Outdated Commandments

Recently, according to an ABC story a friend sent me, some self-righteous Catholics stole indigenous statues from the Amazon from a location in Rome.  The statues had been a gift to the Pope and placed outside the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina.  Like mass shooters these days, the Christians responsible filmed themselves doing this and shared it on social media.  I’ve experienced a lot of religious intolerance in my life.  I lost my job and my childhood to it, among other things.  Stories like this are beyond sad because religion really does have the capacity to bring people together rather than to tear them into warring factions.  Unfortunately it tends to draw in the hateful looking for excuses for their violence.

Not unrelatedly, I attended a church program on gun violence.  Before this gets immediately blown up into “anti-gun,” please note—the program was about violence, not guns.  During the Q&A after the presentation someone asked who the panelists were trying to reach, “preaching to the choir.”  After that he admitted to being a gun owner and felt that his position was unfairly represented.  Tension mounted.  One of the panelists, the one who’d witnessed his first murder at age 11, and who’d spent time in jail himself, broke in and said “This is about violence, let’s not make it about guns.”  I was struck by his focus and control.  He’d told us earlier that if a gang member could be convinced to wait 24 hours before getting his gun after an insult or injury a shooting almost never took place.  Violence is often a spur of the moment thing.

What’s so troubling about those who smirk as they film themselves doing violence, like stealing statues outside a church, is that this is not an impulse act.  This is planned, hateful violence.  It wears the mask of religion, often titled “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” but it is in reality simply a way of excusing your hatred.  Ironically, the Jesus they claim to be following said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”  I guess we’ve got quite a few sinless conservatives out there, although I have to wonder if filming yourself might not count as pride.  It used to be called a deadly sin, but who’s counting?  Self-righteousness isn’t quite the same thing as vanity, although they sleep in the same bed.  But let’s not get lust involved, once that happens there’ll be no telling one sin from another.

Seven Deadly

If your outlook contains the word “supremacy,” I would humbly suggest, it’s time to rethink your philosophy. Borne of a deep insecurity—or overweening pride, which may be the same thing—the idea that one characteristic of this complexity we know of as being human makes one group better than another is misguided. No recasting of the terms makes it any better. No matter from which angle you shine the light, belief in superiority always looks ugly. As someone the world has classified as a “white male”—and often I wonder what that’s supposed to mean—I can’t understand why that categorization defines me more than any other. This came home to me once when I walked past a black supremacist gathering where the leader was none too shy about saying what his adherents should do to “the white man.” Does anyone deserve to be judged for their genetic makeup? You can’t just change your genes.

When I look at human beings my cones fire more than my rods. Black, white, or shades of brown? I’m not denying that historical wrongs—horrendous evils—have been done. Was it because of racial disposition or because of ignorance? I think there’s only one way to answer that. When our children are raised in mixed racial environments prejudice tends not to appear. Although the world seems to be reacting against globalization at the moment, sharing a classroom with those who are different lessens the desire to lob missiles in one another’s direction. Being a supremacist is an argument against your own case. It’s one of those ironies that rusts when exposed to the air. We’re different from one another, not better or worse.

Back in the medievalist days among the European sect, seven sins were identified as particularly pernicious. They were so bad as to be called deadly. One of them, it seems to me, is worse than all the others. Pride does very strange things to people. Does technological achievement make anyone better than anyone else? Sure, it may make someone a more efficient killer, but in what sense does that make them any better? Indigenous populations—and I’m not advocating that weirdly self-aggrandizing “noble savage” mentality here—get along just fine until modern technology arrives. It shows us what the other has and I do not. Another of the deadly seven is greed. It may be worse even than pride. I have to wonder if, when you get all of the deadly sins together, do they argue among themselves which is the best of the worst? All sins, perhaps, come in grayscale instead of black and white. Is a superior sin ever a good thing?

Sweet Morality

CharlieandtheChocolateFactory When I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a child, I had never heard of Roald Dahl. Although I enjoyed the movie, it was never a favorite. Like any kid I liked candy, but I’ve seldom been motivated by sweets. I discovered Roald Dahl when my daughter was young, and read for the first time his somewhat more disturbing original version of the story. Tim Burton has a reputation for going back to the roots of beloved childhood characters and revealing their darker sides. When his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out in 2005, the appeal went beyond sweets, for this was a modern, if sinister, morality play. While rewatching the movie recently a number of what should’ve been obvious religious motifs suggested themselves. The first came when Charlie Bucket is shown in the main chocolate processing room reaching for a candy apple. Violet Beauregarde steps in and snatches the apple from the tree in a defiantly Evesque move. She later receives her punishment by being transformed into a fruit.

Augustus Gloop receives a strange, chocolatey baptism is what might otherwise be the waters of life. After all, the Oompa-Loompas are shown bowing down in worship to a cocoa bean in a flashback. When Veruca Salt attempts to catch one of Willy Wonka’s nut-sorting squirrels, in a rather disturbing scene reminiscent of Ben, the squirrels pin her down and carry her to the garbage chute. She is carried in classic cruciform style, emphasizing the martyrdom she receives at the hands of her indulgent father. Even Mike Teavee undergoes a kind of resurrection after being atomized and projected into a television.

A friend once told me that the characters in the film represent various deadly sins. Augustus Gloop easily falls into gluttony, and Violet Beauregarde is an emblem of pride. Veruca Salt clearly represents greed, and Mike Teavee is full of wrath. Willy Wonka is part devil and part god in the film, doling out just punishment in a seemingly unfeeling way, while rewarding the few instances of virtue. Deprivation forges virtue in Charlie Bucket demonstrating how clearly the movie is in the realm of a morality play. With its horror film tropes and forays into the truly strange, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an example of how morality persists even in the vision of those often considered completely secular. Without it the movie becomes just another excuse to overindulge in sweets.

Saving Sin

ScienceoSin Although it makes little sense, I have always tended toward a monastic outlook. When I see something I want my first impulse is not to get it. I will sometimes deliberately not order my favorite dish when eating out. I never even went on a date until my Junior year in college. With considerable help I’ve overcome some of these tendencies, although I still wear clothes I bought in in my undergraduate days. So it was with considerable interest that I read Simon M. Laham’s The Science of Sin: the Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (And Why They Are So Good for You). Despite my monastic proclivities, I have never accepted the seven deadly sins as Gospel. They aren’t biblical and don’t always seem that serious. I mean, murder doesn’t even make the list. (And something need not be organic to be murdered.) In that sense Laham ‘s book exhales refreshingly unpolluted air.

More importantly, The Science of Sin demonstrates what sin becomes when God is removed from the equation. Sin is sin because God says so. As Laham clearly illustrates, the underlying bases of the seven deadly sins may be good for you. At any rate, they’re natural. Laham isn’t calling for a free-for-all, a no holds barred orgy, or the downfall of civilization—he just wants science to inform our natural urges rather than the ideals of some seriously outdated monks. That seems perfectly reasonable. I especially liked his demonstration of how asceticism tends to lead to more negative behavior than “gluttony.” What the church wanted to avoid it inadvertently assured.

Looking back over half a century of thinking pleasure might somehow be evil, it seems that maybe I’ve missed some, if not much, of what life offers. My years at a particular seminary were as close to monastic as a happily married man can get. I have yet to find a higher concentration of disreputable behavior than observed in such a religious setting, and I work in New York and live in New Jersey. Perhaps it is inevitably human that what we set out as ideals often becomes the very source of their dissolution. It is true that the seven deadly sins are beginning to show their advanced age, but perhaps the concept of sin retains some of its utility. When the behaviors condemned by the religious become frequent practices of that selfsame body, what other term fits as well?