As of today, I’ve been on the planet for 58 years. One thing I’ve come to believe about people, as groups or as individuals, is that our lives are controlled by a narrative. In some ways it’s like a choose your own adventure story where we have no control over how we got to this point but moving forward the story is ours to develop by the choices that we make. In other ways, deeper ways, I’ve come to see that so much of our narrative has been determined before we became a part of it that even our choices can seem inevitable.
After 50, I started becoming more and more aware of the potential for beauty a narrative can create in our lives but equally aware of the potential for ugliness that a narrative can just as easily develop. I’ve come to believe that the truthfulness or trustworthiness of our story is not found in its details but in its outcomes. Does the narrative I’m living out produce beauty? Does the story my life is embedded in lead to life? Does the narrative I am engaged in offer something better to my neighbors than the dominant narratives that naturally shape our lives?
For me that has meant aligning myself more and more (as much as I can help it) with the story of Jesus. The challenge, of course, has been that there is not a single Jesus narrative. I don’t mean the four gospels. I mean the innumerable appropriations of the story of Jesus, interpreted and processed by Powers to benefit their own goals. Thankfully, the Jesus story predicts this and includes elements within the narrative that let us know before we get there in our own lifetime (or make sense of it for us if we find ourselves there in our lifetime) that this happens and we need to avoid being sucked in by it.
Recently I saw a meme that was posted as a “biblical response” to the conversation about Critical Race Theory (CRT). It wasn’t so much a dialog as it was, as the original poster stated, a “Boom, mic drop” statement. It pulled three quotes from the Jesus story and meant to use those quotes, the narrative of which I am a part, to (in theological terms) poo poo CRT.
The texts are offered in the meme without commentary. Here they are (in order):
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (NLT)
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. (NLT)
And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. (NLT)
This mic drop moment is using elements of the Jesus story to push forward an ideology as not only reasonable but as Jesusy.
So here’s the progression of the statement this meme is making:
First, Race isn’t a thing anymore. God makes us all one through Jesus. BOOM. So much for CRT. Second, hey, we all sin so let’s stop bringing up my sins or my ancestors sins or the sins of my culture ‘cause you’re a sinner to. BOOM. So much for CRT. And finally third, Jesus wants you to avoid people who bring up stuff that’s divisive y’all. So don’t have anything to do with people who talk about CRT. Boom.
This “biblical statement” is painful to read because of the way it demonstrates a lack of awareness of the story people who follow Jesus are in.
First, Sunday morning at 9 a.m. is still the most segregated hour in America. And that quote from Galatians comes from a letter meant to address the division being caused in local churches by people trying to coopt the Jesus story for their own racial ends. It’s one thing to acknowledge Jesus’ intent is for us to be one and another to ignore that in 2000 years we still keep letting our faith and our narrative get coopted by racist, bigoted and misogynistic people who, like the Judaizers, claim to have the story straight while they speak to us with crooked tongues.
Second, we all have sinned but that’s never been an excuse used in our story to NOT call out a leader or group of leaders or nation, for their sin(s). “They did it too.” Or “But what about what they did?” Does not work in the Jesus story as a means by which we can avoid the spotlight of God falling on our own actions and beliefs that have brought harm to others.
And third, Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other!” (NLT) Careful cherry-picking verses to fit the narrative you’re trying to promote. Talking about Jesus can be divisive. Talking about peace can be divisive. Again, in the letter being quoted, Paul is writing pastorally to a church that is facing division over racial lines that are being promoted by the Jewish believers who see themselves as the OGs over against the Gentil believers who might be saved but are still a bunch of dirty mongrels who have come in late in the game and can’t be trusted with leadership in the church. The message of grace and acceptance was causing trouble in Rome.
Here’s something I learned from the book of Daniel.
For those who don’t remember their flannel graph days, here’s the skinny on Daniel. He was the good guy. The best guy. He was the uber faithful Jew in corrupt and evil Babylon who stood up, often alone, against the Powers while in exile. Dreams, giant finger writing on the wall, lion’s den – you know, Daniel.
And when great guy, the best guy, the star of the show, Daniel got on his knees and prayed to God, here’s what he prayed…
“O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your covenant and keep your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and obey your commands. But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations. We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets, who spoke on your authority to our kings and princes and ancestors and to all the people of the land.”
Why would a good guy pray a prayer that implicates himself in all the wrong doing of his ancestors? ‘Cause that’s the story we’re in. The Jesus story is that we’re not afraid to own the things we’ve done and the harm we’ve done to others because it’s repenting of these things, confessing these things and taking responsibility for these things that, in part, helps us to keep from repeating them over and over again.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) doesn’t teach people that white people like me are all evil all the time. The Bible sort of does that already. What was the verse that meme quoted? The point of CRT is to observe the tendency of those in power to use their power to stay in power. It’s the neo-Nazi cry, “we will not be replaced” that is echoed by the words of the dominant power that will use the Law itself, which is intended to be impartial, to slant the playing field to give an advantage to people like them. White, wealthy, etc.
Our history is our narrative and it’s shaping us, forming our culture, and when we fail to recognize and own the wrong we have done the same way Daniel acknowledged the wrongs done by his ancestors, the generations that landed him in exile for their sins, we aren’t moving towards a more beautiful ending. And we’re not in the Jesus story.
Luke tells us Jesus told his people in his time, “What sorrow awaits you! For you build monuments for the prophets your own ancestors killed long ago.” (NLT) We need to know our story. We need to own our story. We need to know the history of slavery in the United States. We need to own that White wealth in the United States today largely exists from the work of slaves, the labor of immigrants (documented and undocumented), the manipulation of laws dealing with land ownership and voting rights, incarcerated labor pools coming from “for profit” prisons systems and overt violence of white people against black and brown people (Wilmington massacre, Tulsa massacre, over 4000 lynchings during and since Jim Crow, disproportionate incarceration of black and brown bodies and disproportionate murders of unarmed black people by authorities, etc.).
Story shapes us. Our narrative forms us. One of the worst things I can think of is thinking your whole life you are in one story, only to discover late that it’s not the story you think it is. Question the story. Investigate what you’ve been taught. And if you’re part of the Jesus story, don’t fall for false teachers who have coopted the story of Jesus for their own selfish and self-centered ends. Jesus doesn’t want to make America blue again, red again or purple again. Jesus wants to make America kind and generous and loving with space for outcasts and immigrants and safe for the downtrodden and oppressed. That’s where the Jesus story is going. Are we following?