Friday, December 10, 2021

Sin City

 Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person… 

-Matthew 15:17-20 (NIV)

If you’re planning holiday travel and you want to avoid temptation, titillation, or other exposure to bad behavior, WalletHub has helpfully compiled a list of the Most Sinful Cities in America. Using metrics like violent crimes per capita, thefts per capita, excessive drinking, charitable donations as percent of income, adult entertainment establishments per capita, tanning salons per capita, and percentage of adults who don’t exercise, WalletHub came up with a score in seven categories: Anger and Hate, Jealousy, Excesses and Vices, Avarice, Lust, Vanity, and Laziness. Then they added the scores and ranked 182 cities.

     I bet you’d guess which burg reigns as The Most Sinful City in America pretty quickly; it actually goes by the name of Sin City. Las Vegas — Top 6 in the categories of “Greed,” “Lust,” “Vanity,” and “Laziness” — takes the title. It isn’t even really close, either; the distance between Vegas and its closest competition is almost 7 points, much more than the distance between any other two cities on the list.

     St. Louis, Houston, and LA are next. The Gateway City is first out of the gate in “Anger & Hate” and “Excesses & Vices” (the only city on the list with two “1’s”) and 8 in “Jealousy.” Houston has a problem (See what I did there?) with “Lust” (#1) and “Vanity” (#2), and Los Angelenos are no angels in the same categories (#2 and #1). Denver rounds out the Top Five, with mile-high scores in “Lust” (9) and “Vanity” (14), but only one other score in the Top Twenty (18 in “Anger and Hate”).

     My town, Chicago, checks in as the ninth Most Sinful City, behind Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Miami, but ahead of Memphis. Chicago is your kind of town if you’re into “Vanity” (6), which might seem odd until you realize that the sun doesn’t shine much here in the winter so I guess we need a lot of tanning salons. We’re also 12th in “Jealousy” and 13th in “Lust,” but only 48th in “Anger and Hate,” suggesting that the thing we get a lot of bad press for, violent crime, is maybe not quite as bad relatively speaking as some might think.  

     There are some other surprises. Orlando — where The Happiest Place on Earth is located— is 19th on the list, with Top 25 finishes in four categories (“Vanity” - 12, “Lust” - 15, “Anger and Hatred” - 16, “Jealousy” - 25). Little Rock, 14th on the list, is the Most Jealous city. The Greediest is Reno, with Vegas second, which may not surprise you and might make you wonder about a correlation between legalized gambling and generosity. You might not be shocked that Washington is the next Greediest, depending on how you’re feeling about our government. But would it surprise you to learn that the next four are Missoula and Billings, MT, and Warwick and Providence, RI? You might stereotype LA as the Most Vain city, and it is, but would you have guessed Houston as Most Lustful? Baton Rouge as Laziest?

     Sin, of course, is usually pretty easy to find, wherever you are, much more so than the list suggests. It’s also harder to quantify. Is it fair to assume, for instance, that tanning salons equal vanity? Do reported charitable donations accurately reflect generosity? Does theft always correlate to jealousy? And in a world where “adult entertainment” is as close as a computer or phone, doesn’t the prevalence of strip clubs in a city have more to do with the commoditization of lust by unscrupulous people, the differing degrees to which municipal governments regulate such businesses, and the economic realities of the women who dance there, than it does as a marker of a particularly lustful population?

     WalletHub’s list sounds like something that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time might have come up with. They liked to think that sin was out there, among the pagans and irreligious. Jesus called them hypocrites, accused them of playing the role of religion while harboring in their hearts the kinds of sins they would have laid waste to others for.

     See, the more we can locate sin somewhere else, in other cities or at least outside of ourselves, the better we can feel. We can feel proud, we can feel righteous, we can feel in some sense superior to the “degenerates” in the casinos or the “drunks” in the bars or the “perverts” in the strip clubs or the “thugs” who rob and kill or even the “vain” tanning salon patrons or the folks too “cheap” to donate to church or charities into the personification of sin. Conveniently, that takes the focus off our own sin.

     And make no mistake, that sin is there. You may have never darkened the door of a casino or strip club or bar or even a tanning salon in your life. You may give generously and would never commit a violent act. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t hated, or that you haven’t acted out of jealousy and covetousness, or that you haven’t lusted or been greedy. Jesus says that the cause and impetus for sin isn’t located out there somewhere, as though avoiding it is a matter of GPS and a good list of the Most Sinful Places. The Pharisees, after all, had a detailed GPS and a very specific list. They had definite convictions about people and places to avoid. But Jesus called them hypocrites because, as scrupulous as they were, their hearts were far from God. 

     Your heart. That’s the thing. Not the organ that pumps blood around your body, but the very center of who you are, when all the other layers are peeled away. Sin isn’t outside, Jesus says, it’s inside: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” So avoiding sin isn’t a matter of avoiding certain places, people, or influences — though certainly what we’re regularly exposed to can very definitely influence our hearts. But you won’t avoid sin simply by avoiding places or people. If a change of heart doesn’t occur, sin will be with you wherever you are.

     I don’t know, maybe you’ve been more focused lately on sin being “out there” — in another place, another part of the city, another political party, another family, another group of God’s people. It’s understandable, because sin "out there” gets all the headlines. But “out there” isn’t what defiles us. It’s what’s “in here,” and we see that in what comes out in unguarded or secret moments.

     Thankfully, God is in the heart-changing business. The prophet Joel told Israel to “tear your hearts, not just your garments,” meaning that they should truly repent of their sins from the core of who they were. Paul told the church at Rome to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Jesus wanted his disciples to know that sin comes from the heart so that they could deal with their hearts. He warned them, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” — some of our heart problems come simply from valuing the wrong things. He reaffirmed the greatest command from the Old Testament: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And then he showed us what that looks like and gave us the Holy Spirit to help us. 

     So resist the temptation to make your lists and locate sin “out there.” Do the hard work of confronting it in your own heart. Repent of the attitudes and secret prejudices and habits of thought that come out as ugly words and actions. Do your dead level best to turn your heart toward loving God. And trust that he’ll help you.

     May our hearts be new.

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