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The name of the last kind of loyalty

The exile and the promise /12 - Not even God can do without the men and women who accept his gifts

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 27/01/2019

« Loneliness has arrived ... Men have withdrawn; friendships have ended, interests have faded away. Ingratitude? Vanity? Illusion? ... Of course. But it is above all the logic of existence that breaks into a certain age of man; and then, when at its highest it begins to slope down on the other side, to dive into mystery, into the unknown. Alone: ​​therefore free »

Igino Giordani, Diary of Fire

In any experience involving gifts, the first gift is not enough. There is a need for a second co-essential act of reception. Because the gift is a conversation that takes place over time, it is a social syntax of free acts. Many relational pathologies arise in relationships in which the donor is so worried about giving his or her gift as to prevent the other from freely pronouncing his or her yes. In many relationships, the weakest party is not the person who receives, but the one who makes the gift, because refusals are a source of much pain and frustration (such as that felt by Cain for his unwelcome gift). We are all afraid that our most important gifts will not be accepted or well received (by a son, by our office manager), and so we tend to be tempted to take the freedom to refuse our gift away from the other, and, if possible, we often end up doing so. The biblical God did not want to deprive us of the freedom to reject his greatest gift, the Covenant and the Law, and thus exalted our dignity just as he recorded our infidelities - and continues to do so.

For the third time since the beginning of his mission, the elders among those who were already in exile in Babylon, go to Ezekiel and ask him to question YHWH and ask him for an answer: «Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Have you come to inquire of me? As surely as I live, I will not let you inquire of me, declares the Sovereign Lord’» (Ezekiel 20,2-3). To offer the elders an explanation for that refusal, Ezekiel reviews the entire history of salvation (which he begins from Egypt, not from the patriarchs), divided into three phases (Egypt, the desert and finally Canaan). A powerful message clearly emerges from Ezekiel’s long story, enriched and amended by subsequent editorial hands. The story that goes from the liberation of the slave people of Pharaoh to the conquest of the Promised Land, is actually the story of the events of a people marked by the inability to remain within the spirit of the ethos of the Covenant and the Law. It is the tale of a succession of moments of loyalty and even longer periods of betrayal. That pact offered entirely for free, however, needed a people who would answer yes and who would try to repeat yes many other times after its many failures.

Their unfaithfulness manifested itself above all in their idolatrous practices, the main accusation put forth by Ezekiel and the prophets. But in this chapter we find an interpretation of idolatry that reveals its true root and most serious and severe nature: «‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: In this also your ancestors blasphemed me by being unfaithful to me: (…) They saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices, made offerings that aroused my anger, presented their fragrant incense and poured out their drink offerings» (Ezekiel 20,27-28). The decisive element here is the nature of this kind of worship. The Jews did not worship other idols on those hills or heights: the chosen people worshiped YHWH on the altars of the Canaanite heights, a God who had been lowered to the status of God of the heights, a god like those of all other neighbouring nations: «You say, “We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world"» (Ezekiel 20,32).

There is a popular, simple kind of idolatry that leads people to see the sacred in natural phenomena, in the mystery of life that dies and is reborn, in the sun and the stars of the sky. The Bible is also severe against this kind of natural idolatry. An idolatry that arises from the need of people to come into contact with the sacred in everyday life, a legitimate need which however ends up receiving the wrong answer, fought against as such by the prophets. The Jewish communities that, especially during some parts of the history of Israel, had begun introducing amulets into their homes, and who occasionally frequented the Canaanite temples of fertility, knew - at least some of them - that those statuettes were not really YHWH, but mere puppets, and so, at any given time, they could convert and return to the only true and altogether different God. As long as the golden calf and YHWH remain distinct and clearly differentiated, one can always decide to abandon the idol and return to God. It is to this specific subject that Ezekiel switches the focus of his speech, to tell us about another form of idolatry, even more radical and dangerous. The one that is born from reducing YHWH to god of the heights.

It is probable (Ezekiel 20,39) that the content of the question that the elders wanted to ask YHWH concerned precisely the proposal to build a temple in the land of exile, in which to worship in the way the Babylonian deities were worshiped – with statues, images, and maybe sacrifices of the firstborn («the sacrifice of your children in the fire»: Ezekiel 20,31). If the prophets had succumbed and begun tolerating this second form of idolatry, where the "calf" takes the name of YHWH, we would not be here reading these texts today, texts which are the basis of Christianity, flourished from the same anti-idolatrous root of the prophets. Ezekiel/YHWH however does not accept that their request should be formulated and addressed, through him, to YHWH, because entering into dialogue on these issues is already the beginning of a failure. In certain decisive moments, it is necessary to have the strength to deny the legitimacy of the question, because the only good answer possible is a lack of dialogue. Ezekiel would certainly have known those elders personally, he most probably had respect for them, but, by vocation, he was able to give nothing to this form of natural pietas, in order to able to give them another much rarer and more precious kind of pietas. When God is reduced to an idol, conversion becomes impossible unless one is able to find a kind of agape that has become truth, thanks to someone willing to bear all the costs of this operation. Ezekiel, throughout his book, continues to love his people in exile by not answering their wrongful questions. If his compassion had overcome his love of the truth, he would have simply turned into a false prophet.

Hence, Ezekiel, so far has told us that even God, in order to act upon history, cannot do without men and women who accept the gift of his predilection. But now he is also telling us something more and splendid about the nature of the Covenant and any kind of loyalty: «This is what the Sovereign Lord says: But for the sake of my name, I brought them out of Egypt. I did it to keep my name from being profaned in the eyes of the nations among whom they lived» (Ezekiel 20,9). We are faced here with a different logic of loyalty, which rests on two main elements. The first concerns the name: "For the sake of my name". Here, we are faithful for the love of something that concerns the lover, not the loved one, that has nothing to do with the name of the one we love but with ours (in biblical humanism, every name is a calling and destiny). Those who love and are betrayed can decide to continue being faithful not because they find some merit or good reason to continue the alliance or pact in the other. They stay true thanks to a mysterious loyalty to themselves, to their own name. Perhaps because, in the decisive pacts of life (like a wedding) she or he to whom I bind myself becomes "flesh of my flesh", who therefore moulds and modifies me from within. One day he or she may betray that pact, but I can find reasons to go on "for the sake of my own name", because by now his or her name is inscribed into my name too.

Perhaps only God is truly capable of this kind of complete fidelity without any sort of reciprocity. But this possibility in divine love, can be found, at least to a small degree, in us as well. The Bible promises us this, in choosing to begin its first book by revealing that we are the "image and likeness" of Elohim. And so we are his image also in this unilateral capacity for forgiveness and loyalty. And if we look carefully in and around ourselves, we can actually see and find this reflection of his image, it is not too well hidden. There are people who continue a mysterious but very real kind of loyalty after many years of separation, divorce, mourning, and sometimes they do it "for the sake of their name", a name that has become plural forever. This loyalty to one's name does not come from a smaller kind of love, but from a greater agape. Like when after walking around the building several times, in the end we just go home or to work, merely for the "love in our name", because there is no longer any satisfaction or sense in those relationships, but something similar to the meaning of the word truth still remains.

Ezekiel, however, reveals a second reason for this paradoxical loyalty: to "keep my name from being profaned in the eyes of the nations ". Israel had not been "elected" into a private sort of relationship, for a contract of mutual benefit only. The calling of that people was a universal promise made both before other nations and for them. Pacts, even our own pacts, are not experiences of mere mutual consumption. They are celebrated in front of the "nations", in front of witnesses, parents, relatives. They then generate children, new relationships, new friends, who were already, invisible and real, who sign the same pact. This form of loyalty also arises from promises made in front of other people that we know depend on our loyalty. In these cases - and there are many, and they happen every day - a great reason for loyalty lies outside of ourselves in those relationships generated by a pact that we feel we have to keep, even on our own.

When in the case of pacts which have been betrayed we’re no longer able to find a reason in the other person to start over, we still have a resource of last resort: we can forgive for the sake of our name and the names of the people linked to that alliance. When the first "you" is missing, we can try to be faithful in the name of the other "you" present in our life, while also discovering in us a truer name that we did not yet know. We can do it, sometimes we have done it, it is part of our human repertoire, because we are greater than our happiness.

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