The Dawn of Midnight/4 – The truth makes you suffer but it also generates real freedom
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 14/05/2017
"I hope with all my heart that you will absolve me, I do not enjoy the idea of going to prison like a hero, but I cannot help but explicitly declare that I will teach my boys what I have taught them until now... If we cannot save humanity, we will at least save the soul."
Don Lorenzo Milani, Letter to the military chaplains, letter to the judges
The illusory ideologies that develop and grow during the great and long crises are, perhaps, the most dangerous and devastating ones because their specificity is in negating the crisis. The present is lived as a time of waiting for some miraculous event, a new secret revelation that will save everyone, and the community is doped with a spiritual opium that deepens and exacerbates the crisis. It is a manipulation that lasts until the evidence reaches the point beyond which negation becomes impossible. But the "point of no return" sometimes becomes almost unreachable, because the strongest and most powerful ideologies can push the elaboration of the ideology of the crisis far ahead, and even the catastrophes and total collapses tend to be interpreted ideologically. There are entire communities destroyed by ideology, with some surviving members who continue to deny what's evident and search for the confirmation of their previous ideological predictions among the rubble.
Jeremiah also had to confront this kind of ideology and its devastating effects: "In that day, declares the Lord, courage shall fail both king and officials. The priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded." Then I said, “Ah, Lord God, surely you have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, »It shall be well with you, « whereas the sword has reached their very life.” (Jeremiah 4: 9-10).
Here Jeremiah reveals a subtle and decisive dimension of the ideological phenomenon to us. What was happening to Jerusalem was a systematic production of illusion by perverted prophets, allies of priests and the ruling class. They had first created then fed the so-called "royal theology of the temple," a sort of religious nationalism proclaiming the unbeatableness of Jerusalem, the inviolability of the temple, thus denying the danger from the North (Babylon). "It shall be well with you" - these were not YHWH's words, but those of the false prophets and leaders who defended their power by deluding the people. In this context, Jeremiah can see the evolution of this ideology clearly. The enemy will come and destroy the kingdom, but the ideology will stay active, saving itself with the only option remaining: the total reversal of reality by attributing the creation of illusion to YHWH himself. To save themselves, the leaders of the people condemn God.
This is a very common operation of power carried out through the work of false prophets, and it is the "litmus paper" to unmask false prophecy. In the face of not fulfilling their predictions, false prophets, who are always numerous during the great crises, instead of acknowledging the falsehood of their own words, deny the truth of Him in whose name they had prophesied. They willingly sacrifice God because, in reality, he was just an idol they used to attain their benefits. All false prophets are atheists, and they know it - the ex-prophets become atheists because they prove to be false prophets and not the other way around. They sacrifice God on the altar of their own interests because that god was worth nothing for them, it was just a totem, a flute to enchant others. In this, the false prophet is the forefather of all those who, facing the choice between their own interest and the truth of a relationship, choose themselves, denying and killing marriages, communities, friendships and businesses. They only needed God to make a career, and they simply get rid of him as soon as he is not of use to them.
The authentic prophet, on the other hand, is responsible for the word he announces because that word is flesh from his flesh, it’s incarnate word. He cannot prefer the death of the word to his own death, because in him/her these two words become a single flesh, just like in marriage. The prophet's martyrdom is not altruism or generosity, it is the only choice they can make to remain prophets.
Jeremiah himself tells us, marvellously, about the intimate relationship between the word and his flesh, in a striking verse which is an absolute of prophetic literature: "My bowels, my bowels! I am pained at my very heart; my heart makes a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace" (4:19). It's a spiritual masterpiece that draws the veil of the prophet's soul, of the man from Anathoth's, and makes him our contemporary - or, better, it makes us his. But above all it brings us into its mystery, and that of every true human vocation.
Jeremiah, an authentic prophet, can and must only say what he sees and hears. He sees and hears misfortune and destruction for Jerusalem, and he shouts it out. He cannot emend or overturn it, otherwise he would simply become a false prophet, like many others, like almost everyone. But that people whose mischief he is announcing is also his people, his folks. Here is the value of the prophets: to suffer, to get twisted inside for the words they announce, but to be unable not to announce them.
This suffering will accompany Jeremiah (we will see it), but it is a central note of the prophet's profession, which is especially strong and agonizing in times of great crises and great illusions. The people would like to believe that the crisis will pass soon and everything will return as nice as before, that the decline of vocations in the community is temporary, that the churches will be filled again... And instead, the non-false prophet says, if he sees and feels it so, that the crisis will exacerbate, that the vocations will be less and less and that the churches will get even emptier. Prophets are not always prophets of misfortune, they also announce some wonderful things - the birth of children, a sprout, the return of the "remnant", a messiah. But the prophecy of misfortune is the true test of the truth and quality of a prophet, where he can lose his soul or flourish in anima mundi. Too many prophetic vocations fail due to the inability to keep announcing uncomfortable and harsh things – whether they are unpleasant for the people or the prophet.
The true prophet, then, feels in his flesh all the suffering for those missing vocations, for that emptiness in the churches, for the destruction of the city. The prophet is the mother of the word he pronounces ("my bowels, my bowels ..."). His experience is like that of those who see their son who is definitely taking the road towards the pigs and prostitutes, and he sees him already in the pig-shed and the brothel ("they then committed adultery and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses ... each one neighed after his neighbour’s wife" 5:7-8).
Jeremiah's feelings here are not those of the "merciful father" who looks forward to the return of the "prodigal son", but those of the person who suffers because their son, brother, friend does not return and does not want to return. There are few children in this world who come back from the acorns, but the ones who stay there are many. And many parents and friends can only, like Jeremiah, be hurt in "the bowels" for the pain of these no-returns. The children do not come back, we suffer, and they still don't come back.
The first resurrection the Bible (and also great literature and great art) operates is getting us close to the crucifixes, to approach them, to watch them, before the dawn of the resurrection, imprisoned in a perpetual Holy Saturday. That is how it reaches and touches our deepest wounds, those that have never healed, and kisses them. The wounds do not heal with kisses, but our heart, maybe, does.
If the Bible contained only the stories of the sons that return, the daughters who are risen, those who are healed and the slaves that are released, it would be merely an uplifting collection of stories with a happy ending, or a book of consolatory stories. The immense spiritual and human value of the Bible is also due to the presence of pages on Jeremiah's pain in the bowels for the lost brothers and children he cannot save, that of Abel murdered by a brother, that of Job who continues to scream innocently over his heap of manure, waiting for a God who has not yet arrived and may never arrive, but is still expected and yearned for as the "God of the not yet" because he is free of illusions. Most of the living and true stories do not have a happy ending; but if there is (and there is) a joy of living it awaits us beyond the illusions, when we have learned how to encounter resurrections within the crucifixes. The places on earth where we can hope to be surprised by the Spirit are more similar to Golgotha than Tabor. It is so on the earth, and perhaps also in heaven.
The honesty of a prophet is measured on the basis of his suffering for the true words he says. Every honesty is measured only this way, when we can say different and adulatory words to save ourselves, but we do not and so we really save ourselves, even if everything around us says the opposite and talks about failure.
The gifts of the prophets in times of misfortune are only the honesty of their true words and their pain in the bowels. Together. Their bowels are the resonance chamber of the notes of their song which is so true and honest that it is still able to touch us and talk to us, to console us in our misfortune and protect us from the many vendors of illusions.
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