by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 27/05/2018
“It was by the grace of God, not on account of his merits, that Noah found shelter in the ark before the overwhelming force of the waters. Although he was better than his contemporaries, he was yet not worthy of having wonders done for his sake.”
Louis Ginzberg The Legends of the Jews (English translation by Henrietta Szold)
It was religion that invented the homo oeconomicus, long before economy reinvented it. The first trading partner for people was God, because the economy in the markets was an extension of the economy in the religious sphere. The first currency that humanity knew was goats, sheep, lambs, sometimes even children and virgins, with whom men paid their gods, usually to put them in debt or, sometimes, to reduce the original debt they felt were overwhelming their communities.
The Bible, in some of its books (in those of the prophets, Job, Qoheleth and in many texts of the Gospels and Paul) reacted strongly to this economic vision of faith, sacrifice and worship, doing everything to keep God out of our business affairs, to save him from our constant temptation to manipulate him. But even in the Bible, in the Old and New Testament, and then in Christian theology and practice, at times there remain some visible traces of this mercantile idea of religion, where even the death of Christ was read as a "payment" of a price to the Father, and where our suffering and that of others is read as "money" to be paid to a God who is our creditor.
Economic religion has done much harm especially in the area of the social, spiritual and ethical evaluation of the poor. The beggars were poor, but the poor also included the lepers, the blind, the dumb, the lame – all united by the fact that they were the dross of the communities. To defend their idea of the just God, ancient economic religions condemned the poor, who became those discarded by life and by God. The "blind and the lame" were carriers of guilt and sin, and so God could remain perfect in his righteousness because each one received exactly what they had deserved from life (by their own or by their ancestors’ right). Twice blessed wealth, twice cursed poverty – until the day before yesterday, many parents segregated their severely handicapped children in their homes or institutions because they felt the religious and social curse on their families was too strong for those different children. Thousands of years later human civilizations (not all yet) are finally able to say that disability is not a curse, that material and psycho-physical poverty is not a stigma but a question – and the civil and moral quality of a society as well as its justice (most importantly) depend on the answer given to it. It is one of the greatest achievements of humanity, which is always fragile, because that ancient idea of poverty-malediction has changed forms (unemployment, inefficiency, immigration ...). It disguises and camouflages itself (meritocracy), but its ability to convince us that the poverty of others has no relationship with our "deserved" riches is getting stronger and stronger – blaming the victims is the oldest and simplest strategy to deny our responsibility.
“So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:3). After being consecrated by Samuel and after the seven and a half years of reign over Judah, David now made a covenant with all the tribes and became king of Israel. He had been chosen and anointed as a young boy, but he really becomes king only now thanks to a pact. Vocations arise from a very personal encounter with a voice that calls you by name, in a space of an internal dialogue within the heart where no one can or should enter at the beginning. That’s where vocations begin and live in the early days, but they only flourish if one day that dialogue generates a pact, an experience of reciprocity, a public commitment made with other men and women; if and when that first intimate dialogue becomes a social discourse, a common project, a social action, and that first voice tells us to build an ark together to save someone. Vocations must become pacts. Many genuine calls are blocked and go wrong because they remain in the "first dialogue" for too long without being able to become a pact, an alliance, a community commitment. They are easily spent because the pact necessarily arises on the death of the first intimate dialogue, and the fear of death prevents the dialogue from resurrecting in a pact. Pacts are meetings of promises of a free common future, not locked down by the present. They are increasingly rare in our world which is overflowing with contracts devouring pacts and alliances, because they deceive us and present themselves as similar "goods", offered at a much lower price than pacts – which is relational dumping. At this point, along with the new kingdom, another wonderful name appears in the story of David and Israel, which alone says many things that are beautiful and tremendous, yesterday and today: Jerusalem, which now becomes the city of David: “And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, »You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off« (...) David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, »Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David's soul«. Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house’” (5:6-8). The text is too short to explain and make the nature of this hatred between David and "the blind and the lame” understood. Whether we interpret it as a gesture of pride by the Jebusites, who (perhaps) put disabled people to the defence of the city, or read it as a political act of David who (perhaps) eliminated the blind and the lame from his army, the basic message remains strong and clear: "the blind and the lame" are waste, refuse, they are excluded "from the house" and the temple, they are the unloved: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, »(...) None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. (...) a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. (...) since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God«” (Leviticus 21:16-21). Hard and tremendous words, which we find in the Bible together with those of Isaiah who prophesies: “To the eunuchs (...) / I will give in my house and within my walls / a monument and a name / better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:4-5), and together with the beatitudes and Jesus who heals the blind and the paralytics. The Bible gives us reasons to condemn the poor or to call them blessed - and it waits for our response.
One of King David's first ventures is transporting the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem: “And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart” (6:3). During the transport, Uzzah touches the ark and dies on the spot (6:7) – another episode telling about the tremendum of the sacred. Amidst songs and dances, the procession finally arrives in Jerusalem. And there is a very beautiful and mysterious episode here in terms of narration.
David, driven by the enthusiasm of the entrance with the ark, perhaps also by his poetic and artistic nature, enters into a sort of mystical ecstasy in dance and music, to the point of almost denuding himself in the midst of his people. Michal, his wife, saw the scene from the window “and she despised him in her heart” (6:16). Later, at home she talks to her husband: “How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (6:20). David does not accept this scolding from his spouse and responds by returning it: “It was before the Lord, who chose me above your father and above all his house (...) I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes (6:21-22). The official interpretation of this episode and the final editor of the text are clearly on David's side, reading his behaviour as an expression of humility and his true devotion to YHWH.
But, here too, we can read this passage in a different way, and make our own narrative and ethical choice. The lives of common families and those of famous and powerful men are populated by many dialogues similar to the one between David and Michal. There are many wives who watch the decent and indecorous behaviour of their husbands “from the window", wives who often remain silent in public, but then know how to speak inside the house with a different and essential authority. Certain truths are spoken and heard only at home: only when you have a family and someone who sees you differently and likes you so much as to tell you things that your "subjects", your employees, voters, fans can't tell you. And those things are fundamental truths for being able to live well. The decorum of women is not the same as that of men, their eyes see different things that, if heard, contain the salvation of their husbands. Michal saw something that, from her point of view, was neither beautiful nor good; it wasn’t either religious or devout. But neither her husband nor the editor of the Book of Samuel who collected this ancient tradition understood it, and they mercilessly condemned her: “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (6:22). Michal thus ends up in the great community of those rejected by God and people, entering the company of her father Saul and her brothers.
We can leave her there like most of the commentators of this passage, on the existential periphery of the Bible in the company of David’s blind and lame. But we can also decide to redeem her, and with her the many women condemned and discarded by history and life just for telling different words to their husbands and the powerful, words that aren’t adulatory, but much truer, which then became the cause of their condemnation and, not infrequently, their martyrdom.
The Bible or even the Gospel is not enough to redeem the victims and the poor. History tells us so. There is an essential need for our freedom. All too often the ones missing from the stories of the Bible are us, its readers. To be able to step in to Michal's room and tell her, "I understand you", we must want and choose to do so. Otherwise we stop at the threshold, that of the room and the Bible. Biblical reading is fruitful if it becomes a spiritual and moral exercise to see and raise the humble and the humiliated, and therefore to save God, who is too often placed on the side of the strong and the triumphant.
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