The Poison of False Mercy

A Man Named Job/9 - Through the eyes of the poor, beyond the night of man and God

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 10/05/2015

logo Giobbe"I'm a wounded man. And I'd like to leave, pity, / And finally reach a place / Where a man who is alone / With himself will be heard. / (...) Show us a hint of justice. / What is Your law? / Dash my wretched passions / Release me from anxiety. /I am tired of my voiceless screams."

Giuseppe Ungaretti, Pity (La pietà - English translation: Diego Bastianutti)

Each generation produces its own gap between the new and difficult questions of the victims and the insufficient answers of Job's friends. Sometimes this gap becomes a loophole that we observe trying to see a broader human horizon and a higher sky. Many other times, the space of this gap is denied and cancelled, erasing the painful but fruitful questions of the poor. To hope to meet "Job and his brothers" we should simply learn to live in this inevitable vacuum, by listening quietly. There may flourish a new type of solidarity with our time and perhaps, finally, fraternity.

Seeing the obstinacy with which Job declares himself innocent and denies the "retributive" theology of his friends, in his second attack on Job, Eliphaz the Temanite abandons the abstract reasoning (if you suffer you must be sinful and evil), and comes to accuse him of some specific, concrete, historical serious crimes, attributing the worst deeds to him: "...you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. (You were like) "The man with power ... You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed." (22, 6-9). But Eliphaz is not yet satisfied, and he accuses Job of having committed these crimes "for nothing" (22,6), for no reason, 'just because'. This gratuitousness is the opposite of the true one of Job, this is what Satan had made the object of his bet with God (“Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1,9). Reality is completely overturned: Job who is righteous “for nothing”, quite freely, is now accused of being a powerful evil capable of malice, which is an accusation worse than that of Satan - who, in fact, only challenged the gratuitousness of Job, not his righteousness.

And so, continuing his inquisition, Eliphaz comes to evoke even the perverse condition of humanity before the flood (22,14-20). Job as Lamech. Job as Cain.

Eliphaz knows that Job has ever committed these heinous crimes. We know (from the Prologue of the book) that Job was a righteous and honest man, the most righteous man on earth (“there is none like him on the earth”: (2,3). Like Noah, the saviour of mankind from the flood. Eliphaz and his other friends knew all this, too. Yet they overturn reality completely. Why?

Here we are facing a perfect description of what an ideology is. When a person, a community, an organization or a school of thought is captured by ideology (which, lest we forget, is always idolatry: they worship fetishes manufactured by their own "hands"), it means not only to deny evidence, but, almost always, to invent facts, stories and words. In the beginning, the inventor of this virtual reality is still able to distinguish what's invented from what's real; but soon comes the time when the same inventors are starting to believe in the reality they have created. The strongest point of ideology is this capacity to invent a different reality and then believe in their own inventions. This is what makes it irrefutable and invincible at the level of discourse and dialogue - Job shows it to us. Stories, heroes and victims are built artificially and one day they leave the realm of fiction and become real for those who produced them. Thus the person made ill by ideology actually lives in another world, sees other things and lives in a parallel reality. History presents a series of ideological monsters to us who end up devouring real people and almost always their own authors, too. Ideological thought is always presented as a progressive departure from the ambivalent reality of everyone's real life to enter another different, simpler one, with perfect answers to all questions.

Job, however, is the anti-ideologist, because all his efforts are directed at remaining anchored to his own truth and land, to avoid that he, too, should fall into an ideology which his friends consistently and tenaciously propose to him as a way out from the black hole that he has fallen in.

What is tremendous and wonderful in the dialogues of Job is his stubbornness in not accepting even the mercy of God that is systematically reintroduced by his friends (“If you return to the Almighty you will be built up”: 22,23), because he feels that he would not meet God, but only an ideology, an idol. Even mercy needs to have truth. He who forgives a non-existing fault or a forged crime meant to elicit a request for forgiveness in the other person is not merciful. To accept this mercy would only mean entering the same ideology of those who propose it. The offers of mercy to forgive invented sins are common and subtle forms of domination of the powerful over the poor and the victims, of which history offers us a wide, sad range. Job did not seek or want this type of mercy, and he acted also on behalf of those before and after him; he had to do so. How many poor people, how many women have had to apologize for crimes they never committed, to beg pardon for sins they have never made, to shoulder faults instead of others who had to remain covered and "innocent". Job continues to cry out for them to keep their erased memory alive and to echo their choked cries. The cries of the innocent are not to be muted by false offers of mercy: the greatest act of mercy that we are asked to perform is to let them go on screaming, waiting for someone, or God, to listen to them and receive their cries. Perhaps there is no act of non-mercy that could be worse than that of those who do not let the poor scream, convincing them of their guilt. If it is true that there is no justice without mercy, then Job tells us that mercy without justice cannot be true, either. Every gift that's manipulated becomes a poison, and it poisons relations.

Job did not want the bargain of admitting his guilt, he only wants to get his full absolution, and the condemnation of God for his unjust behaviour towards himself and towards the many innocent in the world. Therefore, chapter after chapter he continues to ask for only one thing: to be able to meet God, on a par, and get an explanation of the injustices of the earth: "Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat!" (23,3).

Job - and here is the shocking greatness of this book - is looking for a face of God that is willing to admit his faults, and accept the possibility of having to lose at court against the justice of man. But can there be such a God? Is there an Elohim who is willing to accept getting into an argument with mankind, and then take the verdict of being guilty? "I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments" (23,4).

But Job cannot find the throne of God, he cannot see Elohim on this earth, nor can he surmise him arriving on the horizon: "Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him" (23,8-9). His is a night of the perfect God. He keeps looking for him, beyond the chatter of his friends. And so his honest night prepares a dawn for man. Skies that are too bright and clear inevitably end up darkening the humble, rocky and barren lands of the poor.

And at this point there comes a twist. Job uses the same images of sin and wickedness that Eliphaz had attributed to him (bread and water denied, widows, orphans, pledges, clothes ...), but he uses these to give us an image of the victims of the crimes of the powerful that is very real and very true: “Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert the poor go out to their toil, seeking game; the wasteland yields food for their children. They gather their fodder in the field, and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man. They lie all night naked, without clothing, and have no covering in the cold. ... hungry, they carry the sheaves; among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil; they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst" (24,5-11).

The poor work as wild donkeys: they carry sheaves of wheat on their shoulders for their masters and they themselves are starving, they press olives and grapes and they themselves are burning with thirst. The poor are forced to pawn their clothes to their creditors, and instead of getting it back for the night to cover themselves with, they are left naked in the streets (Exodus, 22,26). There are too many people who become atheists in the face of inadequate answers to their questions on injustice and evil in the world.

Eliphaz, with his theo-ideology, had invented a powerful and cruel Job who wanted to oppress the imaginary poor and commit crimes against them. Job, who is truly poor and innocent, looks at the same world of Eliphaz, but sees it differently. He places himself in solidarity with the victims, and says: “From out of the city the dying groan, and the soul of the wounded cries for help; yet God charges no one with wrong” (24,12). When we look at it from the dunghill of Job, the world cannot seem like the sight of some large, systematic and universal injustice. The poor continue to sleep at night without clothing to cover themselves, under the closed shutters of the windows of high fashion.

Job is starving to death, and right next to him his friends are philosophising about food. The temptation is becoming ever stronger to build new and increasingly sophisticated ideologies in order to silence the poor, not see them, persuade and convince them that they are only guilty and deserve their sad fate. Job continues his struggle, generation after generation. And he is eternally waiting for true answers in solidarity, not false mercy. By people, by us, and by God.

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