The battle of the narratives ….. (Part Two)

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A month ago I wrote a blog piece here* about the importance of  how narratives become framed in the stories of our lives, our communities, and our nations, another month on and in the wake of yesterdays announcement from the Prime Minister to “Stay Alert” I’m feeling the need to return to the topic.

Stories are powerful, they convey truths, images, hopes and dreams that facts and figures simply cannot. Of course they can also speak into our fears an insecurities, offering us either challenge or comfort. Humanity has been framed by stories from the outset of what we might call “civilisation”, but I would imagine they were being shared long before that, they are perhaps a large part of what makes us human, and how we make sense of the world around us, it’s past, present and it’s future.

As a person of faith I know that our sacred stories have been told and retold, written down in our Bibles and other texts and are to us a revelation in stories of how we (and other generations) see and encounter God in the world, stories of how we see our relationship with God, and how we believe we should live in the world in our times. The “truths” are eternal, but the stories get re-told, and re-framed from age to age.

Just as we need to actively engage with those sacred stories as we reflect and grow in our spiritual journeys, so to should we engage with the political and societal stories that surround us and likewise question and reflect on what may lie behind them.

The UK is in a period of major narrative formation ….. the Brexit debate (remember that) has largely been dominated by it, and so too now is the Covid19 pandemic.

I was attending yet another zoom session last week, this one organised by Church Action on Poverty, we were discussing the power and importance of stories. One thing that struck me in those conversations was just how much of the current media coverage of the UK pandemic experience has been couched in terms of “heroes” and “victims”. NHS and Care Home workers, foodbank volunteers, and fundraiders are shown to us day after day “heroically” doing all kinds of things (and I’m not disputing that many are), but then there are the “victims”; the old people, the sick, the dying, the ones who are struggling with lockdown. Much of the narrative places you in one camp or another, whereas for many of us we sit between the two, neither hero or victim, just doing what we can to get by.

A second key narrative being pushed at the moment is a populist nationalist narrative,  which seeks to portray Britain as a “nation alone” with strong “martial” nation tradition at it’s heart. By that I mean a nation whose history and culture is one of military pride and victory, even in times of relative peace. So we see whole framing of “the battle” against Covid19 crisis is filled with stories of “heroism” “the frontline” and countless other military metaphors …. it is why Capt Tom Moore is so feted (not that I begrudge his effort) but we need to understand that he is feted, in part at least, because he is a “Captain” a “war hero” and fits the narrative.Other people, other senior citizens have raised thousands of pounds during this same period and have gone largely ignored. The Queen evokes memories from world wars as she (and the nation) celebrate the anniversary of VE Day, and a nation sings “We’ll Meet Again” in the midst of a public health lockdown.  Likewise, there are attempts (with varying degrees of success) to draw comparisons between Boris Johnson and a war time PM, Winston Churchill, and in the narrative our “finest hours” are re-run ….. and re-written.

Today I also read something that talked about another developing narrative, the piece by Jon Alexander** explains how the Governments revised strategy announced last night by Boris Johnson attempts to shift focus from a Government responsibility to protect people, to and individualisation of the responsibility to “stay alert” and basically look out for your own health.

There were signs of this earlier of course, when the Government slightly amended it’s fifth condition for easing the lockdown, from: “avoid a second peak” to “avoid a second peak that overwhelms the NHS”. A small difference in words, but as we now know more than 30,000 people in UK have died from Covid19 in this first wave and the NHS was not overwhelmed, therefore those simple words could allow for a further 30,000 to die and still be framed as sucessful by the Government. The infamous “herd immunity” is back on the stage, if in the shadows, and peoples need to use  “common sense” is re-emerging as the well worn phrase to mark that shift from public to private. So if you’re feeling a little confused right now …. you’re meant to be and it’s all your fault! Okay so maybe thats being overly harsh, but the narrative being framed is clear; Government has done it’s bit, now it’s over to you – use common sense, if others aren’t then blame them.

All this matters of course, not just because it risks putting more lives sat risk (as long as those numbers are manageable in the Government scenario), but also because it will help frame the world we emerge into beyond the pandemic. The narrative very much matters, now and into the future.

 

* The battle of the narratives …. (Part One)

** Jon Alexander blog

Brussels, London or the Kingdom of God

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It’s likely to be yet another tumultuous week in UK politics as yet another Brexit deadline looms. Far from the divisions that surfaced during the referendum of 2016 healing, the split with the nation seems as wide as ever, with people still encamped and identified as “Brexiteer” or “Remainer” years on from the vote. Both sides unable it seems to envisage any compromise. These lines seem fixed around identity, either those who yearn for, and identify as “English” “British” and “Nationalist”, and those who identify as “European”. Obviously I have my own views, I voted to remain in 2016, and there is too much in my upbringing and heritage that will ever allow myself to throw myself behind a nationalist agenda (especially one dominated by the likes of Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Farage & Yaxley-Lennon), however I fear that we need to move on beyond the arguments of the day that still feel overly concerned with economics and trade. So how, I ask myself, might my faith help inform the current division?

This week I have led a couple of explorations and reflections around the Temptations of Jesus, it’s a story that is contained in three of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke) with the latter two covering it in considerable more detail. The story is placed after Jesus baptism in the Jordan, but before his ministry and the calling of the first disciples. It could be said to represent the struggle Jesus goes through to get his head straight and achieve clarity about the style and approach he will take in his challenge to the powers and principalities of this world.

One of the temptations in particular seems most relevant to our current musings over Brexit and the future of the UK, in Matthews Gospel it reads like this:

“….the devil took Jesus up on a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms on earth and their power.  The devil said to him, “I will give all this to you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

 Jesus answered, “Go away Satan! The Scriptures say:

‘Worship the Lord your God
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him.” (Matthew 4. 8-11)

Now it seems to me that what Jesus in rejecting here (at least in part) is the temptation to look for power through earthly kingdoms, rejecting the route chosen certainly by some others, to take up arms or to replace one Empire and / or dynasty with his own. Such a route would no doubt have been available, as plenty of evidence shows the Jewish people of the period were only too ready to rise against the false gods and Empire that was Rome, but this was not the route chosen by Jesus. Not only does Jesus reject the violence of such an approach, but I suggest he also rejects the narrow cultural sectarianism of this approach.

Jesus time and again speaks out against Empire, he longs for community that reaches out through love and compassion, forgiveness and healing – not conflict and victory, and power over others. Jesus, through the call to the Kingdom of God continues the rejection he gave the devils temptation. The Brexit debate (I fear) still remains one that in most minds is focussed on siding with one “Empire” or another, that of either Brussels or London …. Jesus asks us to in effect reject both, to understand that actually the struggle that matters is the struggle for the hearts, minds and souls of all people (including our own). So rather than focussing our hearts on which Empire we side with, maybe we need to instead focus on the values we want to see across the communities we are part of – those same Kingdom values of:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Healing

These are the things I shall try to look for, try to speak out for, and try to exhibit myself this week and in the weeks to come, as we continue to put faith in the Kingdom that cam overcome all Empires.

 

POSTSCRIPT 9th April 2019

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Deitrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis in 1945 – amongst all the tributes and quotes that people have posted today on various social media etc I came across this one which felt a highly apt addition to this article: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” (Life Together)

 

 

(The artwork in the photo is mine from the Prayer & Paint session held at Cross at Yew Lane – Sheffield this week)