself, and think it is a part of human nature that is amplified by our particular culture, which places so much emphasis on competition, and on coming out ahead. When we’re in high school, a victory for our team over the cross-town rival takes on a significance that any objective look at the world would tell us is irrational. Likewise, it seems to me that when it comes to politics, making sure our side wins is often more important than honestly trying to distinguish what is right, and what is best.
What the idea is doesn’t seem to matter as much as whose idea it is. Do you know what I mean? Forget what the bill says, what matters is whether it is one of ours or one of theirs. And I hope you are as distraught as I am by the politics of destruction. It is much easier to assassinate a person’s character than it is to debate their ideas. All sides in the political landscape are guilty of this, and it is the prime example, in my opinion, of politics without principle. Kill the messenger, and hope the message goes away.
Still, while I believe a person’s principles often take a beating by the time they rise to high levels in our government, I do recognize that most of our politicians believe in what they are doing. And there are good Christians who adhere to ideologies on both the left and the right, including many people on both sides of the political spectrum right here at University Congregational Church.
A person’s political persuasion makes no difference to me. What does matter to me is a person’s motivation. Why does a person adopt a particular set of political ideals? Are they driven by an honest attempt to establish the greater good, or by selfishness? Are they driven by the desire to move this world closer to the kingdom of God, or by the impulse to leave the world’s problems in somebody else’s hands, and concern themselves with the pursuit of self-interest?
Here’s my take on the whole liberal-conservative thing. If a person maintains a liberal ideology and believes our government should be more responsible to the poor, I respect that…as long as that person is not abdicating his or her personal responsibility by placing the burden on the government. In other words, if a person feels actively compelled to confront the problems of poverty, and in addition to that believes the government should be doing more, I believe that is a noble stance. But if that person is hiding behind that ideology in order to shirk his or her personal responsibility, I find nothing honorable in that. That person is simply trying to get somebody else to accept the responsibility and pay for the fix.
Likewise, if the politically conservative person believes in limited government, convinced the greatest number of people are drawn out of poverty by such policies, and maintains that the problems of poverty should fall upon individuals and not the system, I believe that is a virtuous way of approaching the problem, as long as they honestly commit themselves to alleviating the problems poverty leaves in its wake. But if that person is simply hiding behind a conservative ideology for reasons of greed, and if that person feels in no way responsible for the have-nots in this world, then I find nothing virtuous in that.
For me, it really does go back to motivation. It really does go back to politics with principle. And I hope it doesn’t surprise anybody for me to say it goes back to the teachings of Jesus. Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. If we can agree on that principle, I have no problem with the disagreements we may have over method.
Well, let me get off the subject of politics while I still have a job. When I’ve danced around the subject of politics before, most of the liberals in the congregation have accused me of being a conservative, and most of the conservatives have accused me of being a liberal. I’ll remind you once again of what my favorite living philosopher, Ken Wilber, says on the subject. If you upset people on both the right and the left, that does not necessarily mean you are correct. But it is one of the prerequisites of being correct. (Of course, Ken Wilber is a Buddhist—moderation in all things—so he would say that, wouldn’t he!)
The next deadly social sin is wealth without work. This deadly sin does not affect only those with great wealth; in fact, it cuts across the economic landscape. I have personally seen the corrosive effect of wealth without work on three particular occasions: one, when a friend of mine decided to take a free ride through life on welfare; another when an extremely wealthy family destroyed itself with it’s unearned wealth; and a third that involves the games people play with the stock market.
First, let’s consider the bottom of the economic ladder. I had a close friend back in Anderson, Indiana who got married at a very young age and instantly started a family. He was extremely intelligent, and he learned early on how to play the system to his advantage. Now, I think we can all agree that our system needs a safety net. And I am a firm believer that the moral integrity of a system can be determined by how it treats people in the shadows of life. Life has a way of running people over now and then, and it is our moral duty to help those people back on their feet.
But I imagine we can also agree that it is frustrating to discover there are those who take our good intentions and become parasites on the system. They not only take from those of us who support the system, in doing so they take from the people who honestly need our help. Such was the case with my friend. He was lazy. He saw no need to work, and he was more than happy to get by on what money he could squeeze out of the welfare system. When times got tough, he would supplement his welfare check by working long enough to build up a little unemployment insurance, and then manage to get fired so he could draw unemployment.
He did this for years, and his wife, whose parents had played that same game for most of her life, thought she was in a perfectly normal situation. Well, they say that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and for my friend, drugs soon took over his life. He wound up committing a few petty crimes to help support his growing habits, and eventually was spending as much time in the county jail as he was at home with his family, which by then included three children.
Of course, I saw less and less of him and his family as he continued to get himself in more and more trouble. The last I knew they were divorced, and he had left the state to avoid the law. I don’t know what became of his wife and children, but I am not optimistic about their fortunes. This was a case where a person’s ability to acquire wealth without the benefit of work led to a disaster not only for himself, but for the people he left in the wake of his lifestyle.
The next example of the corrosive effects of wealth without work takes place on the other end of the economic ladder from my friend in Indiana. This story, which I promise you is true, is set in Oklahoma City. Because my sermons appear on our webpage and are available over the internet, and because they are sometimes mailed to various places around the country, I am going to leave out a few of the details about this story, including the name of the family, and the invention that made them rich. I have no desire to be sued for libel or slander, and even though to the best of my knowledge everything I will tell you is true, I can’t afford the legal fees. However, if you will see me in Fellowship Hall following the service, I will fill you in on those missing details.
One of Leigh and my best friends in Oklahoma City worked as a CPA for an extremely wealthy family. In the first half of the Twentieth Century the patriarch of this family invented a device that literally swept the country. Even today, countless thousands of these devices can be found in every city in America, and you have all used these devices hundreds and hundreds of times.
This gentleman became extremely rich. And he was a good and generous man. He became a philanthropist and gave away millions and millions of dollars to countless good causes. Even today, his name is revered in Oklahoma City. And along the way he had two sons, neither of whom ever had to work a day in their lives.
Our friend was hired to manage the money for this family, to oversee the various trusts, and to run the philanthropic organization the inventor had started. Shortly after she began to work for them, the gentleman who had made this great fortune passed away. This was around 1980, and at that time the fortune totaled over 350-million dollars.
While they never had to work, the two sons’ spending had been restrained by their father while he was alive. Once he was out of the picture and the sons had unfettered access to his fortune, they wasted no time in putting it to use. There was a great fight over who should control the company, which basically generated income for worthy causes. And there was a major battle over the amount of money each should receive as their inheritance.
The father had arranged to have his wealth divided according to the number of people in each son’s family. One of the sons had married and had several children, while the other son never married. Now listen to this, because this is one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. The unmarried son made a deal with a couple of his friends, and legally adopted them, so he could get a fuller share of the inheritance. One of them was older than he was, but he managed to legally adopt that elderly gentleman as his son.
As you might imagine, the only people happy about this were the teams of lawyers on both sides who started fighting over the money. Meanwhile, the fortune was rapidly disappearing. Both sons decided they wanted a hand in running the business, and each made decisions that dwindled the fortune. At the same time they each bought lavish homes all around the globe. They bought garages filled with sports cars, multi-million dollar yachts, and one of the sons developed a cocaine habit that managed to make a significant amount of dad’s cash disappear up his nose.
Finally, in the mid 1990’s, our friend left the company that had been started by that philanthropic gentleman so many years before. By the time she left, one of the sons—the unmarried one—had committed suicide. The other son was piecing together what was left of that 350-million dollar fortune. Our friend told us that she estimated the fortune to be worth about 7 million dollars when she left.
Well, those are two examples of the destructive effect of wealth without work, taken from opposite ends of the economic spectrum. There is one other example I want to provide, that concerns me, and that affects a lot of people. The most common example of wealth without work that I see in our country today, is the way people play the stock market.
Okay, I admit I’m a hopeless idealist, but I have this feeling that capitalism works best when people approach investment with a certain amount of idealism. For example, you see a company you believe in—perhaps the company you work for—and you invest money to help that company prosper, knowing that as the company prospers you also will prosper. Idealistic? Yes. And likewise, we can invest in the market as a whole, which shows a belief in the system, and provides capital for the system to grow and prosper. That’s a good thing. Idealistic? Yes
It bothers me that we have turned the whole process into a game. We call it playing the market. And the idea isn’t to invest in a company. The idea is to time out the shifting tides of a company’s fortunes and jump in and out at the right time. Catch the company on the upswing, throw in some money, and then suck some wealth out of the company before the current changes.
And we’re all being encouraged to play the game. Do some online trading! There are countless stories of fortunes made and lost as men and women gamble their retirement savings with Internet trading. But if we take Gandhi’s second deadly social sin seriously, and agree that there is something destructive even in the desire to obtain wealth without work, I think we can see that our society is creating a dangerous game here, when all of us are encouraged to become gamblers in the high stakes game of the American economy.
Next week we’ll conclude Gandhi’s seven deadly social sins, beginning with commerce without morality, and pleasure without conscience. That will be an easy sermon to write! I mean, all I have to do is turn on the television. The advertisements provide me with all the material I need for commerce without morality, and the television shows give me more than enough material for pleasure without conscience. This is too easy. And I get paid for this! Talk about wealth without work…