Thou Shalt Not … What?!

You know when somebody just punctured a hole in your conceptual world when his/her comment ruffles the well-manicured feathers of your pride. Well, that happened to me the other day when a friend sneered that we Christians play fast and loose with what is considered a sin. Nooo, said that stubborn know-it-all little voice inside my head, how dare we do that?

Next, I heard a priest comment on the sophisticated ability of Christians to sanctify evil when it suits them, and he offered the following illustration: “In all my 40 years as a priest, I have never had anyone confess a sin against the tenth commandment. Why am I not surprised? Because we have built an entire economic system on that sin.” Rats, there it was again, another feather-ruffling; my pride started to look pretty shabby.

So I began to reflect more deeply: what is that tenth commandment in Exodus 20:1–17? The first five commandments point to what we must do, followed by commandments forbidding certain acts — you shall not kill, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness etc. So far so good. Finally, the tenth and last one, forbids certain desires: You shall not covet (i.e., desire) the house of your neighbour. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbour, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.

On first reading, this last commandment seems to be out of place. How can innocent desires be placed next to prohibitions against murder? And yet there it is, even described in great detail, included in a list of dangerous crimes.  To understand the reason why this commandment is included in the first place, I only need to turn to the French philosopher Rene Girard who died last year at age 91.

In fact, Girard’s insight lead him to believe that the tenth commandment is in fact the most important of all, for it cuts to the root cause of all violence in the world. It is human nature to covet, to desire what our neighbour has. And because we desire what our neighbour has and desires, we resort to stealing and killing, oppressing and exploiting, lying and bearing false witness.

The modern western materialistic economy is solidly grounded in insatiable human desires, desires which literally and figuratively make us kill and steal. The Panama Papers reveal the extend of the sin of greed, and the length of deceit individuals travel to rob entire nations of much needed tax income to provide for all people. While these papers are only the most recent example of deceit, each of us is guilty of the same sin somewhere on the continuum of desire and greed. It is thus that we have sanctified the evil in the sin of desire. Desires and coveting make the economy turn and thrive.

Then along comes Pope Francis; his words cut into that abomination, and once again the feathers of human pride ruffle uncomfortably, right into the halls of worldly power and prestige. Francis doesn’t miss a chance to point out that our affluent lifestyles are sinful to the core; they rob the poor of the right to care for their families and they rob the poor of plain human dignity and respect. In a passionate speech in Bolivia (July 2015) he minced no words: “Unbridled capitalism is the ‘dung of the devil.”

“The planet has enough food for all, but it seems that there is a lack of willingness to share it with everyone,” Pope Francis said in one of his homilies. “We ought to set the table for all and ask that there be a table for all.” Citing Jesus’ explanation of the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes the line, “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” the pope said, “we must do what we can so that everyone has something to eat. But we must also remind the powerful of the earth that God will call them to judgment one day, and it will be seen if they truly tried to provide food for him in every person, and if they worked so that the environment would not be destroyed, but could produce this food.”

As the CBC article paying tribute to Rene Girard states, peace is the perennial hope of humanity. It is promised in the Bible, where God “extends peace … like a river.” It was promised by the Enlightenment, which had grown tired of religion and thought that reason and mild trade, would soothe our war-like passions. And it was promised again in our time with the promotion of “globalization” as the road to peace through prosperity. But violence is still with us.

Jesus is innocent, the Gospels insist, and his innocence proclaims the innocence of all scapegoat victims. He reveals the founding violence, hidden from the beginning, because it preserved social peace. A choice is posed: humanity will have peace if it follows the way of life that Jesus preached. If not, it will have worse violence because the old remedy will no longer work once exposed to the light.

Oh my goodness, it is true: we do play fast and loose with what we consider sin. My feathers of pride are messed up by the reality check of God’s judgment and my heart’s contrition. Lord, have mercy…

Prairie Encounters

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