Stitching together a new American narrative

All ancient and contemporary nations form myths of their genesis. Specifically in the ancient world, myths were written as creation narratives. The ancient Babylonians wrote the Enuma Elish in which the god Marduk killed Tiamat, another god, and created the world out of her disassembled body. Later in the story, humans were created out of the murdered blood of Kingu, the top general of Tiamat. Violence began their nation and guided their society and culture. This rings true in the US.

In our national anthem, we sing of bombs exploding and a battle won. Every year we reenact battle scenes from Revolutionary and Civil Wars. We remember the greatness of our founders, not because they were upright and moral people, but precisely because they were fierce leaders and battled well. We uphold the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as documents of freedom and liberty. Yet, it is in these documents that slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person and freedoms are suspended for prisoners (13th amendment).

American Poverty

What we remember in our past, we inevitably pursue with our future. In the book, Vilnius Poker, one Lithuanian post-concentration camp survivor speaks to another in a library owned by the Soviet Union in the 1970’s saying:

“Listen, Vytautas, hasn’t it ever occurred to you that we have no past?”

“It depends on what we call the past. On who those ‘we’ are.”

“Me, you, that bowlegged babe outside the window. And that laborer on the scaffolding…We have no past, we never were. We just ARE, you know? We’ve lost our past and now we’ll never find it. We’re like carrots in a vegetable garden. After all, you wouldn’t say a carrot has a past?”

“So what of it?” I growled. “If we don’t have it, we don’t have it.”

“Whoever doesn’t have a past, doesn’t’ have a future, either. We never were and we will never will be, you know? We’re a faceless porridge, we’re nothing but a void. We don’t exist, you know? We don’t exist at all. Absolutely! Someone has stolen our past.”

This conversation could happen anywhere in the world. If we don’t have a past, or do not remember our past, then we are at a loss for a future. Biblical theologian, Walter Brueggemann, writes in the Prophetic Imagination that we live in the eternal now. We are blocked from any sense of time, and in its place is consumption. The eternal now has no past or future.

It is in the corners of the eternal now that we find the counter-narratives to violence and consumption planted. They have been planted by hopeful guerilla gardeners, who believe that the future is just as important as the present and past. These seeds sprout in the concrete cities overrun with violence. They grow in the homes where tragedy strikes, in the farms owned by Big-Ag, in the hearts of the abused-abuser, and in the outfield of PNC Park where players make more money than whole sections of fans.

In the heart of the Babylonian Empire, radical Jews wrote the poem of Genesis 1. The Babylonian Empire conquered most of the known world through violence and deportation. Refugee camps like neighborhoods were set up in Babylon to hold the thousands of Jews deported from their homeland. Psalm 137 rhetorically asks “How am I suppose to sing the song of YHWH in a foreign land?” They answer it by composing the theopoetic song in Genesis. Their story starts with the Divine calling, moving, breathing, and loving. God/She orchestrates everything and calls it good. At the end of the poem, God/She stands back and names the whole as very good.

The ancient exiled Jews pursed hope and justice in the face of oppression. Today we have the same predicament. America was built on the backs of slaves and graveyards of Native Americans. We should always remember our past and never let this happen again. Yet, we need to encourage new narratives to shape our future as the US. Our current posture as a surveillance, war-mongering, poor oppressing nation must change. Guerilla gardens are everywhere with seeds of hope and love planted. Let us water these plants and change our culture to sharing, transparency, and making sure people get what they need.

Some people and groups who are reshaping the American Narrative:

Howard Zinn Education Project

The Peaceful Uprising

Cornel West’s Democracy Matters

Bread and Puppet

Democracy Now!


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