The Letter Not to Be Read

Greater than Guilt/22 - Faces to be recognized and providential ignorance

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 17/06/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 22 rid“Emma let the paper fall. Her first sentiment was indisposition in her stomach and knees; then she felt blind guilt, unreality, cold, fear; then she wanted it to be the next day already. She understood right afterward that this wish was useless because her father’s death was the only thing that had happened in the world and that would keep happening without end.”

J.L. Borges Emma Zunz (English translation by Hadi Deeb)

The name of the other is always a plural and symphonic word. To recognize a person, therefore, we must see and welcome their rich multiplicity. The first injury inflicted on the victim is the denial of at least one face of their personality. We see Myriam arriving from the sea with a veil on her head and we call her "Muslim". We do not see that she has a boyfriend, that she is a nurse, that she is a vegetarian, a pacifist, that she paints in her free time and loves poetry. Thus we begin to dishonour her dignity; we do not get to know her because we do not recognize her. Then we see Giovanna wearing a different veil, and we call her a "nun". We don’t care that she is a Bible scholar and that before entering the convent she was a professor of history, or that she plays the piano very well and is the president of an NGO. And so we only see the nun and stop her from telling us that she is also a woman. Every time a person is reduced to a single dimension we are entering into a story of violence.

“It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful” (2 Samuel 11:2). The beginning of this fascinating story, among the most tremendous in the Bible, is dominated by the adjective beautiful. The woman is noticed by the king for her beauty, which for David becomes the only dimension that counts.

David, who probably already knew that woman - because she was the wife of one of his officers - sees her, looks at her, and does not recognize her: “And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, »Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?«” (11:3) And he decides to consume that beautiful thing. David’s sin - and ours - does not begin when he is struck by that great beauty, not even when he is overwhelmed in his bowels. Sin is committed when he decides to send his servants to bring her to him. A span of time passes between David's feelings and his choice, enough to make that action an intentional and therefore responsible choice. His act is not a sudden outburst of feelings. David decides to succumb to the temptation. The moral problem of temptations (a great word, totally forgotten today) does not lie in their existence or in feeling them in the flesh and in the heart. Ethical responsibility begins when we decide what to do with the "tempting material" we find ourselves in. David decides to eat the forbidden fruit, and that’s where he sins.

The text says nothing about how Bathsheba reacted when she was brought to David. We don't know if she screamed, if she suffered violence or if she consented instead - even if there have been a number of commentators insinuating Bathsheba’s complicity in her bathing where she could be seen: blaming the victims and the women to make them (co-)responsible for their misfortune is an ancient strategy to absolve the executioners.
Davide "takes" the woman as he "takes" any good to be consumed to meet his needs. Knowing that Bathsheba was a married woman had no effect on his behaviour. The real powerful are like this: they immediately transform desires into actions, because they do not see obstacles between wanting and obtaining something. The real temptation of the powerful is to feel omnipotent - but it is also in this delirium of omnipotence that their decline begins. But "prices" come into play when some complications arise after the events: “I am pregnant,” was Bathsheba’s message sent to David (11:5).

Unlike cars and watches, humans are living things. The powerful can abuse and use them, and they often do. But life is a very serious thing, and it has its own mysterious freedom and uncontrollability. Sins touch and hurt living organisms, which are therefore very fragile and at the same time very strong. The powerful, and often we too, when we do harm to someone whom we do not recognize and so humiliate, whom we use as a consumer product, we would like that after the fire of desire has consumed its victims there remain no trace of those desires and wrong actions. But life is greater than the desires of the powerful, even those of kings. And it goes on, it generates its fruits, it has its natural course. This force of life is often the only defence of the poor, who have only their body and their being alive to speak for them. That's why the only words the text puts on Bathsheba's lips in this tremendous scene is "I'm pregnant": the only effective words she can say.

The poor say that they can only feel alive by talking with their bodies, with their wounds, with the children in women’s wombs. Life and the body know a mysterious kind of freedom, which sometimes succeeds in obtaining obedience even from the powerful. Bathsheba's womb made David aware that this "beautiful" thing was a person, and therefore she was alive. And the Bible knows that the great temptation we feel when facing a life that does not obey our will to dominate is to kill it.

Just like many times before when he was in trouble, David proves brilliant again in immediately looking for escape routes. The first is the most obvious and simple, very common in similar stories: “So David sent word to Joab, »Send me Uriah the Hittite.« (...) Then David said to Uriah, »Go down to your house and wash your feet [genitals].«” (11:6-8). David tries to ‘regularise’ Bathsheba's pregnancy with an ex-post conjugal date. But here's a second unexpected turn of events that sends that cover plan into crisis: “But Uriah slept at the door of the king's house ...and did not go down to his house” (11:9). David insists, and so he investigates the reasons for that strange no-return home: “Uriah said to David, »The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths (...) Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing«” (11:11-12).

Uriah's fidelity to David becomes the king's main problem. Genuine fidelity has a mechanism of self-protection against its manipulation. We cannot use the fidelity of the people with whom we live to protect virtues and also to hide sins. This is precisely where the difference lies between true fidelity and adulating false fidelity. True fidelity is not double-faced. A true friend will never cover our conjugal betrayals, and if they do then they are beginning to betray us, becoming a ‘friend’ who protects our vices, no longer our virtues. In this episode Uriah the Hittite, a second-generation immigrant (Uriah is a beautiful Jewish name meaning “YHWH is my light”) who works in the service of a people that is not his own, meets his sad fate for loyal faithfulness to a foreign king. His highest act of loyalty became the cause of his most disloyal death.

In fact, after his double failure of cover (11:13), “David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, »Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die«” (11:14-15). Here David's star goes out, it ceases to shine, and night falls upon Jerusalem. Just like Cain who strikes down his innocent and meek brother "in the fields", David, son of Abraham, kills a descendant of those Hittites who had sold the land to the Patriarch to bury his wife Sarah (Genesis 23) - thereby continuing the civil wars and the fratricides of the Bible, to remind us of our (and others’) vain attempts to cover them up.

Uriah goes to the battlefield with the dispatch of his execution in hand. It is overwhelming and tragic to imagine this soldier, a foreigner and a loyal subject, as he goes unaware of his death, with a message containing his sad destiny, written by the hand of the one to whom he had given loyalty and dedication. Uriah could have thought that the letter contained praise for his fidelity shown to the king - instead, it contained his condemnation. Perhaps she has looked at it with pride and emotion, imagining its content in his heart many times.

Many people, day by day, carry messages like Uriah, and just like him, they do not know the contents. We faithfully spend our lives in an enterprise, and one day there comes the action that we live as the culmination of our loyalty but it produces our dismissal, delivered to us in an envelope that we thought was our promotion. We publicly denounce mafia violence because of our loyalty to ourselves, our children and our institutions, and there begins an ordeal in the deepest vulnerable loneliness, written on the very back of the prize given for civil value. We pronounce an uncomfortable truth because we are loyal to a friend and there we lose them forever, their thank-you card turning into the farewell letter to us. We dedicate the best years of our lives to raising a son honestly, and the day when we finally offer him real freedom he uses it to go astray and get lost… we read the Gospel, we expect him for years to show up on the doorstep, but our son does not return. There are some letters like this that we have never opened, and it was only through this providential ignorance that have we were able to continue on the path from the king's palace to the battlefield. We, too, look at these letters proudly, we even feel moved... and then we continue to walk towards our destiny, almost always unknowingly. And like Uriah, we fight our last battles with the same loyalty as ever, and perhaps with an even greater enthusiasm, encouraged by the letter we have delivered.

The last act of the fidelity of Uriah the Hittite was not to open that letter, not to remove that seal, and fight his last battle proudly. It is not good to open all the letters that life places in our hands. The decisive ones, in particular, are not intended for us. We just have to deliver them, even if many have been written by and addressed to those who did not love us. The Bible has opened the letter carried by Uriah the Hittite, and now it is reading it out for us, to support our paths with the letters in our hands. And above all to tell us that there exists at least one letter written by someone who loves us, and it is the most important one. That letter is us, a living letter that, at the end of our journey, we will lay into good hands, without having read it along the way.

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