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Psalm 118: The World is not for Sale

"The world is not for sale...Justice is `out' in the neoliberal economic system. The self-enrichment of the rich is the central economic goal. The enemies of life are the multinational corporations..." In her address at the 29th Evangelical church day in 2001, Dorothee Soelle decries "globalization from above" and "total individualization' as central goals. Ms. Soelle is well-known professor and author of liberation theology. Translated from the German
Psalm 118

By Dorothee Soelle

[This Bible study from the 29th Evangelical church day 2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web.]

In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms is a book with 150 prayers and hymns. Some were sung with the great liturgies in the temple and others came from prayer books used in Jewish lay circles. Psalms are the basic prayers of the Christian churches. No church services occur without them. Many religious hymns are adaptations or free renderings of the psalms like the hymn "The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God" set to music by Beethoven.

Other psalms are voices of pain, suffering and anxiety crying for the absent God. The cry is an accusation. The God who doesn't help is lamented. However a remembrance also lies in the cry. Our fathers and mothers did not come to nothing when they hoped in God. Thus there is more than the lonely solitary cry. Cautious hope is nourished by remembrances of the old stories of deliverance.

The power of these hymns does not appear where life goes well and the goodness and consistency of life are manifest. This language is strongest where one's own decline or ruin is deplored. I love the texts and hymns of this tradition because they are refractory. A text of hope like Psalm 118 speaks of regaining life where one was lost. This text can praise when I cry or curse. With these texts, praying persons are ahead of us and speak a language wiser than our hearts. They fall into a wonderful disunity, no longer only voices of lame skeptics with broken wings incapable of praise. Hoping persons underway to hope play in these hymns. They hide under the masks and in the language of their brothers and sisters. Many sang these hymns before them, hymns washed with the hopes and tears of the dead. No one need only be him or herself and starve to death in one's own meager faith. The dead lend their language. This is called tradition and the church: joining in a great song that praises life and laments everything harming life.

The psalm that we hear and consider today includes both voices in a marvelous way. The psalm praises and complains and teaches "praise without lying". Being able to praise and lament belong together. When people do only one of the two, only complaining without giving thanks, they grow silent in a trivial atheism. When they only praise without questioning God, they stultify in a trivial fundamentalism. The psalms teach loving, bringing both together though this is contradictory, complaining and giving thanks. What a great challenge!

In the Luther tradition, Psalm 118 begins with the words: "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good and his goodness endures forever"... When we are truly alive, we are answering persons, not isolated individuals. Martin Buber proclaimed: "In the beginning was the relation." Living as answering persons is part of creation. A dative and an accusative belong to all praise and gratitude. I praise you and am not simply captive in myself; I can go out of myself as the mystics say... Learning to praise God is what Psalm 118 can teach us.

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
2 Let Israel say, His steadfast love endures for ever!
3 Let the house of Aaron say, His steadfast love endures for ever!
4 Let those who fear the Lord say, His steadfast love endures for ever!

The very different voice of an individual expressing anxiety, threats to life and complaint follows this liturgical introduction.

5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord,
the Lord answered me and set me free.
6 With the Lord on my side
I do not fear.
What can man do to me?
7 The Lord is on my side to help me;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me,
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than
to put confidence in man.
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in princes.

This voice is full of anxiety. "Distress" (Enge) and anxiety (Angst) have the same root in German. We live in a world of growing barbarism. The life of the majority of the earth's inhabitants is threatened. The young girls who must sell themselves as sex slaves become younger and younger. We are in a situation where the fears of people grow. In the present state of globalization advanced with all means of economic power, we live under "the princes of this world" (v.9). Luther called them the princes. He especially loved Psalm 118! This is my psalm, he said, "because it helped me out of many great distresses when emperors, kings, sages, wise men and saints could not help." Luther knew much about fear. He knew what many refined liberals deny today, that life has enemies. Children in our world have enemies anxious that they don't go to school or see the doctor. The fish have enemies; the trees in the rainforest have enemies who profit enormously from their eradication.

Luther's translation may sound enemy-obsessed and thirsty for revenge. The revised translation today uses the word "resist" instead of "cut them off" in verses 10-12. Still we cannot understand this psalm if we forget that life has "enemies".

9 All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off.
10 They surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off.
11 They surrounded me like bees,
They blazed like a fire of thorns;
In the name of the Lord I cut them off.
12 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.

Some years ago someone said to me: "Why do you use the word "justice" so much, doesn't it smack of communism?

No, this word smacks of God, the God of the Bible. A mild friendliness toward the losers, "fairness", is still allowed but justice is "out" in the neoliberal economic system. The self-enrichment of the rich is the central economic goal. The enemies of life dominating us today are the multinational corporations whose interest focuses on "deregulating" all past rules and laws of national states. "Deregulation" is a favorite word of the world rulers. These rules were created in the interests of children, pregnant women, older persons, the air we breathe and the water we drink. I'd like to quote a definition of a manager of the Asea-Brown-Bovery consortium: "I would define globalization as the freedom for my group of businesses to invest and produce where and when they want, to buy and sell where they want and accept the fewest possible restrictions from labor laws and social agreements." (Percy N. Barnevik, Tagesanzeiger, Switzerland, January 15, 2001). Globalization from above means that all social and ecological protective measures are "deregulated" or abolished.

The theme of our church day is one of the most beautiful sayings of the Bible that young Goethe particularly loved "You set my feet on high places". This saying speaks against anxiety and the distress that often paralyze us. It takes away suffocation and draws us out of these dreadful idioms heard in many places like "one can't do anything". Margaret Thatcher, a glowing representative of neoliberalism, declared "There is no alternative". When you combine the first four letters of this simple sentence, this thinking can be called the TINA-syndrome. The followers of this TINA-syndrome believe that globalization from above is inevitable.

Since the beginning of globalization, I have heard this dreadful phrase again and again: "that's not your business" or "one individual can't change anything". Who imparted this nonsense, I ask sometimes, that you are an individual without brothers and sisters, without relations, without neighbors? One of the greatest gifts of the Jewish tradition to humanity says the "neighbor" is the way to God that we need. Why do you define yourself this way?

The economic globalization in which we live only needs the individual as an addressable partner, not a group, tribe or even a people! Total individualization is a central economic goal. The old word "buy" is replaced by the new word "enjoy". The individual infinitely open to consumption is produced in the psychology of advertising and developed as a life goal. What cannot be bought and sold doesn't exist. However the new opponents of globalization from above have formulated a marvelously simple sentence in agreement with the Jewish-Christian tradition: "the world is not for sale". The world, the air, the water and the sex slaves are not goods "for sale". Life on this earth loved by God is not for sale.

I will tell a grandchild story that has helped me come out of the prison where the I is the best watchman. The child that removed all my cups from the shelf under my worried eyes and built a café where invisible guests were welcomed with invisible coffee was three-and-a-half years old. After a while, her mother said: "You must clear the table now; we want to eat." The child didn't answer aggressively but in a reflective-astonished way. "Mama", she said, "you always only think in real time." The child knew one must sometimes think in real time but that "only" thinking in real time is deadly. For 50 years, I have attempted to trust in the "broad space" for my feet in "which not everything can be", in transcendence not "only in real time". Naturally I have fear of those who clone our food today and our babies tomorrow, appropriating what God has given humankind in creation as private property. They destroy the rhythm of creation consisting in seed, harvest and new seed. One of the goals of Monsanto, for example, is to force the rural population in India to buy the seed from the world owners every year since the genetically-engineered plants only grow and bring fruits once.

Anxiety and trust wrestle together all one's life. As long as they do, there is hope and trust. Our feet stand in a broad space, even when the new world owners strive to "deregulate" the creation so we can buy everything at any time including life-extending organs. A non-empirical power of trust exclaims "You have put my feet in a broad space".

13 The Lord is my strength and my song;
He has become my salvation.
14 Hark, glad songs of victory
In the tents of the righteous.
15 The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
The right hand of the Lord is exalted.
16 I shall not die, but I shall live
And recount the deeds of the Lord.
17 The Lord has chastened me sorely,
But he has not given me over to death!

These verses are the strongest part of our psalm. God is my psalm and my song. What a marvelous sentence! God is not necessary to explain the world. We don't need God to bear the unhappiness often obvious to us. We need God to hear, stage, desire and collaborate in the utopia of another life still prohibited today. Our ability to desire is diminished by limitation to the purchasable and the allegedly possible. We always make ourselves small. Martin Luther described the sinner as curved in himself, homo incurvatus in se ipso. This individual is an economic goal of the first order today. This ability to worry about oneself and nothing but oneself no longer needs the great desires for life that we call "prayers". The power of prayer is laid out in the creation itself that is called "very good" in the language of the Bible. The self-enrichment of the rich is not the "broad space" for my feet but rather the preservation of life on earth.

Despite the technocratic dictatorship of faster, often and more for 20 percent of humanity, God's broad space is open for us when we finally dare to enter. At last we should venture globalization "from below" and ally with the worldwide protest movement that began in Seattle in November 1999 and didn't end with Davos and Quebec. Then we can sing with our psalm "I shall not die but I shall live" (v.17).

I don't believe the immortality of the soul is intended in this verse. Involvement in the continuance of life on our marvelous earth is what we seek. The Bible calls this the gate to justice.

Against death

I must die
but that is all
I will do for death

All other requests
respecting its officials
celebrating its banks as humanly-friendly
and its inventions as advances of science
I refuse

All the other seductions
to mild depression
to lubricated relationlessness
to certain knowledge
that relationlessness will win somehow
I resist

I must die
but that is all
that I will do for death

I will laugh against death
tell stories
how death was outwitted
and how women
drove him from the land

I will sing
and win back the land
with every sound

But that is all


That God is our psalm can only be known and proclaimed when we pass through the gate of righteousness. As long as we stylize ourselves as globalization winners, we bar this gate to the joy of the feast.

18 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
19 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
20 I thank thee that thou hast answered me
and hast become my salvation.
21 The stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
22 This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
23 This is the day which the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

That the poor in their distressed world have a very different relation to joy, jubilation and dance is a basic experience of my life. The music of the landless in Brazil who wander about and don't possess the cultivated land of the large property owners radiates happiness. They sing of God. We could learn from them to seek the opened gate of righteousness and see the building block for the new house of all humankind in the excluded, the degraded and the losers. This house is also being built today. Will we join in this building?

24 Save us, we beseech thee, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech thee, give us success!
25 Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
26 The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar!
27 Thou art my God, and I will give thanks to thee;
Thou art my God, I will extol thee.
28 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever!

The last part of our psalm describes a feast procession where people journey together with flowers to the temple. Perhaps we have ignored this basic experience, flowers in hand, dancing at the foot of the altar, common celebration and singing.

We need to be reminded of the song that we can become. We should repeat it. Joy is in God's heart and shines today in the Corpus Christi. We are not alone.

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