Race and Narrative
I was recently asked to listen to a podcast episode in which a white conservative Christian radio host interviewed a black academic political philosopher on the subject of race in America. Much of the interview was generic questions with typical and uncontroversial Christian responses quoting predictable Bible verses and paraphrased with surprisingly novel eloquence, I must admit. However, it took a turn when the subject of “narrative” was introduced.
The question posed was basically some derivation of, do people have a narrative depending on their race? To which the philosopher responded, if they are in Christ, no. For you see, Dr. William B. Allen said, when we have accepted God’s merciful sacrifice, are forgiven and repent in the name of Christ, we all have one, unified narrative. The old narrative is gone. The new narrative of love for God and neighbor is what we are born — again — into.
On one level this strikes me as good. Yes, I say with a revolutionary fist in the air. We are one in Christ. We do not allow ourselves to posture above one another based on some metric of how much more we have suffered. The parable of the workers in the vineyard comes to mind. Regardless of when a man is hired, the agreed upon pay was always for one denarius. We are all paid equally by God’s unmerited grace. Rejoice in His good provisions for yourself and do not worry about what your neighbor has received regardless of his work.
But is that what the parable is solely about? And is it actually applicable to the story of race in the United States? More importantly, is narrative denied before Christ as a matter of systematic rule upon conversion? Let us examine closer what Dr. Allen is denouncing in a very sensible and socratic manner to find out for sure.
In partisan politics, one’s narrative is either a derogatory term (on the right) or a post-modern all-encompassing truth (on the left). For the right and surely the majority of conservative Christians listening to Dr. Allen, The Narrative is a weapon the leftist tribe is sharpening in their tents so as to — when the opportunity presents itself — tactically penetrate the mind’s of their unsuspecting victims once foolish emotions have taken over. It will sway them to their side so that the political hacks vying for power above may keep their knee on your neck through evil institutions manufacturing dependency, such as welfare, universal healthcare, ecological reforms, and other socialist propaganda. The Narrative is flexible, devoid of statistical examination, and only dependent on subjective experience. We logical humans guided by science and reason cannot submit to such a spectacle of false virtue.
Now notice the above assumptions if narrative in general is demonized. Your experience does not matter unless it is defended by objective statistical analysis. The people group that you have been lumped in with regardless of your actions, both as a whole and individually, do not have permission to identify with the injustice brought against them or yourself. In the podcast Dr. Allen said that the murder of George Floyd was not a white man killing a black man, but a person in the Image of God murdering another person made in the Image of God. Therefore, you are not allowed to seek justice for the narrative of your race because, if you truly love God and are obedient to Him in Christ, then there is no narrative whatsoever. Seek justice for the equality of all men, sure. But do not possess a narrative for the injustice of your race. Simply carry on and trust in Him that all will be made right.
It is here that my blood begins to boil. For you see, Dr. Allen’s rejection of narrative is simply too easy. Overly simplistic. Are we supposed to pretend like injustice selectively targeting black people doesn’t matter to God? Or if it does, then we nor they have no say in the matter? If we turn to Scripture, how many times does the text refer to the other? How many times does it speak of the widow, the orphan, or the foreigner or the poor?
“Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10). “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa 1:17). Or “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:3). The list is far more extensive than these few examples. And we must remember that the widow and the orphan and the alien were especially vulnerable people during that time, considerably more prone to being oppressed than any other people group. And beyond this, we have Jesus.
Jesus’ entire life was one of intentional vulnerability. He lived literally dependent on others while also constantly giving to the poorest around him through teachings, healings, exorcisms and feeding by divine miracles. And of course, he courageously made himself vulnerable to the political elite, which led to his inevitable murder on behalf of all sinners. For one claiming to be the Son of Man — a provocative, loaded self-identification for his Jewish audience — this life of weakness and defenselessness was scandalous on its own right. But Jesus takes this identity even one step further:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:41–46).
It is not a leap whatsoever to suggest the Jesus is unquestionably identifying himself as the most vulnerable and oppressed. He has made his alliance abundantly clear. And while I will concede that one could potentially argue that, contextually speaking, the least of these in the Gospel according to Matthew is referring to only believing brothers and sisters, the point still stands: is this not a narrative of identity? And while it is not centered on race specifically, we can see quite easily that people of racial minority in the United States today are without a doubt a population subjected to vulnerability and oppression. To consider our black brothers and sisters in Christ as the least of these is not an inappropriate extrapolation for the sake of applicability. This isn’t a production of victimhood. It’s just an acknowledgement of a current reality.
Dr. Allen, I agree with you that in Christ we all have one narrative of love and unity. However, have you forgotten that salvation is already but not yet? Have you forgotten our task as believers in Christ? To bring heaven to earth by obedience to Christ? This is a family job. And while Jesus said “It is finished” he never said our vocation was completed for us. So when I watch Officer Chauvin kneel on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and slowly end his life, yes I see a man made in the Image of God murdering another man made in the Image of God. But I also see a man in power kneeling on the neck of a widow, of an orphan, of an alien, of a Samaritan, of Jesus.
The words of Jesus transcend that of individualistic notions of singular events between only one man and another. There is clearly a narrative of injustice throughout the story of the Bible that God is intent on correcting.
Looking back at the parable of the workers of the vineyard, perhaps we may read it not only with imaginations of being the worker who started early in the day and feels cheated. What if we may also read it in a way that puts ourselves in the position of the landowner?
In context, the laborers are all undoubtedly poor men who cannot miss a day of work if they are to provide for their families. And a denarius was a day’s wage, which would only just be enough to provide for food and other basic needs. To envision ourselves as the landowner, consider what sort of generosity you would be providing to the eleventh hour workers. The story even explicitly states that the reason they were hired late is because no one would hire them until that time. Not because of laziness or irresponsibility. The landowner’s action can hardly be understood as unjust. Rather, it is a deed of compassion and benevolence for all people, no matter their position in life or the narrative they’ve inherited.
The question then becomes, what is your narrative of identity? Are you the laborer hired early in the day? Are you the eleventh hour hire? Or are you the employer? And, if so, how will you conduct the authority given to you by God, without assuming it is something you have earned on your own?