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Archive for December, 2007

Three biblical stories, two in the Old Testament ——specifically in Genesis—— and one in the New Testament, might aid us in trying to understand, however imperfectly and sketchily, the issue of brotherhood in the Bible. The first story is the well-known story of Cain and Abel; the second, the well-known story of Joseph; and finally, the third story, the well-known story of the parable by Jesus of the Lost Son. All three will be presented solely by way of puzzles and questions. In this regard we ask hesitantly: Could it be that the possibility of friendship according to the Bible is very limited in the case of brothers for some very precise reasons? But, why would this be so? Don’t citizen parents actually put all their conjoined strengths into bringing up their children to be good to each other, to love each other?

Story 1: Cain and Abel, Genesis 4

Why provide a second fall immediately following the most foundational of all falls by Adam and Eve? Why indeed are the primary models of brotherhood Cain and Abel? Why is the story so astonishingly short? Why did God not accept Cain’s offering even if it was the first? Why is Cain so wronged and upset by God’s not accepting his gift? Is it because he is the first born? But, what is it that the first born feels entitled to that feeds such angry responses? Moreover, why does he seek to kill his brother? Why not simply punch him a few times? What is the nature of such blinding rage? What is the fundamental importance of Abel’s being a “keeper of flocks” as against Cain’s being “a tiller of the ground”? Is there something about nomadic lives that is more akin to the nature of the divine? Would it be its greater independence from the earthly? Or is it that nomads are much more in need of the presence of the divine as they move around a “homeless” world? Does it have to do with the fact the Abel deals with animals and their care? But then again, why can’t Cain see that God himself actually speaks to him in the story and not to Abel? In the same vein, why is the story about Cain and much less about Abel? Why does it matter so little to know what Abel’s life was like? And furthermore, why does Cain lie to make things even worse? But if Cain knows he is a sinner, and the worst at that as a fratricidal kind of being, why continue to punish Cain with a permanent eternal sign that will mark him permanently to all on the earth? Why punish him beyond his own consciousness of his knowing he has done a terrible, spiritually self-destructive, deed? (See Appendix 1 below.) And dramatically for political philosophy as defended by Athens, why is Cain the one who actually founds the first city of the Bible, the city of Enoch? Why is the Bible so pessimistic about the political from the very start?

Story 2: Joseph, Genesis 37-50

Why is the love of Joseph by his father so connected to the varicolored tunic he gave him in his old age? Does this shed light into the relation of the beautiful and the divine? Why is it also so intimately connected to his actually accompanying his father in old age as the younger one? Does this shed some light into the commandment regarding the honoring of our parents? Is honoring our parents primarily being able to accompany and prepare them for death? But if so, wouldn’t believers also learn much from Socrates for whom philosophy is a constant preparation for dying? And, why does the Bible see it fit to show that now it is not only one brother, but many, who hate Joseph? Moreover, why does Joseph so naively express such complex dreams to his brothers? Didn’t he surmise he would be in trouble? Must faith be necessarily naive (see Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy)? And besides, what is so special about dreams and our connection to the divine in the Bible? How to contrast these presence with Aristotle’s own consideration in his prudential text on dreams? And his brothers, why can’t they appreciate Joseph’s honesty? Would they have rather Joseph not tell them anything at all, that is, not prepare them at all for God’s presence? And very polemically, does Joseph’s being selected by God shed some light on our modern democratic families? And still, why in this occasion do the brothers decide only to fake Joseph’s death? Is it because they are thinking of their father with a certain sympathy? Surely not, for their father would still think Joseph to be dead, wouldn’t he? What is so particularly appalling about Judah’s idea of selling and wreaking profit from his brother’s enslavement? What is it about our desire to have and posses material things than makes Judah lead his own family into utter dislike by God? His future generations, the creations of his creations, are somehow condemned by his avarice, aren’t they? Is this part of the basis as well for Aquinas’ powerful condemnation of usury which speaks little to us nowadays? And what precisely could anger brothers and sisters about one of their own actually being chosen by God? Why wouldn’t this be an occasion for joy? What are brothers particularly so much in competition about? Could it be that at the bottom of their hearts lies a desire to become god-like and to be recognized as such by their kin? Wouldn’t this be what Aristophanes tells us as well in the Symposium? And moving closer to our times, why did Thomas Mann rewrite the story of Joseph in so many pages in our modern context of war? And very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how to understand Joseph’s final words to his fearing brothers:

“But Joseph said to them, “do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore do not be afraid: I will provide for you and your little ones” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis, 50: 20-21)

What exactly does Joseph mean by saying that God “meant it for good”? Was Joseph at all times aware that things would end so? Wouldn’t one apply the words “all ‘s well that ends well “ here? Is this last question simply a reflection of one’s pride? And why does he not suffer as much as Job does? What is it about Joseph that gives him such strength?

Story 3: Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15: 11-32

Why does this parable follow the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Why are they so ordered? Why one must speak of losing oneself in parables? Is it because we are moving in a particular direction? And crucially, why does the lost son wish to become a migrant risking his own life? Is it because he is more like Abel than Cain, the tiller of the land? Why wish to get lost? For surely, we know what is at stake in leaving our families, don’t we? And once again, why does the brother get so angry? Why is the love of his own recognition so important to him if he has lived right beside his father all his life? Wasn’t that enough? What more could he be looking for? And again, who would be envious of one’s brother’s having suffered and despaired in solitude? Which of these two brothers would actually be better prepared to honor his parents, as is our duty according to the 10 Commandments? Would the adequate honoring of one’s parents be a compromise between the two? But wouldn’t such a compromise involve a certain strange kind of anger that is not to be seen in the noblest of honorings and loves?

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Appendix 1:

For a much more developed puzzling presentation of the Bible, one can turn to Professor Thomas Pangle’s difficult, yet engaging and puzzle-creating, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham where he touches on the life of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In particular, see pages 93-96 ‘The Puzzle of Divine Foreknowledge” which are three complete pages made up only of puzzles and questions. Or later on, in the chapter on “Guilt and Punishment” where Pangle writes in crucial relation to the above questions:

“But this last formulation brings close to us a final troubling question. However we are to understand criminal responsibility, what are the intelligible grounds for the overwhelming conviction that the guilty deserve to suffer for what they have done; and what are the intelligible grounds for the concomitant hope that they –that even we ourselves— will suffer the punishment that they, and we, deserve. For guilt betokens sin or vice; and sin or vice are either genuinely and severely harmful, in the most important respect, to the very soul of the criminal; or else they betoken an alienation of the criminal from the source of meaning for him as a being designed to devotion. Why, then, is it appropriate, why is it sensible, that such a crippled and or alienated being receive, in addition to and as a consequence of his corruption or alienation, further harm or suffering. Why is it so terribly important for us that to the suffering and mutilation of the spirit that is entailed in being unjust there be added extrinsic bad consequences for the perpetrator?” (PPGA, p. 101)

Pangle keeps alive, in critical contrast to modernity, the enriching yet tense debate between Athens and Jerusalem.

Appendix 2:

For a striking story of how Socrates views, at least minimally, the relation between brothers see Memorabilia 2.3 where one finds an astonishing conversation with Chaerecrates who has fought with his older brother. To begin to even try to understand this story, one would have to reconsider what Socrates considered to be a philosophical life and its relation to the citizens who inhabit the agora. Without such a perspective, the story seems merely to involve a strange naivety. And we know for certain that Xenophon, a general, was anything but naive.

But perhaps the true nature of brotherhood is best exemplified in The Republic where Glaucon and Adeimantus —both Plato’s brothers— encounter Socrates dialogically on the question of justice and reveal dramatically to the reader their unique and differing characteristics as regards the political and philosophical life. Perhaps it is by looking at the question of justice that at least some healthier brotherhoods may come about.

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This is simply a translation of Ingrid Betancourt’s letter to her mother. It was published today in El Tiempo newspaper of Bogotá. Why translate it? Because I know many do not speak Spanish and therefore the audience of her intimate and powerful letter can be increased by seeking more English-speaking readers. Others who know other languages may translate it for others, as well as place their translation within their blogs. Perhaps this will bring more attention to our plight as Colombians, and perhaps the prayers of more and more will give her —and all the other secuestrados— the necessary strength to live through her/their ordeal. Betancourt was kidnapped by the infamous FARC in 2002 and only recently was a video released which showed she was still alive. For her biography see: here . The letter itself in Spanish is here.

(Note: I translate it as I am an official translator both in Canada and in Colombia; But MUCH more importantly because I feel deeply for those who remain kidnapped in our dear Colombia. For my constant interest see some very basic tributes here and here. )

“We live dead here.”

“This is a difficult moment for me. They ask for proofs of survival and here I am writing this letter in which I spill my soul unto paper. I am physically in bad shape. I have not kept on eating, my appetite has left me, my hair falls off in great quantities.

I have lost the desire for everything. I think that that is the only thing that is right, I desire nothing because here in the jungle the answer to everything is no”. It is best, then, not to want anything so that one can at least free oneself from one’s desires. I have been asking for an encyclopedic dictionary to read something, to learn something, to keep intellectual curiosity going. I keep on waiting that perhaps out of compassion they will provide me with one, but it is best not to think about that.

From there on anything else is a miracle, even listening to you in the mornings because the radio I have is too old and broken down.

I want to ask you, dear mother, to tell the children that I want them to send three messages per week (…) nothing transcendental, but anything they can and which they can imagine … I need nothing more, but I need to be in contact with them, the rest does not matter anymore. (…)

As I said to you before, life here is not life, it is just a terrible waste of time. I live or merely survive in an hammock hanging from two posts, covered by a mosquito net and with a tent on top which serves as a roof. With this I can say I have a house.

I have a cabinet where I place my equipment, that is to say, my backpack with my clothes and the Bible which is my sole luxury. Everything ready if one has to start to run. Here nothing is one’s own, here nothing lasts. The only constant thing is uncertainty and precariousness. Any moment they can give the order to pack and to sleep in any hole, lying anywhere with any animal (…) my hands sweat and my mind becomes clouded and I end up doing things two times more slowly. Hikes are a torture because my equipment is too heavy and I can’t carry it (…) but everything is stressful, my things are lost or taken away, like the blue-jean that Mela had given me for Christmas, the one with which they caught me. The only thing I have been able to save is my jacket; that has been a blessing, because the nights are freezing cold and I have had nothing else to cover myself with.

Before I used to enjoy each bath in the river. As I am the only woman of the group, I had to bathe practically with all my clothes on; shorts, bra, t-shirt, boots. Before I used to like to swim in the river, today I do not even have the strength for that. I am weak and cold, I look like a cat approaching water. I, who have loved water so much, cannot even recognize myself. (…) But ever since they separated the groups, I have not had the energy for anything. I stretch a bit because stress blocks my neck and it hurts a lot.

With the stretching exercises, the split and others, I manage to alleviate the tension in my neck (…) I try to keep quiet, I speak very little so as to try to avoid problems. The presence of a woman amongst so many prisoners who have been held in captivity for 8 to 10 years is a problem (…) When one is searched they take away the things one loves the most. A letter that arrived from you they took away after the last proof of survival in 2003. The drawings by Natasha and Stanis, the photos of Mela and Loli, the prayer necklace of my father, a governing programme with 190 points; everything they took away. Everyday there is less of me left. Some details Pinchao has told you. Everything is tough.

It is important that you dedicate these lines to those people who are my oxygen and my life. Those who keep my head above the water, which help me not to drown in forgetfulness, in nothingness and in despair. They are you, my children, Astrica and my little ones, Fab, aunt Nancy and Juangui.

Everyday I am in contact with God, Jesus and the Virgin (…) here everything has two faces, happiness comes around and then pain. Happiness here is sad. Love alleviates but opens new injuries … it is to live and die again. For years I could not think about the children and the pain of my father’s death was almost the last straw. I cried thinking about them, I felt I was asphyxiating, that I could not breathe. I said to myself: “Fab is there, he is taking care of everything, you must not think about it nor think.” I almost went crazy with the death of my father. I never knew how it happened, who was there, if he left a message, a letter, a blessing. But that which has calmed this torment is to know that he left us trusting in God and that I will hug him there. Of that I am sure. Feeling your strength has been my strength. I never saw messages until I was united with Lucho, Luis Eladio Pérez, on the 22 of August 2003. We were true friends and were separated in August. But throughout all that time he was my shoulder, my shield and my brother. (…).

I carry with time the memory of the age of each of my children. Each birthday I sing their Happy Birthday. I always ask them to allow me to bake a cake. But for the last three years the reply has always been no. Nonetheless, if they bring a cookie or any rice or bean soup, which is usually what happens, I imagine it to be a cake and I celebrate their birthday in my heart.

To my Melelinga (Melanie); my spring sunshine, my princess from the constellation of the swan, to her whom I adore so much, I want to tell you that I am the proudest mother on earth (…) and if I had to die to day I would leave my life thanking God for my children. I am very happy with her Masters in NY. That is exactly what I would have advised (…) But take note, it is very important that she do her DOCTORATE. In the world today, even to breathe one must have credentials (…) I will not tire of insisting to Loli (Lorenzo) and Mela that they not stop until they have obtained their PhD . I wish Mela would promise me with that. (…).

I have always told you that you are the best, much better than I am, something like the best version of what I would like to be. That is why, with the experience that I have accumulated through life, I ask you my life to prepare yourself in order to reach the top.

To my Lorenzo, my Loli Pop, my angel of light, my king of blue waters, my head musician who sings and enchants me, the owner of my heart, I want to tell him that from the day of his birth up to today he has been a fountain of joy. Everything that comes from him soothes my soul. Everything comforts me, everything gives me peace. (…) I could finally hear his voice a few times this year. I trembled with emotion. It is the voice of my Loli, the voice of my boy, but there is another man now over the voice of my little boy. A deep voice of a real man, like that of my father (…)

Your life awaits you all, try to reach as high as possible, to learn is to grow, not only because of what one learns intellectually, but also because of the human experience, the people surrounding you which provides emotional sustenance to have greater control over oneself each day, and spiritually, to mold a greater character of service towards others, where ego is reduced to its most minimal expression and one grows in humility and moral fortitude. One goes with the other. That is to live, to grow up to serve. (…)

To my dearest Sebastian, my little prince of stellar and ancestral voyages. So much that I want to say to him! First, that I do not want to leave this world before he has the knowledge, the certainty and the confirmation that there are not 2, but 3 children of my soul (…) But for him I will have to un-knot years of silence which weigh upon me much since captivity. I have decided that my favourite colour is the blue of his eyes (…) Just in case I do not leave this place, I write it down so that you can keep it in your soul, m cherished Babon, and so that you might understand, that I understood when your brothers were born, and it is that I have always loved you as the son that you are and that God gave me. The rest are only formalities. .

I know that Fab has suffered because of me (…) Tell Fab that in him I rest, over his shoulders I cry, in him I lean so that can continue smiling out of sadness, his love makes me strong. Because he is there for the necessities of my children, I can cease breathing without life hurting so much (…)

To my Astrica, so many things that I do not know where to begin. Perhaps to tell her that her “little resume” saved me during the first year I was kidnapped, during the year in which I grieved for my father. (…) I need to talk to her about all these moments and to hug her and cry until I run clear out of tears in my body. In everything that I do she is there as a reference. I always think, “We did that with Astrid when we were small” or “Astrid did this better than I did” (…) I have heard her several times on radio. I feel great admiration for her impeccable manner of expression, for the quality of her reflections, for the control over her emotions, for the elegance of her sentiments. I hear her and think: “I want to be like that.” (…) I imagine how they enjoy things with Anastasia and Stanis (Ingrid’s niece and nephew) . How it hurt me that they took away their drawings. The poem by Anastasia read: “through a lucky touch, through a magical touch or a touch by God, in three years or three days you will be again with us.” And the drawing by Stanis was a rescue through helicopters, I sleeping in a confined space (caleta) just like the ones here, and he was my Saviour.

Mom, there are so many people to thank for remembering us, for not abandoning us. For a long time we have been like the leppars who make every dance an ugly event, us captives are not a “politically correct” topic, it is much better to say that one has to be strong with the guerrillas without sacrificing some human lives. Before these ideas, silence. Only time can open consciousness and elevate the spirit. I think about the grandeur of the United States, for example. That greatness is not due to the richness of lands or raw materials, etc., but the result of the spiritual greatness of the leaders who molded their Nation. When Lincoln defended the right to life and liberty of the enslaved blacks of America, he also confronted many Floridas and Praderas…. But Lincoln won and there remained impressed in the collective of that country the priority of human life over any other interest.

In Colombia we still have to think where we come from, who we are and where we want to head. I wish one day we will feel that thirst fro grandeur which allows peoples to surge from nothing to the very sun. When we will be much less conditional towards the defense of the life and the liberty of those who are ours, that is to say, when we are less individualistic and more solidarious, less indifferent and more committed, less intolerant and more compassionate. Then, that day, we will be that great country we all wish we were. That greatness is lying asleep in our hearts. But our hearts have hardened and they weigh so much they do not allow for higher sentiments. But there are a lot of people I wish to thank because they are contributing to awaken the spirit and grandeur of Colombia…

For many years I have thought than as long as I am alive, as long as I keep on breathing, I must always keep hope. I no longer have the same strength, it is much more difficult for me to believe, but I wanted you to feel that what you all have done has made the difference. We have felt human (…) Dear mother, I still would have many other things to tell you. Explain to you that for a long time I have not had news from Clara and her baby (…) Alright, mommy. God help us, guide us, give us patience and embrace us. Forever and ever.”


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The original letter in Spanish reads; (more…)

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