When I was in high school, back in the ‘50s, we had an assistant principal who patrolled the halls. Whenever he saw behaviors he disapproved of, he would lecture us on our moral turpitude. I had no idea what a turpitude was, much less what a moral one might be, and wasn’t interested enough in what he had to say to look it up. I don’t think he knew either, since it means something between disgraceful and depraved. Disgraceful, perhaps. What teenager isn’t? Depraved, never! What really got him was any display of affection, such as holding hands or a quick kiss between classes. Oddly enough, it came up in conversation about sin this morning.
Maybe it was always so that when sin is mentioned it immediately leads to talk about sex, and when that’s exhausted, to other behaviors that give carnal pleasure and may be morally questionable: over eating, drinking to excess, out of control spending, etc. Course corrections then lead to categories of sin containing a broader array of immoral behaviors illustrated by examples that conveniently leave most of our own lives in the clear. Stealing, lying, covetousness, adultery, and so forth, as understood in narrow interpretations of the Ten Commandments that we prefer to use to indict others. Sloth is another big one. We love to accuse others of laziness and unwillingness to take responsibility for themselves. Avoiding accountability for the consequences of one’s behavior is another. We take comfort in labeling just about anybody, or an entire group, as lazy, irresponsible, unwilling to be held accountable. Makes us feel better about ourselves.
Curiously, God seems to have something else in mind, at least insofar as one is willing to trust the prophets and the gospel record. It’s not that these kinds of archetypically immoral behaviors are not included in the realm of sin; they are, but they are buried under things that go in another direction. As many know, I’m fond of Amos, but what God has to say through him is echoed in each of the other ethical prophets as well. The sheer consistency of it demands attention. So what on earth am I getting at? Let’s look. According to Amos, the sins of the people that got God so worked up included:
- Destruction of an enemy’s food supply
- Betrayal of treaties and covenants of friendship between peoples
- Encouraging civil violence
- Disrespect for legitimate civil authority
- Manipulating the working class into the bondage of debt
- Cheating the poor out of the necessities of life
- Systemic injustice for the poor
- Oppression of the poor
- Temple prostitution
- Promiscuous sex
- Commanding God’s prophets about what to say, or not say
- The idle rich displaying contempt for the poor
- Meaningless religious ceremonies and practices
- Presumption of God’s favor while oppressing others
- Corrupt courts and judges
- Unfair taxation of the poor
- Gaps too large between the rich and poor
- Undue pride in nation or family
- Lack of compassion for the suffering of others
That’s quite a list. A thorough examination of the other prophets would yield some additions, but I think you get the idea. Yes, certainly, some sexual behavior is on the list, as is over indulgence, but when the gospel record is examined, Jesus does’t seem to treat them with the same level of concern that he does the others. After all, he never called the tax collectors and prostitutes “you brood of vipers,” as he did the leading men of Jerusalem. When he was the only one who had the undisputed right to condemn someone whose errant life was certain, he did not. Neither did he condone their behavior, but called them into a new and better way of living.
So let’s get down to it. Who does God really condemn so we can all gang up on them with self righteous indignation because we’re on God’s side. Conservative moralists? Rioting left wing protesters? Self righteous social do gooders? Wealth that preys on the poor? The angry ignorant? It turns out not to be a who of any kind, but a what, and it’s not condemnation as such, but God’s harshly honest revelation to us about what we do that undermines integrity, and contributes to, even endorses, injustice and oppression. Well that’s a disappointment, isn’t it? No one is condemned, and you and I are bathed in the harsh light of God’s truth that most uncomfortably illuminates our own behavior. If we continue in our ways, the end will not be good. Rats! What are we to do?
I think we need to be honest about confronting sin, especially systemic social and political sin that contributes to oppression and injustice, without resorting to ad hominem attacks. We need to be honest about our own failures, but not allow them to be used by someone else as an excuse to do the same, or worse. It does not excuse us from making judgments, but we have to be careful. One of my recent articles was less than enthusiastic about the incoming administration, and a colleague asked me bluntly, “Who are you to judge?.” It was a good question. Commentary is never descriptive only. Some evaluation is what commentary is about. I try, as best I can, to assure that what I state as fact is easily verifiable, and that my evaluations are defensible in conversation with well informed colleagues. Twenty years as a priest preceded by thirty years of consulting and teaching on politics and public policy issues related to economic development, as well as applied management theory, have given me some insights that may be helpful to some, and be really irritating to others.
Let’s show a little more moral fiber, a little less moral turpitude.