I was reading recently in the New Testament book of Galatians (a letter from the apostle Paul to the Christians in Galatia). There is a passage towards the end of that letter that contains two lists. The first is a list of "the works of the flesh" (Gal 5:19-21) that includes all those "bad behaviors" that provide the plots for most day-time and night-time TV dramas (jealousy, quarrels, drunkenness, etc) and big-budget movies (impurity, sorcery, etc.). The second list is the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22-23) that includes all of those good qualities parents would like to see in their children (patience, generosity, self-control, etc.). Although the two sets of behaviors/attitudes are not called "vices" or "virtues", it is easy to see them that way-and, of course, they played their roles in developing the classical western lists of the Seven Deadly Sins (i.e., vices) and the Seven Heavenly Virtues.
And, as I thought more about these lists -- especially those that might be categorized as "vices" -- and how they play out in our common (cultural and political) conversations, I was struck by how much we focus on SOME vices and ignore others. Another such list in the New Testament lumps together as equally odious: envy, gossip, murder, slander, (and one of my current favorites) "rebelliousness towards parents" (Rom1:28). Now we'll sit up, take notice, and condemn someone if murder is involved -- or, in our current climate, some sexual indiscretion involving a politician. But when was the last time you heard a politician campaign on stamping out foolishness? Or insolence? Or jealousy? Or, heaven forbid, greed? Maybe all of those have become so much a part of our landscape that we don't care -- or we NEED them to become successful?
Much of our legal system -- every legal system -- seems to be built around the DIS-couragement of vice. Don't do this! The penalty for that is [fill in the blank]. Law enforcement agencies have special branches known as "Vice Squads".
What if we spent an equal amount of energy EN-couraging virtue? (Okay, so prime-time television might not be as interesting -- but a lot of it is pretty bad anyway!) What if we had "Virtue Squads" running around giving rewards to everyday people who LET that other driver into traffic or who empty the dishwasher without being asked? What if we really started viewing life through the lens of an abundance of virtue, rather than as an absence of vice?
And, in posing that question, I wondered how I might do that. So I've set myself a little task for the next week: I've gone back to the Seven Heavenly Virtues (prudence, justice, restraint, temperance, faith, hope, and love or charity), and I'm going to focus on embodying ONE each day for the next seven days. Who knows what that will yield? But focusing on the virtues is something that just about every culture and religion teach (and, not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap). The picture above represents the Viking Noble Virtues (which appeal a bit to me, being half-Swedish).* But there are Samurai (Bushido) virtues; the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism can be seen as a list of virtues; Benjamin Franklin developed a list of thirteen virtues.
Interested in trying it too?
*Full disclosure -- there's some disagreement as to how much these "noble" virtues were REALLY spelled out among the Vikings. But I liked them!