Monday, July 12, 2010

The Wages of Sin

"The Wages of Sin is Death"

I have been baffled by this pronouncement for many years. Because I was raised without the benefit of religion, my beloved high-school orchestra teacher would quote it to rib me for being godless: "The wages of sin..." he'd say, pausing to leer significantly at me, "is Death." To my young moral-relativist and decidedly un-Christian mind, the nature of sin remained very much an open question at that time. And since Death is inevitable, wouldn't the wages of sin properly be eternal damnation, and not the demise we all have coming to us anyway?

Well, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has finally clarified this issue for me in a way that thirty years of occasional meditation on the mystery and a succession of Christian girlfriends had not. I now believe the continuing environmental disaster that constitutes our way of life is what the statement refers to: "The wages of sin is Death."

All possible damning adjectives have been used to describe our arrogant, childish, and careless waste, but what else can we call our plunder of the earth without regard for consequence but sin? When we ceaselessly grab for profit to fuel our ease and our unjust comforts, engaging in a blanket disregard for the fragility and interconnectedness of the biological system that we inhabit, Death is born of our actions and from our hand.

Death for the marshes of Louisiana, and death for the Niger delta in Africa. Death for all the turtles and whales and fish and plants that live there, as well as for the humans, and a larger and unfathomable death for the subtle balance that keeps us alive as well. Death is spewing like a vast pall from the depths of the oceans and breached pipelines.

The small harm we can do to our bodies and our relationships with the seven deadly sins are paltry compared to the progeny that issue from the adulterous mating of technology with our desire. We have seen those seven deadly sins perfected, super-sized, and turbocharged by technology and capitalism, unleashing monsters the size of which no one ever dreamed: the pthalates in our plastic, phosphates and plutonium. When we dominate and try to steal Nature’s power instead of living in accordance with it, when we plug our sins into the power grid, thus do we multiply their breadth, and thus do we magnify the spreading slick of Death that is born of them.

The real deadly sins surround us, in our cars and coal plants and air-conditioning, in our mining and manufacture and our monocultures. There is Death in the child's toy, in the grocery bag, and death in this airplane inside of which I currently sit and write: death issues from its metals and its fuel, from the can of Coke and the plastic cup, as well as the seat-back and tray-table that bear them. There is sin in the Doritos, in the tarmac, and the cell phone, and it is giving birth to death all around us whether we see it or not. In our lust for power, we rape the earth, killing our souls and ourselves and everything else.

“Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity, if gives birth to death.” (James 1:13)

Our sins and their wages flow through the oceans and rivers, as well as our mother’s milk and our bloodstream—they glisten in every cell of the frogs and fish and freshwater mussels. We are sowing them like the true seeds of our passage on this earth.

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