On Narrative Malfunction

I’ve been reading Stanley Hauerwas on narrative.  And it reminded me of a story.

Once there was a young boy who lived in Arkansas.  The time was World War Two.  Across the field from his farm was an internment camp – not for prisoners of war, but for Americans of Japanese ancestry.  Every day the prisoners would come to his farm for water, and he became friends with them.  All the prisoners had to eat was bread and a disgusting runny syrup called “Red Jelly” which was just water, sugar, and food coloring.  And for water they came to his farm.

He had heard that the German prisoners of war would play cards with the guards at their camp, and ate good food.  “They treated them like goddamn family,” he said.  He knew that the contrast between the treatment of Americans whose ancestors were from Japan and German soldiers who had just been killing people was wrong.

Later during this same conversation this 60-something year old man made many racist comments about other groups of people.  About the hotel owners in West Sacramento and Muslim terrorists.  The contrast in his words has become more apparent to me over time.  What we see and who we are we do not always put together.  As a boy this man knew right and wrong, at least in one particular case.  But later in life, and pressed with life’s pain, the lesson would not extrapolate.  Now I want to add two more turns to this story, just to heighten the moral pain.

The man I was talking to was homeless.  He may well be dead now, this was 10 years ago and he was already old.  He was harassed by police, forced from town to town, ignored, rarely treated as a human.  He had grown up and come to live the worst part of his childhood story, shunned by his own country, treated as an outcast and obstacle to be pushed aside and to be, only grudgingly, let live on the scraps of civilization.

Now the second twist, to the story of our nation.  We used to be a nation which would intern its own citizens, and dine and play cards with captured enemies.  And now we are a nation which will discard and ignore its own citizens, and will torture its enemies outside of judicial scrutiny, even kill its own citizens (who are deemed enemies and are in foreign countries) extra-judicially.

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln is this quote: “Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?”  It seems that today we are not even friends with ourselves, our own fellow Americans, nor have we ever been, if we remember the plights of the interned Japanese or African Americans or Native Americans or many other groups.  If we cannot be friends with ourselves how will we ever “destroy” our enemies, other than by killing them?  There’s a problem to ponder.

What kind of nation are we?  Do we work hard?  Do we follow the law?  Do we try to improve ourselves?  Do we help people in need?  Do we want to share “freedom” (whatever that is…) with the world?  Where in our national ideals, our national story as prescriptive, not descriptive (because we have always fallen woefully short), do we disregard law and human dignity and live in fear so strong that we violate our own national character and torture and kill the innocent?  And most every time we bomb a house in Afghanistan we kill children, make no mistake.  Are we so afraid that we can no longer think clearly?

I’ve framed this as a story about our nation, but it is even more damning to Christianity.  We Christians (if we call ourselves that) are called to more than anything America has ever aspired to.  We are called to death, without fear, in fact with joy.  We believe that if we love others, even our enemies, even dying for it, then we have lived well as imitators of Christ.

When I hear of Guantanamo and torture and homelessness I think of German World War Two POWs dining and playing cards with their captors.  It is a strange thought.  What a nation we are, what a piece of work all we humans are.  We have the lofty heights at our fingertips and instead we plunge to the depths.  We have the stories to tell to lead us to a better life, but the stories have malfunctioned, or perhaps they never really worked in the first place.  I think our narratives could work, the lives of many good Americans and many saints, named and unnamed, testify that the story can work.

So what is the solution?  I think we do not actually believe our narrative, our culture.  We don’t believe that we can turn our enemies into friends.  We don’t believe that all human life has intrinsic dignity and that the innocent should never be killed.  We don’t believe that Jesus told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.  It does ask a lot, to believe all that.  But if we don’t believe – and by believe I mean live it, not just speak it – then we might as well give up the faith in word because we have already done so in deed.

We’ve made a fine mess of our country and our religion because we don’t live it.  But there is still hope.  We can believe it.  It’s not a silly old “story” as in fiction.  It’s a silly old story, like everything is in life: language, morality, science, reason, and the story of my homeless friend.  And we must have a story, there is no option to live without a story, just as there is no option to speak without a language.  It is for lack of will, not resources, that we fall short.

But here Hauerwas steps in again: communities can give us will.  Humans are social creatures, and as we converse,  cooperate, and grow in friendship we grow also in will together.  A tight community can have a collective will like nothing else on earth, just look to any of various cults or conspiracies.  For some reason cooperation in evil is easier than cooperation in good, but cooperation in good can happen, we have multiple non-violent human rights struggles to choose from as well.  If we want to make the world a better place, we need a good story, and a community of believers to keep us believing it – believing as in living it.

Christianity and churches were supposed to be that community, but most have failed.  Some are still succeeding.  Finding the differences between the two and figuring how to revivify the dead ones should be a serious project for Christians in academia.  Luckily, raising the dead is something Christians have a story about.  We believe it has been done before, and that the power has been passed on to us.  We just have to believe.

So one last thought.  What of all the crud that our idealistic stories turn into when we fail them?  We intern the innocent, bomb and kill, lynch, torture, dispossess, you name it, it has been done, and by people who were supposed to know better, even by the very representatives of the highest ideals themselves.  We better have a story for how to explain all that stuff and try to make it better.

Christians do have a story: it’s called sin.  And we fix it by reparations and sincerely trying to not sin again (and Jesus too, don’t forget him).  If we want to be the people our ideals call us to be, whether as Americans or as Christians, we need to first admit that we are low-life mess-ups, and ask forgiveness of those we have wronged, whether individuals or groups.  Then we need to not do it again.  We have some atoning and reconciliation to do.  “Love your enemies” is, to me, one of the boldest Christian ideals, it is the negation of the idea of an “evil other.”  The “other” is not evil.  They are worthy of love, whether homeless, another color or nationality or other group, or terrorist.

That’s a high ideal, a pretty good story.  Our narrative has malfunctioned, but we can get it back.  The story still lives: it just needs to live more in us.  And that’s my story.


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