He isn’t only the God of the strong

Greater than Guilt/30 - The last chapter often brings about a different time

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 12/08/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 30 rid“Moses then saw how God wrote the word ‘long-suffering’ in the Torah, and asked: »Does this mean that Thou hast patience with the pious?« But God answered: »Nay, with sinners also am I long-suffering.« »What!« exclaimed Moses, »Let the sinners perish!« God said no more.”

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (English translation by Paul Radin)

Even in the greatest stories, there comes a last chapter. Sometimes it is the most beautiful one, but it is always the distillate of the whole of life. But while in novels the good reader knows how to identify the moment when the story line suffers the last twist and is about to end, when we try to read the book that we are writing, we are almost never able to grasp the moment of the beginning of decline, and change. That’s because we simply love life and its words too much, and because we love illusions too much. And that’s why the last page often takes us by surprise, because we have been unable to insert it in the last chapter, which would have given it rhythm and meaning. We lose the plot of the story, and sometimes we get lost.

All this is particularly relevant and tragic when we are dealing with kings, leaders, especially charismatic leaders and founders of spiritual and ideal-driven communities and movements, that is, people who have a character of foundation and moral guidance for others. Here it is really crucial that the ‘king’ be able to understand when the time has come to ‘stop going down to the battlefield’, to enter a new dimension of individual and collective life. This is the age of the ‘safeguarding of the lamp’, when the community or the organization must - or should - ask its founder to become a living memory and sign of the charisma and the ideal, to put his person in second place so that the first place is given to the light that emanates from the lantern. The most important experience of a founder and their community is in fact becoming aware of the distinction between the light and the safeguarding of the light - which must be clear and explicit. In the course of life this distinction sometimes fades, and the community confuses enlightened reality (the founder) with the light and its source. So the calmness of the last chapter can be decisive for the future of the community, in order to do in the end what was not done during. However, when this phase does not arrive, or when it arrives too late, the king risks dying in battle and, which is even more serious, the light of the lantern is in danger of extinction with the death of those who originally lit it. Light can continue to illuminate after we are gone if we give ourselves and the community the gift of a last and different time. Because it is precisely in that mild and humble time of the safeguarding of the flame that a "king" says with his own flesh that he was not the light, but only its safe keeper.

“There was war again between the Philistines and Israel, and David went down together with his servants, and they fought against the Philistines. And David grew weary. And Ishbi-benob, one of the descendants of the giants... thought to kill David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him. Then David's men swore to him, »You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel«” (2 Samuel 21:15-17).

David is tired but goes down to the battlefield all the same. There he puts his life at risk, and it is his generals who make him a solemn oath, a sort of new pact that marks the beginning of David's last phase in life, his progressive withdrawal from government that will open the way to his son Solomon.

Here the "people" see that new and different tiredness and make a promise. In David's story, it is an oath that marks this phase, a promise made on the initiative of his generals. David does not respond in the text; that oath operates unilaterally by the sole force of the word spoken by the representatives of the people. In the life of communities there are some similar pacts, where the community takes the initiative. Kings are almost never in a position to understand that they are "weary", because this kind of charismatic fatigue is seen only by people who are close to the head. It is a relational tiredness, and the members of the community, if they are honest and not adulators, have a duty to take the initiative and let the king enter that last chapter. These are not easy choices, and they are always painful, because the community is used to listening and following its leader, and because the boundary between this promise and conspiracy is not at all easy to spot - behind communities that have not survived their founder there are conspiracies that the king confused with promises and accepted, and promises that he confused with conspiracies and rejected.

Then follows the story of the heroic deeds of some of David's warriors, where we also find a different version of the killing of Goliath at the hands not of David but Elhanan (21:19) - here the Bible is not afraid to show a denial of one of the founding myths of its hero David in the culminating phase of his life. Then we come to the only psalm of David reported in its entirety in the Books of Samuel. It is a long and intense psalm, which occupies the whole of chapter 22. The editor put it at the end of David's life, as a last will and seal. It is the beginning of his last chapter, a time of thanksgiving to God, to life, to his companions. It can also be the time of psalms, for poets like David and for each one in its own language - there are splendid psalms composed with the names of children and grandchildren, with silent fidelity and loyalty, whispering only one Hail Mary because we had forgotten all the other prayers: the last psalm of life cannot be a privilege of the poets.

Here are a few verses: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer / my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge... He sent from on high, he took me; / he drew me out of many waters. / He rescued me from my strong enemy, / from those who hated me, / for they were too mighty for me... The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; / according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. / For I have kept the ways of the Lord / and have not wickedly departed from my God... With the merciful you show yourself merciful; / with the blameless man you show yourself blameless... For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations, / and sing praises to your name” (22:2-50). And at the centre of the psalm we find, “For you are my lamp, O Lord, / and my God lightens my darkness” (22:29). David learned that the lamp of Israel was not he himself, and for this reason at the end of his life he can safeguard it (which always requires the otherness of the thing guarded).

Reading this great psalm, there are many feelings intertwining in one’s soul. David was a singer and a player of the lyre, and even in this artistic soul of his there lies the affection with which the entire Bible has filled him. We feel captivated and conquered by this intense poetic prayer of his, too. But when we try to read the contents of the song we must also try to say other words.

There have always been many believers who used God to give a sacral chrism to their victories and riches. The "theology of prosperity" has ancient biblical roots, and this is because the Bible, being so immense, also lends itself to being abused and manipulated (like all truly beautiful and immense things in life). The Bible needed theological geniuses and a lot of time to understand that being on the side of God does not mean being on the side of the victors, and that our God, that of our friends and that of our enemies, is the same God - because if he were not the same God, even YHWH, the true and most diverse God would be an idol. And if the God of the losers is the same God as that of the winners, if the God of the poor is the same God as that of the rich, if the God of the healthy is the same God as that of the sick, if the God of the strong is the same God as that of the weak, then a message that comes to us from the Bible (and from non-idolatrous religions) is God's laicity. Because God should be left out of our businesses and wars, our health and illnesses and those of others, our stock exchanges and financial speculation. We can find him everywhere, in everything and in everyone, but it is not the biblical God if we find him only on our side.

The story of Israel after David will teach the Jewish people that their God will be a defeated God, his elected people a deported people, his invincible temple a pile of rubble, and the strength of YHWH will be symbolized by a baby boy and a faithful "little remnant". But from that exile the songs of the suffering servant of YHWH (Isaiah) and many great prophetic words will flourish. Without the exile and that great defeat we would never have had Job and Qoheleth who offered us some other true faces of the biblical God.

David’s psalm is also a perfect example of a retributive religion (“The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; / according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me”). And when it is the victors, the powerful and the rich to recite the words of David's psalm, the experience of faith is always put at risk. Because it is very easy to pass from thanksgiving for the victory and for the riches to thinking "since I have won and am rich, God is with me", and then perhaps add, “God does not stand with those who don’t win and are poor”. And so faith is ruined; it becomes an instrument of condemnation and cursing of the poor, the losers and those who believe in a different God.
David's psalms of praise to the victorious God must be meditated upon together with the songs of the defeated God, in a synoptic kind of reading. And if and when we sing David's song for our victories and we do not do so with our soul and gaze fixed on the different songs shouted and wailed by the desperate and the discarded, we are speaking to Baal even if we call him God or Jesus. A test for the truth of every prayer is to try and recite it alongside the victims of the earth, without feeling ashamed.

David’s psalm is also the song of young and adolescent faith, when we think that the covenant with the only true God will associate us with his victories, and so we feel omnipotent - the charm and mystery of religion also lies in its ability to make us taste the thrill of omnipotence. Then we grow up, we find ourselves powerless and fragile because we are adults, and we often lose that first faith if right there and then, in exile and without the temple, the gift of a new relationship with a God does not arrive. A God who rises again, standing with us, in silence, on the same pile of manure, and accompanying our cry, as he did with the cry of his son, the most beautiful prayer of all. To finally get to the last chapter and find the same voice from the first page.

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