The Register of Invisible Pain

Greater than Guilt/23 - Human History is Not God’s Toy

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/06/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 23 rid“ we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

To be innocent it is not enough not to be seen. The great ancient civilizations generated their laws and ethical norms under the gaze of their highest eyes. Today, enchanted by the ethics of the contract, we have given up this gaze "from above", replacing it with millions of eyes that continuously control and spy on us "from below". But when we introduce non-human eyes that are lower than ours into our world, they are either the eyes of idols or those of our artefacts, which do not know how to show us the angels and paradise. That higher and different gaze said, among other things, that the evil and sins we commit do operate even when they remain secret.

That’s how some civilizations, and among them the western one, overcame the archaic ethics of shame, where rewards and punishments were all external to the individual. This high and deep gaze also permeates the entire Bible, filling its landscape and marking the horizon of its humanism. It also tells us that our actions can remain hidden, but they cannot be cancelled, because life is a tremendously serious thing. Without feeling the presence of a gaze that sees us "in secret", every moral is imperfect and exposed to the abuses of the powerful, who have many more secret rooms than the poor.

Uriah the Hittite was killed in the battlefield, because King David hoped to wipe out his adultery by eliminating the husband of the beautiful woman whom he had "taken", adding her to the community of his wives and concubines: “When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house” (2 Samuel 11:26-27). The text of Samuel’s book does not tell us if Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, knew David's plan or if she had at least guessed it - the perverse plans of their men does not escape the talent of women, even if they do not always tell us, perhaps because of too much pain. There is an invisible catalogue on earth that preserves the infinite crimes that have never made it to the history books or the minutes of the courts. Live fragments of this invisible but very real archive are hidden in the hearts of the many women who have been the object or spectators of these secret crimes. When David's crime already seemed archived and forgotten, YHWH reopens the case for us: “And the Lord sent Nathan to David” (12:1). In the prophet's words we get to know a literary genre - the parable - that will be a dominant and beautiful feature of the Gospels: “He came to him and said to him, »There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him«” (12:1-4).

It is a wonderful parable, full of humanity and pathos, where the moral tension of the story clearly brings out the victim and the executioner, and generates condemnation for the wicked behaviour of the rich man in the listener. David also enters the parable, perfectly performing the empathic exercise that Nathan offers him: “Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, »As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold«” (12:5-6). This is an episode that reveals to us the extraordinary power of the narrative, especially the great and prophetic one. Literature, art, music, fairy tales and films have the ability to form and train our moral muscles through our imagination and empathy. When we actually read a novel or go to the cinema, we somehow repeat the encounter between Nathan and David. Like David, we continue to commit crimes and sins but then, once we are ‘inside’ a book or a film, we condemn the executioners of the stories we relive. We side with the victims, we stigmatise their murderers and we do not identify with the cursed part of history. Perhaps because there is a place deep inside us that neither loves nor accepts the ugly things we do. It wants to forget them, and perhaps, for the duration of a novel or a film, it can really forget them - who knows if art is not also a gift from heaven to get us in tune with the most beautiful soul of our heart, to put us in touch with that "image and likeness of Elohim" that Cain the fratricidal cannot erase. Perhaps the joy of paradise that we can only experience when looking at certain works of art comes from the contact with Adam who lives in our Eden and feeds off the tree of life. Then we eat the forbidden fruit, we kill Abel and a "young man for wounding me" (Lamech), but that call of the inner Adam remains alive and strong, before and after our acts of wickedness which, almost always, are innocent. It's only the perception of this profound innocence that makes us really move while we watch a film about the pain of immigrants and their children, even if before the film we voted for a party that actually feeds that suffering, and we continue to vote for it after the film. It makes us indignant about the adulteries of others, while we continue to repeat ours.

The dialogue between Nathan and David does not end here. At the end of the parable and after David's outrageous sentence, Nathan says one of the most beautiful and tremendous phrases of the entire Bible: “You are the man!” (12:7) And here we should stop, so as not to miss any of its lacerating beauty. And also to feel the pain in our flesh for not having a prophet with us after our films to tell us "you are the man", and in telling that to offer us a chance to rise again. Only a true prophet can say such a phrase to a man of power. Nathan knew well that revealing to the king that he knew of his crime could lead to his elimination. But he did not give up on doing his job, and so he gave David the only good possibility that was left for him: “David said to Nathan, »I have sinned against the Lord«” (12:13). David's salvation in the Bible also depends on his reaction in the face of Nathan's parable. We can hope not to lose our soul until, after our crimes and sins, our heart is still greater than our faults - prisons are full of murderers who have saved this innocence in themselves. Hope dies when we adapt our feelings and our morals to our wicked actions, when we convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong with adultery, lies or violence. Nathan continues: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (12:13). Forgiveness takes effect on David (he will not die). But not even God's forgiveness can prevent David's criminal action from producing its effects: “the sword shall never depart from your house... the child who is born to you shall die” (12:10, 14).

This tremendous announcement of the death of the child born of adultery incorporates many messages. Among these, there is retributive theology, too, which is very much present in the Old and New Testaments. It reads that innocent death as the "price" that David had to pay to God to obtain his forgiveness. We shall leave these messages to the lovers of the commercial theologies of yesterday and today, and instead work to find meanings measuring up to men, children, and God. Not every page of the Bible can be inscribed in the book of life, but many could be if we read it without the moralistic concern to defend God (who does not need our defence), and instead try to defend men and victims - the Bible has an extreme need of non-adulator readers who are able to free it from the ideology of its editor and from the many other ideologies that have been accumulated on the text over the millennia. The biblical word is an excess to the literary text that contains it, and to remain alive it needs our honest work. Because if it is true that we need God's gaze, his word also needs ours.

With that innocent death and with the prophecy of the sword on David's house, the Bible also tells us the tremendous seriousness and infinite value of our actions and words, which are not vanitas and wind because they are alive and therefore preserve the signs with which we engrave them. There is also the infinite pain of the condemnation to death of this anonymous child within the dignity and truth of human actions that the Bible has kept for us, and has done so at a very high price. If God's forgiveness to David had cancelled all the consequences of his crime, biblical humanism would have lost a degree of freedom, and would have distanced itself from our true life, where the wounds of yesterday continue to condition our life today and tomorrow. One day the biblical word became flesh in a shoot of the same trunk of David because, differently but truly, it had already become flesh many other times, within the pains and loves of the people of Israel - and it continues to become flesh in our pains and loves. One day, when I am older, I will be able to forgive, if I manage to, those who killed my father, but this forgiveness does not cancel the pain and consequences of having grown up without a father, nor can it fill the void in the heart of my mother, which is infinite. I can forgive you, and I really do, because you have betrayed the pact that tied us together in society, but no one can wipe out the pain caused to the workers who lost their jobs because of your betrayal. Nobody - not even God, the Bible tells us. Because if God exercised his omnipotence to erase not only our guilt but also the effects of our actions, we would never come out of films and novels, and confuse them with life. History is not God's toy, it is not a device that he can dismantle and reassemble at will. Only idols can do these operations well, because they do not care about our freedom and dignity. The resurrected body preserves the wounds of the passion, and will preserve them forever, because those wounds were real. Real and living like ours, which remain forever inscribed in our resurrections.

download pdf article in pdf

This website uses “technical cookies”, including third parties cookies, which are necessary to optimise your browsing experience. By closing this banner, or by continuing to navigate this site, you are agreeing to our cookies policy. The further information document describes how to deactivate the cookies.