To never have to devour our children again

Prophecy is history/20 – Faith must not forget the real faces and words of the poor

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 20/10/2019

«But if "the intelligence of the scriptures" is an aura or charm, what kind of aura is it? Where does it fit into the hierarchy of charms and auras? The intelligence of the scriptures must be placed among the major charms of the world. And even higher than the aura of the prophets»

Sergio Quinzio, A commentary on the Bible

Prophecies often speak about the economy, goods and money. And even in terrible episodes as only those about famines can be, we find the subject of the economy together with words on women and children.

There is a very strong and intimate relationship between war and economy. In general, business reasons contrast with those of war, because merchants and business people tend to love peace and order in which they can make better profits. The economy also has a vocation for peace - the "sweet trade" of Enlightenment. But while there have been and still are today merchants who want peace, there are others that become very rich with and through wars, some that lead them to profit, others make conflict their business. At the origin of wars there are great economic interests intertwined with power and the madness of men. Fair and just economies and businesses are the first antidote to wars, their preventive care. And every time someone builds an economy of peace, makes fair employment contracts, does justice to an employee, recognizes the rights of a people or of a land, he or she is helping to drive away war and its endless pains.

Even in the Bible, economy and war are deeply connected to each other. We find them together in the same stories, in the same prophecies, in the most splendid episodes, as well as in the most terrible ones: "Ben-Adad, king of Aram [Syria], gathered all his army and came to besiege Samaria. There was a great famine in Samaria; they besieged it to the point that a donkey's head was sold to eighty shekels of silver and a quarter of qab of five-shepherd dove excrement "(2 Kings 6,24-25).

Samaria is under siege by the Syrians. The first language that the Bible finds to convey the gravity of the siege and famine is the language of prices and goods: a donkey's head (the donkey was ordinary food) and the dove dung used as salt during famines and hunger. The meaning and the anthropological and ethical value of the economy and its words can be found here as well. Before market economy and capitalism, even when economy only occupied only a day or a few hours of the week (and not every hour of every day like today) men and women knew how to express the most important things through words about prices, costs, coins and goods, they spoke of the economy to talk about life and death. During periods of abundance the words were many and multiplied; but in the time of lean cows even the words lost weight, reduced to the bone, and in that bone only the essential remained. The Bible reminds us that there is economic life in what’s essential, there are prices and there are coins. In the Bible, we find economy it in the most extreme and contrasting scenes: during famines and in the proximity of the Samaritan who with "two denarii" associates a merchant with his action. Yesterday, today, always.

To understand the true value of the economy and of currency and coins it is necessary to go to places of sieges and famines, in order to see and understand that goods and coins really are useful in poverty and to the poor. We can and must study the "paradoxes of happiness" and then discover, first hand, that economic wealth says little or less about happiness than is commonly thought. But right then, we must also remember that if wealth is of little use to the rich it is very useful indeed to the poor, and that superfluous and useless wealth for those who already have an abundance, could become essential food and bread in famines and under siege.

Just after having spoken to us about the exorbitant price of food and salt during that siege, the Book of Kings tells us about a terrible, desperate and little-known episode that, coming immediately after prices and goods, also speaks to us about the economy. To tell us, perhaps, that there is an even stronger and more radical language of economy in order to talk about the effects of war and famine in people's lives: it is the language of life and death, of flesh and children: « As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, “Help me, my lord the king!” The king replied, “If the Lord does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?” Then he asked her, “What’s the matter?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him”» (2 Kings 6,26-29). There is no need to add much to these words. A conflict between two desperate women made mad by the desperation of famine, a crazy contract between two mothers, a case similar to that solved by the first exercise of wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 3). The "save me", an SOS, launched by this mother no longer concerned the goods and the food, as the king first thought ("I do not have the product of the barnyard nor that of the winepress"); no, his scream was a scream of flesh and blood, it was a cry of death. Before the economy there are children, there is flesh, and there is death. These words are more prime than those of the economy. These scenes were not so rare in antiquity, where sometimes it happened in the great famines that families exchanged their children to "cook" to avoid at least the most absurd pain: devour the flesh of their own flesh. There is no need to add much to these words. A conflict between two desperate women gone mad through the desperation of famine, a crazy agreement between two mothers, a case similar to that solved by the first exercise of wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 3). The "save me", an SOS, launched by this mother no longer concerned with goods and food, as the king first thought ("I do not have the products of the barnyard nor that of the winepress"); no, her scream was a scream of flesh and blood, it was a cry of death. Before the economy, we have the children, flesh, and death. These words are more primal than those of the economy. These scenes were unfortunately not rare in ancient times, sometimes during great and terrible famines, it happened, that families exchanged their children, in order to avoid at least the most absurd pain: devour the flesh of their own flesh.

Today, children are no longer eaten to stave off starvation, but in poverty and under siege, children and daughters continue to be devoured. They are sold to new armies of men who arrive by plane in the suburbs of South America, Africa or Asia, they go to families besieged by poverty and hunger, and they buy daughters, girls and children to cook them in the dark rooms of their hotels. Some mothers, at the last moment, do not respect the contract and try to hide them; but most can't. The first victims of famine and war are children, girls, women - the 2019 Nobel Prize winners have also reminded us of this. Fighting wars and hunger means above all saving mothers, children and girls. If the economy could succeed in helping to reduce wars and the misery of the world, the economy would become the friend of mothers and children, and we would all thank it and "bless the economy". If and when it does or will do the opposite, we’ll criticize and curse it, doing so in the name and words of those women, children and girls - it is no coincidence that the most radical criticism of the economy of the XXI century today comes precisely from a girl.

« When the king heard the woman’s words, he tore his robes. As he went along the wall, the people looked, and they saw that, under his robes, he had sackcloth on his body» (2 Kings 6,30). The Bible "tears its clothes" in front of these untold stories, and allows us to glimpse the penitential cilice (sack); we, on the other hand, in front of the same scenes, don't do this, but move on, too busy and worried by our issues and problems.

The prophet Elisha accompanies these chapters of war, hunger, death and economy, with his gestures and words. And his prophecy is part of this environment too, he makes use of and borrows the same words: «Elisha said:" Listen to the word of YHWH: at this hour, tomorrow, at the door of Samaria a sea of ​​flour will cost a shekel and also two sea ​​of ​​barley will cost a shekel» (2 Kings 7,1). The prophecy also speaks of economics. To prophesy the end of the siege, of war and famine, Elisha finds no better words than those of the economy and the prices of commodities. Like us, who, in order to wish a child happiness, wish him or her to find a worthy and honest job, that he or she doesn’t become homeless, that they do not have to suffer from hunger and that they may have "shalom" (well-being) in their life. These are the hopes and prayers of all, but it is above all the hopes and prayers of the poor, who having felt on their very own flesh and their children’s what it means to pay 80 shekels for a donkey's head, understand when the prophet announces an era where barley and flour will cost eighty times less. Only the poor are really competent when it comes to the prices and value of goods, because they are the experts on scarcity. And so they are also able to understand the prophets and their language as well.

This is the extraordinary secularity of the Bible, which I personally still can't quite get used to. Prophecies are all about heaven, cherubs, the subtle voice of silence, they are fire, cloud and thunder, but they are also flour, barley, and a shekel. The words of the prophecies are able to change history and save us as long as they hold both cherubs and barley together in the same breath, YHWH and shekels. Because the words of heaven do not become "comfort zones" of pure spiritual consumerism if they are spoken together with barley and shekels; and when religions and churches no longer use the words of the economy to talk to us about God and heaven, it is because they are misusing the barley, the flour and the money, and therefore no longer wish to talk about it. The absence of a dialogue about the economy within a greater religious dialogue is not as many would believe a sign of a more spiritual religion, but speaks of a faith that has forgotten what the real faces and words of the poor, of poverty and of the victims of history, really are.

This short cycle of war, famine, prophecy, women, children and the economy ends with another woman, another child, another economy.

Elisha had told the woman whose son he had raised from the dead (2 Kings, 4) to go to a foreign land, to the Philistines, because a famine was about to break out in the country. When this woman returned home after seven years, she no longer found the goods that had been occupied by others in her absence. While Gehazi, Elisha's servant, was telling the king about Elisha's miracle, the woman arrives: «Gehazi said, “This is the woman, my lord the king, and this is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” 6 The king asked the woman about it, and she told him. Then he assigned an official to her case and said to him, “Give back everything that belonged to her, including all the income from her land from the day she left the country until now”» (2 Kings 8.5-6).

The miracle of the dead and resurrected child is now fulfilled with an act of economic justice. Miracles are never complete until the material conditions of existence change, if disincarnate matters remain, if they do not become income and fields. Not all of us, not always, can we raise our children back from the dead. But many, perhaps all of us, can raise a poor man back to life, can do justice to a victim, and can help cancelling a debt. If we are able to see these economic miracles, perhaps we will also be able to see God and the angels again.

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