The Poor Angels of the Poor

The Dawn of Midnight/24 - Mutilation weighs more heavily on the soul than the body

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/10/2017

171001 Geremia 24 crop ridThe duty to neighbours is not confined only to those who live next door. (...) The Samaritan is linked to the wounded Israelite through the event itself... (...) Once he finds himself in this situation, he is in a new ‘neighbourhood’. (...) There are few non-neighbours left in the world today.

Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice

The secularity of the Bible is something very serious but increasingly distant from our lives as believers and "laypeople". Biblical humanism is first and foremost a discourse on life, on the whole of life, especially on human life. The Bible speaks a lot about God, but it does not only speak about God to us, because above all it speaks about us. Because it tells us that there is not only God in life: there is life. The biblical God knows how to retreat, to remain silent, to leave room for us. To our freedom and responsibility. He is not a monopolist of our lives, he does not want a continued and perpetual cult - for that is what the former look for and they only get idols. The Biblical God is a liberator, he does not free us from idols to enslave us to himself - if he did so, he would be the perfect idol. He activates processes, he doesn't occupy any space, not even sacred ones, which he rarely frequents, because he prefers the square, the house and the vineyard to the temple. But above all, he loves to look at what is happening under the sun, to follow us with a look of hope in the full exercise of our humanity. He is astonished when he sees our wickedness, but he is even more astonished at the beauty of our actions, looking at the admirable spectacle of solidarity and fraternity, especially those cases of wonderful solidarity and fraternity that begin in the hearts of the poorest and the rejected.

“When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern... [he] went from the king's house and said to the king, »My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.« Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, »Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies«” (Jeremiah 38:7-10). It was a eunuch, an Ethiopian - a rejected one, a foreigner - who saved Jeremiah from the mud and from death. We don't know much about this saviour. However, we know that there were many eunuchs in ancient times, in the East, in Persia and also in the whole Mediterranean, including Rome. They were slaves in particular demand and they were expensive in the markets, because they could play special and delicate roles (taking care of harem women, for example). Many of them were castrated before puberty, and ended up having a female voice and attitudes. They were generally used for court and temple services. Some similar phenomena of the ancient eunuchs have remained until recent times (think of the sacred choirs in Europe, until the beginning of the 20th century) - a few weeks ago I saw some of them in India (the Hijras) asking alms at the traffic lights: in them I saw the eunuchs of the Bible, their very sad condition as victims, and I remained speechless for my amazement and pain.

In this episode of the Book of Jeremiah, Baruch offers a striking description of the eunuch's action, which is delicate and full of attention to detail: “So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, »Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.«” Jeremiah did so” (38:11-12). A detail that might seem insignificant, however, expresses the splendid humanity of those who manage to grasp a value in that wound, in that mutilated man who stayed in the company of women, who had learnt the art of care from them, who had learned a competence on the suffering of the body of others from his own suffering. Once again, the salvation of a prophet comes from a person who is rejected by society, from a cursed man, a stranger, a victim. But, educated and made meek in the spirit by great pain, this man is still able to of recognize a different voice amidst the general noise, and then to act and work for the prophet’s release.

It is not the pharaohs, the kings, the powerful, the great or the rich who save the poor. Yesterday and today, the first salvation of the victims comes from other victims, because of that solidarity of pain which, when it is triggered, works true miracles, and transforms prisons and even lagers into a paradise of fraternity. In that general confusion and despair in a Jerusalem where everyone was trying to save their lives, a castrated man transforms that palace polluted by corrupt courtesans and politicians into a paradise of humanity. That victim is able to see another victim, the prophet, and finds the resources to act, looking for clothes in the chaos of a court that could be placed under his armpits, so as not to injure them.

Perhaps that Ethiopian man had already known Jeremiah, perhaps he hadn’t. This particular detail of the story remains unknown, but this lack of knowledge reminds us of something very important: proximity is not friendship. You don't need to meet someone personally in order to feel them your neighbour. That Samaritan of the Gospel of Luke, who was a stranger just like the Ethiopian of Jeremiah, didn't know the man attacked by the robbers by name, but he lived that fraternal closeness that doesn't need to know names, documents or residence permit; he didn't know or wanted to know if that man was on the road because he was running from a conflict, if he was innocent or guilty, or if he was “simply” an economic migrant. He was a man, he was a victim. Friendship must know the name of the other, fraternity does not have to; friendship needs frequent meetings, contacts, intimacy; fraternity does not. The man on the way to Jericho and Jeremiah, they were human beings, and they were victims. There is no need for anything else to stop in front of an injured person, help them, take them to an inn, take care of them and leave some money with the innkeeper. The Samaritan and the Ethiopian knew how to be neighbours without being close - for their respective geography, clan, social status, ethnicity, religion. Proximity without the necessity of closeness is one of the greatest moral achievements of humanity, which is killed every day but also resurrected every day. In our suburbs, in the refugee camps, where - next to the many Zedekiahs and adulating court officials - we still meet so many Ethiopians with eyes capable of seeing other victims, recognizing them because they have the same smell: the human smell, the finest smell of the earth; they look for clothes in the cupboards to lift up men and women like themselves from the mud.

In the time of ruins and deportations, amidst the great pain of extreme violence, some new episodes of proximity and, sometimes, fraternity are also born. But in order to find it, we have to look for it among the victims and among the rejected, who sometimes, shielded by their pain, managed to save their ability to feel the pain of others in their bowels, and then to act. The first poverty, an immense poverty, which is often generated by power and wealth, is the weakening of that muscle of the heart that we call mercy, which first prevents us from seeing the victims, then from truly feeling them brothers and sisters, and finally from acting. And when this moral muscle is weakened in human life, we return to Cain, even when we are satiated and live comfortably in our courts, surrounded by modern servants and eunuchs. In our world there is a growing poverty of this integral humanity, which unfortunately cannot be measured by any indicator of well-being, because they do not want to measure it; and so we plunge into a deepening sea of dehumanization, perhaps in the different mud of thermal baths and massage rooms; and maybe we also believe that the poor are no longer there just because we have been so impoverished in our souls that we are no longer able to see them, listen to them and save them from the mud.

That Ethiopian eunuch had in himself all the humanity present in that decadent and corrupt palace. And so he saved a prophet, and in him he continues to save us when, thanks to the Bible, we discover him and meet him again today, and we thank him. That eunuch saw and saved the prophet because he had remained an integral man, intact in the soul even if mutilated in the body. With body mutilations one can remain entirely and authentically human; the mutilations and the self-mutilation of the soul are the more serious cases, because the first part removed is precisely our spiritual ability to see ourselves being amputated. Jeremiah prophesied a blessing for the Ethiopian Ebed-Melek, he said words of salvation to him: “the word of the Lord came to him (Jeremiah): »Go and tell Ebed-Melek the Cushite, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am about to fulfil my words against this city... But I will rescue you on that day, declares the Lord; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in me, declares the Lord’«” (39:15-18). This is a sublime form of reciprocity, where a prophet’s words of blessing and salvation become a response to a liberation from the mud.

Another Ethiopian, on another day, while reading another prophet, experienced another encounter. And he was the first non-Jewish to be baptized by the apostles: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, »Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.« So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch ... [who] on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet” (Acts 8:26-28). The first one whom the apostle met after a theophany, after an angel's word was one of the lasts ones, again, another Ethiopian, another eunuch. All theophanies in the Bible are beautiful, but the stories of angels who become friends of the poor are splendid: the one that appeared to Hagar, the slave woman expelled into the desert by the jealous mistress, the one that made a foreign eunuch the sign of a finally universal salvation. We don't know if Luke wanted to tell us about the baptism of that Ethiopian in order to also remind us of the other, distant Ethiopian saviour of the prophet. But we can think and hope for it, it would not be foreign in a Bible full of improbable reciprocity and fraternity in space and time. But we can and we want to think that after listening to the words of Jeremiah, also that first Ethiopian eunuch "went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:39).

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