The good prophet or the bad? A further thought on Franco "Bifo" Berardi's letter of resignation from DiEM25

Jonah under the gourd vine
As I noted yesterday, Franco “Bifo” Berardi has resigned from DiEM25 in a letter that I have seen described elsewhere as “throwing his rattle out of the pram.” There is no doubt that the letter is emotionally very highly-charged and is, perhaps, saying that the case in Europe is “such and such” when the case is, in fact, not (yet — or entirely) “such and such.” This kind of writing can drive many people crazy — and clearly has on this occasion — but, to me anyway, Bifo seems to be standing in a very powerful, ancient, prophetic tradition. Indeed, an important lesson from the wonderfully complex and rich biblical Book of Jonah came to mind as I read Bifo’s words. But, first of all let me remind you of the story of Jonah with the following précis.


Jonah is commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against its inhabitants “for their great wickedness.” Like any sensible person Jonah really doesn’t want this job and attempts to escape from “the presence of the Lord” by getting on a ship sailing to Tarshish. Alas, his ship runs into a powerful storm which the sailors come to feel is far from ordinary and they decide that someone aboard must be to blame and cast lots to discover who that is. This is how Jonah is found out. He admits his guilt and tells them that if they throw him overboard the storm will subside. The sailors, to their great credit, do their best to keep Jonah on board by trying to row back to shore. However, in the end, they are forced to admit defeat and finally throw Jonah overboard at which point (no doubt to their great relief) the storm passes.

Despite this Jonah’s life is not lost because he is immediately swallowed by a large whale and inside its belly Jonah spends three days and three nights reflecting on his refusal to take God’s dark message to the inhabitants of Nineveh. Eventually he decides that all he can do is agree to God’s command and, following Jonah’s prayer of repentance a now satisfied God causes the whale to spit Jonah out and Jonah finally makes his way to Nineveh. There, for three days, he cries out to its inhabitants God’s message that “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

It is at this point of the story that things take another unexpected turn because the people of Nineveh, far from attacking him for bringing his unpleasant message, begin instead to believe him and the king of Nineveh decrees that all in the city must fast, put on sackcloth, pray, and make repentance. Seeing all this God decides to spare the city.

After all his vicissitudes and hard and unpleasant prophetic work Jonah is very angry about this and leaves the city in high dudgeon to see whether or not God will, in fact, destroy the city. Seeing Jonah sitting in the full sun outside the city God first of all makes a plant grow up to give him some shade. However, a little later on, God sends a worm to attack the plant causing it to wither. Now, without any shade, Jonah becomes faint and asks God to take him out of the world.

At this point there come the well-known closing words of the story, a dialogue between a merciful God and a still angry Jonah:

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And [Jonah] said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ (Jonah 4:9-11).


The meanings one can draw out of this tale are many but, today, what do I think it says about Bifo? Well, one way of reading the story of Jonah is to understand it as a story helping us to understand better the complexity of discerning whether a prophet is a good or false one.

Popular tradition, in a wholly superficial way, has often decided that the good prophet is only the one whose prophecies come true. So, according to this simplistic way of seeing things, Jonah must have been a completely useless prophet because his prophecy simply doesn’t come true — the city listens to his message, repents and is thereby saved. But the story of Jonah helps us see that, in fact, the good — the really effective — prophet is one whose initial message doesn’t eventually come true.

In his letter Bifo seems, to me anyway, to be acting as a good prophet very much in the tradition of Jonah. I’d also add that the tone of Yanis Varoufakis’ reply seems to suggest that Varoufakis thinks likewise.

In all this it is important to remember how difficult and fraught is the task of prophesying to any utterly corrupt city and its king and inhabitants (or in our case an utterly corrupt European Union and its citzens and politicians) about their “great wickedness”. Given this difficulty it’s no wonder that good prophets can, at times, find themselves angry, conflicted and confused. (However, at the moment, I want to refrain from finally judging whether or not this is true of Bifo. Time will tell soon enough.)  

As a species of Christian atheist (or religious naturalist) I don’t, of course, think that God has any role in all this business of command and prophesy but, speaking colloquially and figuratively, we’d do well to take with absolute seriousness Bifo’s message and “pray” that it is, somehow, heard by our political equivalents to the king of Nineveh currently presiding over the European Union as well as by us as citizens. As I say each week in church after our own prayers: “Although we may rightly doubt that prayer changes anything, let us never forget that prayer changes people and people change things.” 

But don’t forget either that, sometimes, the good prophet’s prophesies do also come true. If the city (the European Union), its leaders and its citizens do not heed his message then, unlike Jonah, Bifo (and we) will see a truly terrible catastrophe unfold before and amongst us.