The Moving Sands of Illusions

The Dawn of Midnight/23 - Accepting the truth is reconciliation, not resignation

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/09/2017

170917 Geremia 23 1 ridCassandra: “Has my arrow hit the mark or has it missed? Or am I a false prophet, a chatterer beggar? Swear an oath that you have not heard these things before and that I know well all the ancient sins of this house. (...) And yet again! Ah! The dreadful pain of prophecy fulfilled spins me around and – there! It begins to shake me!

Aeschylus, Agamennone (English translation by George Theodoridis)

When we cultivate a great illusion in life, the management of disappointment is always very complicated and extremely painful. Furthermore, if the time of illusion has been lived in good faith and for many years, when we can already glimpse the day of disappointment, we almost always prefer to remain deceived. Because calling the illusion its true name means having to say words that are too painful to say out loud: failure, (self-)deception, immaturity, manipulation. Yet, it would be enough to understand that disappointment is the only good flowering of illusion, live it as a blessed passage to bring good fruits, and then conclude our journey under the sun in truth. In the struggle between illusion and disappointment - and we are talking about real agony, especially in case of righteous and honest people - the outcome depends decisively on whom we stand next in the struggle. If we have one or more false prophets as companions, we remain imprisoned in the illusion, we continue to deny reality, even when it is obvious and evident to everyone. Because the false prophets are masters of presenting facts contrary to their ideology as the last test to pass in order to finally be ready for true salvation. If, however, we meet a true prophet in the struggle, the age of illusion can end at last, and the evil and oppressing pain can be transformed into the good labour of liberation. Faced with the total and definitive collapse of what seemed to us for so long to be the most beautiful and true life on earth and in heaven, the only possible salvation is to embrace disappointment. And to invite her to dinner, put the most beautiful tablecloths and cutlery, and open the best bottle of wine from the cellar. And then, together, to celebrate, inviting the few real friends and the very few prophets. Without this dinner of reconciliation we cannot discover one day that that life was really beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful than we had imagined.

“Jeremiah set out from Jerusalem to go to the land of Benjamin to receive his portion there among the people. When he was at the Benjamin Gate, a sentry there named Irijah the son of Shelemiah, son of Hananiah, seized Jeremiah the prophet, saying, »You are deserting to the Chaldeans.« And Jeremiah said, »It is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans.« But Irijah would not listen to him, and seized Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. And the officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of Jonathan (...). …Jeremiah had come to the dungeon cells and remained there many days” (Jeremiah 37:12-16). We arrived at the last part of Jeremiah's story, narrated by Baruch. It is the cycle of the so-called "martyrdom of Jeremiah". Of his ordeal, his passion. And there are many important and most vivid analogies of the passion of other righteous people to be found. The beatings, interrogations, secret nightly dialogues, the dungeon and the mud. We can become familiar with the Gospels, the life, passion and death of Jesus Christ without ever having read the Bible, the prophets, Job or Jeremiah. We can, so many have done so, so many still do so. But we can read the Gospels together with the whole of "the Law and the Prophets", and thereby learn to know another kind of Christianity, we begin another spiritual life, and perhaps we meet another Christ.

In a moment of a loosening grip of the Babylonian siege - as they were busy on the Egyptian front (37:11) -, Jeremiah, who is still free to move (37:4), leaves the city perhaps for the purchase of that land in Anathoth, of which the grandiose episode of Chapter 32 informs us. He is arrested and accused of collaborating with the enemy, and they throw him into a cistern. Like Joseph, another righteous one, the first prophet of salvation history - he was also accused by his brothers for his different words, for his prophetic dreams that were true and uncomfortable. He, too, was saved and not let to die in the cistern: “King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, »Is there any word from the Lord?« Jeremiah said, »There is.« Then he said, »You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon«” (37:17).

Jeremiah's faithfulness to the word is extraordinary and impressive: we have seen this many times by now, but he continues to amaze and leave us breathless each time. The king sends for him to the prison, in search of words other than those of the prophet, perhaps thinking that the change in the geopolitical context and the reappearance of the Egyptian empire would produce another prophecy and another outcome. These tricks, however, don't work with Jeremiah, not even amidst general despair. And from the bottom of his cistern, old and exhausted, he offers the king the same words as always: the only salvation is surrender, the Chaldeans will return, and they will occupy Jerusalem and the temple. End of story.

This is another episode that says a lot and very loudly, telling us many things. One of them is the radical ambivalence of this king (and of power in general), who on the one hand seems to give credit to Jeremiah and asks him for a new oracle, and on the other hand would like to suggest him what words to say, which are of course different from those that Jeremiah has always said. The king seeks consolation; Jeremiah obeys the truth. Zedekiah acts as those who in the face of a decisive choice feel the need for a "prophet" to advise and consult them, but does not have the moral strength to go to someone honest and true because he may offer some uncomfortable advice; and so he seeks, sometimes unconsciously, a spiritual father or a manipulable spiritual coach who will advise him the very choice that he has already made in his heart. Fake discernment without a love for truth is the typical form of deception always cultivated by false prophets. In fact, Jeremiah adds: “Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, »The king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land«” (37:19). As if to say: if you want the usual consoling lies, turn to your court prophets, to the adulators who have always told you what you wanted to hear, and have pushed you into the abyss. But Jeremiah resists until the end: he doesn't become a servant of power and its fictions. Jeremiah is great for many things, but he is immense for this unconditional faithfulness to the word and to his own dignity. Faced with the imminent defeat of the king and the people, he could give in to human pietas and say a word of consolation - as the one who, at the bedside of a dying friend, tells him with love, “You'll see that you’ll get better”. We tend to do it, Jeremiah does not: so as to repeat the absolute value of the truth of the word, in every circumstance, even in the most dramatic situation. Even when truth seems to conflict with the demands of charity, Jeremiah tells us that the only way to surely betray charity is not serving the truth of the word. Discounts, sales, remissions... the prophets leave these to our businesses, yesterday and today.

The secret dialogue between the prophet and the king continues: “Jeremiah also said to King Zedekiah, »What wrong have I done to you or your servants or this people, that you have put me in prison? (...) Now hear, please, O my lord the king: let my humble plea come before you and do not send me back to the house of Jonathan the secretary, lest I die there.« So King Zedekiah gave orders, and they committed Jeremiah to the court of the guard. And a loaf of bread was given him daily from the bakers' street, until all the bread of the city was gone” (37:18-21).

In this dialogue, the words of Jeremiah are not preceded by “Thus says the Lord” or "The oracle of the Lord". We are faced with a dialogue between two men, a sovereign and a prophet, a king and his prisoner. Jeremiah's words in the Book of Jeremiah are not all words of YHWH. There are also many words of Jeremiah himself, which are no less beautiful and important - like the story of his vocation, his trials, his intimate songs. This plea that the old prophet, exhausted by imprisonment, now addresses to the king is neither a prophetic gesture nor a command of God. It’s only a word of Jeremiah from Anathoth. A word like the many words that the sufferers shout out to the powerful who can liberate them. Perhaps all the "oracles" received in the course of our existence have made up a capital that we will spend when we have to reach the top of our Golgotha, where we will remember only one of those words heard and spoken, and we will compose our psalm of abandonment.

In the chapters of his martyrdom narrated by his scribe Baruch, Jeremiah also appears increasingly defenceless, alone, at the mercy of the leaders of his enemies. The words he repeats are those he has always said: “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken” (38:2-3). He has no other words to say. And so the ministers and generals, still captured by nationalist and warrior ideology, ask the king that Jeremiah be arrested again. And King Zedekiah answers: “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you” (38:5). Pilate could not be missing from this story of passion - he is almost always there in the true passions of men and God: “So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (38:6).

Jeremiah sinks into the mud. We can see him sinking while we continue frittering our time away in our illusions. Or we can decide to sink with him, and wait for salvation in the cistern, but without knowing if an Ethiopian eunuch will come to save us. Because there are not enough "Ethiopians" to save all Jeremiahs who continue to sink into the mud of the world.

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