The theologian James Alison has said of human beings that “we are the animals that tell stories.” When one thinks of the ways in which we are unlike other animals that inhabit our world, this is surely something that makes us different. And this story-telling is not just a propensity we have or a habit we indulge. It’s not just something we do because we like to do it, nor is it something we could choose to give up doing. For it is precisely this telling of stories that constitutes our reality and makes it meaningful.
The primary way in which we make sense of ourselves and the world around us is through the telling of stories. Our connection to everything is primarily linguistic. Most people have no sensible memories before the acquisition of language, for it is language itself that allows us to order the reality around us and to interact with it. Those who for reasons of disability are unable to engage the world linguistically are still certainly a part of it, but in a limited way. They find ways to engage, but that engagement seems foreign to most of us. Because for the vast majority of human beings, our connection to reality is rooted in language. In order for something to be meaningful, it must be named. And once something is named, a story can than be told about it. Our reality is constituted by narrative.
The Judeo-Christian tradition itself points to the centrality of language and story-telling when it identifies the creative power of God with the spoken word. In the creation stories of the book of Genesis, every thing that is made comes into being when God “speaks” it into being. “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” The ancient writers of the scriptures perceived the power of language to constitute our reality — they knew who they were and the history of their people through the stories that were told down through the generations. Thus, they easily imagined that the divine power to constitute reality was also rooted in the power of language.
We see this reflected over and over again in the Bible. The prophets are conveyers of the word of God to God’s people. The name of God is considered unutterable because to know and say a name implies some kind of power over it. God and Jesus both give people new names when a new divine calling manifests in their lives. The Gospel of John is able to say that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the embodiment of the divine creative word spoken of in Genesis. Language is power — profound and fundamental. And the great teaching of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and most of the world’s religious traditions are all given by means of story-telling. Jesus himself tells stories — parables, a particular kind of story — that are meant to collide with the narratives we have already inherited and offer us new narrative possibilities, which have the power to re-shape our lives.
Right now, in America, in the midst of a feverish presidential election campaign, we are all caught up in conflicting narratives. Different political parties and different candidates promote different stories of what it means to be an American, of what leadership is meant to be about, of what the larger world is like. These conflicting narratives are nothing less than conflicting versions of reality. People are captivated or repulsed by one narrative or another, while some attempt to break through these stories with yet other narratives. All of these competing narratives are seeking to shape our personal stories, the stories of our country. Indeed, they are seeking to shape the way we see reality. The person who wins the election in November will be the person whose narrative attracts the greatest number of people.
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus are, like everyone, narrative creatures. But we have been warned to be wary of the stories people tell us. Wolves can appear in sheep’s clothing, telling us stories that seem to liberate us but really are meant to enslave us to a particular view of reality. As Christians, the only story that is truly liberating for us is the story of Jesus. It is the story in which a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew becomes the victim of powerful elites who create stories that mark Jesus out as dangerous, stories that are sold to crowds of angry and frustrated people to convince them to sign on to Jesus’ execution. Jesus is turned into a scapegoat for the problems and tensions of his time, and becomes the victim of powerful people who stir up resentment against him in order to deflect people from the real problems that they are facing.
The Risen Christ emerges from that victimhood in order to bring all victimhood to an end. This habit of scapegoating a person or group and making them the target of a society’s fears and frustrations must end — this is, in part, the message of the Risen Christ. He comes among us to show us a different way, to offer us a different narrative that does not require the making of victims.
And so, as we listen to the competing narratives in this election season, we are obligated as Christians to ask ourselves an important question: which of these narratives is the narrative of oppression and which is the narrative of liberation? In other words, which of the stories the candidates wish us to sign on to most closely resembles the narrative of Rome, which led to the victimhood and death of Jesus, and which resembles more closely the narrative of Jesus himself, that is, the story of God’s radical embrace of humanity, setting us free from the need to make victims?
As Christians, we cannot subscribe to narratives of oppression. We cannot subscribe to the making of victims or the singling out of scape-goats. We have been claimed by the story of Jesus, we have been claimed by the power of the divine creative word that seeks to bring into being the reign of God among us, that tells a story of love and faithfulness, that speaks good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, love of neighbor as self. Our primary spiritual work is to make this narrative of liberation the central narrative of our lives, and to act in faithfulness to it.
From the cross, Jesus prayed God’s forgiveness on his oppressors, saying, “they know not what they do.” The resurrection of Christ shown a powerful light on that moment, so that we might not slip into the darkness of that ignorance again. Let us look now to that light, that we may not be overcome by the darkness of ignorance again.