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Whoever believes will not be in haste

Listening to Life/14 - It is a promise that keeps the entire world going around

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 25/09/2016

Anna Caravella rid 300Death is for us, at the same time, it is a limit-experience and an experience of limit: an extraordinary event, which, because of its exceptional nature, makes us face our radical finitude. ... The situation of survival is the central position of power"

Elias Canetti, Potere e sopravvivenza ("Power and Survival")

The promise of the Bible has always been difficult to understand and accept since it is too different from those of the false prophets and absolutely different from the promises of the idols and ideologies. It has been betrayed a thousand times by the people, by its kings, by the temple. But it has been kept alive and nourished by the prophets, guarded by a 'remnant' of the people that in certain historical moments became tiny, a small sapling that germinated and blossomed from a tree trunk that had looked dead forever.

Only this 'remnant', composed of the poor and humble, understands the prophets because it has not ceased to believe in that difficult, old promise. And every time someone continues to hope when foreign empires conquer, destroy and deport, every time someone remembers the ancient prayers when the temple is already filled with new fashionable idols, every time someone does not stop crying out to plead the cause of the poor, every time someone nailed to a cross does not curse either their tormentors or God - they become part of that remnant, the unaware citizens of that kingdom, the salt and yeast. Of the earth, a country, a company, a community - every human group has its faithful remnant that can, and often does, save it.

This little invisible realm is always undermined and threatened by extinction. When and where it survives it owes much to the prophets who nourish the rest by telling them the ancient promise a thousand times - and in telling it they regenerate them every time in their own flesh. Uttering words of the future, offering themselves as a visible and concrete down payment of the promised land that is not there yet. They protect it like a lioness protects her cubs from the ever new seductions of the false prophets.

The signs of recognition of the false promises of the false prophets have always been the same for three millennia: their colours are too shiny, their land is without shadows, the distance from the poor keeps growing, the 'temple' is transformed to a place of sacrifices and cults of emotional and mystical consumption, the visions become like the tales of drunkards. Isaiah knows this very well: "These also reel with wine / and stagger with strong drink; / the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, / they are swallowed by wine." (Isaiah 28:7). The first strong drinks and false cults of false prophecy are their liturgies, overflowing with words and gestures to the point of not leaving the spirit any hole to try and enter. These in turn keep the faithful away from the humble toil of living, and make them walk the streets drunk and struck by hangover. Maybe it's after having attended one of these orgiastic rites that Isaiah exclaims: “For all tables are full of filthy vomit, / with no space left.” (28:8)

Religions and civilizations have always lived, and still live in a perpetual conflict between those who want to stun us by distracting us from the sufferings of the present with easy pseudo-spiritual and ideological drugs, and the non-false prophets who spend their lives trying to keep us wide awake and vigilant, anchored in non-vain and therefore difficult hopes - almost without ever succeeding. This type of conflict often takes the form of derision and mockery: "To whom will he teach knowledge, / and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, / those taken from the breast?" (28:9). Isaiah's opponents say they have no need of his revelation, a knowledge that is useful only to babies who are not yet weaned. So they tease him, mock him with (perhaps) a nursery rhyme sung by the mothers of Jerusalem to teach their children to speak and / or to walk: “Tzau-latzau, Tzau-latzau, Qua-Laqàu, Qua-Laqàu, Zeer-shàm Zeer-shàm” (28:10).

To the false prophets, the leaders of the people always seduced by the false-spectacular prophecies and the many forms assumed by the orgies and the mystery rites, the honest words of the prophet appear too simple and elementary, like little children's stuff; and so instead of trying to 'become children again', they accuse Isaiah of childishness. It is a fate that the prophets have in common with true innovators in art, science, culture, and spirituality, where the first tool to discredit them is sarcasm, the trivialization of their positions and their experiences, presented and ridiculed as too elementary, like things for children - as if, among other things, it was easy to imitate children as adults: all our life we keep trying, sometimes we manage but always imperfectly, until the end comes.

While we are still grappling with Isaiah with the sarcasm of his (and our) contemporaries, another marvelous prophetic shot hits us. We find ourselves thrown into the middle of one of the most precise descriptions of power: "Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers, / who rule this people in Jerusalem! / Because you have said, / “We have made a covenant with death, / and with Sheol we have an agreement, / when the overwhelming whip passes through / it will not come to us, / for we have made lies our refuge, / and in falsehood we have taken shelter”; (28:14-15).

Isaiah reveals himself as the connoisseur and revealer of one of the mightiest spirits of the earth: the spirit of power - a spirit that our time has erased, officially declaring the topic as no longer relevant or useful to understand the new capitalism and the new democracies.

Isaiah is telling us that at the base of the power of the 'masters' of the people there is a religious-idolatrous act, a true 'covenant with death', where the seeker of power 'sells their soul' in exchange for a kind of immortality. We don’t need to remember those dictators that were true practitioners of pagan rites and necromancies to understand that every power has a natural tendency of trying to overcome the general condition of mortality, of wanting to conquer death. This delusion is inherent to power. Power - whether political, religious or charismatic ... - creates the feeling that soon becomes certainty, of not being like the other living things ("...it will not come to us"), of having finally won – acquired a great immunity from the ills of life, and so from death, the greatest ill. Of being like God. The ancient promise of the serpent is back, and it always seduces us every time it returns – the great myth of Chapter 3 of Genesis is also an anthropological discourse on power, which is always and immediately a religious discourse.

When entering the places of power, the powerful one leaves the ordinary condition of the animal, and enters in that of the herdsman towards his cows or the hunter to his prey: they are superior and invulnerable beings, with an infinite power and capacity to generate vulnerability in others. Nothing like power can separate and immunize us from those who do not have power - that's why all power tends by its nature to become absolute: a case of 'only one man in command', and every shared power is imperfect and unstable. Immortality conquered by the powerful is the removal of the horizon of death from everyday life, and therefore of any larger horizon where we could find ourselves in a court in which one day someone will ask us to account for our deeds. When we are masters of the others it really feels like we are gods, even when our paradise is only a city, an office or a convent.

Power does not promise immortality only by selling the illusion of reducing our exposure to vulnerability and illness, or just by giving us the hope-illusion of being able to do heroic deeds that they will gain an imperishable memory. It promises much more: in its promised land there is a much sweeter type of honey. The achievement of power promises to prolong the feeling of immortality that's typical of youth, when there is no death or only for others. That's why there is an affinity between power and youth. Youth is searched, celebrated, consumed and idolized by the powerful. People who are no longer young seek to stay in power especially and perhaps only to stay young and therefore for the illusion of not dying ever, without recognizing how illusory it is: almost all the strength and fragility of power is in this grand illusion that does not present itself as such.

It is interesting and very telling that many cultures have used the economic metaphor to express this heinous trade between power and death. It reveals more about the nature of money, its promise-claim of being able to buy everything, even what's impossible. That's where the endless fascination of money lies - instead of being reduced it increases with its accumulation.

But in order for such a contract to promise an infinite prize, the other party can and must ask for everything: one's soul and whole life. And so that's why people - yesterday, today and always - offer all their suffering, love, hope and dignity on the altar of power. Because we do not want to get only the privileges and the direct contents of power: we seek immortality, we want to survive death.

At this point, as it often happened in the chapters that we have commented on so far, after a great page of complaint and criticism, Isaiah manages to complete his theological masterpieces, to create his most beautiful words. He responds to the illusion of the immortal power of the masters of the people by giving us the great word of the cornerstone: "therefore thus says the Lord God, / »Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, / a stone, a tested stone, / a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.«” It ends with a mysterious phrase that makes us tremble of the beauty in its mystery: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ (28:16) This sentence is the inscription that Isaiah has affixed on the cornerstone of his spiritual and ideal building. The cornerstone, the extremely firm foundation that is hard, holding everything, can only come from the remnant: that little thing that thinks, hopes and makes the world keep going around.

What does not die is not power with its deadly illusions. What really does not die is the one who is able to believe in the true and humble promise, which is great because it is little. We do not die as long as we are able to remain within the expectation of the fulfilment of the promise, that really survives in children, grandchildren, in the children of the "remnant" of tomorrow. That's the only thing we can do in order not to die. There is no other good kind of immortality under the sun. Whoever believes will not be in haste.

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