Once upon a time, when I was in charge of the Christmas pageant at my previous church, I made a decision that turned out to be more controversial than I realized it would be. I chose to write Herod into the script. I assigned the part to an older elementary-aged kid who I thought had the capacity to portray wickedness well. I remember parents raising their eyebrows and asking questions. For one thing, they simply didn’t know this part of the story. Mass murder wasn’t in any Christmas pageant they had ever seen. For another thing, they wondered if it was really a good idea to expose their children such a grisly scene.
In her TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie describes how she began writing at the age of seven. “All my characters,” she observes,
were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. . . . Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow. We ate mangoes. . . . My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. . . . What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to have foreigners in them, and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.
Adichie explains that discovering books by African authors years later “saved [her] from having a single story of what books are.”
Today’s chapter from Matthew reminds us that we are not a people of a single story. Our story is multi-layered, multi-cultural, even multi-faith. It calls us to live in the tension of many truths. A star sheds light on an event that is both cosmic in scope and profoundly personal. The prophecies of ancient Israel and of Zoroastrianism collide and mingle. Whole worlds come together in the humble home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And the worlds of countless families come apart as Herod continues his life-long habit of hunting the innocent, and reigning with murderous jealousy.
The truth is that Jesus was welcomed into a universe full of love. He was safe in his parents’ home, safe in the strong arms of God. And the truth is that Jesus was a refugee, hunted and on the run. Jesus, like his ancestors before him, dwelt in Egypt, a place of both protection and enslavement. Like the infant Moses, floating in a basket on the river Nile, Jesus was vulnerable. And like Moses, Jesus was a real threat to the pharaohs of his day. Even in suffering and death, he embodied a liberated and liberating way. Jesus modeled and evoked the greatness of humility. Jesus was utterly human. And he revealed the divinity of all God’s creation.
In her TED talk, Adichie reflects on what it was like to come to the United States at age nineteen to attend university.
My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe.
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
I thought about the danger of a single story over our Christmas visit with my parents, brothers and cousins. We engaged in passionate discussions, late into the night, about what to do with the family farm, and with the decaying buildings and junk. Reflecting on the descriptions of my grandfather, who I never knew, and the family dynamics over the course of these fifty years since his death, I could see how it all has shaped me, to be both prone to anger and prone to kindness, tough yet sometimes not assertive enough, generous and suspicious, tender-hearted and emotionally reserved. And folks, that’s only one branch of my story. . . . Aren’t we all like this? To be human is to hold layer upon layer of contradiction and complexity.
Everywhere we go, everywhere we look, we can see the power and the danger of a single story. Consider, for instance, the recent attack on worshippers celebrating Hanukkah in a Brooklyn home. In a recent editorial, Rabbi Michael Latz of Shir Tikvah Synagogue and Carin Mrotz of Jewish Community Action noted that the suspect is a black man. They write:
We are accustomed to anti-Semitism from white nationalists and neo-Nazis. When it comes from communities of color, from other people who experience daily oppression, it is confusing. We don’t know how to respond. . . . It’s impossible to discuss what might be motivating these attacks without an understanding of the role anti-Semitism plays in narratives about gentrification and poverty. Anti-Semitism is not just a blind hatred of Jews—it is often tied to conspiracy theories about Jewish economic and political power. The Jews running the banks. The Jews as the landlords. Poor people are told it’s the Jews who are to blame for their poverty and oppression. Oppressed people are driven apart and pitted against each other. That’s the whole point. It’s so painful—and as we see, violent—when it works the way it’s intended. It’s everyone’s responsibility to challenge hatred, and this hate is designed to divide and weaken us.
The good news of Jesus Christ, the light that dawns in Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth, in St. Paul, Brooklyn and Tehran invites us to depart from the path of Pharaoh and Herod. We are called to a journey of prayer and activism that has no conventional sort of map. We follow one who gives us the ability, on a personal and global scale, to move through the tensions of our lives with the sort love that refuses to accept the false choices and the misuse of power that a single story requires.
I’m thinking about that house in Bethlehem to which the star drew the magi. And I’m wondering if that house had a table, and if, after such a long journey, they ate together—the three foreigners bearing strange gifts, the active toddler, the stunned mother and father? Did they commune, as terror unfolded around them, knowing full well they were in mortal danger yet knowing full well they were held in the protective shelter of God’s love? Held in that deeper story of love, did they then give each other the gift of their own stories—full of wonder and pain, full of the wisdom of truthful contradictions? What joy and hope did they have the capacity to imagine inside that house? Did they pray for peace, pray that even the hearts of the world’s Herods might one day be free from the grip of a single story? I wonder . . .