Thursday, November 1, 2018

Isaac on Ethics and Faith

Alleorgory showing sins in the human heart
Those of you who follow the blog regularly know that Isaac Werner was a man of faith, with Cruden's Concordence in his library to aid in his studies of the Bible.  You will also know that he was sometimes critical of ministers he heard preach, faulting them for inadequate knowledge of the Bible or boring presentations of His word, or even worse, hucksterism.  (See "A Wonderful Discovery," 3/12/2015 in this blog.)

Isaac faced the economic crisis for farmers and other laborers of the late 1800s by meeting with others for ideas, studying books and journals, and eventually, by joining in the Populist Movement.  Faith and Politics are nothing new.  Many of Isaac's neighbors formed morning prayer groups to meet at each other's homes as a way to face the Populist challenges.  Some of these neighbors were also active in the meetings, study groups, and political action with which Isaac was involved.  Isaac was critical of only those who seemed to think God was a Republican or those who thought prayer was the only way to improve their circumstances.

Envy, including Dog and Snake
Thinking about Isaac's times and the complications of sin and politics sparked my curiosity.  There is really nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, and although separation of church and state are considered integral to American freedoms, citizens have often disagreed about what this requires.

Populists certainly viewed the rich and powerful of their era as guilty of violating at least some of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Arranged alphabetically those sins are Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Pride, Sloth, and Wrath.  While the moral code of the 7 Deadly Sins has a religious origin, the ethical ideals may extend into common notions of right and wrong.

Envy is related to both Greed and Lust, and  St. Thomas Aquinas described 3 stages of Envy.  Attempts to lower another's reputation is Aquinas's first stage of Envy.  This one is easy to identify in almost any political speech, especially in campaign speeches. Second is both joy at another's misfortune and grief at another's prosperity, also easily found among politicians.  The third results from the first two--hatred.  Politically speaking, of course politicians believe in their own ideas and want them to succeed, but when political persuasion passes beyond advocacy for one's own ideas and becomes hateful personal attacks on the alternate ideas of another, it is often easy to discern the traits of Envy.

While Lust is often associated with inappropriate sexual desire (something about which we have too many political examples), it can also apply to excessive desire in general, for wealth, power, or anything sinful.  It isn't difficult to apply that politically, and the Populists in Isaac's era certainly believed that the power of Wall Street, Railroad Magnates, Speculators and other wealthy men exerting influence on elected officials met the definition of excessive desire for wealth and power.

Credit:  Muddy Colors
Gluttony is often depicted with images of lavish food and drink, but it can apply to overindulgence and over consumption of anything.  The word comes from Latin gluttire, to gulp down or swallow.  The sin is not only what it does to the glutton but also what it takes from others--the needy, or perhaps especially, those in times of famine and war.  The image at left came from Muddy Color, a fantasy arts community website.  It is interesting to discover how artists, from ancient painters to current tattoo artists, have been drawn to depicting the 7 deadly sins.  

Like all of the Sins, Greed relates to other sins, like Lust and Gluttony.  Thomas Aquinas wrote:  "Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things."  In general, greed is associated with the desire to possess more than we need, particularly material wealth.  In Isaac's time, the palatial homes of the wealthy and banquets that lasted for hours consuming rare delicacies were examples.  (You might enjoy reading "Turmoil in the Golden Age," posted in this blog on 1-14-2016.) Politically, such excesses may still be seen in individual politicians, but it may also be seen in the laws that are passed.  The distribution of America's wealth, the programs funded by our taxes, and other political decisions impact all Americans in ways that call to mind Greed.

Hieronymous Bosch, Pride detail
Pride is said to be the devil's worst snare.  Politically speaking, critics often blame pride when world leaders fail to listen to the advice of others, become irrationally self-confident, and act impulsively.  Christian writer (and children's author of the Narnia books) wrote:  "Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison:  it was through Pride that the devil became the devil:  Pride leads to every other vice..."

Sloth has many interpretations, although most commonly it is related to laziness and idleness.  One way to consider Sloth's sinfulness is by the failure to utilize the Seven Gifts of Grace given by the Holy Spirit--Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Piety, Fortitude, and Fear of the Lord.  Reflecting on these failures would seem to circle back to the sin of Pride and reinforce some of the failures of good leadership.

The final of the 7 Deadly Sins to consider is Wrath, which obviously can be defined as uncontrolled anger, rage, and hatred, but also and importantly, the desire for vengeance.  Politically, we may think of war, caused perhaps by other deadly sins but fought wrathfully.  However,  in its lesser form hatefulness and spite constitute wrath, and desiring someone else to suffer misfortune or evil, even when it is not directly disbursed, is a form of wrath.

The 7 Deadly Sins are not found in the Bible.  The classification attributed to John Cassian in his book The Institutes brought them to Europe and the Catholic Church, and artistic texts and images carried their influence further, such as "The Parson's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and works of art in the form of paintings and sculptures.  In AD 590 the commonly recognized list was refined by Pope Gregory, and while the 7 Deadly Sins are more closely associated with the Catholic faith, many non-Catholic denominations utilize the list.  Billy Graham preached on the 7 Deadly Sins.

In my research I found the following quote from Robert J. Kolker:  "Rabies and Scholars figured that mankind was divided into three general groups.  Those who do wickedness deliberately and with malice...[the worst class of sin].  Then there are those who are totally obedient to the commandments and will not sin except to save their lives.  ...Then there are those who will keep the commandments out of habit, but also these people may violate the commandments when the pressure is on them to do so.  …[This group] is most of mankind."  Although he was speaking of sin in general and not specifically the 7 Deadly Sins, I thought it was an assessment of humanity worth sharing.

A nation that endures for future generations
Those of you who follow this blog know how I treasure the American Constitution.  It was and remains a rare document, and if you missed reading my recent blog, "Words from the Grave," posted October 11, 2018, you might want to scroll down to read it.  In that blog I quote former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:  "The real key to the distinctiveness of America is the structure of our government."

Our government is unique, for it trusts its citizens to possess the wisdom and wit to elect intelligent and honorable men and women to the offices of our government according to the provisions of our laws.  The long campaigns provide an opportunity for us to evaluate candidates' fitness for office.  However, Article VI expressly provides "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

This blog is not intended to suggest any sort of religious test for political candidates nor for those already in office.  America contains citizens of many religious beliefs and of no religious beliefs.  Yet, nearly all of us possess a moral compass of some sort that guides our actions and allows us to judge the actions of others.  Because most of this blog has shared a Christian perspective, I will close with two quotes having no particular religious origin.

A librarian named Eric Friedman wrote:  "I deeply, genuinely only believe there is one sin--causing another person to suffer, through violence, neglect, ill-intent or cluelessness."

And from another perspective, Glyn Williams wrote:  "It's a word [sin] that comes about when someone tries to define morality in terms of obedience.  ...I do believe there is such a thing as wrongdoing.  I believe there is moral and immoral action.  But the s-word [sin] belongs to people who think morality isn't from within."

Separation of church and state does not require us to leave our faith or moral compass at home when we vote.  In fact, for our Constitution to endure, we must use the guidance of our wisdom, experience, and sense of right and wrong to vote for candidates that we trust to do what is right for America, even when we might not agree about all issues.

In the 1896 election of Isaac Werner's time, the People's Party abandoned the goals that had brought farmers and other laborers together and focused on one major objective--bimetallism, determined to vote on the primary goal of abandoning  reliance on the Gold Standard  and replacing it with a Silver and Gold Standard.  By neglecting other issues to support a candidate whose primary campaign was based on bimetallism, they not only lost the election, they neglected everything else, and ultimately, splintered their party into obscurity.  They wore blinders to the poling place that allowed them to see nothing but a single issue, having left their moral compass at home on the dresser.

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