Evanston RoundTable, March 21, 2019
It would be interesting to hold a contest for the “next worst” sin. Surely, despite its curiously low ranking in the Ten Commandments (number six, below respecting your parents), murder tops the list. It is so violent, so irrevocable.
But even murder is not, as they say, an open and shut case. I want to suggest that another sin, one deceptively innocuous, is almost as bad.
Despite the biblical proscription, murder remains tragically commonplace—roughly five homicides per 100,000 in the U.S. It is also sanctioned under certain circumstances, by soldiers in wartime and the 30 states that still execute convicted felons. Killing is considered justifiable in other situations too, such as defending one’s family. Still, it strikes a decided discomfort and even dread in most people, which is why 108 countries have banned executions in most or all circumstances.
Nevertheless, none of the other sins proscribed in the Decalogue—such as lying, violating the Sabbath, committing adultery and not honoring good old Mom and Dad—seem to come close in egregious sinfulness to taking a life.
Next are the “seven deadly sins”—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Are these really so bad? They sound more like a working description of human kind, ourselves included.
It is the last item, however, sloth, or laziness, that excepting murder strikes me as the worst sin. In a sense, it isa murder.
There are two crimes committed in laziness: against the self and against the other. The first is obvious: laziness robs the individual of the benefit of the effort he or she foregoes. Laziness deprives the offender of all the fruits of serious labor—the dignity of their work and the beauty and fulfillment of their creative endeavors.
The same principle applies to the lazy person’s crime against others: it deprives friends, family and people in general the same benefits.
What if Bach had been lazy? We laugh at the notion: after all, in reproductive capacity alone he was busy as a beaver: he fathered 20 children!
But just suppose. We would today be deprived of the magisterial B Minor Mass and St. Matthew’s Passion, the wonderful Brandenburg Concertos, the exquisite violin and piano and organ works and sacred hymns and scores of other masterpieces that exalt and sanctify our world. Humanity would be far the poorer.
Bach’s slothfulness would be a kind of murder, killing not people but the spiritual and secular enjoyment of generations to follow. The same applies to everyone—not just artists and novelists and scientists but cooks and carpenters and cleaning people—everyone whose output leaves us better off.
We’re all lazy from time to time. Kicking back is one of life’s great pleasures and a necessary release from the rigors of the daily grind.
But constant, purposeful and irredeemable slothfulness is a terrible waste, maybe even a crime against humanity.