Killing Your Neighbor’s Cow: The Defining Sin of Our Times

An old Russian joke tells about a poor peasant whose better-off neighbor has just gotten a cow. In his anguish, the peasant cries out to God for relief from his distress. When God replies and asks him what he wants him to do, the peasant replies, “Kill the cow.”

The joke illustrates an important point about human nature: the line between envy and clamoring for justice can be very thin.

The subject came to mind when I read a recent column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times about the issue of income inequality and the redistribution of wealth. Douthat noted that taxing Peter more will not solve Paul’s problems. The most likely outcome of “soaking-the-rich,” he wrote, would be to “buy a little more time for our failing public institutions,” like public schools. A “public sector that has consistently done less with more” would simply have more to do less with. Listen to that. He’s right.

Despite this, many people insist on soaking the well-off because, like the Russian peasant, what they want is to see their better-off neighbors knocked down a peg. That’s how envy works.

Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow for another’s good.” It is the opposite of pity. And it is one of the defining sins of our times.

One of the most consistent findings of behavioral economics is that we gauge our own economic well-being by comparing ourselves with our neighbors. Studies have found that, given a choice between making 25 percent more than their neighbors or making 25 percent less, people will choose the former even when the latter amount is more money.

Not only is envy irrational, it’s socially and personally corrosive. In his wonderful book, The Seven Deadly Sins, the late Henry Fairlie called envy the “nastiest, the most grim, the meanest” of the seven deadly sins. Sneering, sly, vicious. According to Fairlie, “the face of envy is never lovely. It is never even faintly pleasant.”

It could hardly be otherwise. Loving your neighbor, or even working alongside him, is next to impossible when you regard his gains as a personal loss.

The most obvious scriptural injunction against envy is the Tenth Commandment. But Jesus also spoke on the subject. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard ends with a confrontation between the owner and those whom he hired first. After reminding them that he paid them what he had promised them, the owner adds, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This is translated from the Greek, which refers to the “evil eye,” the curse used by the envious to inflict harm on the fortunate.

Ultimately, the kind of envy on display and all the talk today about income redistribution will do nothing to help those in need or create a more just society, it just creates a bigger government. You can’t promote a virtue like justice by encouraging people to indulge in a vice such as envy. Think of the Russian peasants; during the Russian Revolution many of them expressed their envy by looting the better-off. This didn’t help; after the Revolution, many of them wound up worse off than they were before.

Okay, our system is need of reform. And I intend to discuss Christian responses to our problems in future columns.

But for now, let’s be clear: Leave the cow alone.

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  • totustuusmaria

    While envy and ressentiment are most certainly defining traits of our economic culture, it seems to me that there are other sins. Defrauding laborers of a just and living wage is pretty ubiquitous. Usury is out of control. Alliances between businesses, banks, and governments threaten subsidiarity and the ability on a family to live a human sort of life. They divide society up into waring sectors. Greed is not frowned upon, nor is imprudent spending. All of these things are justified as part of the system, necessary for the economy, and hopefully self-correcting according to the laws of supply and demand and the competitive forces of the market.

  • IrishEddieOHara

    I am scarcely interested in what any Protestant has to say about anything. I say this as a convert to the Catholic faith, therefore, I think I have some skin in this issue.

    Non-Catholics, no matter how well intentioned, do not understand Catholic Social teaching. When I converted, I thought that I was ready to be the best Catholic in the Church. My spiritual director wisely understood differently, and had to slow me down from my desires to obtain position in the Church. He told me “You need to be enculturated as a Catholic in your thinking. You still think like a Protestant”.

    Mr. Colson’s quasi-Capitalism shines through this article. The fact of the matter is that while envy is indeed a vile and wicked sin, redistribution of our wealth to those who are less fortunate than we are is nothing less than a command of the Lord. Indeed, according to scripture, we shall be judged in accordance with how well we have shared our goods with the less fortunate.

    Our country glorifies greed. Right wing radio talk show pundits have made an idol out of the acquistion of things and the freedom to get all that we can lay our greedy little hands upon. The calls of such groups as OWS are a response to the flashy and obvious greed of those who have enough that they could feed, clothe, and house 100 familes for 100 years and still live a more than comfortable life style.

    Mr. Colson seems to have forgotten that St. Paul said “Having therewith FOOD AND RAIMENT, let us therewith BE CONTENT.”


    Not modern American Christians, especially Catholics, who should know better thanks to the writings of four of our popes who decried the modern Capitalist mindset of continual wretched greed among the rich. I shall let the Catholic Church have the final word here, NOT Mr. Colson:

    St. Gregory the Great: “For if everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”

    Neither rich nor poor, but all having enough and contented. Our Capitalist system is 100% against the real living out of the Gospel.

    God have mercy on us!!!

  • notgiven

    IrishEddieOHara–yes, we need to give to those in need. In fact, the Church has both the Spiritual Works of Mercy and the Corporal Works of Mercy to be followed. But, the Catholic point is that we need to feel those requirements to love our neighbor (and act accordingly) IN OUR HEARTS, otherwise, it is not charity. It is redistributing wealth by force, or institution sponsored stealing. We must to do it voluntarily, not by force or coercion. Otherwise, there is no merit to it. I can make you give me money. But, if your heart is not the source of that largesse, then all I’ve essentially done is stolen from you and your family. It is true catholicity when it comes from the outpouring of the effects of the gospel on your heart.

  • dagriffin

    notgiven is right on point. charity springs from a kindly heart, not under threat of IRS garnishment. it will be a never-ending effort as well, as Jesus told us, there will always be poor, and I don’t believe he meant that simply in a monetary and economic sense. there will always be the poor of heart who do not take part in charitable actions, but rather envy all they do not have, rather than being joyful in the Lord with what they HAVE been blessed with.

  • dsramp

    The ten commandments need to be considered in the context of Exodus and Deuteronomy, of which they are a small part, also of Leviticus. Taking the tenth commandment out of this context has led you to the distorted position that attempts at redistribution of wealth amount to theft, motivated by envy. However Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy present laws regarding gleaning, the allocation to the poor of the seventh year produce of the land, the jubilee redistribution of land, the reminder “the land is mine, you are merely sojourners”, and the requirement to care for the poor and the orphan . These were general orders, not supposed to be contingent on the good heartedness of the rich. Please look at Exodus 22: 20-24, 23:10-11, Leviticus 25(all), Deuteronomy 14: 28-29, 15(all), 24: 17-22, 26:12-15. The laws are clear; that the Israelites didn’t abide by them is no excuse for us to dismiss efforts to put them into practice. The prophets condemned the Israelite leaders for their failures in this regard; what would these prophets have to say to us?