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The honest tenacity of the bellows

The Dawn of Midnight/5 – Staying strong not to manipulate reality and not to use God

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 21/05/2017

170514 Geremia 05 ridAnd all the people exulted and smacked their lips. Zarathustra, however, turned sad, and said to his heart: They understand me not: I am not the mouth for these ears. (...) And now they look at me and laugh: and while they laugh they hate me too.  There is ice in their laughter.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (English translation by Thomas Common)

The biblical God does not speak in the first person singular on the earth, his words reach us only as words of men and women. The one who descends from Mount Sinai with the tablets of law is Moses, a man. YHWH speaks to him in the tent of the meeting, dialoguing only with him, "mouth to mouth", and telling him words that the people may know. If we want to hear the word of God in the world all we have to do is simply learn to listen to men and women like us. It is a word that is communicated by looking into a pair of eyes at the same height as ours. We do not find it either higher or lower: it's only there in front of us. Man is the place where God knows how to speak to mankind. Only men and women can resurrect the Bible and the Gospel every day, saying the words: "come outside". Without people calling them by name, here and now, even the biblical words remain dead in their graves.

Prophets are men and women who make God speak in the world - even when they do not know it or when they do not call him God. But we don't manage to meet them because we are looking for them in the wrong places. Perhaps we think that they live only in temples or sanctuaries, that they talk of God using the language that we think must speak of a god who is respected; that they are learned theologians, experts in liturgy, or, at least, in catechism. We look for them among professional prophets, and so we almost always find false prophets who are in constant search for customers for their commerce. True prophets, however, are almost never in the places where we want them to be, they don't do the job of prophets and they do not possess the typical traits and gestures. Because almost all of them live on the outskirts of the empire, they do not attend the temples, they rarely speak the religious languages (sometimes neither know them nor are attracted to them), and they are almost always poor and neglected: shepherds of flocks, a young brother who is a dreamer, a baby in a manger. Being a human voice, the voice of the prophets is always misty, impure, imperfect, and therefore we do not recognize it as a voice of God because we think that should be pure, perfect and uncontaminated - exactly like that of the false prophets.

All this makes non-false faith something infinitely secular, common and humble. And so something wonderful, though very difficult to understand and live because we love spectacular, visionary, extraordinary beliefs. We do not like the spirit of God touching the soul while we are eating a meal or rearranging our room, when we are teaching mathematics at school, when we are trying to speed up the usual practice in the office. No, real life is not enough, we like to be immersed in the illusion of the sensational lives sold at the stands of the false prophets. And so, at the end of our pilgrimages we find Baal waiting for us in the temples and churches, to suppress us even more into slavery.

"I have made you a tester of metals among my people, / that you may know and test their ways. (...) The bellows blow fiercely; / the lead is consumed by the fire; / in vain the refining goes on, / for the wicked are not removed. / Rejected silver they are called" (Jeremiah 6:27-30). At the end of the first period of his prophetic activity (609) Jeremiah describes his total failure with the language of silver metallurgy, a very ancient and widespread craft in the Near East. The lead containing silver was treated with fire at very high temperatures in a process known as roasting. Thanks to the introduction of air through bellows, the silver was separated from the impure waste which was later discarded. The tester had to watch over the success of the process, testing the purity of the noble metal coming out of the melting pot - because the operation of separation was not always possible due to the excessive impurities remaining in the silver.
Jeremiah's metaphor is radical: the lead remained intact in the melting pot, the lead came out of the fire and the bellows just as it entered. Not a gram of silver: just lead. The failure of his mission is absolute: the bellows of his word have blown strong, but nothing precious has come out of the lead: first some lead and later some more lead -  the craftsman's work was totally futile.

The prophets are not afraid to announce the failure of their action - false prophets, on the other hand, speak only of success. The prophet is the humble operator of the bellows and the honest tester checking the purity of the metal. He uses all his strength so that the bellows generate as much air as possible. His action is far from being passive, for the prophet is not a medium: he can make the bellows work with more or less energy, and he may even stop moving his arms - an ever-present and strong temptation. Then, when that silver craftsman, exhausted, replaces the bellows and examines the metal, he can only realize that no pure metal has come out. This is the twofold, difficult task of the prophet: he is the tireless operator of the bellows and an honest metal tester. He cannot change history, he can only record it, although he does not like it and it makes him suffer. And it is in the midst of this double effort of the arms that move the bellows and the soul that must resist the temptation to change the results to make people happy, that true prophecy lives and matures. Getting exhausted completely to blow the air, and remain strong until death not to manipulate the reality that comes out of the melting pot. True prophets become false prophets either because they do not exert enough force at the bellows, or because they manipulate the results and do not say the sad truth that nobody wants to hear. The worst ones are those who do not blow the air only to say that the silver did not separate from the lead, and only to curse it. True prophets, when they see the intact lead, will always live in the doubt that the silver did not come because they did not activate the bellows with enough strength - because while they test the metal they feel another Tester testing their heart, and they always have the feeling (or certainty) that it is lead only that comes out from their melting pot, too... but they do not stop blowing through the bellows until the very end.

From this experience of total failure, like the flower of the desert, Jeremiah's great speech on the temple flowers, some extraordinary words that could only blossom from a great and accepted failure: "The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word” (7:1). Jeremiah cries: “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house ... and say, ‘We are delivered!’ — only to go on doing all these abominations?” (7:8-10)

Prophets are critical of temples and they are enemies of sacrifices. They know with great clarity that behind the sacrifices there lies the true enemy of true faith. The God of Abraham who revealed his name to Moses had showed himself as a different God because he had given the people the gift of a different relationship, a different faith, freeing them from the economic logic of sacrifices, promising a different kind of happiness: "For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice ... that it may be well with you.’ (7:22-23) Sacrifices are not just stupid, they are extremely damaging, because they deceive and feed the unfaithfulness and the sins of the people. Sacrifices are, in fact, prices paid to buy the possibility of sinning again, transforming all sins into merchandise that can be bought at the religious market. It is in this context that we can best understand the phrase that has become famous thanks to the Gospels: "Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?" (7:11). It is not the merchants who should be called robbers (as it sometimes happens), but the entire people who are wicked because they continue to commit the most serious crimes, with the illusion of being able to expiate and re-inspire them by offering sacrifices to the temple. It is the economic and sacrificial religion that immediately transforms the temple into a den where criminals take refuge. It was this same polemic against the commercial-sacrificial religion that prompted Jesus of Nazareth, centuries after Jeremiah, to criticize the temple and its religious traditions.

Without the prophets, all religions become the trade of offerings, vows, prayers and penances that are supposed to cover our malevolence: we have always done this, we continue to do it. The more atrocious the sins become, the higher the price of the atonement, up to the point of sacrificing our children, to be able to say ‘we are saved’: “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.” (7:31) Yesterday, today, maybe tomorrow.

The prophets, experts of God and humanity, therefore, give us a great truth. Idolatry nests inside the temples and churches, because without the hammer of prophecy, religions are inevitably the first enemies of the God they profess. Idolatrous sacrifices are not just those offered to Baal but also, and above all, those offered to YHWH, who becomes one of the many stupid Baals when we make him precipitate into the economic logic of sacrifices.
Everyone, even the most honest and true person, upon beginning an experience of faith by following a voice ends up creating a cult, blocking God and the real ideals in dead things called religious practices, craft, status, community or movement. It prevents God, or his greatest wishes, from becoming something different from the idea that we made of him. And the person creating the cult loves their own beautiful dreams so much as not to be willing to wake up any more. Without prophets, the spiritual promises of youth become idolatrous cults in adulthood. Prophets do not only liberate us from the idols, they also free us from our idea of God, our cults and our religious illusions. And then they make us poor and liberated again, on the outskirts of the empire, still looking for a cave, a baby, a mother, a carpenter.

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