Away from the insatiate idol

Listening to Life/18 Consumerism implies temples full of merchandise and empty of life

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 23/10/2016

Abbraccio ridWithout faith our children will never be rich; with faith they will never be poor

Beato Giuseppe Tovini, banker

Biblical faith is liberation. The alliance with YHWH was above all a great way to escape the slavery of empires. Here lies much of the innovative and revolutionary capacity of the Bible: agreeing to ally with a high God who is invisible, unspeakable, all spiritual was the way to avoid becoming subjects of kings and pharaohs who are too visible, tangible, pronounceable and pronounced. Becoming slaves of rulers by names pronounced and repeated in every corner of the kingdom, whose image was reproduced in a thousand statues that painted the landscape of their empire.

Recognizing that only YHWH is lord was an extraordinary education to learn the true laity of political and civil life and therefore to recognize the idolatrous nature of empires, communities and families (where in order not to turn our children into dumb idols we must stop thinking of them, and wanting them and 'creating them' in our own image and likeness). The God of the Bible is distinguished from Caesar because Caesar is not God and can never become one. At most he will win the status of an idol. Idols are much less than God, they are much less than man. Idolatry is always the shrinking of God, but it is even more the shrinking of man. Prophecy, by protecting YHWH from idolatry, has protected us from becoming the image of fetishes. That's why it is above all an anthropological message addressed to the women and men of all times: 'Do not shrink yourself, do not become a copy of petty things: you are worth much more'.  

No wonder, then, that the Book of Isaiah, opening by the radical criticism of idols, closes the cycle of the so-called 'first' Isaiah also with idolatry. King Hezekiah was righteous and therefore anti-idolatrous: "He removed the shrines. He smashed the sacred pillars and cut down the sacred pole. He crushed the bronze snake... Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, Israel’s God." (2Kings 18:4-5) This righteous king is now about to face his greatest crisis. The Assyrian superpower, after occupying the various kingdoms of the region, is about to conquer Jerusalem, too. King Sennacherib sends a delegation to ask them to surrender. The great Syrian officials speak and touch the heart of the faith of Israel: "Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, »The Lord will rescue us.« Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king?" (Isaiah 36:18). The message of the Assyrian ambassadors is therefore very clear: your God is just like that of the peoples we have already conquered. He is just as helpless as they are. Your trust-faith is vain, it is only an illusion, stupidity, nonsense. And so they turn to the three officials of Hezekiah saying: "Say to Hezekiah: »Assyria’s Great King says this: Why do you feel so confident?«" (36:3).

Assyrians speak the same religious language as Israel. They want a voluntary surrender, based on an inner, free decision. Empires know very well that they never conquer a people until they conquer their soul, until they convince them that their faith is nonsense and offer them their own which knows better. The official of the Assyrian king also gives proof of knowing the name of the God of Israel, YHWH, and claims to be speaking in his name (36:10). Just like false prophets. And like all false prophets it immediately proves idolatrous equating YHWH with the idols. This has always been the greatest curses in the Bible, even worse than the one uttered by those who deny the existence of God: those who think 'There is no God' are simply 'foolish' (Psalm 14), but those who confuse him with the idols is idolatrous. For this deeply theological reason Hezekiah does not accept the 'shameful trade' that the Assyrians offer him, and he unmasks their fake religiosity. So Hezekiah, having heard the story of his messengers, tears his clothes, puts on a sackcloth, and goes into the temple. And he prays: "Lord, turn your ear this way and hear! Lord, open your eyes and see! (...) It’s true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have destroyed all the nations and their lands. The Assyrians burned the gods of those nations with fire because they aren’t real gods. They are only man-made creations of wood and stone. That’s how the Assyrians could destroy them." (37:17-19). His is a beautiful prayer, a great and perfect one. He renews his different faith and asks YHWH to listen, to open his eyes and to watch over him. To 'wake up'. The first prayer in times of trial is a cry to wake God up. In order to continue to have faith in God when he does not take action, we must believe that he is 'sleeping', because if he does nothing and does not sleep then he is either not God or dead. The 'sleep of God' was often the salvation of the faith of those who experience injustice in his silence. The Bible, therefore, is saying that God needs our cry to show himself God. For impotence to become omnipotence our cry-prayer is needed. Only if God is not an idol can he wake up, hear, watch and see, because idols are dumb, deaf and blind; they do not sleep because they are dead - and have been forever.

Then Hezekiah sends emissaries to Isaiah to hear his word. The king acknowledges that his royal ministry is insufficient for his people in that decisive moment, when "children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through" (37:3) - the female images used in the book Isaiah are always beautiful. He knows, because he is a righteous king, that the profound identity of the people (their faith in YHWH) is at stake, and so he has to resort to prophecy, which is an essential resource when the collective soul is threatened. In ordinary times the wisdom of good governance can be enough to build fortifications, to clean up the fields, direct the economy and businesses well. But when the identity of the people is in danger, politics must be able to leave the place to prophecy, because in such a case other resources and 'skills' are needed. There are too many major crises that cannot be overcome because politicians do not have the humility to ask prophets for help, because they do not look for them, they do not know them, they do not find them, or because, simply, there are no more of them left. They are dead, they are in exile, they have fled to lands where they do not kill the prophets. This time, however, the prophecy was neither dead nor fled to Jerusalem. Isaiah was there, and Hezekiah knew this, he knew him. He was a righteous king. And so he sends for him, he listens to his word, and saves his people. Isaiah repeats the same words he said many years earlier to Akaz, an unjust and idolatrous king: "Fear not," do not be afraid. This is always the first word of the non-false prophets. The false prophets, however, increase fear in order to offer false solutions. The prophets keep their fears to themselves and give peace to the people, because they know that in times of trials they must first rebuild peace inside the souls, which, in the grip of fear, cannot listen to the words of truth. And then he adds: "the Lord says this about Assyria’s king: He won’t enter this city. He won’t shoot a single arrow here. He won’t come near the city with a shield. He won’t build a ramp to besiege it. He’ll go back by the same way he came. He won’t enter this city". (37:33-34)

And so it was. Jerusalem was not conquered, the people were not deported. We cannot reconstruct and narrate the historical sequence and concatenation of the facts that led the Assyrians to give up on the siege of Jerusalem. The Book of Isaiah and the Second Book of Kings (chaps. 18-19) give us different versions. The final editor of the Book of Isaiah made an intentional link to connect the salvation of Jerusalem and the nation with the faith of Hezekiah, the words of Isaiah, and therefore of YHWH. He was interested in telling us, with the distant and partial historical data available to him about a crucial step in Israel's history, in which the people, facing a great crisis, had not lost faith and had been saved - a written story that was matured during the Babylonian exile, when the people experienced the failure of the faith that one day had saved them.

In Isaiah and the prophets, faith is always inextricably linked to trust and salvation. Faith is trusting that the Elohim who had spoken to their patriarchs, and who later revealed his name (YHWH) to Moses, is not an idol but is alive and active in the world and in their concrete history, to save them. In the Bible, salvation is the pledge of faith. The failure of the Assyrian conquest of Jerusalem is important first of all as a sign that YHWH is at work, and that they are not entrusting a fetish-god. We are saved as long as we believe, we believe as long as we are able to trust and rely (on God - the tr.), and so read our salvation as the truth of our faith. As long as we can tell that 'one day' we were saved for not believing in idols, we can always hope that 'the day will come' in which a non-idol will deliver us.

Idolatry is rampant today because it looks like secularism, as post-religious spirit, that's finally an adult one, and so we do not notice that the 'fetishism of merchandise' has become the new mass religion of our time. A cult with millions and billions of totems, because with the disappearance of the community and with post-capitalism the idols are customized, designed and produced according to the tastes of the individual consumer, who is the only high priest in a 'temple' empty of people and packed with objects. Every idolatrous culture is a culture of consumption only, and every culture of only consumption is implicitly idolatrous. The idol is the perfect and sovereign consumer, never satiated with goods. In such societies, there is neither joy nor sense in work and production: you work only and always as slaves, to produce bricks to raise the sphinxes and pyramids of the god-pharaoh. We are all sculptors and shapers of idols, inside and outside the religions. As long as there is a single idol left on earth, we will always need prophets.

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