Listening as Revolution

A Man Named Job/8 The truth in life is found in the ever renewing questions of the poor

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 03/05/2015

logo Giobbe"... And I am not waiting for anybody: / Between four walls / Astonished of space / More than a desert / I am not waiting for anybody: / But he must come; / He will come, / if I resist, / To blossom not seen, / He will come all of a sudden, / When I least realize: / He will come almost pardon / Of what he makes die, / He will come to make me certain / Of his and my treasure, / He will come as a relief / Of my and his pains, / His whisper / Will come, perhaps it is already coming."

Clemente Rebora, Canti Anonimi (Anonymous Poems, English translation by Roberto Filippetti)

In people, communities, civilizations and faiths, there is a cycle that alternates between faith and ideology, religion and idolatry. At the beginning of the journey we are seduced by a voice that calls us: we believe, and we set out. But after travelling a certain stretch of the road, which is sometimes very long, we find ourselves almost always inside an ideology, if not idolatry. It is a most likely, perhaps inevitable outcome, because ideology and idolatry are natural products of faiths and religions. The honest and naked reading of the Book of Job – it comes as no surprise that it is in the middle of a Bible whose chief enemy is idolatry - is a powerful treatment of these serious diseases of religions, because it forces us to quit the answers that we have matured and acquired by hard work for the good part of our life in order to return, humble and true, to the first questions of youth.

We're getting to the centre of the Book of Job, in the midst of his nightly river ford (chapters 21 to 42). As we read on, we become increasingly aware that we do not possess the cultural categories that would be essential for truly understanding the radical and amazing author of this great book. We risk trivializing the dialogues between Job and his "friends", because the gap between the greatness of the words of Job and those of its partners in the conversation appears too wide to us. And so it escapes us that the positions of the "friends" were an expression of the highest theology of their time, as the author of the book and its first readers-listeners knew very well. Unlike it happens to most of us nowadays, in fact, the listeners of Job's poem would first identify with the theologies of the friends and not with the victim. The man on the pile of manure was the heretic. Therefore, the great revolutionary purpose of the book was to lead listeners to abandon their theology and their religion, or at least to try to put it in a deep crisis, and start walking towards a new idea of ​​God and justice.

For us, today's readers, who know the whole Bible and maybe read it from the perspective of the Gospels, Paul, of humanism and modernity, it is almost impossible not to miss the dramatic tension of the story. To get into the heart of this book - and it is now time to do it - we should at least attempt a difficult and decisive operation: not to identify too quickly with Job without first having felt the failure of our answers to the questions that the many Jobs inhabiting the peripheries of our history send to us today. We can only grasp Job after realizing that our responses are radically inadequate and continue to "harass" the victims of our time. We cannot understand the questions of Job without realising the poverty of our responses. Job's friends are us. Here and now. And Job is always away and forgotten, sitting on the piles of manure that we continue to produce.

Once we reach the middle of the book, the thesis of the three parties of Job in conversation becomes increasingly essential and synthetic. Zophar says to him: "Knowest thou not this of old, since man was placed upon earth, that the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment?" (Job 20,4-5). He is reminded of the only possible explanation of his unfortunate condition: through retributive logic. If you have fallen from grace you must be guilty, you must be evil. Job never gave in to this explanation, because it is contrary to his truth of a righteous and unfortunate man.

At the heart of its dialogue with God and men, Job heads on this "economic" theology of his time. To deconstruct it he turns to history for help, to the "travellers" of the earth who truly know life and men. But his first plea is for careful listening: "Hear diligently my speech, and let this be your consolations". (Job 21,2). He knows he is close to the peak of his trial with God and religion, and therefore he asks his interlocutors to "lay their hands upon their mouth" (21,5), to prepare for the wonder and the scandal that his extreme words will provoke in them - it cannot be excluded either that the editor of these middle chapters has amended and censored certain parts of the book, where the questions of Job would have been most extreme and outrageous.

But Zophar, Eliphaz and Bildad were not able to listen and could not keep quiet but continued to speak and to accuse him. Listening is true and deep love, agape, it requires good will, trust, friendship - the ingredients missing from the three "friends". Job knows this; nevertheless he requests that they should listen because his real audience is us. We are invited to keep quiet, listen and put our hand over our mouth. The first sign that faith has already become ideology is no longer being able to remain silent before the pain of the world.

And so, after calling to the earth and after you wanting to entrust his cry to the pietas of the infinite future generations by carving it in the rock, to disprove his "friends" Job calls historical evidence into question, the life of real people and not that imagined by those who think of God without knowing and listening to man: "Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (21,29) It is on the earth shared by all that Job finds evidence to show that the theological arguments of his time are false: "Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?... Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and does not miscarry...They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol" (the kingdom of the dead; 21,7-13). The basis for the non-truth of the theorems of his friends is real life. A more true-to-life religion and theology must be known, seen and learnt. Yesterday, today, always.

It is all too easy to be on the side of Job and prove, using his evidence and our own, that the world does not respond to over-simplified retributive logic. Too many are the wicked ones who accumulate great unfair wealth and then leave it to their children, and even more numerous are those impoverished by misfortune. But are we sure that Job is right? It is true that there is no link between our ethical behaviour and our happiness and that of our children? This is not the level on which Job wants to conduct his dialogue with us. He knows that if we really ask the travellers and observers of the world they will tell us about both happy and unhappy wicked people and both happy and unhappy righteous people, too. Job is not interested in supporting the opposite view to that of his "friends", because he knows that it is just as fragile. His argument is different and much more interesting: punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous on this earth cannot be God's "job". It would be a too trivial kind of god, it would only be an idol, because it is made in our own image and likeness.

The world is not left to chance, Providence must be at work, Job does not deny this; but he invites us to look for records that are different from those of the theology of his time (and ours). Job is in search of another God, and he also seeks to defend the truth of history. Job then reminds us that those who believe in God love him do not have to tell theologies that do not hold up to the evidence of history. Yet we have many, too many, stories of God that just associate him to our banality, that are necessarily proved wrong by the truth of the questions of Job and the stories of travellers. Job asks only more silence, more hands on the mouth, to be amazed by the truth that happens in history that cannot be against God's truth. His is a call for a religion that is able to give an account of the real joys and sorrows of real people. The rest is just vanity and false consolation: "How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood" (21,34).

Knowing how to be silent and retain those definite answers of ours in our throat in order to hear the cries of the Jobs of our own time has been important in all ages, but it was and is essential in the great moments of transition, when the official responses of religions, cultures and philosophies are not enough to respond to the most difficult questions of the just and innocent victims, when the conventional explanations of pain, death and faith are not satisfactory to Job any more. It is especially in these moments that one needs to listen carefully to the man of Uz, and be converted. Because if we don't, religions remain trapped inside ideologies, idols take the place of faith.

Today, too, Job does not understand our responses, they do not console him, they torment him. And he invites us to stay quiet at least and to listen to him. There are too many cries rising to the sky panting a different God that are muted by our over-simplified responses showing little solidarity that are distant from the people, and are held by those who cannot listen to the travellers of our time. The Bible was able to listen to the outrageous and uncomfortable cry of Job, engraved it forever on its rock, and so gave him the highest dignity. Will we now be able to do the same about the shouts and questions that send our theologies into crisis? Shall we write new poems through listening to the voice of the victims of our times? Or shall we continue to wear the masks of Job's friends in the drama of life?

The new springs of religions and civilizations begin when Job's friends, learn to be silent, leaving the old and inadequate certainties behind, and bringing themselves to listen to the cries of the victims, the distant ones and the poor, sitting on the same piles of manure.


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