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Living Wisely in the Midst of the Absurd

"In the past decades, I have often been annoyed that Europeans, particularly intellectuals, have said that we Latin Americans are too optimistic.. We started from the hope: If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win.. The horizon was clear and open.. The consequence of the globalization of the free market reduce us to silence. Still I will not surrender to pessimism since that means dying."
Living Wisely in the Midst of Absurdity

By Elsa Tamez

[This article originally published in: Rundbrief des Institut fur Theologie und Politik 2/97 Nr.8 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Elsa Tamez is director of the Universidad Biblica in Costa Rica.]

In the past decades, I have often been annoyed that Europeans, particularly intellectuals, have said that we Latin Americans are too optimistic. In the middle of the victories of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, some said: Yes but how long will the good last. That was like an ice-cold shower. We cannot afford this kind of reflection. We started from the hope: If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win. The horizon was clear and open and lay directly before us. Certainly there was great suffering on account of the repression but at the same time there was much resistance, solidarity and hope. Today this is different. The consequences of the globalization of the free market reduce us to silence. The horizon seems dark and obscure, the present appears as a great obscenity and no one wants to hear anything about the past. Still I will not surrender to pessimism since that means dying. The great challenge today is surviving in dignity in a time of obscenity. In other words, how can one live wisely in the midst of the absurd?

The time in which we live is complicated. The North is uniting more and more while the South is further and further removed. Though on one side the possibilities for overcoming hunger through technical progress become greater and greater, the misery on the other side becomes ever more massive and drastic. [... ] The present appears as a time when every liberating memory of the past and every utopian element that could start a movement to a new reality are repressed.

How can Christians live in such a time of messianic drought?

I found a similar situation in the book of Kohelet written in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. The book begins and ends with the comment that everything is vain and completely frustrated. In contemporary language, everything is an obscenity. Everything is vain. This is Kohelet's commentary when he contemplates "the new" of his century in changing from the exchange trade to money. The economists of antiquity spoke of a time of great discoveries and unexpected technical advances, astonishing effectiveness, a new form of business, a financial and commercial boom and new forms of military and economic rule over the provinces.

Besides our 20th century, there was no other time in which such changes occurred than in this time of Hellenism when the book of Kohelet arose. However the author unmasks this new in declaring that this was a breath of wind, vanity and emptiness. Then he sees the reverse side of this process. "Then I saw everything done under the sun to exploit people. See, the exploited cry and no one comforts them. Violence comes from the hand of their exploiters and no one consoles them" (4,1). It is an inverted world where the bad do well and the good are miserable. [... ] How can we survive in the midst of absurdity? Astonishingly, Kohelet gives us some ideas. Although he says at the beginning and at the end that everything is vain, the readiness to fight for the breath of life and for a way of freedom for people shines through the text. Four ideas could be emphasized:

Another View of Time

Firstly, there is a different view of time. When the chronological view of time leaves us uninspired by showing no way out, we must consider the times in another way, for example by believing and accepting that everything has its time and hour. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest the plants, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time for war and a time for peace. By believing this, one can carry on, resist and act in solidarity in times of hatred, mourning, destruction and war. If one knows the present situation, one can plant even if it isn't the time of planting. One can embrace even if one knows that it isn't the time of embraces. Peace can be ventured even if one knows that not much can be achieved. One always has the certainty that there will be another time even if now is the time of obscenity.

On the Fear of God

Secondly, the fear of God is stressed in this book as in other books of wisdom. Fear of God may not be understood as "anxiety before God" but as the statement that not fearing God has consequences. Fear of God means acknowledging that God is God and that we are people. Because we are not gods, we cannot reverse everything in a minute, for example the inverted dehumanized world. Fearing God means recognizing our limits as persons, our human condition. When we don't accept our limits, we paralyze ourselves. We are hardly capable of acting and remain caught in anxiety. However if we know our limits, we can go, breathe and feel that we can go beyond our own limits.

Mocking Death

Thirdly, there is averse that accentuates the concrete life. Eat your bread with joy and drink your wine contented. In times of great obscenity, nothing is left but to live in the present while simultaneously rejecting it through an opposite logic. Kohelet proposes holding to a certain, more human rhythm in concrete material life.

While the logic of a society accelerating production because time is money only circles around itself, Kohelet invites us to seek the intransitory time instead of the brief transitory time. This intransitory time can only be experienced when shared and enjoyed in community with others.

What is at stake here is neither the joy resting on the backs of others and leading to dehumanization nor a cynical powerlessness considering the economically and politically excluded. The joy in life intended by Kohelet has nothing to do with the "Eat and drink for tomorrow we are dead" mood. Rather what is crucial is holding to concrete material life in the midst of a society acting against this life, mocking death by holding to life.

Everything has its Time

The fourth idea consists in a series of proposals that help us go our way wise and clever in every moment of everyday life. Discernment is most important. How should we act when evil succeeds and the good suffer in an "inverted society"? If we do good and it goes bad for us, we will veer towards death. When we act badly, we will bear the consequences in a distant day if there is no correction. What should we do? Kohelet's judgment and cleverness urges: Be not overly just or excessively wise. Why will you destroy yourselves? Lastly he adds: Don't act absurd so that you die before your time.

Kohelet's text shows us that one must go one's everyday way very cleverly in this time. He advises us now and again: Two are more important than one, common interest makes us strong focusing us on what the birds hear - making a good mine in a bad time, a living dog is more valuable than a dead lion etc. We can only understand this fourth idea in the light of the preceding. Only when we know that everything has its time and hour, that humans are not gods and that it is important to enjoy life as though it were eternal can we grasp the complexity of everyday life. Clearly this is not today's alternative. Still Kohelet can help us to resist wisely in times of great obscenities without overwhelming fear and therefore promote the concrete life for everyone in everyday life. For me, this is the meaning of experiencing God's grace today.

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