Prophecy is history / 21 - No one can force God to be less human than the best fathers and mothers
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 27/10/2019
«A purely sacrificial theory of the gospels must be based on the epistle to the Jews. But the Epistle does not succeed, I believe, in grasping the true singularity of Christ's passion, and the absolute specificity of Christianity remains veiled in shadows»
René Girard, The scapegoat
The relationship between religion and violence is a great theme of the Bible and of life, which touches on extremely topical subjects such as meritocracy and the theology of atonement.
The ideology of merit is also an ideology of demerit, the systems that reward the deserving must by definition also punish those who are undeserving or with no merit, and every merit-based creed is also fundamentally a demerit-phobia. Without punishing those who deserve to be punished, it is impossible to reward those who have earned the reward. But since we are much more capable of finding faults (in others) than merits, meritocratic systems tend to overflow with penalties and punishment, because at the base of every merit system there is a deep anthropological pessimism, even when masked by beautiful words about virtues and awards. Because by rewarding only the "winners" and those who reach the summit of the mountain (meritocracy is hierarchical and positional by default), we forget that we are all deserving in different ways, that every person can have, and has, a way of excellence that cannot and must not be compared hierarchically with those of others nor measured with the same unique indicators for all.
It is certainly no coincidence that the growth of the culture of business, the first vehicle of meritocracy, is today accompanied by a new season of justicialism and harsher penalties. «And Elisha the prophet called one of the children of the prophets, and said unto him, Gird up thy loins, and take this box of oil in thine hand, and go to Ramothgilead: And when thou comest thither, look out there Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat (…) Then take the box of oil, and pour it on his head, and say, Thus saith the Lord, I have anointed thee king over Israel"» (2 Kings 9,1-3).
Joram reigned over Israel. Elisha recognizes and legitimizes an insurrection, and consecrates and encourages what we would call a coup d'état today, which the text presents as a Yahwist and anti-idolatrous religious reform. The saga of Jehu, marked by scenes of brutal violence, forces us to reflect on a great theme that runs through the whole Bible: the relationship between religion and violence; and the paradox of a God who seems to use the violence of men to carry out his plan of salvation. In order to fulfil one of Elijah’s prophecies (1 Kings 19,16), Elisha sends his disciple to consecrate one of Israel's most cynical and bloodthirsty kings, giving his blessing to a man who, in order to restore the purity of the worship of YHWH in Israel, is prepared to stain himself with monstrous crimes, in "the name of the Lord". The radical need for divine justice that marks the whole Bible - YHWH is a different and true God because for he is just - brings with it a symmetrical law of retaliation where everyone receives what they deserve, for better or for worse. God is just because he rewards the good and punishes the bad.
This is how men began to form that sense of justice which eventually led to the writing of codes and constitutions that went on to supersede the humanity in many of the laws written in the Bible and in other sacred books. The Bible has been used to justify the holy and genocidal wars of infidels and idolaters, there are many biblical pages that lend themselves perfectly to this end. And so at the end of the Jehu saga we read: «The Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation”» (2 Kings 10,30). Doing what is right in my eyes: that is, the murder of Joram, of Ahaziah king of Judah, of Queen Jezebel, the seventy beheaded children of Ahab, the extermination of all the relatives of Ahaziah, of all the faithful in Joram in Samaria, of all the faithful of Baal.
There are two other themes that intersect these terrible chapters: shalom and erroneous loyalty. In chapter nine, the word shalom appears repeatedly. When Jehu leaves to visit King Joram, who at that time was in Israel to get treatment for his wounds. As soon as the king sees him, he asks him: «Have you come in peace, Jehu?» That is: Jehu, do you bring shalom? Jehu answered him «How can there be peace, as long as all the idolatry and witchcraft of your mother Jezebel abound?» (2 Kings 9,22). What was shalom in biblical culture? In Hebrew shalom is a very rich and meaningful word. The first and most immediate meaning is peace, well-being, prosperity, good. But the word also refers to balance, to re-establishing a broken order, so that some variants (shulam and meshulam) also recall the act of paying. Peace and paying have a common root. Paying comes from pacifying, from making peace, bringing quiet - the receipt is the act that attests that the creditor has been fully satisfied. Indeed, shalom incorporates an idea of justice as repairing, as the repayment and extinction of a debt and its inherit imbalance. There can be no shalom as long as one side feels an imbalance to his or her disadvantage. That is why contracts, the extinctions of debts, are signed with a handshake of peace, of shalom.
The blood stained story of Jehu runs along this line and meaning of shalom: he was chosen by YHWH and his prophets to restore balance in Israel, to make the idolatrous kings and their families "pay" for their sins, and hence do shalom. To the question of shalom, Jehu must answer: how can there be shalom as long as the king's mother, Jezebel, continues her idolatry? To have shalom we need to restore the balance broken by religious corruption. It is this shalom of the economic-retributive religion that characterizes many biblical pages: debts and credits, payments and collections, put on record and then registered as settled by an accountant God who records everything, for more than a thousand generations. And it is within this logic that we need to read the grim episode of the assassination of Queen Jezebel as well. We already met her before in the episode about her persecution of the prophets of YHWH and about the vineyard of Naboth. It is no coincidence that, after having killed Joram with an arrow, Jehu orders his soldier: «Lift him up and throw him into the field that belonged to Naboth the Jezreelite» (2 Kings 9,25). Justice to Naboth is done, shalom is restored. In order for Naboth to have justice a price needs to be paid, which can only be in the shape of more blood, this time flowing in the opposite direction. The same goes for the execution of Queen Jezebel, the true author of that crime: «Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window (…) Jehu looked up at the window and called out, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked down at him. “Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot» (2 Kings 9,30-33). Naboth's bloodshed is appeased (shalom) by the blood of the queen who had had him unjustly killed. As if, today or in the past, the blood of an unjust man could wash away the one spilled by an innocent.
This episode, sad and full of pietas - the detail regarding the queen, no longer young, who applies make-up to prepare for the meeting that she knows to be decisive, as if she wanted to arrive still beautiful and pleasing to the appointment with death, is touching: we see it many times, in homes and hospitals, and they are always very human images -, enables us enter, albeit quickly, into the other theme of this narrative cycle: erroneous loyalty. Those two or three courtiers realise that the political winds are changing. They are the very image of the sycophant collaborators, who have no qualms about throwing the queen out of the window, and making their horses trample on who they had been flattering up to mere seconds before. The same theme returns in Jehu’s other tremendous gesture. «Now there were in Samaria seventy sons of the house of Ahab. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria: to the officials of Jezreel, to the elders and to the guardians of Ahab’s children» (2 Kings 10,1). In the second letter, Jehu wrote: «If you are on my side and will obey me, take the heads of your master’s sons and come to me in Jezreel by this time tomorrow» (2 Kings 10,6). The Hebrew word for "chief" is the same word that used for "head". In their uncertainty, instead of interpreting the words in the most human way and bringing those seventy child princes to the new king, those chiefs of Samaria chose to do the opposite «When the letter arrived, these men took the princes and slaughtered all seventy of them. They put their heads in baskets and sent them to Jehu in Jezreel» (2 Kings 10,7). Another example of a rotten sort of loyalty: to please their new cruel ruler, his words are interpreted in their cruellest sense. This excess in malice is seen as a sign of loyalty and devotion, with the hope of creating a debt of gratitude within him to be used to their benefit - even when he seems to be acting for the benefit of his boss, a sycophant really always acts in his own interest. But Jehu does not understand this excessive and extreme gesture of theirs: "Who killed all these?" (2 Kings 10,9). Sycophants are not even truly valued by the leaders they worship; they use and make use of them, but they neither love nor value them.
Men have always tried to associate God with their economic calculations, with their shalom of costs and rewards. He has been called the "Lord of armies" many times, and we continue to call him that, even when that god no longer lives in heaven but has just become a person or idea. We have an immeasurable need for symmetry, for penalties that can help to recreate the broken order. We need it, but our need has produced theologies and religions that have forced God to become less human than the best men and women. One day, however, that same biblical humanism generated a different man, who taught us a different kind of shalom, no longer linked to payments and costs, a kingdom where peace is not born out of balance but of imbalance, where those who are wronged do not seek vengeance but instead forgive seventy seven times over, where love does not compensate debts and credits but always creates new ones. A different shalom, a different kingdom, a different agape-love. We, however, did everything we could to bring them back into the realm and rules of our balances and payments, to the point of recounting that his death was the price paid by that different Son to a Father who could only be satisfied by that precious blood, as only the blood of a child can be. Theologies of atonement that have forgotten that on earth no father wants the blood of his children, and that heaven is at least as beautiful a place as earth if the heavenly father is no less good than we are. When Jesus allowed us to call God "Our Father" he was also telling us that in order to understand and know God we must learn to look at our mothers and fathers.
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