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Dueling Narratives Seek to Define Our Culture

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It is becoming a widespread observation that we are surrounded by at least two very different versions of who we are, where we have been and where we are going as a society and a nation.

We can look and listen for a while, then change news channels, tune in to the other side of our showcase “debates” or listen to a different group of friends, and it is as though we have traveled to a different planet and discovered an entirely different version of reality.

Much of the political contest that is dominating our attention seems to be an effort to determine who can control the narrative that will be the story of who we are from this point forward.

Whoever “wins” the contest will share the spoils of victory: the establishment of values and priorities that will serve the particular goals of that group.

We understand, of course, that this has been the character of the process by which we have governed ourselves as a nation.

Every generation has had its burning issues and its heated debates, and through those conflicts we have emerged, being scorched at times, with refinements to our common life.

Still, with increasing amounts of money and media, the volume and intensity of the “narrative casting” contest seem to have brought us to a new level of partisan belligerence that makes it seem unique.

The “leader board” in the contest at a given time seems to register who has drawn the most blood from the other side.

Such theatrics tend to obscure the longer range importance of how our participation in this essential, but easy to overhype, process shapes who we are and who we will become as we continue the journey of life together as a people.

An ancient, but I believe still relevant, parallel might provide us with some helpful ways to see through the dust and smoke of our current “discussions.”

For nearly a thousand years, the covenant community of ancient Israel traveled through history with two “narratives of identity” that had profound influence on their lives and destiny.

The first was the concept of the Mosaic covenant, rooted in the Exodus and wilderness experience of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents to “be with them” on their journey. It was a covenant of liberation, provision and community.

The second – beginning with the success and centralization of the community’s life in Jerusalem under the united monarchy – was a concept of a royal covenant, where the fulfillment of the ancient promise was seen in Zion, the “city on the hill” and in the dynasty of King David.

The story of these dueling narratives is portrayed in the long history of the struggle between power and faithfulness.

King after king and prophet after prophet represented and illustrated two ways of thinking about what it meant to be God’s covenant people.

Power, success and affluence (often by any means) were the marks of faithfulness to the royal covenant, while justice, mercy and “walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) was what the alternative covenant narrative required.

In the long history from Solomon to the Babylonian exile, only three of the 39 kings of Israel and Judah escaped the historians’ indictment of having “done evil in the sight of the Lord,” while the prophets consistently held the feet of kings and religious leaders alike to the fire of judgment for their complicity with corruption.

When the royal covenant-narrative was smoldering in the ashes of its own destruction, Jeremiah (31:31-34), Ezekiel (11:19-20) and Isaiah (55:1- 56:8) highlighted the resilience of the covenant that continued to live “in the hearts” of God’s people.

The royal covenant narrative was characterized by power and wealth and was certainly impressive at times, and it ultimately fell to the alliance of internal corruption and external power.

The older covenant narrative was oriented around justice, mercy and community; and its thread survived the ebb and flow of history’s success and calamity.

Dueling narratives seem to be a part of the human journey. Maybe it’s not so much an either-or, but a both-and, with power and justice not being mutually exclusive but more a matter of which one is seen in terms of the other.

Justice seen through the lens of a desire for power or power seen through the lens of a commitment to justice is a choice that every people and every generation will make.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.