Telling a Better Story
Reframing Our Relationship to Power
I have a problem. I was wondering if you could help me.
I see things differently.
My heart is breaking over the way I have been complicit in attempts to find peace and security by helping to build a culture of domination, revolution, isolation, purification, victimization, and accumulation.
I have realized that none of this is working.
So, I want to tell a different story about how we set out on a journey to find reconciliation, and we discover a place of freedom, connection, and rest in the process.
This story begins with a resonance with the experiences expressed by a group of people who were having a conversation about the culture in which I was raised.
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What stood out to me in this conversation was the difference between triumphalism and surrender. In the face of a dangerous, mysterious, painful, and random universe, we reach out for safety, answers, distractions, and absolute certainty. We become frightened, disappointed, cynical, disillusioned, and angry when we face the reality that the things we reach for have become unattainable, even meaningless. When the effort we have put into achieving our goals results in an unquenchable dissatisfaction, there is a temptation to despair and ask, “Is that all?”
The answer that Brad Jersak arrives at is a contrast to the triumphalism of assuming power and control over our situation and attempting to weigh the balance of fate in favour of achieving better odds in this game of chance. He reframes our situation by arguing that, yes, life may be random, but we also live on a tiny rock spinning around a large ball of fire that happens to be able to support human life. Can we find joy in being human by surrendering to the mystery of life and finding ways to help make this experience more like the heaven we hope for and less like the hell that we fear? We create hell by seeking power and control over our environment. Through surrender, we can find love, joy, and peace. That is the foundation for his theism.
Life is random. But God is good.
These two ideas appear to be at odds. However, Brad has reconciled the tension by surrendering to the idea that they are mysteriously not mutually exclusive. If you leave out the theism, you can arrive at the same formulation.
Life is random. Life is good.
Now, let’s explore how we make sense of our world. We know that humans make sense of things through stories. We tell our children horrible stories. They grow up to act these stories out, as they find ways to gain more power over their own environment and discover their place in the world.
I have been taking a course at Bez Arts Hub on Faith, Arts, & Culture, led by Dwight Friesen. For the last class of the year, he had a question for us. What he has learned through teaching is that he is not interested in better answers. He is more interested in asking better questions. So, he asked, “What questions do you have?”
“What, in this technological context, does it mean to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s when the Church has become the empire?”
I explained how the church has, over time, assumed the role of the empire. It just happens to be the repeating pattern of human organizations that creative, innovative networks of people become large, successful, self-perpetuating hierarchies that seek power and control. The hierarchy is forever reborn in the same pyramid scheme that the Egyptians discovered, a culture of death that ultimately oppresses the people who are forced to live in subjugation to support the preservation and eternal rule of the select few who reign over the empire and enjoy its privileges. However, history tells us that empires fail.
I am a member of the network. I have no desire to be a part of the hierarchy. But, what I know about hierarchies is that they are designed to crush networks.
My solution, at the moment, is to refuse to participate in the hierarchy. However, that may not be a sustainable solution. This is partly a choice and partly a circumstance that is out of my control. It seems that others would rather I did not participate anyway, so that is fine with them.
If you have been following my writing on Medium, you might have noticed a recurring theme: power. In my recent outbursts, I have responded out of pain and anger in ways that could be described as self-destructive. I realize that I need to find a better way to respond.
A Better Story
This morning, I listened to a conversation with Tripp Fuller, Gareth Higgins, and Brian McLaren.
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The Seventh Story
Gareth Higgins explains how they are reframing our relationship to power with seven stories.
Let me briefly name what the six stories are.
The six stories are all attempts that humans have developed to bring peace and security.
We call them:
The domination story, which is really the empire story. “I’ll bring peace and security by ruling over you.” Caesar does it. Darth Vader does it. People do it in their families. Tyrannical bosses do it in their organizations.
The second story is the vengeance-based revolution story, which is, “I’ll get peace and security by overthrowing you and then I’ll rule over you, maybe slightly less bad as you have ruled over me.” But it’s still a domination story in the end.
The third story is the isolation story. “I want to get away from all of this. I am going to create a promised land/utopia. Of course, when I get there with all my elite, pure people, we’re going to start dominating each other and having revolutions — whether this is actual utopian communities or gated communities within our own minds.”
The fourth story, the purification story: “It’s not my fault. It’s their fault, because of what they believe or how they think or what they wear or the colour of their skin. I’m going to build a boundary between me and them. Or maybe I’ll just exterminate them to make sure we have purified ourselves from them.” Again, whether it is actual, literal genocide or character assassination, we’ve all participated in it somewhere along the continuum. Part of the blessing of story telling and of being human is that, even the most privileged person, by, let’s stay, the standards of Western economic success, will also have some major burden in their life, too. There is no one who is pure privilege. When you were talking about who are you responsible to, I think we are responsible to the story of reconciliation and liberation. And to whom much is given, much is required. All you have got to do with your privilege is ask, “What can I do with this power? How can I use this power to serve the common good?” All you have got to do with your lack of privilege is, “Who are the safe people whom I can ask for help?”
The fifth story is the victimization story. “I have suffered so much. Something was done to me and my people that is so egregious that it is the most important thing about us, and I’m never going to let go of this wound. I’m never going to let this wound heal. I’m going to hate and resent anyone who may have participated or have been connected to the people who participated in causing this wound, if you dare tell me that it would be better to reconcile.” Reconciliation does not mean embracing the people who caused immense suffering to you today by giving them a big hug and pretending that it doesn’t matter. It starts with agreeing not to take revenge, and maybe that’s where it ends. It may evolve further, but I cannot presume to tell anyone who has suffered that they should befriend the person who caused the suffering, because it’s morally right to do that. It may be. My impulse around that is I think it is psychologically better to move beyond revenge. Entire nations have been built on the victimization, if Northern Ireland had an 800-year-long civil conflict that involved the victimization narrative on both sides.
The last of the six stories is the accumulation narrative. “Once I have tried domination, revolution, isolation, purification, and victimization and found them lacking, I’m just going to buy a bigger sofa or some popcorn or a bigger house or I’ll invade a country. I’ll accumulate, and that will insulate me from having to feel connection or to feel the uncertainty of being in the world.”
All of these stories are an attempt to bring peace and security. They are all motivated, at some point, by a sincere or evolutionarily natural impulse. The problem is none of them work. They don’t produce peace and security. What they produce is separation: humans from each other, humans from the ecosystem, humans from God, and from love.
The seventh story’s way of dealing with power is what I just said. We audit ourselves for the power we have, whether we feel we have earned it or not. It is from that place that we serve the common good. We assess where we lack power, and it’s from that place that we look for support. It should ultimately be a beautiful, virtuous circle. The way I am looking at this at the moment, there are three of us. We are in a kind of triangle, and we can draw a circle around it. I know some of your needs, Tripp, and some of your needs, Brian, and lots of both of your gifts, and the relationship we have with each other. We get to serve each other’s good. That’s the way relationships should be between strangers, too, between people who have never met before, between people on one side of the planet and the other side of the planet. Another one of the gifts of right now is that we cannot deny this is a globally connected human race. We fall together or we rise together. In the seventh story of reconciliation, we are laying down power over people and seeing it instead as power with, power to serve.
We are not having revenge-based revolutions to overthrow bad people, execute and move on, but we are holding boundaries and injustices, willing to lay down our own lives down, not to kill anybody else, but to lay down my own life for the sake of the vulnerable, if that is what’s necessary. We are not isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. We may need healthy solitude and contemplation, but the point of that, as Charles Ives has said, is to leave this dimension and go into another dimension for a while, but then to come back, so that we can share the gift that we have received through being a mystic for a while.
The point is that for these other three stories for purification, victimization, and accumulation, it’s all about not lording it over other people or getting as much as we can for ourselves, but realizing that the self is not as important as we used to think it was.
We are cast members in a play that has seven billion other actors in it. I don’t know your lines. You don’t know mine. But we are in some scenes together. As a bottom line, if you’ve ever done theatre, Tripp, there are lots of ways to put on a play, but cast members killing each other is not one of them.
Rest and Reconciliation
I have been meeting with one of my favourite human beings, Natasha Stobbe, who has been offering wisdom, coaching, and spiritual direction. She reflects my own ideas about direction and focus to help me articulate and clarify intentions, visions, and goals for my life and the community that I seek to cultivate and build.
For the coming season, she has helped me surface the concepts of rest and reconciliation. These, I would suggest, are ways that we express love in the world.
I cannot possibly be responsible for everything. But I can be responsible to something. Responsibility is the ability to respond.
Perhaps a better story starts with a better question.
How can I respond with love?
Companions for the Journey
I acknowledge that I do not have the power to live this life on my own. As human beings, we are social creatures who thrive on connection, but, in social isolation, we become addicted to self-destructive behaviours. We live in an interconnected global community where, if one hurts, we all feel the pain.
There is immeasurable value in connection. For the coming season, I hope to press in to the desire to reestablish lost connections. I welcome any companions who would like to join with me on this journey.
Whether they know it or not, I will be taking with me people like Radha Agrawal, Priya Parker, Beth Comstock, Johann Hari, and Ryder Carroll.
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