The Necessary Guardians of the Almost

Greater than Guilt/5 - Recognising the wrong roads taken in life, and reconciling with them

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 18/02/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 05 rid«Vorrei passare come una tela
su cui lo sguardo crocifisso
spegne gli idoli.»

Heleno Oliveira, Se fosse vera la notte

To describe the greatest kind of moral and spiritual corruption, the Bible often uses words borrowed from the economy. And it does so because there is nothing more spiritual and theological than economics, politics and law. Faith speaks only with the words of life. And so there are no truer words to express the nature and quality of our spiritual life than wages, profit, taxes, bribes, finance, tenders, work, enterprise. These are the most theological and spiritual words available ‘under the sun’, which also give truth to the words of faith. Because if we do not know how to express spirituality with the words of economy, law and politics, it is very likely that those spiritual words are, in fact, prayers to idols, even when we say them devoutly, in temples, synagogues or churches. The Bible and its true laity knew this very well - we know it much less today, because we have forgotten the Bible and laity.

“Now when Samuel got old, he appointed his sons to serve as Israel’s judges. (...) But Samuel’s sons didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice"(8:1-3). Like it happened to Eli in the temple of Shiloh, Samuel, too, generated corrupt sons. To put an end to a collective narrative, the Bible must break the chain of generations, along which the Covenant comes undone. In order to do this, it is usually necessary to resort to the sterility of wives, but sometimes also to their children not being righteous. Both have the same functions, because traditions (whether family, spiritual, corporate or political) die because of the fathers’ infertility or the children’s betrayal. Yesterday and today.

The corruption of Samuel's children becomes the pretext for the momentous turning point in the history of Israel, the birth of the monarchy: “So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, »Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have«” (8:4-5). In this request that the elders of the people address to Samuel, the words that best explain the reaction of the prophet are: “like all the other nations”. Israel’s identity, on the other hand, consisted in the God who was different from those of ‘all the other nations’. They want a king like the others, like the other, idolater peoples. Samuel senses that in this desire to have a king like all other peoples there was something decisive, first of all on the theological and spiritual level, and so there was a real danger of losing their civil and religious identity. That's why these crucial chapters on the beginning of the monarchical era are introduced by yet another conversion-return of the people from the idols to YHWH: “Then Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, »If you are turning to the Lord with all your heart, then get rid of all the foreign gods and the Astartes you have. Set your heart on the Lord! Worship him only!« ... So the Israelites got rid of the Baals and the Astartes and worshipped the Lord only” (1 Samuel 7:3-4).

The Bible has a difficult, ambivalent and generally negative relationship with the idea of monarchy, because nothing and no one risks transforming or being transformed into an idol more than a king - the Pharaoh of Egypt, well known in the biblical tradition, was also a god, and the kings and rulers of other peoples were generally considered divine. Although the text offers an ethical and therefore political explanation for the end of the era of the Judges and therefore for the beginning of the monarchy, the true theological nature of the very strong anti-monarchical controversy in the Books of Samuel is to be found hiding underneath. Asking for a king is an expression of the same temptation by the many ‘golden calves’ that had seduced Israel after their liberation from Egypt.

Samuel was saddened by this request (“It seemed very bad to Samuel”; 8:6). In the dialogue between Samuel and YHWH, the truly idolatrous feature of the problem is clearly stated: “The Lord answered Samuel, »Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods«” (8:7-8). The problem is not with the form of government or the political leader; what the prophet glimpses in the request for a king is the idolatrous betrayal. In these pages that are really very important for biblical economy and history there is something that goes beyond the historical evaluation that the writer makes of the monarchy in Israel. Furthermore, there is a lesson on the inherently idolatrous nature of power. Corruption and idolatrous tendencies are not exclusive to the monarchy. Aaron was an accomplice of the rebellious people in the construction of the golden calf under Mount Sinai, some of the Judges and their children had been corrupted, and corruption continued even after the Babylonian exile. But the more absolute power is, the more absolute corruption becomes, because idolatry can become more absolute. The absolute becomes even more absolute if the king is YHWH’s anointed, if he assumes a sacred chrism that places him on the threshold that divides the human condition from that of Elohim. An anointed king borders too much with the idol-king of other peoples, just like the ark resembled too much the baldachins they used for carrying around the Philistine god Dagon in procession.

The text then tells us that Samuel receives an order from YHWH to accept the request for monarchy: “So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them” (8:9). Writing these stories centuries after the events, the author of the Books of Samuel knew that the Judges were followed by the monarchy, and he also knew that the Kingdom of Israel was soon divided, and that the kings who followed each other were almost all corrupt. But above all he knew that despite the many corrupt kings, starting with Saul, David and Solomon, the people were able to continue their different history of faith for centuries, the salvation that was generated by the presence, words and actions of the prophets. Samuel, then Nathan, Isaiah and Jeremiah made sure that the power of kings would not become only and always abused and idolatrous: “comply with the people’s request, but give them a clear warning”. Without the prophets who warn us, power is always and only corruption and idolatry, inside and outside religions. And when power only becomes corruption, the prophets are not there, they have fled, they have been killed, they have become false court prophets or they have been placed on the payroll of kings. It is prophecy and its typical admonition that make the yoke of all kinds of power sustainable.

Samuel obeys, and immediately gives a warning to the people: “This is how the king will rule over you ... He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. He will use them ... to do his ploughing and his harvesting ... He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. ... He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you” (8:11-18). Here Samuel is not forcing or exaggerating the relationship between kings and their subjects, he is only describing the gist of what happened in the kingdoms near Israel (and in those near us). And if in Israel and in our political and economic ‘kingdoms’ the ‘sovereigns’ do not consume our children and daughters entirely, it is because there is at least one prophet who prevents them from doing so, or who prevented them from doing so in the past.

But despite the warning given by Samuel/YHWH: “the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, »No! There must be a king over us so we can be like all the other nations«” (8:19-20). They really wanted to become like the other peoples. But in reality, thanks to the prophets, they only almost became like the others. The prophets, when they are there and are not silent, are the guardians of the almost, the watchmen who prevent power from becoming perfect corrupt idolatry, and save us from losing our soul entirely in the trials of life.

Finally, in these dialogues around the request for monarchy one of the most beautiful and profound messages of the Bible can be found. The biblical writer is aware that the historical trajectory followed by his people after the liberation of Moses was less luminous, faithful and beautiful than it could have been. The pain of all could be lesser, the poor less humiliated, their faith truer. The entire Bible is crossed by this shadow line, but here, too, an anthropological and spiritual truth is suggested. When we start to write our story, and in order to do so we have to look at and read the events and choices of yesterday, there is a strong feeling of seeing a higher and brighter path that we could have followed if we had made other choices at the junctions and in the decisive appointments (which are always few). Next to our history, we see a track on the ridge and we see the spectacle of its wider horizons, which we could have travelled if we had only had a prophet close by or if we had believed in his words. Seeing or glimpsing retrospectively these higher and brighter paths that we have not walked can be the most painful moment in life, and often and for many people it is, too. The same look on the same missed trajectories can become very different and good if our eyes are accompanied by those of the Bible and its prophets. With them by our side we can embrace the mistaken junctions and lost appointments with gentleness and live them as if we had really lived them, to prepare ourselves for the last stretch of the race, finally reconciled with our regrets. Then we should also be able to witness, in amazement, the miracle of those missed ridges and the horizons we have never seen before suddenly becoming real and true - and just like the lowest and smallest ones that life has made us experience. And we give thanks. Everything is grace.

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