As we noted last week, the Catholic tradition of catechesis has tended to break up Exodus 20:17 into two commandments. The Ninth Commandment bids us not to covet our neighbor’s spouse. The focus of the tenth commandment is on coveting his stuff.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet … his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
As we also saw last week, the law against coveting is directed, not against an action, but against a sin of the heart. Just as the sin of adultery begins with the sin of coveting your neighbor’s spouse, so the sin of theft is born when you covet your neighbor’s stuff.
That said, it should also be noted that not just theft can spring from the sin of covetousness. Because it is possible to covet more than simply your neighbor’s stuff. You can also covet his very life, with rather creepy results. Here, for instance, is a blog entry from 2009 by Judith Warner on the New York Times website in which she and various other members of the Chattering Classes work through their… issues… in an orgasm of Obama Envy. After the initial outpouring of adulation for their hero, things start to get rather dark and weird as the spirit of covetousness takes over and turns highly paid, literate, well-heeled and upstanding members of our upper class into disturbing people ripped from the pages of Stephen King’s Misery:
There’s a subcategory of people who feel that they really should have true intimacy with the Obamas. Because they went to school with them. Because they used to dream like them. Because, with one or two “different turns,” they maybe could have been them.
These are not the people made most happy by thinking about the Obamas.
“They do seem to have it all together — a great marriage, beautiful children, a modern day Norman Rockwell family,” said a divorced Harvard grad with children in a top D.C. private school. “Why them, not me?”
These are people for whom the Obamas are not just a beacon of hope, inspiration and “demigodlikeness,” as a New York lawyer put it, but also a kind of mirror. And the refracted image of self they see is not one they much admire.
“I keep thinking about how I squandered my education and youth,” the New York lawyer wrote to me. “I went off to college from high school being completely community-minded, doing a lot of volunteer work for the homeless and for hunger and tutoring poor kids. Then I got to college and forgot my ideals. Barack was my year at Columbia. Why wasn’t I hanging out with him and being serious and following my ideals instead of hanging out in clubs? Same with law school. I partied my way through instead of taking advantage of all that I could have. Both Obamas were there when I was. I feel like if I’d been a better person I would have gotten to know them.”
A Washington lawyer expressed similar sentiments: “I feel like I know Barack, that I have worked grassroots and have created change in the way that he has. I [also] have feelings of a mom who had possibility but ended up running school auctions and mediating family business matters rather than having the opportunity to be out there on a national level creating change. So when I watch Barack I feel like: I can do that … and what am I doing with my life? Even though he is way smarter and more articulate than me.”
Another Washington woman, a global health care consultant, expressed her sense of Obama-inadequacy in a dream: “I dreamed I was an Obama girl. I had a chance to be in the same room with him for the first time. There were dark velvet chairs and he was standing there with all this dark and mist around him. His lips so purple and sensuous as if to be otherworldly,” she wrote to me. “I moved gently toward him and then I said the wrong thing. Obama tamped it down like some vapor that didn’t register. He wasn’t even flattered.”
(“Like a lot of folks, I have anxiety about being outside of the Obama administration universe right now,” she then explained to me. “Even though I was at the ‘it’ ball of inauguration balls, I still felt like other balls were greener, or more purple, or with credentials completely out of my control — more young. I really feel like I’m scrambling internally … to deserve Obama cred and all I’ve got is this over-my-head wonder for the man that amounts to being an Obama girl.”)
For some, not knowing the Obamas has almost turned into a feeling of being snubbed or excluded. Like in middle school. It’s funny. Almost.
“Why won’t my kids be sleeping over at the White House? And as my daughter noted, why couldn’t she get to sit front and center and see the Jonas Brothers and Miley perform at the kids’ inaugural concert? If she went to Sidwell, then she might have these chances, she said …” wrote a mother whose kids are not at Sidwell Friends school with Sasha and Malia.
“Will Michelle stay down to earth? She could prove it by joining our book club,” wrote a Sidwell mom.
This is, perhaps, the price of faux-familiarity. If I were Barack Obama (or Michelle, for that matter), I’d be a little scared. After all, when people are wearing their egos on their sleeves, it’s so easy to bruise their feelings. What will happen if fantasy turns to contempt?
That’s an observation nobody likes to make. But the reality is that, from the perspective of the Secret Service, it would be a very sane one to heed. After all, out of four assassinated Presidents, none have been harmed by foreigners and only one was killed by an assassin full of prideful vainglory: Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth wanted for neither money nor fame. He hated Lincoln, not because of envy for his success, but because Booth saw himself as the Avenger of the South: Brutus to Lincoln’s Caesar.
But the other three Presidents in our history were killed by people filled with covetous envy because they felt themselves to be losers and they just wanted to take down somebody powerful in a spasm of vengeance against the universe. From Charles Guiteau (a “disappointed office seeker”) to Leon Czolgosz (“I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none”) to Lee Harvey Oswald (a chinless, pissed-off little man), we are looking at small men rankling with rage, envy and covetousness over the success of their victims. In short, covetousness can be the birthplace, not only of theft, but of murder as well.
The sin of covetousness is often thought of as the sin of the poor and weak, just as the sin of greed is regarded as the sin of the rich and powerful. This is one of Hell’s strategies. The devil always sends temptations into the world in pairs in the hope (often fulfilled) that in running from one kind of sin, we will run straight into the arms of the opposite sin. Czolgosz congratulates himself for his valor in siding with the working class as he guns down McKinley in cold blood, while Scrooge congratulates himself on his hard work and thrift as he grinds Bob Cratchit and sends Tiny Tim to an early grave.
In a world filled with tremendous greed and the celebration of wealth amassed by wicked people using unscrupulous means, it becomes extremely easy to justify covetousness. But covetousness is perhaps the most fruitless form of sin there is. With greed, you at least experience possession (though not real enjoyment) of the thing you own. With lust, you at least get sexual pleasure now and then, though not love. With gluttony, you get the taste of food, though not the satisfaction. But with covetousness, you get only the raw envy of the other, with no compensation at all. A jealous man can at least use his jealousy to go out, work hard, and get the same car his neighbor has. An envious man sits there doing nothing, waits till it is night, and then slashes the tires on his neighbor’s car instead of lifting a finger to accomplish any good at all. Jealousy can be redeemed. Envy must simply be killed.
That is because envy is a beast that only get hungrier when you feed it. Give it its head and covetousness only imprisons you in a cycle of bitterness that continues and deepens. Covetousness is rooted not in the thing we think we want, but in our own desire and our refusal to accept from God the peace that he desires to give us in our circumstances—whatever they may be. Covetousness piles sin on top of our poverty. St. Francis, following his Master, found a different way: the way of Lady Poverty which celebrated his dependence on God with freedom and joy. It’s as possible today as it was in Francis’ day. But it takes a choice to rely on God, not on envy, to give meaning and value to our life.