It takes a different kind of meekness to save us

The Dawn of Midnight/8 - The communities that kill their naïve prophets die

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 11/06/2017

170611 Geremia 8 ridTo the prophet, God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a specific and unique way--in a personal and intimate revelation to the world.

Abraham Heschel, The Prophets

The good kind of nostalgia, capable of talking to us, is only that of the future, the kind that knows how to direct our gaze to the present and the future. You cannot regenerate a love affair by returning to the words you were saying in the happy times, but by dreaming and saying the love words that you have never said. There is vital and essential reciprocity between past and present. The promise made in the beginning gives sense and truth to hopes in times of exiles and deserts; the fulfilment of yesterday's promise today says that we haven’t been following an illusion.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: »Hear the words of this covenant, and speak to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. You shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: (...) Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God, that I may confirm the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day.’« Then I answered, »So be it, Lord.«” (Jeremiah 11:1-5). Jeremiah is the guardian of the memory of the Covenant. This memory, though, has the starting point in the present: “as at this day”. The quality of tomorrow's life is enshrined in the quality of life in the present: in its faithfulness-unfaithfulness, in its truth-illusions. Prophets do not invent the future; they simply see it in the present, thanks to their different eyes. And the present of Jerusalem is the breaking of the Covenant: “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart.”

At the heart of the great prophecy there is a pearl of inestimable value hiding. If life is lived as a - religious, civil or artistic – vocation, we are not always free in our relationship with our words. That freedom we experience for 90 or perhaps 99% of our words allowing us to soften, dampen, sweeten and mitigate our words without betraying their (and our) truth disappears when we are faced with some very rare words that are different and special. Those that have to be pronounced exactly in the only way possible, without changing a single vowel, because they leave the already perfect soul and we can and we just have to say them the same way as they reach us - the first 'yes', or the last one, that very precise phrase on which the dignity of a person depends, the truth of a relationship, the faithfulness to our history, the non-shame of our heart. Phrases and words where commas count as much as verbs and adjectives. These different and special words have only one way of being pronounced, and if we do it wrong, the words die as they turn into chatter. These are the words that are very precious but only if we don’t manage to change them when the human pietas we feel for those in front of us would like to do so. Also, these words are worthless if - for whatever reason, even the noblest and most humane one - we change them.

In the life of the prophets, where we find the archetype of any authentic vocation, these words are not as rare as in ours, because it happens much more often to them than to us that they go through times in which they can do nothing but obey the word, the words, and then say them. Many of these words have been kept in the Bible and have come to us that way, to help us say our few special and different words that have been waiting for us faithfully and ready for use at the decisive crossroads of life.

From inside this mysterious relationship between the prophets and the word, one can perceive something of a strong and tremendous phrase like this: (the Lord said to me:) “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” (11:14)

Jeremiah is not Abraham who enters in a dialogue with God and intercedes with him to avoid the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18). Abraham, the first patriarch, brings the voice of the people to Elohim: he is the summit of a pyramid that rises from the earth to God. The prophet, on the other hand, has a vocation not to speak to God’s people, but to talk about God to the people. His voice is the summit of another kind of pyramid that has its base in the sky and faces the earth. He must intercede with the people so as to save God: this is the deep meaning of his anti-idolatry polemics. Every prophet is but a voice that originates from the "sky" to face the earth. His body is all earthly, like every man and woman’s, but his voice does not belong to him. His body, his flesh is the place where heaven and earth meet, where his vocation, his sufferings and his persecutions are explained and consumed: “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the men of Anathoth, who seek your life, and say, »Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord, or you will die by our hand«” (11:21).

It is for the first time that we meet Jeremiah in danger of death, for a conspiracy against his person orchestrated by his fellow citizens, which also involves his family: (the Lord said to me:) “For even your brothers and the house of your father, / even they have dealt treacherously with you; / they are in full cry after you; / do not believe them, / though they speak friendly words to you.” (12:6) A prophet is despised in his very homeland, inside his home, among his brothers. Inside his community. Which is the place where almost always the conspiracies start from in order to do away with him. Jeremiah is told by God that he should not trust even his closest relatives, that he should not listen to their (seemingly) good words.

There is a specific, contingent reason behind this episode of the prophet's life, which perhaps goes back to the beginning of his activity. The main crime attributed to him by his people was his preaching against the temple, his radical critique of the sacrifices made there and above all the royal ideology of the temple and the illusions of salvation (“Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult?”) 11:15). Jeremiah’s family was of a priestly lineage, and his criticism touches on its profound identity and social role.

But this conspiracy carries a universal message. Conspiracy can be the natural reaction to those who obscure an ideology that’s deeply rooted in the people, doing it in the name of an authority and investiture that’s different from the institutional ones. Never forget that prophets receive their authority directly, which is not mediated and ratified by any hierarchical institution. Their moral and spiritual legitimacy is therefore always controversial, partial, and imperfect, and their home is always on a property that the authorities consider abusive so they can demolish it.

Jeremiah was born and raised in a priestly family, he is a priestly descendant, and finds himself with a vocation to radically criticize the ideology produced by his family. This is the destiny of those prophets called to prophesy inside the faith-community in which they grew up and live, who - by their assigned task - have to publicly and harshly criticize the ideology that is generated day after day by the ideals and faith of their own community. Jonah was sent by God to prophesy to Nineveh, a foreign city. Jeremiah, a man from Anathoth, prophesies in Anathoth.

The Bible knows well the murderous fraternity (that of Cain, but also that of the brothers of Joseph), just as well as it knows that ideologies-idolatries are stronger than blood ties. When, even if in good faith, we are captured by an ideology, it becomes such a ruthless master of us that we can be commanded to kill our siblings, children or parents. The idol-ideology is always in search of new sacrificial victims.

Initially, Jeremiah did not notice the conspiracy, and so he believed the words of his friends/brothers: “But I was like a gentle lamb / led to the slaughter. / I did not know it was against me / they devised schemes, saying, / ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, / let us cut him off from the land of the living, / that his name be remembered no more.’” (11:19) This first humiliation of his was not a virtue, but only inexperience and lack of knowledge. One day, God reveals the murderous intrigue to him, and that’s when a new stage in his prophetic mission begins. Jeremiah understands that he has to radically change his attitude towards his family and community so that he can continue to perform the mission received and still survive.

On that day a new meekness will flourish in Jeremiah, not that of the lamb that was meek because it didn’t know the intentions of the slaughterers. This is the special meekness of the prophets who pass the stage of the first naive meekness, a new meekness that often appears as its opposite to the onlookers. Theirs is a meekness towards the word, incomprehensible to those who do not know the Bible or the prophets, or Christ. It is the meekness of those who shout nailed to crosses from which they do not want to get off, and who only become meek when a word asks them to be so, from inside.

Too many true prophets block themselves and fail to complete their mission in the world because the naive kind of meekness of the first phase of their vocation leads them, and they follow it obediently to the slaughter, and there they are killed. Because they do not recognize the intrigue and are murdered by their own family and friends. We can have the Book of Jeremiah today because this prophet realized that behind him there was a conspiracy, so he fled, continued his work and wrote his book. It is not easy to perceive these mortal traps, precisely because they develop inside the house. One day, a voice in him warns him of the danger, but not even the best prophets can always recognize it because it is covered by the strong voice of blood or spiritual bonds, by the voice of one’s superiors or the good voice of the founder who encourages and praises that first kind of meekness. And so the word of the prophet is covered, killed, and he/she is silenced and talks no more. Many communities die because they kill those naive and humble prophets who could have saved them if they had managed to develop that different kind of meekness in themselves.

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