So, it’s an interesting experience, teaching a course on the seven deadly sins while watching the train wreck that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It’s hard to avoid bringing him up in class (especially since in the Will Willimon book we are reading, Sinning like a Christian, he actually mentions Trump in his chapter on Pride–and this in a book published in 2005), and it would be so easy to use him as an exemplar: Anger! Lust! Greed! I mean really, where’s the challenge in that?
However, after reading this piece in The New York Times, I was drawn to thinking about another aspect of the seven deadly sins, one that actually is more to the point of their dangerousness and destructive capabilities; that is, how they are not “out there” in someone else’s extreme behavior, but rather how they are “in here,” in our own thoughts and deeds that we try to convince ourselves are so righteous and upstanding.
In this article (read it here: The Trump Possibility), the author, Roger Cohen, asks how the Trump presidential campaign is “possible,” given the kind of person he has repeatedly shown himself to be. And the answer is, it is possible because of the kind of people we are, people who are too easily motivated by fear, people who are angry and resentful, people who feel insecure and diminished. This is the sentence that really struck me: “It is possible because Trump speaks to the basest but also some of the most ineradicable traits of human beings–their capacity for mob anger, their racist resentments, their cruelty, their lust, their search for scapegoats, their insecurities–and promises a miraculous makeover.” (I fault Cohen’s loss of nerve here: he should have said “our” rather than “their.” It would have been more honest and more accurate.)
All of that language is very familiar from a Christian perspective: it is the language of a people who do not trust in God, who put themselves at the center of the universe, who live out of sinful pride, envy, and greed. It is the language of a people whose relationships with others–especially those who are different–are tainted by misunderstanding, suspicion and intolerance. In short, it is the language of a people turned in on themselves–Luther’s best description of a fundamentally sinful orientation.
That’s the sin I’m most concerned about–our own as American people, not so much the outsized sinning, if you will, of someone like Donald Trump. This election is calling us to rise above the self-absorption that revels in the denigration and demonization of others, and that wallows in self-serving emotions–all while it presents us with a prime opportunity to indulge those selfish desires at the highest level.
Willimon says that “Our situation is that we view our lives through a set of lies about ourselves, false stories of who we are and are meant to be, never getting an accurate picture of ourselves. Through the ‘lens’ of the story of Jesus we are able to see ourselves truthfully and call things by their proper names” (11). The truth is the only antidote to the poisonous lies we are tempted to tell about ourselves and others–lies that only perpetuate our alienation, frustration and malaise, lies that only justify our insensitivity, outrage, and callousness.
The truth may well make us uncomfortable, but it also invites us into new and better ways of being. The truth may well demand something of us, but it also promises us something real and attainable. The truth may not always be what we want to hear, but it is still the truth; and in the end, the truth beats the lie any day of the week–including, I hope, on Tuesday, Nov. 8th.