Columnists > Judgment Calls

The road to Santee

Small sins eventually lead to big, front-page ones

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

I never saw a big sin that killed anybody. I don't say it doesn't happen; I just say I never saw it. Here is what I've seen:

Small grievances, tossed into a gunnysack, stored for an opportune time, and then flung like mud.

Loneliness tiptoeing in, not brought to God in prayer, hardly acknowledged even to the self; working its chemistry now, its strange and silent mutations in the heart. Nobody sees. Nobody's the wiser.

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A woman giving her husband the silent treatment: a temporary strategy, to make him come around. He doesn't. Day rolls over weary day, strategy hardens into habit, and habit into character. Says the fly to the flypaper, "I've got you!" Says the flypaper to the fly, "No, I've got you!"

A man at the office, looking at the woman in the next cubicle just a bit too long.

A housewife chasing fantasies through her soap bubbles.

A schoolboy teasing his classmate: "dork," "freak," "geek," "nerd." But boys will be boys.

The boy is raising himself. Latchkey kid. Frozen dinner kid. It's just the way it is; nobody's fault.

The mother lives two time zones away (she has her reasons). And if you could pull back the curtain on that story, too, you'd find yet another nest of small sins, every one excusable, every one a victim's tale, and not a sensational sin in the pile.

In a playful tune that belies the despair and profundity of the matter, Officer Krupke shuttles his West Side Story hoodlums from precinct to psycho ward to social worker, to solve the mystery of their reprobation. Is it society or pathology? Genetics or generational disfunction? Is it nature, is it nurture, is it neglect? All pass the buck, nobody knows, but one judge opines: "They're deprived on account o' they ain't had a normal home." To which a gang member quips, "Hey, I'm depraved on account o' I'm deprived!"

Shakespeare, in that earlier star-crossed lovers story, spake closer to the truth when through Mercutio he said, "A plague o' both your houses!" Not the Montagues alone or the Capulets alone but the whole town of Verona has soiled hands.

Either/or-ness is a purely mortal limitation, but the Immortal sees all sides and is not so constrained: "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin" (Luke 17:1-2).

So the little one has sinned, and the adult has sinned, and both will give an account to God.

One can almost hear the challenge by C.S. Lewis's character Screwtape to his demons-in-training: "Who will entice the miserable bipeds to their deaths?" One suggests war, another famine, a third earthquakes. Finally Wormwood comes forward and says he will do it. "By what means?" His Disgrace asks.

By dullness, not destruction. Pedestrian tricks, not pyrotechnics. Wrap the mind in fog. Encourage quick successions of images-TV, video, People magazine. Quick successions of philosophies- "Just do it," "I'm worth it," "Imagine peace"-till one runs into the other, is equivalent to the other. By confusion of the important and the trivial. Oprah, Jesus, and Eminem in the same breath. Tom Cruise splits with Nicole Kidman, and 20,000 dead in Pachchao, India.

You will succeed, beams Screwtape. Go out, and make demons of all nations.

And thus is the road to Santee, Calif., paved: with commissions and omissions of the minor sort, small slippages of duty, commonplace capitulations, and the unobserved collective drift of a nation; till at critical mass it all comes out of the barrel of your daddy's .22.

"Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one," says Screwtape, "the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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