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The Mother’s Gesture Is Like Leaven

Greater than Guilt/29 - Always reminding us that every son is a son of all

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 05/08/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 29 rid“In Heaven she is sure to find your mother again, and she is also sure to find your other grandmother. Donna Maria Vincenza assured me that if the Eternal Father does not take you directly under his protection, the three of them will raise such protests that Paradise will become a true hell...

Ignazio Silone, Il seme sotto la neve (Seed Beneath the Snow - rough translation)

Many pathologies of the Judeo-Christian religions and of the Western civilization which originated from them are a direct consequence of the marriage created between faith and economy. The understanding of sin as debt is at the origin and heart of biblical humanism, which has determined a mercantile vision of religion and salvation. And when the debit-credit logic extends from earth to heaven, a perhaps more abstract organization of our financial capitalism takes shape.

Sins tend to survive the sinner in heaven and on earth. The debt incurred remains on the "balance sheet" of a person, a community and God, if and until someone cancels it by paying the appropriate price. God is inserted in these trades, as a last resort guarantor of the legal value of the "coins" used and as the main counterpart of this market, whose stock exchange is the Temple. That first act, which had raised credit on the part of the offended, was "renegotiated" and transformed into a new, more complex contract, a sort of derivative title, which generates inter-temporal chains that get extended and amplified through space and time. Today our economic system has eliminated the God hypothesis, but the guilt-debt mechanism continues to operate more and more undisturbed, because it isn’t included or hidden under the fine words of "meritocracy" and "incentive". Also because it is very difficult to free ourselves from the economic idea of faith when we are increasingly surrounded by the economy and its dogmas. We would need a serious theological analysis of capitalism to understand it and perhaps try to change it.

“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, »There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death«” (2 Samuel 21:1). David has to deal with a long famine, perhaps linked to a drought of extraordinary duration. For us, droughts and natural disasters are only droughts and disasters; for the man of Antiquity they were also divine messages requiring decoding. If YHWH is Israel's ally, such a long famine can only be explained by divine anger caused by a grave sin. So David goes on a pilgrimage to an important temple, there he looks for "the face of the Lord", and receives his answer: what is happening has its cause in a previous murder of King Saul that he committed against the community of the Gibeonites (a Canaanite population, friends of Israel). We do not know what Saul’s blood crime was. We only know that David does not question the oracle he receives (perhaps through a prophet). He summons the Gibeonites for a treaty, and tells them: “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement...?” The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house...” (21:3-4). The Gibeonites set the price, and clarify that they do not want a compensation in money, even if it is provided by the Law of Moses (Exodus 21:30). And here we can find a paradox. That ancient idea of religion, which had taken the symbolic language used in the economy to express the debt-credit relations between human kind and God, does not however consider “real” money an adequate currency to pay off the most important debts. For these, blood was needed.

There is also a key to understanding the nature and vocation of the economy here, if we read it in relation to sacrifices and blood. The development of monetary institutions over the centuries has also been the great alternative to avoid having to pay with blood. This ancient story of blood and debt, in its madness, also suggests another message of life: when it comes to life and death, money is too little. When someone hits and hurts us and/or those we love in the flesh, no amount of money can really restore the original situation. We need another logic, one that is non-monetary and unrelated to the cost-benefit calculation, which is called forgiveness and reconciliation. Only within such cases of total non-monetary reconciliation do the monetary reparations of damage and the judicial punishments perform their function of trying to re-establish the broken equilibrium, even if they never succeed completely in doing so.

At this point, the text develops into its terrible tragedy: “They said to the king, »The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us (...) let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord«” (21:5-6). David agrees to pay that awful price, without negotiating: “The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul ... and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the Lord and the seven of them perished together” (21:8-9).

The absurd pact is concluded, the blood damage is repaid adequately with more blood. But we cannot but interrogate the Bible, asking: how could David accept such a vile business, and believe that YHWH needed that blood to be appeased and to reconcile with the people? We could say that David, in reality, is moving on a mainly political level: by delivering the seven Saulites, he reconciles with the Gibeonites and eliminates the last survivors of the rival house of Saul. This is a possible but partial answer, because in the Bible it is very difficult, if not impossible, to isolate the political component from the religious one. The sacrifice of those victims takes place in a sacred place, the temple of YHWH at Gibeah, with men used as "offerings for YHWH" in a sacrificial context. The first debtor is therefore God.

Therefore, this blood pact reveals to us an important dimension of Israel's faith at the dawn of the monarchy. David, the king according to God's heart, the singer of splendid psalms, Jonathan's sincere friend and the beloved character of the Bible probably really believed that YHWH, the different God of the Covenant could be appeased and satisfied by human blood. But the saddest news is that despite the fact that three thousand years have passed since that wicked offer, despite Christianity and Saint Paul, we too continue to believe in the same God as David and the Gibeonites every time - and unfortunately there are many times - that, more or less consciously, we read the blood of Christ on the cross as the price paid to the Father for our sins, or when we offer our pain or even our life as a sacrifice thinking that up there there is someone who awaits and likes our sacrifice-offering, and who believes that the measure of our genuineness is the "blood" and the pain that we "give freely".

But even in this tremendous tale we suddenly come across the splendid epiphany of another idea of faith, life and religion - the Bible is immense for its continuous self-subversion, too. It is the gesture of Rizpah, a woman who gives us one of the strongest, most dramatic and spiritual discourses in all religious literature without speaking, thus illuminating that archaic sacrifice of a light of paradise: “Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens. And she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night” (21:10).

This verse 21:10 of the Second Book of Samuel should be included in every anthology of the moral excellence of human beings, mothers and women. We had already met her (3:7). She was Saul's concubine that his general Abner had "taken" without asking his permission, to send a political message to his king. Now David "takes" her two sons to make his repairing offer, without asking her permission yet again (which he would never have obtained). She takes her sack for the mourning, and instead of wearing it she stretches it out and turns it into her tent. And there she keeps vigil, day and night, over those lifeless bodies. She stays under those crosses for days, weeks, perhaps months. She is alone, like a stele of living flesh, like a sentinel who stands, together with the prophet, in her lookout position on the walls (Isaiah 21), to tell us other words of YHWH without speaking. To prophesy Golgotha, and to cry out on her Holy Saturday that if there is a true God he cannot and must not like the blood of men, because then he would be less human than her, or us. Mute words like these of Rizpah are the ones that give the entire Bible the taste and fragrance of the word of God. Without the gesture of this mother and the few similar characters who dot the Bible, the bread of the word would be all unleavened and foolish. Rizpah’s gesture allows us to say "the Word of the Lord" at the end of the reading of these tremendous chapters, without being ashamed of human beings, the Bible and its God.

We can imagine Rizpah holding onto those bodies tight, wetting them with her tears, kissing them, drying the wounds with her hair. Shouting against people and, perhaps, against the sky that had wanted the offer of those sons - the mothers, from Rizpah to Mary, have always known that no inhabited sky can accept the blood of crucified children. And then we see her chasing the wild beasts and vultures from the bodies of her sons and also from the bodies of Merab's sons. She watches over those seven victims, she watches over her sons, hers and those of others, to remind us forever that every son is a son of all. Christianity, one day, revealed to us a different love, agape, capable of going beyond blood ties, friendship and desire, and thus able to chase away vultures and wild beasts from the bodies of all children. It was able to offer it to us because it had learned it from the love of mothers and women, which was the one that most resembled it.

Rain fell from the sky again on the esplanade of the temple of Gibeah, wetting the earth and those crucified bodies. That saving rain, however, was not the response to David's sacrifice, but God's tears given in response to those of Rizpah and those of the other mothers of the crucified. Only a God who cries with us for the death and pain of our children can be at the religious heights of Rizpah and her sisters.

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