The Storyteller

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Storytellers were not so uncommon at that time. They wandered through the villages aiming to attract listeners and get new apprentices for such noble art. Therefore, it was not only for being a storyteller that he distinguished himself in a unique way. What earned him fame and distinction was the kind of stories he told.

With great perfection, he wove stories that always began with palpable realities, stories from the visible world and daily life, from what was immediate to the eyes of his listeners: he would speak about crops, heritages, weddings, wages and many other social habits. But his stories would then point to a reality that was not so immediate, foreseeing new possibilities, digging up a whole new hope. It was as if those stories announced that reality is much bigger than what one can see; that there is History beyond stories of crops, heritages and weddings; that there is a way beyond blind alleys; that there is life beyond mere survival.

Many of his listeners delighted in his unusual stories, trying to absorb what they could from those stories and also discussing their meaning among them. Others, with excessive zeal for a small reality, one that they could comprehend and fully embrace, protested against the storyteller and wanted to silence him.

Thus, the crowd that followed him was heterogeneous and to all of them he would tell stories that often went somewhat like this: “The reality of which I speak is like a treasure hidden in a field…”

The storyteller exhorted his listeners to expand their understanding because the stories that he was telling required a renewed way of thinking so that they could be properly understood, experienced and applied. He compared his stories to new wine that cannot be contained in old wineskins, new cloths that cannot be patched on old garments, new software that doesn’t run correctly if the hardware is outdated.

He even said that, in order to understand the stories and the reality they disclosed, listeners should become like children. Children love stories: they live in a world of endless possibilities and they regard with much more simplicity and credulity those great hopes that adults deem unreasonable.

A conspiracy sprouted from the adults that were trying to silence him – a conspiracy that led to a death sentence and to an execution. They sought to put a full stop to the history of the storyteller, since his stories were becoming too inconvenient. However, without perceiving it, the supposed full stop of the story became the central point of History. For the one who masterfully told uncommon stories is also the one who masterfully writes History itself. The one who spoke of a way beyond blind alleys is also the one who inaugurates that way – or, in other terms, he is, himself, the Way. The one who talked about a hope great enough to exceed the mundane possibilities visible to the naked eye is also the one who brings such hope into the temporal reality.

As a kind of epilogue, the storyteller left us a great commission: “Go into all the world and tell the Story; don’t only tell it: live it. That way you will also make new stories and new storytellers.”

Storytellers are not so common at our time – it seems that our technocrat world tries to asphyxiate each and every story. However, besides the commission of the storyteller that still echoes across the centuries, it’s time itself that begs us to tell again his stories. Stories hold a hidden but great power even in the post-modern age characterized by massive doubt and deconstruction. Stories are able to surpass the barriers of suspicion, break in the walls of our cynicism and plant seeds of new possibilities in our skeptic hearts. Therefore, it’s time for us to frame our hope, our lives, our own stories in the greatest Story ever told, the Story that becomes History.

Talking about sin in times of Carpe Diem

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We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t even want to think about it. We prefer to regard sin as a concept from the past, a reminiscence of an oppressive age characterized by the heavy yoke that the religious authorities imposed on us. We now claim to be free from such oppression, as we adopt behaviors and choices that were once considered morally wrong, or morally dubious at least. We claim that the outdated rules issued by those authorities were solely means of controlling people and maintaining the status quo; rules that, at the same time, hindered the self-fulfillment of the individuals. As we react to that past age, tearing apart all the former norms and precepts that are now regarded as obstacles to our personal happiness, a new age has been born: the age of Carpe Diem.

This new age can be summed up by an aphorism: act first, think later. The will of the individual – often an unthought-of will, based on pure immediacy – has become the basis for his actions. We don’t accept anymore any external authorities determining what makes an action good or bad. And each individual doesn’t even care to set himself a personal authority to his choices; the individual doesn’t think through his own decisions in order to live accordingly to some personal precepts. We just let ourselves be governed by our personal and volatile will, as we aim to “seize the day”.

I cannot blame my contemporaries for this huge shift. There are actually good reasons for us not to accept the authority of self-proclaimed human powers; in fact, many of them are, indeed, controlling and tyrant. For instance, I believe that many of them are precisely the kind of powers from which Jesus wishes to set us free.

It is true that religious powers across history have used their authority to impose particular agendas on human societies, imprisoning minds and constraining the developing of individual consciences. Behaviors regarded as sin in particular contexts have often corresponded to the ‘do’s and don’ts’ that please the authorities and maintain a certain ‘status quo’. Therefore, even though I am a Christian, I can accept that this historical shift possesses some legitimate motivations and some positive consequences.

However, this shift poses a tremendous challenge for the Christian witness in the post-modern world: the reality of sin is a key part of the Christian worldview, but how are we supposed to talk about sin nowadays? How are we to testify about Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world if our contemporaries don’t agree that there is sin in the world? If we just insist on promoting a particular list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, then we won’t be able to surpass the great barrier of suspicion that characterizes our secular societies. This is the case even if we derive such list from the Scriptures and even if our biblical hermeneutics is particularly objective – the suspicion towards the Scriptures is particularly dense since the Bible was itself used in the past – inappropriately – as a weapon of control.

In the past, we were taught that sin was primarily defined as something external to the individual: to sin was to incur in any attitude or behavior that offends God. But, in the age of Carpe Diem, we don’t rely anymore on external referentials: the individual becomes his own referential and the concept of sin must be brought into such referential. In our secular society, we have to start from the individual to make sense of non-material concepts such as sin. Otherwise, the individual will not relate with such concepts since they appear disconnected from his practical experience, dissociated from immediate reality. For instance, I even advocate this general principle to do theology in the post-modern world: if we want to dialogue with a society that has abandoned every dogma, we should make an effort to develop a “bottom-up theology”, i.e. from the human to the divine.

In other words, I believe that the challenge posed by our secular society is also an opportunity to review our Christian worldview as we seek to present it to the world in relevant and palpable ways: a worldview that starts with the material reality – with bones and flesh – before addressing the existence of a transcendent reality. We start first with the immanent reality and, through it, we may find our way to the transcendent realm. I believe that it’s God himself who authorizes us to approach Christianity like this, especially as He chose to reveal himself through the incarnation: He, who is transcendent, becomes immanent so that through his immanence we may conclude that He is transcendent. This is the same pattern that we see in the disciples who dealt directly with Jesus in flesh and bones: they began with the human and, eventually, they discovered the divine.

How, then, can we talk “bottom-up” about sin? Is there something in the immanent reality of the individual that can be related with the concept of sin?

Yes! I would like to claim that, even in the age of Carpe Diem, our popular culture still recognizes the reality of sin even if we use other words to talk about it. If we carefully analyze the pop-culture that has spread massively across the world due to the globalization, we will find elements that point towards a Christian principle: we, humans, are flawed. We can find such elements in music lyrics, in movie scripts, in novels, etc. They are often expressed using terms such as: “demons”, “monsters”, “skeletons in the closet”, among others. I am aware that these expressions can have multiple meanings, but they often point to the struggle that the individual has with himself as he tries to deal with bad and hurtful choices from the past. Through such expressions, we express awareness of our internal conflicts and we recognize that, deep in our souls, we are haunted by sadness and regret.

Nowadays, concerts and movie theathres – more than religious services – are the events that make us confess our “dark side”. Check, for example, the following lyrics:

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

Demons, by Imagine Dragons

There’s a place that I know
It’s not pretty there and few have ever gone
If I show it to you now
Will it make you run away

Everybody’s got a dark side
Do you love me?
Can you love mine?
Nobody’s a picture perfect
But we’re worth it
You know that we’re worth it
Will you love me?
Even with my dark side?

Dark Side, by Kelly Clarkson

I’ve been burin’ the blues with a capital be
Surfin’ in hell for a brand new me
Got a bone to pick with my skeleton crew
Cashin’ in my IOUs

Smoke ’em if you got ’em
Ain’t no place like rock bottom

I’m dancin’ wit my devils
Blind side by side
I’m dancin’ with my devils
Me, myself and I

Dancin’ With My devils, by Mr. Big

These lyrics show how our secular culture is talking about sin without really addressing it. They show that our proneness to hurt ourselves and others (our sinful nature, as Christians would call it) is still a recognized reality. We are still talking about sin even if ‘sin’ is now a mocked word. We are still talking about sin even if we don’t relate it to any sort of religion or belief in God. And note that the secular concept of ‘sin’ even allows a deeper understanding of it: despite the way we talked about it in the past, we were never supposed to reduce ‘sin’ to a list of do’s and don’ts; sin is much more a part of what we are than a set of wrong behaviors. It is something that lies inside of us – whether we call it a monster, a devil or a dark side – and not only the external and visible actions that result from such dark side.

How can we explain that sin is still present in the age of ‘Carpe Diem’? If the religious authorities made it all up, shouldn’t we be able to mute – to kill – our devils and demons once and for all? Shouldn’t we be able to purge our culture from such elements? Why aren’t we able to get completely rid of them?

I believe that we are not able to stop talking about ‘sin’ because sin is real. It’s something real, palpable, concrete; something that is deeply encrusted in our souls and in our human societies and human structures. We may try to negate it, hide it, mask it. But it’s there. It’s real and reality will always find a way of supplanting all the man-made parallel realities.

You may think that I am exaggerating, since popular culture isn’t so much concerned with reflecting reality but only with entertainment. You may even think that my train of though leads just to another way of imposing external concepts on the individuals.

Well, let me take the issue a step further into the personal and existential realm: do you sing along these songs? Do you see yourself in the characters of the novels that struggle with their “demons”? Do the “skeletons in the closet” of TV shows’ characters resonate with you?

If you find yourself answering affirmatively to any of these questions, you may want to accept that sin is something real and concrete. As you embrace such reality, the next question can be: what do you do with it? How do you deal with your monsters and how do you cast away your demons?

You may find, as many have found across the centuries, that a bottom-up approach is the answer: if sin is something that we are able to detect in our human reality and in our human structures – if it is something immanent – perhaps we have to lift up our eyes and seek the cure in the transcendent. And that is precisely what Jesus Christ has to offer according to the New Testament and according to the Christian witness across History.

If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.

I John 1:8-9 (The Message)

Taking justice into our own hands

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“The earth and the sky and the sea are all holding their breath
Wars and abuses have nature growing with death
We say we’re just trying to stay alive
It looks so much more like a way to die
And this too shall be made right
Derek Webb

The pencils of french cartoonists design jokes of dubious taste. As a response, intolerant radicals spread death. These radicals are blind by an all too narrow worldview, which only allows space for the existence of that which is equal and not that which differ from them.

In smaller letters, we read about kidnappings and massacres in Northern Africa and in the Middle East. We read about the Indonesian Government asking that clemency may be granted to an Indonesian citizen condemned to death in Saudi Arabia, while denying the same kind of request from other Governments regarding the death penalty that Indonesian courts systematically impose on foreign citizens. We heard of the suicide bombing perpetrated by a 10 years old girl in Nigeria. We read about freedom being one hundred times whipped in Saudi Arabia, being imprisoned in Angola, being persecuted in Russia. We read about the slow death of Afghan children whose only toy is the clay used to manufacture bricks. We read about little girls carrying their Kalashnikov while marching in Gaza. We saw the humanitarian crisis escalating in Greek beaches, in Calais and in Turkey. We have heard about the increasing casualties of the unending Syrian civil war. We open our computers, we scroll through the newspaper, we push the TV button and what we see is a world full of people thinking that they are taking justice into their own hands while they are, on the contrary, perpetuating injustice, cruelty and fratricide.

In the biblical narrative, the fratricidal tendency of humanity is present from the beginning: it first appears in Abel and Cain’s story. More important than discussing whether or not the story told by Genesis 4 is literal, it is important to understand and accept the literal truth that lies within the story: we kill our brothers. Mankind, alienated from its Creator, excels in killing one another. If not by weapons and bombs, it’s through policies and economic artifices or even by means of mere words and hateful attitudes. UN statistics show that 836 million people still live in extreme poverty[1]. Even though slight progresses have happened to make poverty history, data still shows a dreadful reality and the rampant inequality – it is said that half of the world wealth is now in the hands of 1% of its population[2] – raises new obstacles in the campaign against poverty. Such whopping inequality may also turn fratricide: it may not kill instantly but it also causes the slow asphyxia of those who struggle to survive out of nothing.

The bitterness and frustration arising from such a devastated world became more personal for me while living in Timor-Leste. This is a young developing country, in Southeast Asia, still facing huge challenges to overcome poverty and to construct a fair society. When I was living and working there, I was often taken by a sense of impotence and hopelessness. The country has surely developed since it became an independent nation back in 2002. But there is still so much work to be done! Sometimes we wish we had the power and the authority to turn everything that is evil into righteousness. We wish we had the omnipotence to transform our society in a blink of eyes… I don’t have such omnipotence… and that is actually a good thing. Since I know that, at some point, I could also fall into the temptation of using my omnipotence for evil and not for good.

Maybe it’s this knowledge about myself – that I fail to use power to love and care for others – that makes me a skeptic and an unbeliever when it comes to regard the self-progress of the humankind as a valid metanarrative. Yes, I would like to believe that, by our own efforts, humankind will one day be able to form a global brotherhood; but such belief collapses when I look inside of me. Thus, I cannot surrender to the idea of a humankind able to self-generate its own progress. Such metanarrative cannot be my ultimate creed. I keep having this conversation within myself and, so far, I have always came to the same conclusion: I do not believe that humanity will find the strength within itself to rise above her broken condition and to achieve the humanist dream by its own efforts.

When I only think about what I don’t believe and when I can only see the ugliness of the world, I may be taken by despair and frustration. There are moments in which I see the ugliness of the world and I am filled with such anger and crying. I am reminded of Nehemiah crying when he first heard about the destruction of Jerusalem [3]. Have you experienced this same kind of anguish? When the immediate reality around us becomes so overwhelming that our hearts hurt, tears fall and crying arises? In such moments, we do reenact the story of Nehemiah

Then, just like Nehemiah, I must also remind myself about the things I believe. I deeply believe in Jesus Christ. I have put my trust on him. He is my hope, my model and my way. I strongly uphold this conviction: that, in Him, the fratricidal humankind finds its cure; that in Him all things are made right:

All the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. [4]

The Christian faith offers an alternative metanarrative both to the narrative of hopelessness and to the humanist approach. The cross is how Jesus fixes the world. All the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe are made right by is sacrifice. He literally took justice into his own hands, when he was nailed to the cross. And His is the perfect justice that we long for in our broken world. Not anymore an humane, unreliable and equivocal justice, but the restorative Justice from which the biblical authors provide many glimpses. This is the kind of Justice of which I can say that I hunger and thirst!

At this point, it is convenient to step back and remind myself about a basic truth: I am also part of the problem. I am also part of this fratricide humankind. I remember once listening to a preacher explaining that this beatitude – blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied [5] – should first be understood in terms of hunger and thirst for righteousness regarding our own lives. That is, blessed is the man who, confessing his own unrighteous and unjustified condition, seeks ardently for a kind righteousness that may dwell in him and transform him. Such righteousness must come from a pure source and not be self generated. Blessed is the man that acknowledges that self-sufficiency is a lie: only the work of redemption operated by someone much bigger and better could be efficient to overcome such hunger and thirst.

Therefore, it is not mankind that recreates itself but it’s Jesus Christ who recreates it. According to Paul’s words to the Ephesians, Jesus is forming a new humanity [6]. This new humanity receives an unique challenge: to show the world a new kind of Justice, much deeper, much more beautiful and much more divine. We are called to enact in the world the same Justice that satisfies our hunger and thirst. Perhaps such Justice can be understood in light of the Hebraic notion of shalom: the shalom is real when everything that is good, right, true and just completely permeates our relations, our communities and our cities, bringing peace, harmony and welfare for all. Shalom becomes a reality when ‘love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other[7].

This is not anymore the simplistic and primitive concept of retributive justice that feeds the endless fratricide. The justice that we find on Mount Calvary, and that we are called to enact here and now, seems paradoxical since it returns good for evil. And our hope lies in the promise foreseen on the resurrection Sunday: even though this Justice may seem, at times, fragile and powerless, it will surely vanquish evil.

We can therefore say that the way of Christ is for the stubborns: for those who have experienced this beautiful and pure Justice acting in their own lives and now refuse to accept the world as it is; for those who are willing to give their lives to proclaim and demonstrate the restorative justice of God; for those who are committed to live here and now as close as possible to the promised shalom.

As I wrote before, I am not a believer in the metanarrative of a self-accomplished human progress. I also do not believe in progress as a Christian eschatology, although I would like to. I can only believe that our deeds will always be tiny compared with the overwhelming problems of the world. But, as Mother Teresa would say, even if we can’t do great things, we can surely do small things with great love. And as the biblical authors remind us endless times, small things always matter in the Kingdom of God.

In this sense, we are called to take justice into our own hands but the expression acquires now a new meaning. To take justice into our own hands: we visit the widows and the prisoners, we take care of the orphans, we shelter the refugees, we love our neighbors, we hear those who are not heard, we lay down our lives in service, imitating our Master. In every area in which we step in, we seek to reverse the systemic injustices that are deeply instilled in our human relationships and in our human societies. We seek the surrendering of all things and all people to the shalom, trusting that, one day, the shalom will be the whole reality not by our own efforts and accomplishments but by what Jesus accomplished at the cross.

Let us hear the challenge of the contemporary prophets shouting that this too shall be made right. Let us hear the challenge of the ancient prophets, Isaiah, Micah and Amos, that many centuries ago were already shouting about God’s dream for the world.

For instance, if I stand in silence for a moment and listen carefully to the song that comes in between the lines of God’s revelation over time, I can almost hear the distortion of the electric guitars and the voice of Amos leading a hard-rock band and singing the everlasting chorus:

But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream![8]

Let our lives be like living responses to this challenge!

[1] http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/poverty/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/oct/13/half-world-wealth-in-hands-population-inequality-report

[3] Nehemiah 1:4

[4] Colossians 1:20 (MSG)

[5] Matthews 5:6

[6] Ephesians 2:15

[7] Psalms 85:10 (NVI)

[8] Amos 5:24 (ESV)

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