Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Politics of Covetousness

In a political season (Is it ever NOT a political season?), cultural values can often be revealed in what messages and tactics political candidates use to gain the favor, and thus the votes, of the electorate. We see what at least THEY think is important to us by how they attempt to offer what we want. For this reason, a political speech or advertisement can seem either affirming or insulting. However, what appears common among many across part lines (though I find that one party does this more than others), is the encouragement to break, violate, transgress or just down right ignore the 10th Commandment: THOU SHALT NOT COVET.

The full verse of Exodus 20:17, translated for the NET Bible reads, "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.” In essence, the question as to whether it is fair whether my neighbor has something that I do not should not enter my mind; and if it does, it should be expelled as a negative emotion. I'm to remember that I cannot know all the of the circumstances through which they came to possess what they do; that for all I know they gained such possessions through strictly virtuous means; and that it's possible their example is simply meant to inspire me to be more industrious. While it may be possible that my neighbor acquired their possessions through "ill gotten gain," I cannot know that for sure; and even if I do know, that is a matter for them to answer to God for - who has commanded that I not covet their possessions especially if they unethically gained them.

For this reason, one might as well, in our culture and economy, paraphrase verse 17 the following way:

You shall NOT covet...

- your neighbor's healthcare plan
- your neighbor's retirement plan
- your neighbor's car
- your neighbor's house
- your neighbor's school district
- your neighbor's subdivision
- your neighbor's prosperity
- your neighbor's daycare
- your neighbor's toys
- your neighbor's country club membership
- your neighbor's university
- your neighbor's title in the industry, or
- your neighbor's influence in the public square.

In other words, my neighbor's business is none of my business. As one that has had less that my "neighbor" almost ever since leaving home at age 20, I can attest that this is not always easy to perform. It is, however, the moral mandate nonetheless. They are responsible for them, and I am responsible for me. Each is to guard their own conscience before God; and it is God that has mandated not to covet.

If I say that it is not fair for my neighbor to have that which I do not, it is God I argue with - not with political pundits. It is God to whom I must answer if I ignore his prohibition against this attitude, just as if I had ignored his commandment of "Thou shalt do no murder," or "Thou shalt not commit adultery," or "Thou shalt not steal" to name a few others. In the choice between virtue and vice, these commands remove ambiguity concerning key moral "pillars" of a lasting society. A culture can ill-afford, and maintain any expectation of longevity, to encourage wide-spread dishonoring of fathers and mothers, rampant murder or stealing, adultery as a pastime or bearing false witness as a praiseworthy trait. In like manner, so also will the society assuredly self-destruct that encourages ubiquitous coveting as well.

For this reason, I tire so greatly of political candidates seeking to win my vote with promises to tax from my neighbor that which my neighbor then cannot refuse them, in order to turn around and offer it to me. Being among the "poor" (by all economic measures within the U.S. economy we are so - obviously not so when compared to the "developing world"), I feel particularly patronized by the promises offered by candidates during their various campaigns. I have a wealthy neighbor next door. I like him and his wife. They are a nice couple. We share life concerns and yard duties. However, whatever a politician promises to provide for me, I know that must take from him; that he'll have no choice in the matter; his generosity be damned, they will take it through taxation and offer it to me so that I'll be grateful for their provision. In essence, the politician is encouraging me to covet my neighbor's belongings and lifestyle amenities so that I'll will vote for them. They are encouraging me to break or ignore the 10th commandment!

In a culture that is increasingly venerating vice over virtue, this is another aspect that I've been disgusted with the mechanism by which our desires are revealed to the world. The politics of covetousness have me wandering whether the electorate has not so punted the Divine lawgiver as to ever receive this admonishment. Certainly no candidate will ever be elected suggesting to news reporters or potential voters, when asked whether its fair that the rich have what they do, "That's none of your business." Even a relatively poor person such as myself could hardly get away with such an admonishment now. Too many seem just naturally desirous to "get even" with "the man." I lament such instincts. It's does not speak well for us.

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