Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rome and America: Narratives in Perspective

Perspective is everything when it comes to story telling. A story which has a happy ending for one might be a tragedy for another. The hero of one story might be the antagonist of the same story from a different point of reference. Subtle presuppositions and minor omissions can transform and even hijack an entire narrative. Look to the Wizard of Oz, for example. For decades the story has been told from one perspective. We all knew who the good guys were and who the bad guys were and we cheered when the wicked witch met her demise. Then along came Gregory Maguire, an author with a different perspective. I wish I was more familiar with the book than I am with the Broadway musical, but in his story Wicked, Maguire exposes the presuppositions and subtle omissions of the Wizard of Oz. He helps us see that the "Wicked Witch of the West" actually has a name and, from a different perspective, the story is not so simple as "good guys" against "bad guys."

While the Oz narratives might be fiction, the same principal applies to every narrative, even historical ones. Told from the perspective of those on the top, those who won the battle, those who spent the money, or those who have the power, any narrative will reflect that perspective and celebrate the victory. But told from the perspective of the ones who see the subtle omissions, those who have to suffer under the power of the victor, those who see the blood of the ones on the under-side of the system, the story will be much more sobering and complex.

I recently read an article which argued against the popular connective comparisons between the Roman Empire of Jesus' day and the American Empire of today. They wished to show contrast through comparison. Among many statement about which I could comment, one was this:
"Rome sent its armies out to conquer; America sends its soldiers out to liberate. Rome demanded tribute from other nations; America sends aid and emergency relief around the world. Rome enslaved nations; America rebuilds nations."

Now, I could argue with this statement on just about every level but let's just think about it from the narrative approach. The Roman Empire, while "brutal" from our historical perspective, was not always seen as such. It was only from the perspective of those it dominated that Rome was seen in such a negative light. The rhetoric of those on the top, of those who benefited from Rome's dominance, was laced with words like, "freedom," "prosperity," and "peace." It was by these words that Rome conquered and required "tribute." The Roman narrative, like all others, was two sided. It was either a nation of peace or a nation of oppression depending on whose side you were on. Of course, Jesus was on the under side of the Roman Empire. His struggle was not from a position of power and therefore he did not directly confront Rome's power structure (and he may have if he had been operating from a more privileged position). He did so, however, through stories and even riddles. He confronted Rome through the lives of twelve Jewish peasants who, in following Christ, were invited to abandon all other allegiances.Everything about Jesus' life was alternative to Rome's imagination. When Jesus used the word peace, he meant something radically different. But if you were under the impression that Rome was a force of reason, liberation, and freedom, you'd seldom understand Jesus' critiques.

Turn now to the American narrative. Ours is either a glorious history or an embarrassing one depending on your perspective. The patriotic hymns and war songs of American holidays highlight the "liberty and justice for all" part of our history. This history is true of the United States. It is a place of freedom, it is a place where justice is sought, it is a place where human dignity is valued. But we seldom highlight the other side of the story. We subtly omit the long history of slavery and segregation in this country. We see our excess and miss the stories of nations whose loss is our gain. We don't see the half of the story which tells of those who've died and those families who've suffered due to our "liberating" militarism. We ignore our history of rejecting whole people groups and religious groups in the name of God even while we boast in a "separation of church and state." When we do finally admit to our mistakes, we often assume that we've recovered from them. The truth is that both sides of the story are true and we'll hardly understand Jesus' critiques if we continue to operate under the presupposition of American patriotic optimism. Whether or not we're as brutal as Rome was, we're far too brutal to be confused with God's imagination for the world.

The problem with a phrase like, "Rome sent its armies out to conquer; America sends its soldiers out to liberate..." etc., etc., is that it holds one side of the Roman narrative up against the opposite side of the American narrative. Truth is much more complex than that. There is much more tension in comparisons. America and Rome are, in fact, more and less similar than we imagine. America conquers and Rome liberated just as America liberates and Rome conquered.

There is one undeniable similarity between Rome and America: neither of them are the Kingdom of God. Rather than trying to figure out how Jesus would critique America by figuring out how he did critique Rome, why don't we simply seek first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness? It will, no doubt, look quite different from any nation we've seen under the sun. If we can imagine doing so, why don't we abandon America's ideals and embrace those of our savior--recognizing that there's a difference. It will without a doubt inform our perspectives on national budgets, foreign policy, border protection, and even economic recovery. But, more importantly, it will free us to confront our nation in the same way Jesus confronted his... by living an alternative.

3 comments:

danny said...

Perspective definitely plays an important part role in "Wicked" because, as Glinda says, "it's not aptitude / it's the way your viewed." Or, as the Wizard more aptly says, "it's all in which label is able to persist." In the play, I really do see a difference in the realpolitik of Glinda with the unabashed, almost puritanical, views that Alphaba takes on because of her beliefs about the animals. The accommodationist bent of Glinda stands out as most interesting in how closely it reflects the blind eye America often turns to the injustices it feels that it must perpetuate in the vague notion of freedom.

That is my first reaction. I might say more later. I like what you said about perspective here.

Steve Swope said...

Good thoughts, Wes! And you know I love the Wicked reference. It's a common fallacy in logic to compare one side's best attributes with the other side's worst. Wicked and its predecessors (John Gardner's Grendel was an early one) helped highlight what our mothers always told us: there are 2 sides to every story. I know you wrestle with this time of year. Keep sharing your wrestling, O Jacob, and we'll all learn from it.

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