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Christians, that is, men and women, brothers and sisters

Greater than Guilt/21 - No rhetoric stands: every war is fratricide

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 10/06/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 21 rid“Rabbi Pinhas said: ‘Whoever says that the words of the Torah are one thing and the words of the world another, must be regarded as a man who denies God’”.

Martin Buber Tales of the Hasidim (English translation by Olga Marx)

When I was a boy, in my village to say a human person, we said “cristiano” (actually: cristià in the Ascoli dialect), that is, Christian. For a long time I thought that "Christians" was the name of human beings. I didn't feel it was a religious word, and most of my people used it without knowing that this very common term came from religion. Christians were men, Christians were women.

When a stranger knocked on the door, before talking to us they already knew his name: he was a Christian – or "è nu cristià", as my grandfather used to say. Later I learned that Christians was the name by which the men and women, followers of Jesus were called in Antioch. Christians the good, Christians the bad ("that one’s a bad Christian"), healthy Christians, disabled Christians. Then the Moabites and the Arameans are also Christians, as well as the son of Jonathan "crippled in both of his feet" - "a poor Christian arrives", our ancestors would have said if they had seen the person arrive trudging along the way home: they said this so many times during the wars. It took many centuries of history, love and pain for Christian to become synonymous with man or woman in Europe. By now we have forgotten it; it was mainly the wars between Christians and the lagers that made us and others forget it. But it is also because they only learn again to recognize the victims arriving in our cities and at the gates of our homes and be able to welcome them as Christians if people are called Christians in the Antioch of tomorrow.

“And the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went” (2 Samuel 8:14). When a new ruling class reaches power, a very common operation is discrediting the defeated political class through the ideological re-construction of the past - it is common because it is very simple to legitimize ethically. The Bible knows this rhetorical technique very well, and uses it many times, given the importance of reading history from God's perspective in that kind of humanism. David's military and political success is a well-known and relevant example of this narrative technique. These passages are artfully constructed by a very skilled hand to use ancient materials to create the political "myth" of David and Israel. It is the apotheosis of the economic-retributive kind of religion, which reads success as a divine blessing and defeat (of others) as a curse. Today we know that David's ascension to the throne was much more controversial and ambivalent than the author of Samuel's books tells us. David was actually the victor at the end of a long and hard civil war against Saul and his sons. Many of the different and non-aligned materials were eliminated or changed, but some survived, often against the will of the author himself - the really great books were able to resist the manipulations and narcissisms of their authors. But in the Bible, together with the ideologies of its authors - thank God - we are also there, and we must be there.

We know that the peoples conquered and turned into slaves and subjects were free peoples who lost their freedom because of David, and we can and must read those stories from their perspective as well. Seen through their eyes, David appeared exactly as the Assyrians and Babylonians appeared to Israel centuries later: imperialist enemy powers, killing men, women, children and animals, destroying the economy, the temples and national identity, deporting people into exile. However, we are not justified or forgiven if we continue to read those facts with the same ideology as the writer of David’s victories. Instead, we must struggle against the biblical author to help him free himself from his own ideology. And if we try we realize that this struggle is already present in the entire Bible. We also find it in the books of Samuel, which at the beginning prophetically denounce the evils and corruptions of the monarchy that the people strongly want (1 Samuel 8:13), but later theologically praise that monarchy and its hero, David. The Bible remains generative and anti-ideological as long as we are able to read the Song of Songs and Job, Qoheleth and Daniel, Paul and James synoptically - although we can and must express our moral preferences. However, one question (at least) remains open: the final editor of these chapters (written after the Babylonian conquest, the destruction of the temple, after the exile), who, thanks to the prophets, had learned to believe in a true and defeated God, one who had learned that truth does not coincide with success – so why does he still present David’s story marked by the ideology of military victory and power as a blessing? It is not easy to answer this question, which runs through much of the Bible. We will try to do it a little at a time when we tell the story of the failures of David and his descendants. But we can and must immediately use these political and ideological chapters to make a precious moral and spiritual exercise. We read that David “defeated Moab and he measured them with a line, making them lie down on the ground. Two lines he measured to be put to death, and one full line to be spared” (8:2). And then in the same Bible we read that Ruth was a Moabite, and in the genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth we find: “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king (...) Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Mt 1). We then continue reading, and while we discover that "David struck down 22,000 men of the Syrians" (8:5), we return with our heart to the prayer of the wandering Aramean of Moses, to Rachel and Leah, daughters of an Aramean, to that people speaking Aramaic, the language with which Our Father was first said. Then we stop to honour the mourning for these deaths and for these freedoms lost at the hands of David, feeling the pain in our flesh because the Aramean can no longer wander freely.

From all these complicated deeds of David we can learn something very important, which was not the author’s intention but must be ours: all the wars of which the Bible speaks to us are fratricidal wars. Cain continues to operate, and disguised as David he kills his brother again. The Bible, if read from this perspective, tells us that our wars, which in our atheisms we still interpret as sacred wars and divine blessing, are all fratricidal wars, because every murder is a fratricide. With that rope David was measuring the wood of the cross. He could not know, but we do, and for the mysterious but real reciprocity of the Bible we must remind him of this, we must remember it. Remember that when we occupy a country and kill men, women, children, animals, we are killing Benjamin and Joseph, the sons of Rachel the Aramean, the sons of Ruth the Moabite and the son of Mary. Only with these feelings can we make a good and responsible reading of David's enterprises.

“And David said, »Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake?« Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba (...) Ziba said to the king, »There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet«” (9:1-3). David has reached the peak of his political ascent. He has defeated all his internal and external enemies, and now reigns over an empire that stretches from the Euphrates to the Nile. But it is precisely at the height of his success that the signs of its decline begin to filter through. David will also be subject to the law of "sunset within midday".

The way his succession is managed is a sign that David's trajectory begins to change sign, taking the form of a parable. The text gives us some hints on the relationship between the king and the only survivor of the house of Saul. It's a very beautiful and humane episode. We do not have enough information to fully understand the reasons that led David to inquire about the existence of his friend’s son, many years after the death of Jonathan (Mephibosheth was five years old at the time, now he is a grown man). What is striking is the similarity between David’s request “that I may show him kindness") and the one by Herod to the three magi, saying that he wanted "to honour the new king". It is the rest of the story that suggests at least ambivalence in David's motivations. Mephibosheth arrived in the royal court and he “fell on his face and paid homage. And David said, »Mephibosheth!« And he answered, »Behold, I am your servant.« And David said to him, »Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always«” (9:6-7).

It’s a very brief description of the scene. However, it is very likely that David had to deal with conflicting feelings. His old pact of friendship with Jonathan would lead to reading the restitution of the lands of Saul to his grandson as an act of sincere generosity and honour for the son of his great friend. However, Mephibosheth’s fear, whose family was exterminated by David and his men, and the answer he gives to David (“What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”; 9:8) offer considerations that are quite different from David’s noble words. But what makes it difficult to sustain David's non-ambivalence is that he says, "and you shall eat at my table always". What is the meaning of this request? It's David's ambivalence and that of power in general: wanting to stay true to the pacts with friends, but also keeping potential enemies (in terms of succession to the throne) under control. Mephibosheth will be forced to stay at David's court, in a golden cage, crippled and away from his only son: “And Mephibosheth had a young son, whose name was Mica. (...) So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king's table. Now he was lame in both his feet” (9:12-13).

David did not know that the Moabites and the Arameans were "Christians", just as he did not know that Mephibosheth, crippled in both of his feet, was also a "Christian”. We, however, do, and we must remind David of this, who "did not love the blind and the lame". As we continue to grow for and with it, we must give back to the Bible its characters enriched by our dowry of humanity. We have to go deeper into the Bible, down to Sarah and reproach her for how she treats Hagar; become indignant about the blessing that Jacob tears away from Esau; stop Abraham's hand before the angel and the ram arrive; fall in despair with Job and Rachel because their "children are no longer", and then get angry at God because he does not answer Job in words equal to his tremendous questions because they are very human. We have to continue crying "why?", with the Son on the cross, and wait for God to respond for two thousand years.

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