The Devil and the Priest

by Nikki Little

After his sermon every Sunday, a priest fell into the habit of playing chess with a parishioner who was unusually well-dressed. They were both quite good at the game, and marveled that in this day and age of computers, it was still even possible to find a human opponent who was willing to play face-to-face instead of anonymously via internet chess servers. For a long time, they were accustomed to play with other church people hovering nearby, but one day, they found themselves alone for the first time.

"You're not really who you appear to be, are you?" asked the priest.

"What on earth would make you ask a question like that?" asked the parishioner.

"I see you in the newspapers in the financial section all the time making deals that would make Donald Trump blush," said the priest. "You're not really a businessman, now, are you?"

"And just who would you say that I am?" asked the parishioner.

"You're my old nemesis. The nemesis of every religious and philosophical person on earth. Even atheists might debate your existence, as if the source of your power were the inner, uncivilized beast in all of us that makes us worship at the alter of wealth. Evil is not created by you, it is merely exploited by you."

"How could you possibly see all that in little old me?"

"Because you are temptation personified. You buy people's souls when you hire them for your various international businesses. What better place to hunt for souls than a church where people go to assure themselves that the world we live in is a Godly place?. Most of my parishioners do not worship God. They worship idols, the worst of which is the one in the collection plate."

"You are quite perceptive, for a priest. Most go about their duties with a weary, self-imposed blindness. They are horrified at how ineffectual they are. If priests were really effective at spreading the message of Christianity, there would be no men like me in the pews."

"And that means..." queried the priest.

"And that means that there would be no rich people. There would be no laying up of wealth in this realm. There would be no haves and have-nots. There would be no beggars in the streets of the world's cities. The Peaceable Kingdom where the lion and the lamb lie down together would be a reality."

"Why have you not tempted me?"

"I have no need of tempting you. I win souls in employment interviews. People do not realize that they are selling their souls when they sign employment contracts with me. In return for enormous salaries, I win their souls not because they just signed them away, but because they agree to do my bidding in the name of business interests. They turn a blind eye to all the harm they do in the name of the bottom line. It's just business. For me, too, it's just business." The parishioner chuckled at his cleverness.

"You mentioned that it is very hard to find a face-to-face opponent for chess in this day and age of computers. Are you aware of the concept of shareware?"

"Try before you buy computer programs? The most generous of them these days offer 30 days of full functionality before they stop working."

"Make me a trial offer," said the priest.

"Surely you jest," said the parishioner. "What have I got that could possibly interest you? I know already that you are incorruptible."

"I am also in despair at ever accomplishing anything. My parishioners do not hear the message of my sermons. They listen politely to the sounds that my vocal cords make, and a polite few even nod their heads in agreement, but they do not hear the message."

"A priest who is having an existential crisis," chuckled the parishioner. "I have encountered your type before. And what would you have me do for you?"

"Give me a trial. Give me a fifteen-day try before you buy," said the priest.

"Oh, my," said the parishioner. "What have I got to lose, eh? And just what is it that you would ask in exchange for your immortal soul?"

"Strip away all of people's illusions. Make the illusions vanish into the dust from which they came," said the priest.

"Oh, my," said the parishioner. "You don't want much. Even I am not sure what would happen if all of people's illusions were vanquished. You have whetted my curiosity. Your fifteen-day trial without obligation or contract will be granted. I, too, am curious to see what would happen. I have my suspicions, but I am not certain. It will be a grand test for you and me both. Starting immediately, it is done."

And so it was done. The first of people's illusions that vanished into air was the idea that government-issued currency had value. The little slips of paper and the coins of common metals all disappeared into thin air. Governments around the world scrambled for a new means to exert an authority that was now revealed to be based more on brute force than anything else. Even in the model democracies of Scandinavia, the new taxes were imposed on the productive so that governments could continue functioning.

What were those new taxes? Taxes on agricultural production. The new world currency became paper backed by bushels of wheat, corn, rice, and so on. Now people grasped the reality of what was really being spent when governments proposed budgets of massive spending on projects of questionable value. Which in turn led to the dropping of the next illusion.

The idea that wars solve problems. In reality, wars solve problems only when everyone on one side has been killed or surrendered. Even in a war like World War Two in which the obvious evil was vanquished, the problems continued to simmer under the surface. Nationalism, racism, lust for conquest, all the reasons why wars occurred were still there. New wars erupted after World War Two. There was no such thing as a war to end all wars. When people realized that they were dumping food into the great blender of war machines, their desire to slaughter each other waned. They decided that they would rather eat than trade food for weapons. The arms dealers went bankrupt almost overnight.

The next illusion that collapsed was the idea that land belongs to the titleholder. All the titles in the world vanished. Old-fashioned paper from business vaults. Digital records from computers. No one knew who held the mortgages. The monthly mortgage bills vanished from homeowners' mailboxes. The homeless moved into empty foreclosed homes because, after all, they were just sitting there unused. The idea that property belongs to the purchaser evaporated into dust. Property belonged to the user.

The next illusion that vanished was that the consumer society represented the height of civilization and shared happiness. The shopping malls vanished into thin air, and landless squatters moved in immediately to plant crops and set up makeshift shelters. The dispossessed of the world reclaimed what had once been occupied by the cathedrals of the affluent.

By this time, the parishioner was getting nervous and was thinking that perhaps he had given way too much, but the illusions kept dropping. The next illusion to vanish was the idea that one could own knowledge. Proprietary operating systems vanished from computers around the world. Old, obscure, and obsolete operating systems such as OS/2, Irix, and variations of Unix returned. A thousand versions of Linux bloomed on modern computers and government workstations. Debian Linux with KDE replaced Windows and Debian with Gnome replaced Mac OS X. Microsoft and Apple went belly-up like pond fish in a heat wave. Bookstores became neighborhood libraries. Children in the third world delighted in playing video games that had once cost a month's wages of their countries' near-worthless currencies. Every book on the planet became available for download. Writers, artists, musicians, and others who produced for the public became public servants instead of purveyors of intellectual property. Directors and actors made movies without thought or worry of payment. They received public servant salaries, and that was enough.

The next illusion to fall was the idea that everything had to have a price. By this time, the fifteen-day trial was nearly up, and the parishioner's nerves were completely shot. When prices vanished, the makeshift paper currencies based on food commodities vanished. Barter was too much trouble and people just shared what they had in the way of the old hunter-gatherer societies that had existed before the development of agriculture.

There was one final illusion to fall, and meanwhile the parishioner was having a nervous breakdown. With the extinction of currencies, it became practically impossible for governments to levy taxes, and without taxes, the very reason for the existence of central governments disappeared. The world became a place of localities. Power devolved to local councils where all had a say, and not just a privileged few. People shared what they had, and no one stuck out a hand for payment. With desperation and poverty disappearing, crime became something committed by the mentally ill - who were treated with compassion in medical centers instead of being locked up. The world's jails emptied. The parishioner showed up for his second Sunday meeting with the priest after the day of the bargain unfit for the playing of chess.

"That was quite a trick you pulled on me. It is people's illusions which makes it possible for me to steal their souls. Take away their illusions and I have nothing to tempt them with. You shall have your fifteen-day trial, but there will be no bargain. Yours would be the last soul I ever gathered if I agreed to your request. You already knew that, didn't you?"

"Yes," said the priest. "I already knew that. I knew that you would never agree to the bargain. I got fifteen days for free just like most users of shareware who have no intention of ever paying. I guess you could say I cheated you."

"You are an excellent businessman. You missed your calling."

"Thank you," said the priest. "Perhaps you will come back tomorrow when the world is back to normal for our games of chess? And then it is I who will tempt you."

The End

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