The Stories We Tell

I had the privilege of attending a workshop this month run by Jarrod Mckenna on Contemplative Activism. It  sparked in me a lot of thinking about the narratives that we take on as individuals, communities, and societies, and how these narratives form us. A story uncritically told, is a story we end up re-enacting.

The workshop began with a study of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. This was a story continually told and retold by the Babylonians in ancient times. It involves a pre-earth reality, containing multiple gods constantly vying for authority, using violence and coercive power to get what they desire. Eventually in the story, the earth comes into being through the brutal murder of the matriarchal deity, and humans are created to become slaves for the gods. In a society where the position of king was synonymous with absolute and oppressive power, and the common person existed simply to serve the king’s wishes, the story made perfect sense, even to the point that when human sacrifices were required for the annual re-enactments of the Enuma Elish story, people willingly complied.

In the workshop, this story was then compared with the Lion King’s famous song, the Circle of Life. For the lion- who incidentally is the ‘narrator’ of this particular story- this circle of life concept poses no great threat. He is the top of the food chain after all. But for the gazelle, it promises a violent and undignified end. Yet because this is the only narrative being told, it is uncritically absorbed by hearers and tellers alike, and when something is spun as ‘the norm’ or even as necessary for the sustaining of life, discussions about good or evil are discounted before they have even been brought up. The thought of say, a gazelle speaking out against an ‘unjust’ system where she always gets cast as prey, would simply be considered absurd by a society firmly under the spell of ‘that’s just the way it is’. When a narrative becomes dominant, when it settles in the minds of its inhabitants as the norm, those served by it, and even those most oppressed by it, often comply and play their predestined roles accordingly.

When I look at the church, I see that we have created our own versions of Enuma Elish, our own versions of the Circle of Life, that keep the powers firmly in their place and absolve us from our responsibility to follow Jesus’ example of disrupting the systems of oppression. I think of the prosperity gospel, whether preached in its full unapologetic form, or the more subtle ways that it is perpetuated through our rhetoric that equates wealth with blessing, and thus poverty with a curse. I think of how we are taught through societal narratives, but also through those of the church, that wealth and good fortune are seen as rewards directly connected to our hard work, our good choices, or our being ‘good Christians’. And by implication, poverty or bad fortune are somehow the fault of the person they are acted upon, and thus we absolve ourselves of all responsibility. And through this, the string of Ubuntu, by which we are connected to all other human beings, is cut, and we are reduced to lives of individualism. I think also of the uncritical narrative around the concept of God’s sovereignty, through which we allow ourselves to attribute everything we see around us, be it ‘good or evil’, to the will and plan of the almighty God. And therefore, the disruption of it is almost frowned upon. 

And these narratives and the many others we buy into and propagate, like the circle of life are self-perpetuating. They allow those on top to remain safe and smug within their supposedly self-made bubbles of comfort, in vehement denial of any responsibility for the conditions outside. And they back those on the bottom into a tight corner, convincing them that their prison is of their own making, and that their salvation lies in their patient unquestioning acceptance of their inhumane conditions.

And it is in the perpetuation of these narratives that religion becomes the opiate of the masses which we swallow unquestioningly, willingly adding our strength to the upholding of the status quo. The same status quo that God’s story tirelessly seeks to disrupt, over and over and over again.

For in the Genesis creation story, the earth is birthed out of unconditional love and community. Creation is seen as good. Human beings are created not as slaves, but as individuals with agency and creativity, made in the very image of God. And then, to shatter any illusion of the continued existence of Babylonian dynamics or hierarchies, God, who has all the means to hang out at the top of the food chain forever, attributing the world’s suffering to the circle of life, chooses instead to be born into and live in the world as a human being, finally giving up his own life for the liberation of all. And so the lion becomes the lamb, putting a spanner in the works of the circle of life.

There is a new narrative, and it is radical and subversive and surprising and shocking and offensive and refreshing and liberating. Its name is Jesus and we get to be part of it.

By Thandi Gamedze

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