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The selling and shaping of our souls

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The last time I was in this pulpit to deliver a guest sermon, I spoke of the need for each of us to take up the role of prophet, to not be afraid of speaking in the prophetic voice, even when doing so involves risk. http://zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/14743

Today I want to talk about the other kind of profit, the allure of which can so often quiet the prophetic voice within us.  Living in the most powerful and affluent country in the history of the world, this is not mere word play with homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings). Can we resist the seductive nature of the material rewards that come with profit to find within us the spirit of the prophetic? If we cannot, what is the fate of this country? What is the fate of the world that this country seeks to dominate? And my subject today: What is the fate of our souls?  

Let’s start with one of the most well-known verses from the gospels, from Mark, where Jesus says: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” [Mark 8:36]  

What do we gain when we covet the wealth of the world that can come with accepting the systems and structures of power? When feeling self-righteous, we are tempted to say that we agree with Jesus, that when we place too much value on material rewards we lose something greater. But if we are to be honest, we have to acknowledge that those material rewards in the world can be extremely seductive. If you doubt this, when you leave church go visit a shopping mall. No doubt we all know where to find one nearby. Even when the reward is not “the whole world” but just one little piece of it in a store in the mall, the pull of those rewards can be strong.  

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That’s perhaps the cruel edge of this truth -- the fact that in this culture when we talk about “selling out” or “selling our souls” we realize the selling price is typically quite low. That’s what Robert Bolt was getting at in his play A Man for All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More is convicted of treason on the perjured testimony of Richard Rich, who in exchange for his capitulation to King Henry VIII is appointed Attorney-General for Wales. In the play, More asks one final question of Rich after noticing that the Attorney-General is wearing the medallion of his new position. The stage directions call for More to look into Rich’s face, “with pain and amusement,” saying, “For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?” [1]  

I don’t we want to take sides in British regional and class conflicts, but his point is well taken. We can find amusement in the crumbs for which some people will sell their souls, but there is also much pain in recognizing ourselves in the mirror that Thomas More holds up for Richard Rich. For what would I sell my soul? For what have I sold my soul? Do I ever dream of Wales? At some point in our lives, we have all sacrificed a principle or undermined another person to get what we want, though most of us have never lied under oath and helped send someone to the gallows. But the fact that there’s always a Richard Rich to point to, always someone whose soul-selling is more egregious than ours, is of little comfort. As Rev. Jim Rigby reminds us, week after week in his sermons from this pulpit, the job of theology is not to comfort us in our conceits but to challenge us to go deeper.  

That means not only reflecting on our own failures in such moments, but going beyond the idea that our souls are at risk only in a single moment in which we might be tempted to sell out. Just as important is the slower process by which that state of our souls can be eroded. I want to frame that challenge in the words of the writer Wendell Berry, using the first stanza of his poem “We Who Prayed and Wept”[2]: 

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We who prayed and wept

for liberty from kings

and the yoke of liberty

accept the tyranny of things

we do not need.

In plenitude too free,

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we have become adept/beneath the yoke of greed. 

Berry trains our attention on the day-to-day reality of the world in which we live, in the most powerful and affluent country in the world, in which many of us hold the freedom to enslave ourselves. So, let’s expand the question beyond the dramatic moments in which we choose whether we will sell our souls at what price and focus on how our souls are shaped by the everyday realities of power and privilege.  

My focus today is not on the injustice of this system, not on the suffering that inevitably results in a world structured by empire and capitalism. I’m not going to talk about the cruelty of a world in which half the population lives on less than $2 a day. Of course we should remind ourselves constantly that our affluence is conditioned on that suffering around the world, and that we have obligations to change that. But right now, I’m heading down a different path. 

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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