The Other Seven Deadly Sins, Part 2 (2/24/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
Last week we began a series on the seven deadly social sins of Mahatma Gandhi. We’re all familiar with the usual seven deadly sins of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Perhaps we’re a little too familiar with them! Gandhi listed seven internal forces that could destroy a nation, cultural sins that could bring about the moral decay of a society. His 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.
I acknowledged last week that this can be dangerous ground. Anytime one casts a critical eye at our society from the pulpit, he can be accused of either espousing a particular view of politics, or of being holier than thou. But I also mentioned that it is the moral obligation of the church to always keep a certain distance between itself and the prevailing culture, or it loses its moral compass and simply becomes one more social club advocating support for the status quo.
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Last week we took a look at politics without principle and wealth without work. Today, we’ll begin by moving on to number three, which is commerce without morality. With regard to this subject, it is so easy for people, especially ministers, to hide behind idealistic statements of faith and throw stones at the system. For example, I could stand here and tell you all that the profit motive is a damnable sin. Why, the very idea that a person would engage in a transaction that enriched them in some material way is completely beneath a person of my high moral character.
Of course, that would be incredibly hypocritical considering I have engaged in a transaction with the people of this congregation that says I provide certain services in exchange for material wealth. Commerce is not our enemy, and what has become known as the “Protestant work ethic” is a powerful thing. Should we care for the poor? Definitely. Should we make sure that we have a safety net for those who get run over by life? Positively. And while we are providing that care should we enjoy the fruits of our hard work and live abundant and joyful lives? Absolutely.
While we should always be aware of those who get caught beneath the wheels of commerce, the system works. Still there is no good idea that cannot be corrupted. Remember the first two deadly social sins—politics without principle and wealth without work. Just as there are those few bad apples who take politics and instead of debating ideas turn to character assassination, destroying those with whom they disagree; and just as there are those who manipulate the system to enrich themselves without the benefit of work; there are those who engage in commerce without any sort of moral framework.
I think the most obvious example of this that has been in the news of late is the Enron debacle. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not an economist, so I have no expert commentary on that whole disastrous situation. When I worked for ITT selling measurement and control equipment into the oil and gas industry, Enron was one of my largest customers. The people I dealt with worked in the gas plants scattered across Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, and over the years I made dozens of good friends who worked for Enron.
The fact that my friends were kept in the dark and encouraged to invest in Enron while the heads of that corporation were selling off millions of dollars worth of stock may fall within the limits of legal commerce. Like I say, I’m not a lawyer and I’m not an economist. But from a moral viewpoint, well, I have no idea how those corporate heads can look in the mirror in the morning when they shave. Christian Century reports that last year, the CEO of Enron told a San Diego newspaper, quote, “I believe in God and I believe in free markets.” Generally speaking, I believe in those things too. In Enron’s case, history will judge whether or not one of those beliefs took precedence over the other.
I know a lot of businessmen and businesswomen. I am happy to say that almost all of the people I know who actively engage in the American system of commerce are people of high moral character. People are basically good. I really believe that. And while we should all be expected to benefit from our labors, it is certainly disheartening to see those rare few for whom greed takes precedence over honest enterprise, and for whom the accumulation of material wealth becomes the god in their lives.
Well, the first three deadly social sins of Mahatma Gandhi—politics without principle, wealth without work, and commerce without morality—all tend to have a sort of political-slash-economic angle to them. With the next social sin we move away from that area, into a more traditional moral landscape. The fourth deadly social sin is pleasure without conscience.
Did you ever watch Saturday Night Live when Dana Carvey did his
”Church Lady” routine? He dressed up like a stereotypical self-righteous old biddy who constantly maintained a holier-than-thou smirk on her face, and turned her nose up at everybody while saying, “Well, isn’t that special.” All the while, she repeatedly asked her embarrassed guests if the source of their naughtiness was “Satan?”
I’m hoping I don’t come across sounding like the “church lady” as I approach this subject of pleasure without conscience, but let me tell you something. When it comes to this subject, it seems to me that culturally, we’ve slid into the toilet. There are many examples of the way we are taught to pursue pleasure without the benefit of conscience, but for this discussion I will look at only one. If you watch television, from the daytime soaps to the daytime talk shows, to what passes as prime time entertainment, you will get one message loud and clear: recreational sex is America’s pastime.
And it’s not just television. You can’t stand in line at the grocery store without reading the cover blurbs on various magazines about how to attract the opposite sex, and once you’ve attracted them, how to provide them with such pleasure they won’t be able to help but call you back in search of yet more pleasure. Because that’s what we’re all looking for, right? Not a meaningful relationship, not a soul mate, but raw physical pleasure. As a culture, we’ve become obsessed with physical appearance and physical pleasure.
Okay, I admit that when I was growing up, Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver were the shows that topped the Neilson ratings. And those were probably not very accurate depictions of what was really going on in the world. But good grief, thanks to our culture and the constant bombardment by various forms of media, regardless of what parents try to teach their children, by the time young people reach puberty they have been inundated with the message that hopping from bed to bed is as normal and as natural as eating breakfast or going to school.
Furthermore, sex is portrayed as an entirely selfish act. There is no need for conscience because it has no consequences. Two things are left completely out of the picture our society paints for our children when it comes to sex. First, human beings are emotional creatures, and physical expressions of love cannot and should not be divorced from our emotions. And second, sex is a gift from God, and like all of God’s gifts it can be treasured or it can be corrupted.
Well, enough of my “church lady” routine. Let’s move on to deadly social sin number five, which is education without character. This is a difficult one, because the first response many people have with regard to education without character is to say, “We’ve got to get God back in the classroom.” Of course, as a person who strongly believes in the separation of church and state, I have to point out that most people who want God back in the classroom only want the God of their particular religion back in the classroom.
How do we define God? If we could agree that God is the Creator of the universe, the divine spirit that holds all of creation in being, and who is reflected in everything that is good, and right, and true, and can best be described as a perfect love beyond our ability to comprehend; then I’m all for having God in the classroom.
But that’s not the God people try to get in the classroom. In fact, it’s not God at all that people obsessed with this issue try to get in the classroom. It is religion–their religion. I’m reminded of the old joke about the Pope addressing the College of Cardinals and telling them he has good news and bad news. The good news, he tells them, is that Jesus has actually come again. In fact, Jesus has already arrived and phoned the Pope that very morning. Delighted at this good news, the College of Cardinals erupts in celebration. Finally, somebody asks the Pope what the bad news is, and he says, “Well, he called me from Salt Lake City.”
I know we hear a constant plea for prayer in the classroom, and those making this argument are quick to find the extremely rare occasion when some idiotic teacher sends a kid to the principal’s office for saying a silent prayer before a test. But we all know they have to look long and hard to find such situations. For all practical purposes, it is not real prayer that has been banned form the classroom; what has been banned are religious speeches disguised as prayers which are aimed at converting others to a particular religious view.
Last year when the courts told a Texas school they could not have their traditional prayer to Jesus before a football game, the people in the stands stood up before the game and shouted the Lord’s prayer together. That provides a perfect example of why Jesus asked us to go into our private rooms and pray to God where God alone can hear us. Prayer as a weapon is not prayer.
Having said how opposed I am to all attempts to inflict religion upon our schools, let me also say that I agree with Gandhi that education without character is culturally corrosive. The religious education of our children here at University Congregational Church is based on three principles. We want every young person who attends our Sunday School classes to learn three things. First, God loves them. Second, learning about Jesus helps us understand what God is like. And third, there is a difference between right and wrong, and we should always try to do what is right.
Now, the first two principles belong at church and not in the public schools. Our convictions about God’s love and the importance of Jesus are core elements of our religion, and we teach them here at church, where parents bring their children to learn such things. But the third principle we teach here at church is a perfectly appropriate item for the public school classroom as well: there is a difference between right and wrong, and we should always try to do what is right.
The social philosophers tell us we are living in the postmodern age. I have yet to figure out exactly what that means. I read one person’s thoughts on the subject and think to myself, “Wow, this postmodern age is about the best thing that ever happened to humanity.” And then I read somebody else and think to myself, “Wow, this postmodern age is going to bring about the demise of humanity.”
One element of postmodernism that especially bothers me is the idea that right and wrong are simply words for behaviors, and that what is right for you may not be right for me, and what is wrong for you may not be wrong for me. Now, there is a certain truth to that when it comes to crossing cultural boundaries. We have to be careful not to insist that everything about our particular culture is right, and any differences other cultures may have make those cultures wrong.
But I’ll go to my grave insisting there is a difference between right and wrong. There are certain core values that are human values, and they transcend cultural differences. The Ten Commandments are a good starting place, although no, I don’t want them posted in the schools, because some of them have distinctly religious overtones. Thou shalt have no God before me is a great commandment for those of us who interpret it as meaning we should place love before everything else. But it is just as easy to say that commandment is speaking about the same God who specifically ordered Joshua to kill twelve thousand men and women as Israel conquered the Canaanites.
Likewise, the commandment against coveting the possessions of one’s neighbor can be taken with an uncritical spirit, or it can be pointed out that in the list of a man’s possessions, a man’s wife is placed above his donkey, ox and slave, and just below his house. (Congratulations ladies, you managed to just beat out farm animals on the cosmic hierarchy.)
Still, the core teachings of the Ten Commandments are written on our hearts, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with the schools teaching our children the values that make for good citizens. Don’t murder, lie, steal, or commit adultery. Those are the bare essentials of human character, they are every bit as important as reading, writing and arithmetic, and as a society, we pretend they are optional behaviors at our own risk.
Just two more to go. First, science without humanity. Of course, bioethics is at the forefront of this subject. I did a two part series on bioethics last summer, in which I talked about abortion, cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering. For that reason, I’m going to skip over the deadly social sin of science without humanity. It’s not because I don’t have any opinions on the subject. In fact, I have never spent more time researching a sermon topic than I did for those two sermons on bioethics. Still, I want this little series on Gandhi’s seven deadly social sins to last only two weeks, and those bioethics sermons are archived in our library, so I’ll move on.
Just as a quick aside, if you ever want to reflect on the implications of science for the sake of science, and what could possibly happen if science is completely divorced from morality, read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. What a book!
Number seven on Gandhi’s list of the seven deadly social sins that could destroy a nation: worship without sacrifice. This one really hits home with me, and I think it is highly significant that Gandhi recognized the importance of sacrifice with relation to worship, because he was a Hindu. The Hindu religion has sometimes been associated with a very self-centered approach to worship. Exploring the depths of the Hindu faith involves a very deep journey into the depths of the human soul, where one discovers the Atman, which is nothing less than the pure and perfect God at the center of our being. People often envision the highest state of the Hindu faith to be that of sitting alone on the side of a mountain, trancelike, oblivious to the physical world and alone in a state of utter, self-centered joy. But Gandhi recognized that human beings are by nature communal creatures, and that it is only in giving, in sacrificing, that we evolve into our higher nature.
Let me say something about New Age religion, which tends to be a more mystical, Eastern form of religion than our traditional Western faiths. When I go to the bookstore, the New Age section contains the most amazing collection of wonderful writing and unadulterated garbage that I have ever seen. Side by side you can find a book on how to cast a magic spell on the object of your affection written by a self-professed witch; and a brilliant book on transpersonal psychology by Ken Wilber.
The best of New Age writing is very good, and the best of New Age religion overcomes the urge to turn our spiritual journeys into self-centered strolls through our pampered psyches. I would advise caution regarding those parts of the New Age movement that point us toward overly individualized forms of religion, because they sometimes tend to shut out the world around us. Don’t worry about the problems of the world; don’t worry about injustice; don’t worry about poverty: Simply try to attain some form of spiritual enlightenment by waltzing through life in a self-centered daze.
This is where the good elements of New Age religion can be informed by the Christian message. Should we center ourselves on prayer and meditation? Absolutely! In fact, the first and greatest commandment of Jesus is to love God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and with all your soul. We Christians not only have permission, we have been commanded to make that inner spiritual journey.
But then comes the second commandment of Jesus, which he immediately tacked on to the first: love your neighbor as yourself. The fact is, we have to find a balance in our spiritual lives. And Jesus knew, as did Mahatma Gandhi, that real faith must entail some measure of personal sacrifice, and that it is only in the sacrifice that comes from reaching out to others that we truly become fulfilled spiritual beings. That is the inherent meaning of the whole gospel message.
With that, we’ll bring to a close this short series on the seven deadly social sins of Mahatma Gandhi. When we look at our world it is easy to see evidence of those sins all around us. But the situation is certainly not hopeless. And I believe we can work together to overcome the evils our world sometimes throws at us.
In fact, even in the face of all those problems, I know it is a minority of people who inflict those sins upon us, and I still believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. If human beings weren’t good, there wouldn’t be people who ache at the sight of this world’s injustices. If human beings weren’t good, there wouldn’t be caring people of strong character whose lives are built on moral principles, striving to make this world a better place. And if human beings weren’t good, there wouldn’t be a place like this, where we can join together, worship our loving creator, and gain strength from one another to face every problem this world puts in our paths.