Given the sex scandals that seem to plague American political life – to say nothing about the preoccupation with sex in American popular culture – who would be surprised if most Americans would think the Apostle Paul was referring to sex when he crusaded against becoming a slave to unrighteousness?
In Romans 6, he wrote, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions.”
It’s not that Paul contended here that salvation through Christ brought freedom from the slavery to sin, whether slavery to sex or anything else. No, redemption in Christ simply changed what the redeemed person could be enslaved to.
“But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted,” wrote Paul, “and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:17-18).
Not freedom from slavery as such, but enslavement of a different kind.
The apostle continues: “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members (i.e., parts of the physical body) as slaves to impunity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members (i.e., parts of the physical body) as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6:19).
Other kinds of unrighteousness, besides slavery to sex, might be candidates for serious, even deadly, sins in the United States.
And we should consider if, in those other types of sin, the individual and the socially systemic are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.
Of the seven deadly ones, think of the sin of American “pride” not just in its individual forms but also expressed socio-culturally, politically and religiously in hyper-nationalism and claims to “American exceptionalism.”
One might also make a case for the American sin of “wrath” in both its personal and structural forms – that is, our personal, socio-cultural and political fascination with and overt participation in violence, as expressed in the media and many forms of entertainment, in our commitment to militarism, and in our predilection for resolving conflict by means of war.
But probably our most overlooked deadly sins in the United States are those associated with economics – of the seven, those most closely linked to “envy” and “greed” in personal and systemic forms.
Here, in fact, the link between the personal and the systemic is most evident: a virtually religious devotion to the primacy of free market capitalism, which political democracy is expected to serve rather than to keep in check, and that depends on fostering economic growth based on the consumption of products and services that marketers induce the public into thinking they need.
The “free” in the “free market capitalism” appeals to the central American value of freedom, although the economic system depends ultimately on people’s envy and greed and their enslavement to consumption to operate efficiently.
At the same time, this emphasis on freedom either dismisses other American values – most important, the value of justice as equality – or distorts the meaning of these other civic values, so that, for example, equality is limited to an equal opportunity to be free to consume and compete.
We can pledge allegiance to the national flag that supposedly symbolizes the commitment to “liberty and justice for all,” but the truth of the matter is that liberty – especially economic liberty – far outdistances any real and lasting devotion to justice as equality.
With political democracy incapacitated to achieve a full sense of equality among its citizens because it functions largely to serve economic liberty, it is no wonder that growing inequality in virtually every relevant domain is the consequence.
Nearly a century ago, the most affluent 1 percent of the U.S. population possessed 15 percent of the country’s monetary worth. During a few periods since that time, inequality of wealth actually narrowed as a result of public policies that emphasized a wider distribution of wealth.
But with government no longer taking on that role, now the wealthiest 1 percent possesses 24 percent of the nation’s monetary worth.
(The family of the Wal-Mart founder is now estimated to have the same wealth as the lower 40 percent of the American population – about 120 million people.)
Despite this evidence, however, political leaders in both parties continue to adopt tax and fiscal policies that aggravate rather than address the nation’s illness.
And one party rigidly adheres to an ideological orthodoxy of reducing the role of government, of lowering taxes on even the wealthiest Americans, of opposing any increases in tax revenues and any meaningful regulation of those financial industries that caused the current economic crisis.
The enslavement of individual citizens to habits of consumption (based in envy and greed) and of their political leaders to economic ideologies of competition and possessive self-interest runs directly and completely counter to what the religions to which these citizens and their leaders say they adhere: the denial of excessive self-interest, a concern for the well-being of others (especially those in need) and the common good, and serious cautions about the accumulation of wealth.
It is as if these citizens and their leaders had never paid attention to the central teachings of their faith, had never let those central teachings sink in, or had managed to isolate or bracket off the religious tenets and practices of their faith so they would be completely segregated from the rest of their daily lives.
They operate under the illusion that they are free and, sadly, never allow themselves the opportunity to becoming a slave to a higher, nobler and enduring calling as a slave – one that the Apostle Paul was convinced remains readily available.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.