[This is an edited version of a sermon delivered May 4, 2008, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX.]
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. 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.
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 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:
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,
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.
Since we live in a country that seems only to know how to speak in economic language that assumes capitalism is the state of nature, let’s examine this question in the language of profit and loss. If we live in “the land of the bottom line,” to borrow a phrase from the songwriter John Gorka, then let’s talk in those terms. How might we approach a die-hard capitalist who cares only about maximizing self-interest and make an argument that it profits us not to sell our souls for the whole world, let alone for the shopping mall.
I’m using the mall as a stand-in for the readily available pleasures in a consumer-capitalist society that absorbs a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, the pleasures that come with what we might call the cheap toys of empire: big houses, fast cars, abundant food, nonstop spectacle entertainment, and an endless variety of numbing drugs. When we capitulate to the system, most of us get some combination of those things. Maybe there are some among us who have tapped into real wealth and real power, but my guess is that most of us here today are somewhere in the middle and upper-middle classes. We aren’t the ruling class, but we live well, at a level that in previous eras only the elite could expect. But look closer and what do we get? How do we feel when we are alone with ourselves in our big houses; when we park the fast car in the driveway; when we push back from the table after eating too much; when we switch off the television or drive away from the stadium; when the effects of those drugs — whether legal or illegal, obtained from the pharmacy or on the street — wear off.
An important note: I don’t want to ignore the fact that to those who have never had much in this world, access to material goods is not a trivial matter. For those who struggle for the basics, this kind of reflection on affluence likely seems self-indulgent. But still we have to ask: When we go so far beyond material security into the level of consumption common in the United States, and when we are through consuming the things that profits can buy, where are we and who are we? Do we like where we are and who we are?
For the moment, put aside empathy and compassion for those suffering with less. We don’t need to be told that the injustice of this system hurts others and that the fate of those others should be our concern. For the moment, ask yourself what have been the consequences for you and your soul of living with the cheap toys of empire.
It’s enticing to want to wiggle out of that one by pointing a finger at those who consume more — Richard Rich in a Hummer, perhaps — but that’s at best a temporary diversion. There are always others making choices that are easy to critique. I’m suggesting that instead we ask a more troubling question — not about our empathy for others in the world who suffer with nothing or our contempt for those wallow in everything — but about ourselves. How do we feel, deep down in the place where we don’t allow others in, where we often won’t go ourselves?
This country is awash in abundance of most everything except the two things we cannot really live a decent life without — the meaning we desperately seek in a world of endless mystery, and the sense of real connection to others that we crave so that we can share that meaning.
There are big moral moments in our lives, times in which we must choose between allegiance to our principles and our fear of power, between our obligations to others and our desire for material comfort. In those moments, we should struggle to make sure we don’t sell our souls for the temporary pleasures of the world. But every day we also recognize that our souls — our sense of what it means to be human beings — are being shaped day-to-day by the same systems of power and privilege.
Let me be clear one more time: My pitch today is not just that all this matters for the sake of justice, but that it also matters for more selfish reasons. In this system, we lose when we allow systems of empire and capital to shape our souls, day after day in ways sometimes to subtle to see. We lose no matter how many toys we accumulate.
This is one of the main reasons I come to church and look forward to Rev. Rigby’s reminders of how hard it is to be a decent person in this world — not because I’m so noble but because I’m so weak. I need to be reminded, over and over, that most of the pleasures of the empire are mostly illusion. The irony is that typically we work so hard for money that buys those cheap toys, yet we often are unwilling to do the hard work to get something more. That’s why we need some kind of church, some place to come to support each other in that struggle to be more than the culture expects of us.
That is always a struggle, even for the strongest among us. Wendell Berry has done more than most of us to resist this culture of greed through his efforts not only to theorize about sustainable agriculture and rural community but to live those practices, yet he reminds us that he struggles. I’ll finish with the last lines of Berry’s essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in which he asks difficult questions about how we are to make these decisions. He ends not with a critique of others but an accounting of his own life. He laments the ways he still is caught up in the system and its machines, one of which is the chainsaw he uses to cut wood because of the speed and efficiency. But he also recognizes that it is “inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky, and scary.” He ends that essay on a difficult, but hopeful, note:
I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to escape my bondage to the machines. Nevertheless, on every day left to me I will search my mind and my circumstances for the means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.3
- Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1962), p. 92. [↩]
- Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (New York: Counterpoint, 1998), p. 115. [↩]
- Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 196. [↩]