I’m reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi with one of my classes. It’s a flawed novel but an engaging one nonetheless, and serviceable for exploring a range of interesting ideas and practices–everything from religion to zoology to the power of stories to shape imagination and identity.
I’ve also been struck in recent days by how the political debate about the budget (or about anything, really: immigration, war, gay marriage, you name it) is at heart an argument about competing moral narratives. For all the statistics, pie charts, and bar graphs (and all the soundbyte shouting and name-calling), these bitter disputes are always about stories: the stories we tell of who we are as a people, as a nation–what we value, who and what we put our trust in, the kind of people we are (or want to be).
Which stories are true? Which storytellers are most believable? These are the questions that drive our politics as much as they determine the shape of our personal lives. Complicating this is the fact that we are characters in many dramas. Multiple narratives–some in direct conflict with each other–shape each of us over the course of our lives.
For Christians, Lent (and Holy Week, especially) is the time in which we descend into the depths of a story we believe subsumes all other stories. For some it’s a fantastic tale–simply unbelievable, untethered as it is to logic and the laws of nature. An obscure, first-century Palestinian Jew, arrested on a charge of sedition, is tortured and executed by the imperial authorities and three days later his closest friends insist–to their own amazement as much as anyone’s–that he’s alive again. A fledgling community of his followers begins to grow, first within late Second Temple Judaism, and then outwardly into the larger Greek-speaking world of the Mediterranean Basin–this despite the fact that these earliest Christians worshiped in caves and tombs and private homes (where they were often led by women), refused to serve on town councils and in the military, and were accused of atheism for denying the divinity of the Emperor and cannibalism for “consuming the body and blood of their Lord.”
This unlikely story, rooted in the social, political, and economic realities of the Roman Empire, is also, Christians believe, a story of salvation and reconciliation on a cosmic scale. Salvation in the literal sense of the word–a restoring to health and well-being that which is diseased and disordered. And reconciliation, too, as a “making good again”–repairing, restoring that which is broken and those who are estranged from one another.
Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the God of the universe saves and heals, reconciling the world (not just human beings) to himself. In a Roman-subjugated Jewish peasant-teacher-healer we see who and what the Creator of the cosmos is: ceaseless caritas, a love without beginning or end that embraces the outcast and the unlovely, that suffers betrayal by loving the betrayers all the more, that refuses to respond in kind to all manner of cruelty and violence.
Humankind, created for communion with this divine fellowship of love and with all of Creation, mirrors this perfect love always imperfectly, never fully imitating it since the fullness of this cosmic love story is not yet in our grasp.
But even in our flailing and failing attempts to embody it we acknowledge its power over the other stories of our lives. When conservatives tell us that certain social services must be slashed because we simply “must reduce spending” or when liberals insist that everyone has the right to this or that program or procedure, we remember that our story is never about putting the poor in harm’s way or about the rights of the individual but is always about seeking the well-being of the most vulnerable and about the kind of community required for all human beings everywhere to flourish.
When the stories of both liberals and conservatives fixate on freedom and love of America, we remember that in our story we are free insofar as we are bound to our neighbors (and our enemies) in love and solidarity and that Jesus–not Caesar–is Lord.
And as Holy Week nears we know that our story will take us to the darkest of places since it’s a story of deep ironies and paradoxes–a story in which hope emerges from abandonment and grief, joy from desolation, life from stone-cold death. It’s a story, we believe, about ourselves. And through it we are saved and reconciled to the God of all.