On motives and controlling narratives

“Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor but because he was a thief…”

It is a lot easier to discern someone’s motives if they are doing something blatantly evil or self-serving.  It’s a lot harder when actions look, smell, and feel noble and good.  Of course, it is not really our job to discern others’ motives, although wisdom is critical in terms of forming alliances and partnerships.

The story in John 12 showcases a lot of different motives: Mary’s, the chief priests, Judas’s, the people’s and Jesus’s.

It seems like motive is related to control or at least one’s perception of control. Who gets to tell the story and who gets to be in charge? Judas, of course, wanted to control the finances—motivated by greed.

But more fascinating to me are the chief priests in this story.

“But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also…”

The more I think about this, the crazier it seems.  Of course, their motives are outlined in the passage: “…because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.”

In the earlier chapter, we see that this does not seem to be motivated by a fear that they were going away from the true God, but rather from a political and national interest: “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

In essence, they wanted to control the narrative—and this motivated them even to consider the extraordinary act of “re-deathing” a man who had recently been resurrected.

But really, this impulse to control the narrative seems to be part of the human story.  In the 21st century, this impulse took on a bizarre twist since the narrative can be controlled by  any person’s video, story, or headline that goes viral. Political leaders attempt to ‘control the narrative,’ often by extreme means.

But what about the Church?  We are also guilty of this. Sometimes, like Lazarus’s resurrection, we are so afraid of something new and outside the limits of our current theological understanding that  we either silence that narrative or try to force it into submission using subtle spiritual manipulation.

Other times, our good deeds are masked with—shall I say—Judas’s motives.  In other words, holy rhetoric with unholy motives.

This can happen particularly when those of us who are coming from more financial, political, and/or social capital are serving those with less power.

I was just recently listening to a podcast from a woman who has taken sanctuary inside a church in the United States  out of fear of deportation.  She is very appreciative of her allies, those who are helping her and her family(from whom she is now separated).

“And yet,” she said, “and yet despite their help and their service to me, I still have the right to make my own decisions, because this is my life.” She was arguing for the right to control her own narrative, despite her current vulnerability.  In fact, she directly confronted a politician who was using her story to promote his own platform instead of her community.

Does this sound familiar?  Because I hear leaders from marginalized communities say this same thing—people who come to ‘help the powerless’ sometimes use their story to promote their own ministry. Or sometimes feel that they have the right to make decisions on their behalf regarding their needs or what they should do.  When we do that, we further violate a person’s dignity.

Helping the vulnerable does not give us the right to control the narrative.

This can be a very sensitive issue—like I commented earlier, who has the right to judge someone’s motives?  And yet, if we understand ourselves properly—the human tendency to want to control and dominate—maybe we can be more attuned to our own motives.

As a writer, and often writing about people in vulnerable situations, I take this deeply to heart. I must diligently search my own motives and also allow myself to be held accountable and be corrected by the vulnerable community itself. 

“But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also…”

Let the shock of this drastic intent to ‘control the narrative’ sink into you—and before writing it off as ‘impossibly extreme’ perhaps it can serve to illuminate the subtle or not-so-subtle ways in which we ourselves try to exert control.

 

 

The flames of unity

“We think that more and more healings will bring people to Christ, but Jesus prayed that we would be one as the means for people recognizing him as the Son of God.”

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Gary Brazil’s vision in his shed 20 years ago—interpreted as diverse flames of color centered by Christ.

So began the opening devotional given by a Roma pastor  at the Roma Networks country representative meeting in Belgrade, Serbia.  Representatives came from 27 different countries to report on what they knew was happening among Roma churches, ministries, and communities in their countries.

Some were seasoned presenters; for others, it was their first time ever making such a presentation in front of a group of people.

Occasionally, a phrase that someone spoke grabbed me, and I madly jotted it down:

On the importance of the language we use as non-Roma serving Roma:  “We don’t bend down to the Roma, and we don’t lift them up.”

On changing the majority culture perceptions of the Roma: “To see Roma communities in a different way by serving them.”

On reflecting on longevity in ministry: “The longer I am serving in the community, the less I have to say.  You don’t “do” ministry.  You live ministry.  You eat, drink, live with the people.”

On preaching the gospel to the Roma: “We preach the place where the Roma people belong to.  They have a country, they have a King.”

On holistic transformation in Roma communities: “You need to learn to read and write not just for the Bible, but to have a better life.”

On Roma women: “A lot of Roma women need their souls healed.”

We heard and saw extremes: In Finland,  there are no “Roma churches” because the churches are all integrated.  In places in Central Europe,  Roma ministries have been established for decades and cover all aspects of holistic transformation.  In Southeastern Europe, in many places things are just beginning and face issues like an entrenched economic crisis and migration to the West.

It was a good reminder that each context and Roma community needs to be understood and approached on its own terms.  That the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, nor do you have all the answers.

Most of all, it was a clear challenge and call from the opening Philippians 2 devotional: Could we, as Roma and non-Roma, from diverse contexts and situations, put aside our selfish ambitions and conceit?  Could we be open to the Spirit’s work of fostering unity and humility, of serving each other and being “united in Spirit, intent on one purpose?”

I believe that this must be a daily practice of centering yourself in the Father’s love so you don’t feel you have to compete or prove yourself.  It is a daily discipline of cultivating awareness to recognize when divisiveness lurks at the corner of your mind, waiting to sink its teeth into self-pity or feelings of inadequacy.

It is to immerse yourself in the image of Jesus washing his disciples feet.

For who of us is above our Master and Teacher?IMG_3894