The Resource Curse

Listening to Life/22 - Reducing the prophets to "experts of the empire" makes us blind

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 20/11/2016

Albero Seoul ridWhat use are poets in times of need?

Friedrich Hölderlin, Bread and Wine (English translation by James Mitchell)

Stand fast in your enchantments / and your many sorceries, / with which you have laboured from your youth; / perhaps you may be able to succeed; / perhaps you may inspire terror. / ...let them stand forth and save you, / those who divide the heavens, / who gaze at the stars, / who at the new moons make known / what shall come upon you... Such to you are those with whom you have laboured, / who have done business with you from your youth; / they wander about, each in his own direction; / there is no one to save you." (Isaiah 47:12-15).

In this beautiful chapter of poetic prophecy the Second Isaiah announces the destruction of Babylon. Its pride and imperialism ("you...who say in your heart, / »I am, and there is no one besides me;«" 47:8) were leading it to its ruin. At the root of this imminent collapse there is something more than the typical hubris of all empires or the idolatry that the prophet had placed at the centre of his dispute in the previous chapters.

Babylon is about to “come down and sit in the dust” (47:1) also because of its science and its great knowledge: "your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray" (47:10). Wisdom and knowledge are not an evil or a sin, but a richness and a good. Why do these goods lead Babylon astray?

When Israel got to know the Babylonian culture from within during the deportation period, they were not fascinated and tempted only by its many powerful and completely visible gods, threatening to take the place of their different, unique and invisible God. Also the culture and intelligence of the neo-Babylonian empire were very seductive for Israel – and that culturally and spiritually elevated people felt a particularly strong warning thereof. That extraordinary knowledge of the stars and mathematics, the rich literature and the sophisticated myths, spells and oracles, 'enchanted' even the best minds of Israel. The anti-idolatrous polemic could not be enough to control this attraction and charm, because the truest and wisest spirit of the people sensed that in that science and knowledge there was something good and true, that they were not as stupid as the idols and statues.

The Babylonians began the systematic observation of the stars, the moon and the planets. They wrote almanacs, gathered and 'scientifically' catalogued a lot of data on celestial bodies. They were the inventors of the zodiac, its 12 signs and the partition of the sky into spheres and constellations (they were "those who divide the heavens"). On this empirical and rational basis they were able to predict lunar eclipses and the orbit of Jupiter (their god Marduk), with a very advanced calculation of the area of a trapezoid (Science, 29 January 2016). What appears to us today as superstition and anti-scientific culture – horoscopes, divination, interpretation of dreams ... – were the most rational form of trying to give an order to the chaos 2500 years ago. They were very advanced tools to dominate a world and a sky that were totally unfathomable in their basic laws of motion.

We would not have many biblical stories now (and not only the first three chapters of Genesis or that of the flood) without this encounter with Babylon, which penetrated deep into the tradition and symbolic code of the Bible. The prophets of the exile, and among them the Second Isaiah, were very strict with Babylon, its religion and its culture, because they witnessed their penetration into the heart of their people that was struggling to save itself from assimilation - the strength of the great criticisms almost always depends on the seductive power of the people and the ideas that we criticize.

In this chapter of the Book of Isaiah we find, perhaps for the first time in the Bible, the recognition that the strength and supremacy of an inimical empire do not depend only on its army and economy, but also on its science and culture. The Second Isaiah, in the careful choice of his words and the images of his poetry, shows that he knows about the astrological / astronomical innovations of the ruling empire. He knew that science and technology were part of the vocation of Babylon, they were its 'genius' ("who have done business with you from your youth"). He does not make it the subject of satire, he does not ridicule it as he had done with the statues of its gods. He takes it seriously, and starting from the recognition of this scientific and intellectual power he offers his interpretation of the misfortune that was about to befall that superpower: "You said, »I shall be mistress forever,« / so that you did not lay these things to heart / or remember their end." (47:7) The biggest mistake that the prophet sees in Babylon is the lack of awareness of the precariousness of its own success and power, and thence the emergence of the delirium of omnipotence and eternity that prevented its people from 'remembering their end'.

It is not impossible that he even felt some pain when seeing such a high civilization heading for its ruin – the prophets are not happy to announce misfortunes and are also capable of suffering for the content of their own prophecy: they are not the owners of the words they say.

So in these verses of the Second Isaiah we can find a more general teaching. We know from history that empires begin their decline while they are in the apex of success. Their size, strength and achievements end up self-devouring the great and strong ones and the conquerors, if and when they are not able to stop before passing the 'critical point' which is located on the vertex of a parabola that separates the maximum success from the beginning of the path that will lead them to their end. Being able to see this critical point is extremely difficult because it coincides with the point of maximum splendour. Great success, especially when it is of the intellectual or wisdom type, produces a falling in love with the success generated by one's own talents. Parents fall in love with their child, to the point of devouring them out of too much love that's become incestuous. Many downfalls of people and communities with great intellectual and/or spiritual talents start precisely from this lack of chastity that leads them to consume first the fruits of their success, then the tree and finally its roots.

This is a special and original expression of the so-called law of the 'resource curse', which is triggered every time that yesterday's resources become an obstacle to the creation of tomorrow's resources. Because the many assets of heritage begin, gradually and unconsciously, to erode the commitment and motivation for generating new wealth. This typical curse applies to all types of resources, but it is more difficult to detect and prevent when it has to do with intangible and spiritual ones. It is simple to understand, for example, that a lot of oil can become the curse of the economy of a state, or that the wealth accumulated by the parents can become a curse for the children; it is less easy to realize in time that my talent is consuming my creativity, or that the spiritual and charismatic richness of a community founder can become a 'resource curse' for the next generation.

One of the prophets' tasks, a very precious one, is their ability to see the critical point and so the approaching of the resource curse in time. The prophets fore-see the approach of this kind of crisis because they see it before the others, they know how to seize the weak signals that all others miss because they get manifested in times of abundance and prosperity when no one bothers about the dissonant warnings of the prophets. Specialists, futurologists and pollsters, are not able to see the critical point of the beginning of this typical resource curse, because they are completely internal and functional to the system, they are its specialists trained and paid to foster success and power. The prophet is not a specialist of the future, he is not a screenwriter (a new profession of our insecure time that would like to dominate the future for profit). Instead, he is well aware that time is not in his hands, he knows that the future is not his private property. However, because of his vocation, he can see these invisible threshold values ​​inside the brilliant development trajectories. And he cries it out, knowing that he's not heard by those who label him as pessimistic, as a defeatist prophet of misfortune, by those who think he is just like the specialists and soothsayers – every prophet knows that reducing prophecy to simple prediction would mean its death. The first enemies of the prophecies of misfortune are all those false prophets who make themselves rich by predicting a more glorious and endless future.

In our time of science and technology, as we are invaded by industries producing impressive amounts of financial, political and climatic forecasts no one sees and understands the prophets, no one sees and understand the poets. And so, without prophets, we are simply destined to be eaten by the perfection of our predictions: "they cannot deliver themselves / from the power of the flame." (47:14).

Specialists work well if they can follow simple forecasts and if they are good they help us to prevent small crises. But when it comes to seeing the signs of a historic change or identifying the arrival of a major crisis, the technique of forecasting does not help. What's needed in such cases is prophecy alone. The ancient Babylon and the Babylons of all time – including ours – are not being saved because they do not have prophets: they have killed them or reduced them to experts of the empire.

Generally it is not a bad thing that empires decay and fall. In the unconscious passing of this invisible 'critical point' we could also see a providential mechanism that's intrinsic to human history. The discourse gets more complex when it comes to people and communities, where the decline could sometimes be avoided if we were conscious of the existence of the resource curse. And if we listened to the prophets more carefully, even if they are prophets of misfortune, because the only hope to avoid it lies in the prophecy of misfortune: "Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! / Then your peace would have been like a river, / and your righteousness like the waves of the sea" (48:18). In times of great crises there is no greater poverty than the lack of prophets.

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