Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Alternative Narrative

In the liturgical year of our secular religion, last Sunday was a high feast day, maybe the highest.

The Superbowl was the largest mass media event of the year, and the biggest social media event ever, generating over 30 million public tweets. Thirty second ads cost  $3.8 million each, and over 108 million people tuned in to watch the game, the ads, and the halftime show.

A new movement, MissRepresentation’s #NotBuyingIt, called attention to the extent that Superbowl ads objectify women and use women’s bodies in ways that demean and dehumanize women. 

Anti trafficking groups called attention to the sex trafficking that attends the Superbowl, which has been called  "the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States." 

Other groups discussed additional forms of slavery represented by the Superbowl: in the cheaply produced commemorative jerseys, the food, the materials used to produce our large-screen tvs. 

The Superbowl was both celebration and enactment of our prevailing religion of consumption, competition, violence, power. Some of the victims were painfully visible: the women objectified and dehumanized in demeaning ads, the players courting concussion-induced dementia.

Not My Life: 2012 documentary
But many of the victims are invisible, so far from sight we imagine they aren’t there: child slaves harvesting chocolate for our sweet valentines, adults and children trapped in systems of exploitation, trafficked illegally to harvest our tomatoes, cotton, coffee, sugar cane, or working long hours, six or seven days a week, to produce cheap goods for companies that drive the prices ever lower. 

We enjoy our convenience and comfort, working hard to ignore the mounting evidence that our current systems are unjust, unhealthy, unsustainable, and contribute to an industry of human suffering that dwarfs the slave trade of earlier centuries. 

In thinking and praying about where we are and where we’re headed, I came across Walter Brueggemann’s "Nineteen Counterscript Theses", presented at the 2004 Emergent Conference and published in The Christian Century in 2004. 

Points one to six:
1. "Everybody has a script. People live their lives by a script that is sometimes explicit but often implicit.
2. "We are scripted by a process of nurture, formation and socialization that might go under the rubric of liturgy. Some of the liturgy is intentional work, much of it is incidental; but all of it, especially for the young and especially for the family, involves modeling the way the world "really is." The script is inhaled along with every utterance and every gesture, because the script-bestowing community is engaged in the social construction of a distinct reality.
3. "The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life. §         I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

  •  I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.
  •  I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that "if you want it, you need it." Thus there is now an advertisement that says: "It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it."
  •  The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.
  • It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.
4.  "This script—enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television—promises to make us safe and happy. . .
5.  "That script has failed. . . . We are not safe, and we are not happy. . .
6.  "Health depends, for society and for its members, on disengaging from and relinquishing the failed script.
The script Brueggemann describes is disturbingly visible in events like the Superbowl extravaganza. 

Sociology professor Michael Vos, exploring the theology of women, the body, consumption, violence, and control expressed in the Superbowl, asks:
"I wonder how we, as the people of God, might counternarrate the Super Bowl—this iconic event so disturbingly representative of what counts as sacred in our culture. In a way, our collective witness in the midst of this nation-defining event—the story we tell outside of church—is so much more important than the story we tell inside of church. For this outside story bears witness to our inside story. Will we imagine women in the way Doritos does? Will we pretend that we can simply mentally dismiss particular components of the Super Bowl "package" and in this way resist its hegemonic control? Or will we provide a compelling and alternative story about what it means to be image-bearers, in physical bodies, who live for a different sort of world." 
I just spent two days at a conference run by PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Surprisingly, the theme of narrative and counternarrative surfaced repeatedly in the main sessions, seminars, even side conversations: are we all commodities, or something more? Is land a resource to be consumed, or a gift to be renewed, a regenerative treasure? Is value measured best by dollars, or by moments of beauty, rich relationship, generous community?

Even more, the conversation turned, again and again, to this: our systems are broken. It all needs to change. And until it all changes, nothing changes. 

The season of Lent is an essential time for disengaging from the pervasive narrative we live in, and for envisioning an alternative narrative. The Israelites, unable to picture any world but Egypt, spent forty years in the wilderness, disengaging from the past, preparing for the future. Jesus, preparing for his ministry, spent forty days in the wilderness; confronted there with the narrative of power, comfort, and consumption, he affirmed an alternative, where power resides in God’s hands alone, where comfort is found in obedience, not self-protection, where spiritual nourishment precedes physical.

I’ve been feeling the need, more than ever, to find in Lent an occasion of examination, of disengagement from that "therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarist narrative" Brueggemann describes. My time at the PASA conference encouraged me further to undertake what Brueggemann suggests is the role of the church: "the steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we testify will indeed make us safe and joyous."

My own church has been moving slowly through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' own articulation of that alternative script. While the Superbowl ads, game, half time show, insist that we will be happiest if we win, if we consume, if we look a certain way, drive a certain car, fulfill every need the moment we imagine it, the Beatitudes and passages following offer a stark alternative.

I want that alternative. 

I see, more and more clearly, where our current script leads: unhealthy food, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy environment, unhealthy minds, exploitation of child labor, of women’s bodies, of water and land, hardening of conscience as we excuse our own complicity in an abusive, immoral system.

My goal for Lent is to look for ways to extricate myself from the exploitative aspects of our economy and culture, to find out more about fair trade, fair farming, restorative justice, socially responsible investment

And to affirm that alternative script proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus himself, a life-giving story in which the last become first, the leaders are servants, and those with least, those most burdened, most willing to face the brokenness around them, find themselves comforted, nourished, blessed.

Please join me in this exploration.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments

This is the first in a series that will continue through Lent (February 13 to March 31).