Being greater than evil

Being greater than evil

The mystery revealed /3 - Exile and wars will never end if we decide not to dream anymore.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 17/04/2022

"Simone Weil: «The lamb is somehow slaughtered in heaven before being slaughtered on earth. Who cuts his throat?». It is the ultimate question of Christianity - and no answer has been found."

Roberto Calasso, Under the eyes of the lamb (Sotto gli occhi dell’Agnello)

Daniel's refusal of food at the court of Babylon opens the way to important reflections on how to behave, intelligently while creating bonds, in a foreign land and with the powerful.

Our time and age loves and seeks happiness. This is also, why it does not understand the resurrection, and it does not understand Easter. As a reaction to past generations that placed it too far into heaven, after death, and that of our children, we seek our own happiness, on earth and during life. Schools, experts and classes that try to teach us techniques to achieve this keep multiplying. They mention Aristotle, Buddha; some of them even mention Christ. Then one day we finally open the Bible looking for happiness in its pages and all we meet is a wandering Aramean, a slave liberator who does not reach the Promised Land, prophets not listened to and persecuted, Job who on the dung heap who does not receive the answers he asked for from God, young people, who prefer to die in order not to lose their souls. And we encounter a different kind of prophet who promises bliss in places of non-happiness (poverty, tears, persecutions...) and who ends his life nailed to a cross, only to meet, inside a sepulchre, another unexpected joy, which was not meant for him but entirely and solely for others, entirely and solely for us.

(The Book of Daniel 1,8-10). Daniel and his companions were introduced to the court of Nebuchadnezzar to be educated in Babylonian culture. In a setting that so far had appeared calm, here we have our first crisis: In order not to "contaminate himself", Daniel does not wish to follow the court diet.

Daniel is immediately presented to us as capable of winning the favour of the king's chief of officials (eunuchs), a high court ruler. The text tells us that the "favour and compassion" that Daniel found with that man was "caused by God". Daniel was a pleasant and intelligent young man, but natural talent and individual commitment are not enough for mutual favour and compassion to come forth. There is also a need for an imponderable element; the desire to respond must be ignited in the other party and an encounter generated, and that is never the mere mechanical sum of two good wills. We know that this correspondence of feelings is a gift, which does not always happen despite all our commitment and, sometimes, all the commitment of others. Reciprocity is a third party that arises "between" you and me, which is not of our property: it simply happens, a gratuitous and free surplus. The Bible summarizes all this with a few very effective words: the favour and compassion that flourish in reciprocity are a gift from God, caused by God, asking for our gratitude. To remind us that we have stopped dreaming of God and forgotten the tongues of angels, that there is something divine in our relationships that make life wonderful.

Daniel's first story therefore shows us an exile populated not only by idolaters and ruthless kings, Babylon is also the land of a man who feels favour, sympathy and compassion for a deportee. Yesterday, today and always. Man is greater than the evil he generates and surrounds him, and no evil, not even in its most ruthless form, is absolute and total. In its interstices, good slips in like a flower - Who knows how many "officials" in the tremendum of our wars today feel sympathy, favour and compassion for a Daniel somewhere?! We are greater than our destiny and our evil structures. This story also offers another valuable suggestion to us. Exile, persecution, and prison become bearable places if we manage to win the sympathy of at least one friend who finds himself on the other side of the fence- as the extraordinary experience of the Vietnamese bishop Van Thuan also tells us.

The dialogue between the official and Daniel continues: «Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see."» (Daniel 1,11-13). The Bible also knows and praises cunning, since the time of Jacob-Israel. In Dante’s "Divine Comedy", Ulysses is not in Hell. Biblical humanism loves and appreciates those who use their intelligence to get out of dramatic situations. His humanism is not the humanism of a hero. We find few heroes in the Bible: its "heroes" are fragile, frightened men who seek solutions in the realm of the possible, who prefer an agreement to a head-on confrontation if it can save their lives and that of others. Thus, Daniel, instead of taking the path of confrontation that probably would have led him to the same martyrdom of Eleazar and his brothers (2 Maccabees, 6) finds a different and non-bloody solution that the Bible praises. Thus, he shows us another strategy for conflict resolution - the Bible knows more than one, starting with the one proposed by Abraham to his nephew Lot (Genesis 13). Like Joseph with the pharaoh, Daniel seeks a way that avoids confrontation with the foreign king. There is no single good way to resolve a crisis, and each time we have to decide, here and now, what we feel to be closest and most right to us, without using our "biblical page" to condemn the choices of those who use different pages. There is always a way that fights our ideologies by showing us more and more ways to achieve the same result.

The text, furthermore, does not tell us the reason for Daniel's refusal to eat, and scholars have indulged in various hypotheses. The most shared hypothesis is of a purely religious-cult related kind: Daniel rejects Babylonian food because it could have been cooked without respecting the dietary rules of the Law of Moses and/or because it could be food prepared with animals sacrificed to idols. In any case, what matters to the author of the book is the refusal of the king's food and the decisive element is Daniel's "no".

When a Christian reader encounters this refusal of food in order to "not to contaminate himself", he or she immediately turns to Saint Paul, to the episode narrated in the first letter to the Corinthians, where we find a story that seems to contain an opposite message to Daniel’s: «Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience» (1 Corinthians 10,25). Then there is the Antioch incident (Galatians 2), a decisive episode of the primitive Church, arising precisely from Paul’s different attitude (with respect to Peter and James) regarding the respect for the Jewish rules of food purity. The comparison between Paul and Daniel tells us something extremely important: fidelity to the same principle can lead to two opposite kinds of behaviour. The ethical-religious principle of Daniel and Paul is the same: fidelity to one's faith and conscience. This same principle, however, is translated in a mirror image. Daniel preserves a value by refusing the food of a pagan; Paul saves the value of his Christian faith by including pagans and contaminated food in the same table of agape. Had Paul imitated the form and letter of Daniel's account he would have betrayed the substance and spirit of his faith. In reality, within and outside religion, the temptation to make form and substance coincide, and therefore to betray today's truth, in the name of a true truth of yesterday being imitated today, is too strong. Like those false prophets, who contested the prophet Jeremiah, who advised his people to surrender before the Babylonian superpower, and did so in the name of the words of no-surrender spoken a century and a half earlier by Isaiah, during the resistance to the Assyrians. The intelligence of the Scriptures and of life lies almost entirely in this capacity for discernment.

However, there is also a second hypothesis, a minor one but no less interesting, which explains Daniel's refusal of food as a choice of not wanting to depend on the wealth and luxury of the king's court, a choice of poverty and essentiality to safeguard the autonomy of one’s own conscience and freedom. The Bible is well aware of these forms of control and capture through the offering of food (2 Samuel 9,7). It is not uncommon to prefer poverty to the comfort of the powerful, as a main way to save one's soul in a land of exile. Hence, that vegetarian and abstemious diet of Daniel and his friends could primarily have been an act of ethical resistance, other than also being a gesture linked to religious worship or to an ascetic discipline similar to that of the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35) or the Nazirites (Lamentations 4). Controlling one’s food intake is not just a matter of calories and health. It is so much more. It is autonomy, freedom, dignity, while losing control of one’s food consumption is losing control of an important piece of one’s consciousness and awareness of existence - today we should perhaps be able to have a better understanding of this than Daniel did.

Daniel's food experiment was successful: «So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days. At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead. To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds» (Daniel 1,14-16). The Book of Daniel is a constellation of dreams. Exile and persecution will end the day we start dreaming of a different future and if there still is at least one good prophet who interprets our dreams. Exile, on the other hand, will never end if we decide not to dream anymore, due to too much pain, or if someone has eliminated all the prophets.

Daniel, together with all the dreamers and prophets of the Old Testament, and together with the true prophets of ancient religions and wisdom, were there that night after the Saturday, in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea. The dream of dreams is also among the dreams not narrated by any book: a tomb that was finally empty. They were all there singing the great Psalm 3 in chorus: «Arise, O Lord». Rise because you must to rise again. Because if you do not resurrect all the absurd pain in the world it will just be an immense waste, an unbearable injustice, an ocean of despair that would swallow even you or God. Nobody could ever protest your death; Job's muck could not generate any happiness. If that tomb is not emptied, it is the universe that will become an infinite void: my God, please rise again.

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