A few years ago, SBS ran a series of short films on the seven deadly sins-one each on anger, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed and pride. But they weren’t quite what you'd expect. The overall message, in so far as there was one, seemed to be that it is a matter of good mental health to get these things out of our system. A healthy dose of road rage, for example, makes more sense than bottling it up and getting an ulcer. The film on gluttony dwelt in loving detail on the unimaginably varied appetites of its main character in a celebration of passion and pleasure until he finally ate himself into an early grave. Even though every film had a twist in the tale, even as they came unstuck the characters just seemed to be doing what the rest of us secretly long to do but don't dare. Envy drove its protagonist into a lifestyle the rest of us could only-well-envy. The film on lust seemed to be suggesting that a healthy dose of libido was not just useful but essential. The deadliest of the lot, pride, seemed to be suggesting something along the lines that it's impossible to soar like an eagle when you're surrounded by turkeys. Pride came out looking more like an ethical version of lateral thinking, even the primary modern virtue of assertiveness and self-esteem. A bemused reviewer at the time noted that the films would appeal more to viewers for whom freedom was more fundamental than the traditional categories of virtue and vice.
So what's with the lists of dos and don'ts in the New Testament? Especially in Ephesians, which up until now has followed St Paul's line that the law of the Torah with all its do’s and don’ts had failed rather miserably in keeping human beings in right relation with God. No more lists, St Paul wrote fairly explicitly to the church in Rome, from now on it's about living in Christ. Many New Testament scholars would suggest that Ephesians, written by the way not by Paul but by a church leader a generation or so later, comes at a time when the original radical message of social inclusivity and compassion had started to lose its shock value. The church had settled in for the long haul, Christians were leading ordinary middle-class lives in polite Greco-Roman society, and the household code of Ephesians was simply aimed at affirming the status quo. A slightly more generous reading might be that we can't actually get the point of the new state of being, or the new relationship we have with each other in Christ, unless we also recognise the practical changes we need to make to synchronise the inner and outer selves. We can't actually live in the heady realm of theological speculation about the new lives we live in the risen Christ, without thinking seriously about the things we actually do. We need to get concrete, to think about the connection between what we do and we believe, to recognise the implicit beliefs that lie behind the things we actually do. And so the lists.
Modern preachers, especially me, get a bit nervous at the idea of preaching about sin. For one thing if the congregation I'm preaching to hasn't already worked out that falsehood and slander and gossip are incompatible with Christian faith, then it is unlikely that a wittily worded exhortation from me is going to make much of a difference. On the other hand, if, as seems more likely, the people I'm preaching to are already leading lives that are more disciplined and reflective than mine is, then it seems a trifle presumptuous. Ancient writers on the other hand, and not just biblical writers, loved nothing better than a good list of virtues and vices. The list of peccadillos in Ephesians is actually fairly standard fare, and we shouldn’t really read into it that the congregation at Ephesus were leading particularly exciting lives. But we do need to consider what the connection is between what we believe and what we do. And we don’t need to think about it too hard to find some systematic contemporary expressions of the ancient deadly sins that are alive and well in our own time: racism, for example, or gender inequality; or self-serving consumerism and over-consumption in Western countries while the two-thirds world lacks basic food and medical resources, or the abuse of the environment that threatens the entire planet with global warming, inequitable access to water resources and the loss of natural habitat that drives species to extinction.
A book by theologian Sallie McFague makes the point that the way we behave comes out of an unacknowledged set of assumptions about what it means to be human.1 Maybe our underlying beliefs cause us to behave in certain ways, though more likely it's the ways that we behave that gradually form our unconscious attitudes and assumptions. But either way, McFague says, the supposedly value-free individualistic consumer society that we live in makes an implicit set of assumptions about what human beings are. The assumption is that each of us is our own moral universe. That each of us is an individual in ourselves and for ourselves, that we are only accidentally and externally related to the world we live in, that the other human beings around us, all other living creatures and the earth itself are just resources that we relate to for our own purposes. That's been the common assumption both of capitalism and communism, which both fail to recognise that our lives are necessarily and organically connected not just to the lives of other human beings but to the life of the whole planet. And if we are blind to this then it stands to reason that we will act in ways that produce inequality, that we won’t see the problem with consuming more than our share of the planet's finite resources, and that we will put our own interests ahead of what is sustainable for all Earth's creatures.
Not only that, McFague says, but for centuries now the church has actually colluded with that set of false assumptions. If our underlying assumption is that God is remote, unaffected and uninvolved with creation, and that salvation for some human beings is only about eternal life in the next world, then it stands to reason that we don't pay as much attention as we should to God’s creation. We simply don’t see ourselves as interrelated and interdependent with all Earth’s creatures. But McFague says that when we understand that our lives are connected inextricably with one another's lives, and with the life of the whole planet, and when we understand that God's life is bound up with the life of the whole creation, then we start to understand Christian life as being about justice and sustainability. McFague says we need an incarnational spirituality, which means we need to understand God as being present in creation from the very start, and she uses the metaphor of giving birth to describe the intimate connection between God and the world. It's a connection that becomes explicit when God chooses to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ.
And this, I think, is where the list of vices in Ephesians is grounded. Because, says Ephesians, you are members of each other. That's verse 25. You can’t separate off your life from the rest of creation and live it as an individual because all that you have, and everything that you are, comes from a common source which is God. And because ultimately your flourishing, and the flourishing of all Earth’s creatures, human beings, other living creatures and the living systems of our common home are interconnected.
Ephesians agrees with McFague that when we accept the limitations of living as a blessing to others, when we learn to see the flourishing of others as a blessing, then we ourselves are set free. Compassion and generosity become part of our way of life, and the Holy Spirit gets to flow through us – like a river system that has been cleared so that the water of life is able to flow around the cycle as it should. The opposite is what Ephesians calls grieving the Spirit, locking up the water of life in a stagnant pool.
Ultimately, Ephesians tells us, ethical conduct is grounded in imitating God. How’s that for aiming high? But we need to be really clear what it is about God that we should be imitating – a love that gives itself to the life of others and sustains the life of all creation. A love that finds its highest purpose in being a blessing to others. That’s what Christian living is all about.
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1 McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008.
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