The Forgotten Commandment

MosesIt’s difficult to discern which of the Ten Commandments is most frequently ignored these days. Switch on a daytime television talk show, and it’s usually a toss up between “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” and “honour thy mother and father”: often both are violated at the same time. Perhaps it’s not entirely the fault of the trailer park residents who appear on such programmes: their ability to comply with these strictures is likely hindered by their inability to comprehend them in the first place.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” is also often cast aside. Crime dramas, erotic programming, and even situation comedies invoke the higher being in situations as mundane as running out of toothpaste, let alone scenarios of extreme pleasure or stress. Furthermore, even atheists have found it difficult to cry “Science!” when someone cuts them off in traffic.

“Thou shalt not steal” is also flamboyantly disregarded. Bernie Madoff is a prime example: despite having deep roots in the Jewish community, it is apparent that Judaism’s most sacred, clear and basic rules went in one ear and out the other. Billions passed through his hands, and then flowed into the tributaries of an opulent lifestyle; his recently expressed remorse has the tenor of a criminal who isn’t sorry he broke the law, but dreaded the consequences of being caught.

However, perhaps the winner of this “competition” is the final commandment, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods”. This is perhaps because it is the most awkward commandment to keep: it is one that frequently falls down the memory hole not just for lay people but for religious authorities as well. Yet, this is likely the precise commandment that the religions of the world should be emphasising the most.

There is no mainstream religion that preaches covetousness. There is no Gordon Gekko of Hinduism that informs believers that “greed is good”, no Ivan Boesky in the Orthodox pantheon of saints that informs the faithful that their way to heaven is paved with shares purchased utilising insider information. In Islam, Mohammed specifically told believers that usury was a sin: this dictum has created a complex Islamic finance industry which tries to mediate between religious obligations and the need of individuals to get mortgages and loans. Christ consistently challenged the rich to give up their possessions to the poor and follow him, warning that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for them to get into heaven. In 590, Pope Gregory I listed “Greed” as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Yet avarice appears to be down the list of priorities for many religions in this day and age. The Taliban appears to be more concerned with executing adulterers than with discouraging, say, the opium trade and the illicit profits gained by it (rather, they benefit from this). The Pope makes a point about preaching about contraception in Africa but was relatively muted in railing against society’s recent failures to restrain its covetous impulses. Most Pentacostal preachers appear to live in a moral universe in which lust permeates and contaminates every microcosm of society and every pore of the individual, but when it comes to overreaching ambition, they have little to say.

Perhaps this curious silence can partially be explained by hidden motives. The Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek identified this in his description of what he called “psuedo-fundamentalists”:

In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful Other, they are fighting their own temptation.

This statement has a wider application than perhaps Zizek intended. For example, we have cases such as that of Ted Haggard, a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who was forced to admit that he’d taken illegal narcotics and engaged in what he called “sexual immorality” with a male prostitute. With his Evangelical hat on, he was most concerned with “family values”, but this was likely in part due to the tension with the temptations to which he had surrendered frequently.

Another possible motive is embarrassment. While the full extent of the Vatican’s wealth is unknown; back in 1965, it was estimated to be over $10 billion. Even if time, bad management and inflation have taken their toll, it is certainly true that the Vatican retains one of the most precious art collections and libraries in the world. Furthermore, while there are many charitable endeavours undertaken by the church, it is also certainly true that the Vatican is not adhering to a monastic vow of poverty either. I personally recall sitting in a Catholic church in an upscale New York suburb one Christmas Eve, and being fascinated by the Italianate opulence of the altar and nave. I have no idea if real gold was used, but certainly brass and marble were in abundance, as well as finely detailed oil paintings of the Saviour at various stations of the Cross. Under these circumstances a call to help the poor, abandon avarice, does seem mildly hypocritical; the priest, perhaps conscious of this and the fact that his parishioners were the type of people most likely to be afflicted by such a message, kept this call sotto voce.

But perhaps the strongest motive to avoid this subject is that people may associate religion with something difficult, and thus become unreceptive. For example, to live as Christ demanded, i.e., to give up one’s possessions, to be kind, merciful and to forgive one’s enemies no matter the injury they render, is extremely difficult. Pulling back on the message so that only personal lust need be addressed makes it simpler: after all, most people do not get the opportunity to live the life of an unbridled hedonist. It was only after the invention of effective birth control that restraints on sexual urges truly began to loosen, thanks to an absence of fear of potential consequences. Perhaps because there would be nothing left to hold onto, many major religions have decided to not pull back from their previous position in light of this social change; what they may have found more germane was to act as a moral voice against the excesses of consumerism and financial capitalism, rather than pay lip service to charity. The closest a major religion has come to preaching this message is certain sects of fundamentalist Islam; however, this element has largely been forgotten due to a change in emphasis towards an easier creed with which to rally people, i.e., attacking the West for its immorality.

Under these circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that increasing numbers of people in the West proclaim to have no religion at all. In 2002, a poll indicated that 44% of Britons had no religious affiliation whatsoever. Yet, the need for an ethical framework, whether it comes through humanist or theological values is greater than ever: the trader who risks the future of his company in order to get a bigger bonus needs to have the voice of conscience whispering in his ear that other lives depend on the firm remaining afloat. The businessman who intends to wreck a bit of unspoiled nature to build a factory needs to hear a message which says he is one of many stewards, not owners, of the earth. The political leader needs to understand that lying, backstabbing and deception in the name of gain is not acceptable. The fight against avarice needs to come from all locations and venues, and preached from churches and street corners, synagogues and university lecterns, mosques and talk shows. If religion, however, chooses to maintain its present focus, the only thing it may perpetuate is its own decline.

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  • “There is no mainstream religion that preaches covetousness.”

    Actually, the Prosperity Gospel–the extremely popular version of Christianity pushed by most televangelists and increasingly in the largest American megachurches does exactly that. In its crudest form, it tells people that if they give money to the church, they should pray for things they want and God will give those things to them (seriously–watch the Trinity Broadcast Network and you’ll hear one story after another of people sending in ten dollars only to win the lottery the next day), and, in its slightly less crude form, tells parishioners that God wants them to be wealthy (and this, actually, plays a big part in the now-increasingly-strained alliance between evangelicals and the Republican party).

    YogaforCynics’s last blog post..Getting Personal…

  • Angela

    Terrific blog – well thought out.
    Religion I have long thought is about control rather than faith and so your observations about people turning from it are pretty understandable.

    Having said that I think that whatever people want to believe is up to them on an individual basis. Just wish we could leave the institutions and the state right out of it.

    Have a great weekend.
    Angela Lovell

  • What a great post–and beautifully written also. When I was early in my recovery, I started on a spiritual quest. I’d never been raised with religion but what happened to me (a nearly successful suicide attempt) had created such a psychic change deep within me that I felt I needed to seek out God.

    I went to all sorts of different services–everything from Jewish Temples to Islamic Mosques to evangelical Christian churches to Catholic Mass. I attended a couple of Buddhist temples, as well as took part in many Native American ceremonies. In the end, I decided that organized religion was not for me–yet all the churches–every single one of them had things in them that I took away. Good lessons could be found in all if one is willing to listen to those messages.

    I think today that people forget the basic message of most religions–they are too caught up in the dogma that they lost the value of the beliefs. People so often don’t live the spiritual life they claim to have; it’s all talk and nothing more (for many people–not all).

    For me, spirituality is as central to my existence as breathing, eating, and sleeping–I simply cannot imagine my life without that spiritual connection to my higher power. I really think that people need to just get back to the basic tenets of whatever religion they choose.

    I met a Native American medicine man who has been a spiritual advisor to me for many years. He told me once, “Melinda, religion is for people who want to get into heaven; spirituality is for those who have been to hell.”

    I think there’s some truth to that.

    Well, I think I’ve rambled on long enough here! Great blog–I will definitely be back.


    Melinda’s last blog post..Personal Responsibility

  • I enjoy reading your posts so much. I too have considered these points but I’m in awe of your writing ability. You present your arguments in each post so well that I find myself speechless and nodding in agreement when I read them. Consequently, leaving meaningful comments is a difficult thing to do, and just saying “excellent post” in response to each one I read can make me sound like a pathetic and annoying “fangirl”. 😉

    timethief’s last blog post..A Week of Love

  • Liz aka Busy Lizzy on BC

    You make some very good points. Excellent post!!!!!!!

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