Editor’s Note: America’s Wall Street-led financial crash has brought attention to the extravagant compensation – and excessive lifestyles – enjoyed by many of the bankers who gambled the nation to the brink of disaster.

For the first time in many years, Americans are becoming morally outraged over these examples of obscene wealth, which has caused the Rev. Howard Bess to suggest a deeper rethinking of the national perception of immorality:

In America it is common to define immorality as the misuse of sexual relationships.

We recognize the list of our sexual sins. Adultery, fornication, rape, incest, child molestation. I am not suggesting that we lower standards for sexual behavior, or underestimate the harm done by sex-related abuse; but I strongly believe Americans have concentrated on sex-related sins at the neglect of other sins that are just as harmful to our life together.

We need to take a new look at what it means to be immoral.
 
The Roman Catholic Church has spent a lot of theological effort on the defining of immorality, aka sin. In case the reader is not familiar with the Catholic Church’s list of the most serious sins, here is the list….lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.  These are the big seven.

They have special consequences and require special religious exercises to escape their consequences. Lesser sins, called venial sins, are less deadly and are more easily eradicated.
 
There are good reasons for Roman Catholics to refer to their special list of seven as the seven deadly sins. This Baptist agrees completely that all seven are deadly and can strip a human being of the good life.

In real life, individuals struggle with a particular one of the deadly sins more than others.

I refer to the phenomenon as having a besetting sin. A person can get hung up on any one of the seven. A person’s pet sin can become obsessive and take over the whole of life.

Over the years of being a pastor to people, I have observed examples of obsessive attachment to one or another of the deadly sins.

I have watched people be destroyed by out-of-control anger (wrath); I have seen people destroy their lives because of their obsession with food (gluttony). Each of the deadly sins has power to destroy body, mind or soul on a personal level and the power to destroy personal relationships, community or even nations at the broader levels.

It is time for Christians to speak to America about our real besetting sin. Our obsessive immorality is not sexual behavior as some would have us believe. Rather it is our obsession with wealth. We as a nation have become obscenely greedy.
 
We have become aware of the obsession with wealth among super-wealthy Americans. Their wealth has grown to the point of obscenity.
In the past 30 years, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of total American wealth that is held by those who are richest. In the past eight years, all of the economic growth in the United States ended up on the balance sheets of the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans.

The growth in the number of American billionaires has been exponential. It is generally agreed that unbridled and uncontrolled pursuit of wealth has led us to our present horrific economic crisis.

We Americans need to admit that the desire for more and more possessions and wealth does not affect only the rich. We are all infected with the wealth obsession as indicated by the level of our credit card debt.

I recently attended a gathering of people to discuss the current American financial crisis and the proposals from our President and Congress about restoring the American economy.

As I listened to the discussion, I was concerned that people seemed to be concerned almost solely with economics. I kept asking myself about the missing part of the conversation. All comments were about economics.

Eventually someone raised the question of values and morality. I observed a change in the discussion. Topics changed from economics to education, health care and the need for infrastructures that would benefit everyone, rich and poor alike.

I left the meeting convinced that the real answer to our dilemma was not to be found in bolstering our economy or even inventing a better economic system. America needs to find higher values and better purposes.

I also left the meeting with the conviction that we need to call American obsession with wealth and possessions by its proper name. It is called greed, and greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

Many of our Founding Fathers were motivated by the pursuit of freedom. The United States became a haven for people who were fleeing oppression.

Somewhere along the development of our national life, we have become proud not of being the freest of nations, but proud of being the wealthiest of nations. Freedom is not one of the deadly sins. Greed is a deadly sin and has the power to destroy a whole nation.

I believe that the United States has the ability to redefine itself again. In the 20th Century, we defined ourselves by our power and wealth. We need to move on to become the kindest, most generous, most helpful nation in the world.

The Rev. Howard Bess is pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant, an American Baptist church in Palmer, Alaska.  His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.      

           

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