Faithfulness and redemption/13 - Alternatives live and grow because they know how to see value in other people's waste.
by Luigino Bruni
Published in the Avvenire 26/06/2021
"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them"
"Sad science" has always tried to separate things from people. Boaz does not separate Ruth from the field, and reveals a different way of perceiving her to us.
«Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate and sat down there just as the guardian-redeemer he had mentioned came along. Boaz said, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So he went over and sat down» (The Book of Ruth 4,1). The fourth and final chapter of the Book of Ruth begins with Boaz arriving at the city gate, and then sitting down. Many ancient Middle Eastern cities, including the small city of Bethlehem, did not have an agora, forum or square in the city centre. The houses were stacked on top of each other within the walls, and public space was instead created near the door to each home, in the liminal area, on the threshold between what was inside and outside. There was a great bustle of people coming and going, an intersection between city and countryside, between residents and foreigners. It was also the place for markets, public debates, the political life of the city, from there the prophets spoke to the people as well..
The culture of cities with a main square in their city centre is different from those with the "square" on the threshold of each home. In the latter, markets, politics and legal disputes are not kept within the heart of the city; there are no palaces of captains or leaders or temples to act as sentinels of the level of faith-trust of the civitas. Dialogues and encounters at the door have the same impermanence as those in street, with the same uncertainty and fragility; it is the same dust and summer heat, the same exposure to other events. Our global cities are becoming more and more similar to ancient Bethlehem and further away from for example Florence; and we, in constant search for a centre, are no longer able to find it because we do not seek it on the thresholds.
In this square, exposed and in constant movement, Boaz meets the man who had inadvertently ended up meddling with the plans of Naomi and Ruth, the one who had a greater right to act as a redeemer (goèl) than Boaz, because he was a closer relative of Elimelek, Naomi’s husband. A man who would remain anonymous, a "guy" with no name. Perhaps because tradition forgot all about him or perhaps, I prefer to think so, he remained nameless in order to avoid involving his descendants in a less than edifying episode - although, even in this case, the author of the book does not really condemn anyone. In fact, there is a parallel between this last chapter and the first, between this anonymous gentleman and Orpah, the other daughter-in-law who does not follow Naomi and returns to Moab. Two refusals necessary for the economy and dynamics of the story, and two representatives of many "ordinary" men and women, who do not go beyond common sense and their regular interests.
«Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so» (The Book of Ruth 4,2). In the ancient world, the guarantee of any public act was found in the eyes of others and then their words. They were public because they took place in public. When an act was particularly important, the elderly, who with their experience guaranteed a different and precious wisdom, were especially needed. Not all chronologically older men were "older" in the eyes of the Bible. In many African cultures not all deceased relatives are seen as "ancestors", but only those who have distinguished themselves in life for their wisdom and virtue. The same was true in Israel, the elders who performed juridical functions were not only elderly but also "righteous". Chronological age has never been enough to generate wisdom. Not even in the Bible, where age is only one of the axes along which the ethical quality of people is measured. The second axis is constituted by their sense of virtue-justice, and the third by the unpredictable choice of God, who as king and as prophet of men (David, Samuel, Jeremiah) can chose as he pleases unhinging the other two axes of the building of the Covenant. Boaz chooses ten, and that street-square is then filled with only men. Ruth and Naomi are the protagonists but absent, those who speak and act are males. Thus, the overall tone of the book changes. The words that are used - buy, sell ... - change the relational atmosphere and the spiritual environment in general. Something that happens every time all women leave a room and we stay only among men.
«Then he said to the guardian-redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line”» (The Book of Ruth 4,3-4). Naomi and Ruth are the subject of this speech, but the two women are not there. They are exposed in the public square while absent. One of the forms of poverty of women (and of the poor) has always consisted in being at the centre of acts and processes without having any control over them. Here Boaz is not only a possible and hoped-for goèl, he is also an advocate of women, of Ruth and Naomi; like the Spirit, who in the Gospels is defined as the paraclete, that is, a redeemer and advocate. This action of Boaz thus reveals something of the action of the Spirit on earth: a paraclete is also someone who defends the victims that are "exposed" in the squares of the world, he is in fact the "father of the poor".
We are no longer able to understand today, on the basis of the text, what kind of right Naomi had to her husband’s field. Maybe it was bare ownership, maybe it was a case of usufruct, or maybe something else. What matters is that there is an immovable property on which redemption by a relative can be exercised. «“I will redeem it,” he said» (The Book of Ruth 4,4). The tension of the story melts away: the first goèl is doing his duty. But this is also the moment for yet another twist in the story: «Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property”» (The Book of Ruth 4, 5). Boaz, showing a creativity similar to that of Naomi, combining the institutions of the goèl and the levirate, associates the purchase of the land with the «purchase» of Ruth, specifying that she is a «Moabite» and therefore a foreigner. There is a radical change of scenery. Now it is not just a matter of evaluating the costs and benefits of purchasing Naomi's field, of calculating the convenience of a real estate investment. This good would bring a wife along with it. The economy of redemption was becoming complicated: «At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it» (The Book of Ruth 4,6). The information that a woman was in fact also attached to that piece of land makes the "guy" change his mind, renouncing his right to redemption in favour of Boaz. That man made his calculations, evaluating the full effect of that redemption upon his inheritance, and then made his choice. He acted according to his own interests, looking at the costs and benefits of the deal. Like many, many men, like almost all of them.
When we add people as a voice to income statements, the calculation of what is convenient changes radically. Because while the costs and benefits of purchasing land and goods are easy to calculate, when people enter "contracts" the equation changes its nature. Men are living and free beings, we cannot anticipate all the costs and benefits they will bring us. Men are living flesh and heart, and women are even more so, even when they find themselves involved in economies and contracts that they did not design themselves. And so for centuries we have been doing everything to buy the land and not "buy" Ruth, to free things from the burden of people. Boaz, however, knows that Ruth is the real "deal" that he has made through this act of redemption, she is the actual good and the real blessing that has arrived in his life.
The economy of Boaz and the economy of the other "guy" continue to live side by side in our squares and on our doorsteps. The economy of those who buy and sell goods, and see relational goods as complications and problems to be avoided, and therefore replace people with things. The economy of Boaz is the economy of those who see people as their primary wealth, who see women and men first and then the land, and who know that even the most fertile soil and the most productive machinery will not be able to produce well-being without at least one Ruth being involved. Those who understand that if a contract is to be blessed with good results these will come from the people that are part of it. Owning land is a good thing, land constitutes a good and wealth; but the Divine Comedy was not born from a piece of land, neither was a "Night song of a wandering shepherd in Asia" or the ballets choreographed by Carla Fracci. Only people can do these things.
The economy of Boaz is one that grows by redeeming abandoned lands precisely because of the presence of a Ruth. It is the economy of those who see blessings within wounds, good within evil, and who feed on the lands that have been discarded by others because they are considered inconvenient because of the people associated with them. Back then as well as today, a real alternative economy lives and grows because it is able to see value in the waste of others, and understand that the Ruths of the world are benefits hidden within the envelope of costs. Inside prisons, in the lands that belong to the mafia, in places of pain, among the migrants and seasonal gleaners working in labour camps.
The verb Boaz uses for “purchasing" the field and Ruth is qanah. The ancient readers of the Bible would have felt a shiver down their spine when reading this, because they would know that it is the name of Cain: «I have acquired [qanah] a man from the Lord» (Genesis 4,1). Cain was also the builder of the first city (Genesis 4,17), hence cities and their businesses are linked to his name. Metalworking is Cainite as well (Genesis 4,22), hence crafts and arts are all under his sign too. Telling us that the economy of Cain is our economy too. We know this, we see it every day, it is part of the soul of our trade and arts. It is not something that is found outside of us, it is part of and lies within our lives.
Cain's name, however, is not the only name for the economy, it is not necessarily its destiny. The economy of Cain can become that of Boaz. It does so whenever we choose not to separate the land from its people. And when we do, Abel, the frail brother who knew how to give, will rise again in that field. And we will rise along with him. To then return to the fields with our brother, and die there again, like so many poor people, like Camara Fantamadi, who died working in our fields, brother of Ruth, a foreigner and a temporary worker just like her. Until one day, a blessed day that always arrives late, a child will see the brothers returning home together in the line of the horizon of our land.