Greater than Guilt/18 - The executioners humiliate their victims by denying them the dignity of their name

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 20/05/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 18 rid“This I-Thou relation consists of placing oneself before an outside being, i.e. one who is radically other, and in recognizing that being as such. This recognition of alterity does not consist in forming an idea of alterity. (...) It is not a question of thinking the other person, or of thinking him or her as other - but of addressing that person as a Thou.

Emanuel Lévinas Proper Names (English translation by Michael B. Smith)

Dialogue is the thread that weaves our good and fruitful social relationships. Listening and saying, silence and words, phrases and gestures are the grammar of the reciprocal crossing (dia) of the word (logos). Dialogue is letting ourselves be traversed by the other while asking their permission to be traversed by our word. Crossing is a verb of motion that evokes time and space, places, names, flesh; it is always a creation of something new.

Many possible and necessary dialogues, initiated with commitment and good will, fail to come to life because when the word touches the flesh and begins to make a mark on it, the perception of pain blocks the reciprocal crossing. We almost always stop on the threshold of true dialogue, where its semi-finished products are found - confrontation, gentlemen’s agreement, compromise... At the origin of Western civilization we find a splendid and immense thesis, which is also a declaration of love that man makes to himself: we are beings capable of logos, words, discourse, dialogue, and therefore of relationships. We are dialogical. Biblical humanism then told us that Adam is also capable of dialogue with God, that we can have a relationship with the absolute, we can talk with YHWH. Man is a ‘friend of God’ (Abraham), he speaks to us ‘mouth to mouth’ (Moses), because not only man but also the biblical God is capable of dialogue. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hagar, Hannah and Mary are shown to us as people guided by a voice with whom they enter into dialogue. Dialogue is always mutual learning; it is a con-creation. So if it is true that humanity has learned and is still learning a great deal in the dialogue with God, it must also be true that God has learned and continues to learn something in the dialogue with men and women. He has learned and is learning what the world, pain and love really is, while we improve that world through our work, as we fall in love, suffer, remain faithful or become unfaithful, die and rise again many times. By resurrecting his son God has changed human history forever, and we know that he changes because he cannot remain indifferent when he witnesses our resurrections and those of our children.

David is also a man who dialogues with God: “After this David inquired of the Lord, »Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?« And the Lord said to him, »Go up.« David said, »To which shall I go up?« And he said, »To Hebron.« So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail” (2 Samuel 2:1-2). David asks questions to God, who answers them. We do not know how David dialogued with YHWH. But we would be foolish to allow the literary genre to devour the beauty and truth of those distant dialogues. David is anointed king in Hebron: “And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah” (2:4). David becomes a regional king, and much of Israel is still in the hands of Saul’s family. Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, a person of great charisma and power, had ensured that Ish-bosheth, one of the sons of Saul, became king: “Ish-bosheth, Saul's son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David” (2:10).

Then David reaches the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had worthily buried Saul: “David sent messengers to the men of Jabesh-gilead and said to them, »May you be blessed by the Lord, because you showed this loyalty to Saul your lord and buried him. Now may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you. And I will do good to you because you have done this thing«” (2:5-6).

Gratitude is doubly transitive: those people were once grateful to Saul, now David is grateful to them, and he prays to God that he, too, should recognise it, giving those citizens his “love and faithfulness”. Tomorrow our children will be grateful towards others and towards us if we are grateful towards others and towards our parents, because gratitude is the first inheritance that is transmitted from father to son. This form of horizontal transitivity (between individuals and between generations) is the luminous side of a law of vertical retribution which crosses the Bible (our misfortunes and riches are God's punishments and rewards). Jesus tried to overcome it definitively - without succeeding, if we think that meritocracy is nothing but the secularization of that ancient theology.

These first chapters of the Second Book of Samuel tell us about a real civil and fratricidal war between David’s army and that of Saul’s dynasty. There are brutal murders, betrayals, vendettas, the main purpose of which is telling us that David, the new king, did not ascend to the throne either as a usurper or as a murderer of his enemies. His two main rivals (Ish-bosheth and Abner) are killed by David's men without his knowledge and against his will (chapters 3 and 4). In fact, as had happened with the death of Saul and Jonathan, David cries, fasts and observes mourning for both Ish-bosheth's and Abner’s death. The text describes an escalation of mimetic violence (René Girard), where retaliation and revenge become the new law. The civil war ended with David’s victory and his repeated anointing as king of all Israel, in Jerusalem, his new city and the capital of the kingdom.

Within the story of this civil war, we find some short but splendid narrative scenes that cannot leave us indifferent. The first has to do with Abner, the commander of the army, who had ‘taken’ one of Saul’s concubines for himself. Ish-bosheth, the new king says to him, “Why have you gone in to my father's concubine?” And Abner gives him an answer that makes us immediately enter into a terrible dimension of power of all times: “Am I a dog's head of Judah? To this day I keep showing steadfast love to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David. And yet you charge me today with a fault concerning a woman” (3:8). It’s dreadful. Three thousand years have passed, but we find this phrase still alive and present, in all its infinite violence, in the places of male power, where relations with women are too often considered irrelevant ‘issues’, nonsense, negligible ‘things’ when compared to the serious things of politics, economy and power. The Bible, however, looks at that woman, gives her a name, and thus recognizes her. That woman is called Rizpah. It is the Bible to call her by name, not Abner, for whom she is only a ‘thing’ to ‘take’, or the king who calls her ‘a concubine’. In Genesis it is not Sarah who tells us the name of the maidservant and her son that she drove away into the desert: it is the biblical author who tells us that they were called 'Hagar' and 'Ishmael'. The powerful and the executioners begin to humiliate their victims by denying them the dignity of their name, because calling them by name would mean recognising them as people. We will find it again in chapter 21, in one of the most dramatic and human episodes of all ancient literature.

A second scene is set within Abner's offer of alliance/treason to David, promising to hand over all of Israel to him. As a pre-condition for alliance with him, David tells Abner: “Give me my wife Michal, for whom I paid the bridal price of a hundred foreskins of the Philistines” (3:14). We don't know why David is asking Michal, his first wife, the daughter of Saul back. We only know that after David's escape, her father gave Michal to another husband: Paltiel. David's request was granted, and the king "sent and took her from her husband Paltiel" (3:15). Her husband's reaction is very impressive: “her husband went with her, weeping after her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, »Go, return.« And he returned” (3:14-16). The Bible manages to show us this husband who follows, on foot and in tears, his wife's caravan, with the same despair as following the cart carrying a wife's coffin. And with this it wants to tell us something about the pitiful condition of a man, a male, a husband, who, even if only for a moment, lessens the ruthlessness of the actions of the other males in these stories - including David.

Last but not least, we can find a third detail in the chapter describing the death of King Ish-bosheth: “Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled, and as she fled in her haste, he fell and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth” (4:4). This tells us something more about Jonathan, David's friend, and how great and collective was the pain for his death. A five-year-old crippled child in whom we see the many children crippled by wars that still, after three thousand years, continue to maim especially children, to humiliate women, who even when they manage to escape with their children in their arms are not always able to protect them from the terrible physical effects of the malice of adults.

The writer could not spare us the narration of the violence of that civil war. He could have omitted these small narrative details, he could have avoided talking about Rizpah and Paltiel - as the Books of Chronicles which tell the same episodes, but without Rizpah, Paltiel or Mephibosheth. Instead, that ancient writer wanted to leave them there, gave us their names, and thus erected new steles (memorial stones) in memory of the innocent victims of all violence.

The Bible is a wonderful book for many reasons, but especially because it is a treasure chest that safeguards the tears of the poor and discarded, often hidden in the interstices of the great stories, almost always absent from the readings in our liturgies. And perhaps they should remain hidden, too, because the pain of victims and children is too precious and must remain secret, so as to protect it.

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