Our sins are hidden in our sanitation. Last week on the New York subway, I read a fascinating article about the connection between sanitation and self-deception. Brayden Simms, a columnist for the Metro, is writing a series on waste management to raise consciousness about how environmental issues affect our daily lives. The truth about our garbage, according to scientists at the University of Arizona, is that we lie to ourselves about what we consume. The article notes that “most people … claimed to drink 40 percent to 60 percent less alcohol than garbage sorters discovered.” After knocking back a bottle of Jack Daniels, it seems, we throw away the bottle—and our memory of drinking it. Dr. William Rathje, an emeritus professor at the University of Arizona and the focus of Simms’ article, published his research in a colorful book entitled Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Simms’s article extracts a spiritually troubling implication of Rathje’s work: We engage in self-deception and denial about our consumption patterns. Consider, for instance, a couple of Dr. William Rathje’s conclusions:
Lean Cuisine syndrome: Most people admit to eating less junk food than in reality; additionally, survey respondents tended to claim healthier eating habits than their garbage revealed.
Good Provider syndrome: More often than not, family heads of household tend to overreport the total amount of food their families ate.
Rathje’s study of garbage wipes the dust off of a neglected meaning of the term sin. We generally hear about sin in the context of missing a divine mark or being unable to close the gap between God’s standards and our human strivings. Beneath these common usages, however, lays a deeper level of resonance: sin is also self-deception. Delwin Brown, the late theologian, speaks of sin thusly when he remarks:
“Sin is not simply the failure to love properly. … It is that failure accompanied by an intricate hiding strategy; it is the failure to love properly and the pretense that we have not failed to love properly. We hide that truth, even from ourselves!”
—Delwin Brown, What Do Progressive Christians Believe, p. 76, emphasis added
Our best attempts to practice self-care in dieting, grocery shopping and cooking are fraught with pretense and intricate hiding strategies—a tendency, in biblical terms, to think more highly of ourselves that we ought to think. Like most of us, I was counseled not to dig in the trash as a little boy. It turns out, however, that dumpster diving can bring more than a parental slap on the wrist. It can also uncover deep truths about denial and self-deception. To revise the old adage: We cannot solve problems if we will not acknowledge their existence. Deconstructing the stories we tell—and the trash we throw away—might be the first step toward moving away from the sin of self-deception and toward an acknowledgment of the inordinate waste of American consumerism.
Andrew Wilkes is a recent Princeton Seminary graduate and Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He blogs with the Huffington Post and is a contributing writer for Sojourners Magazine.