James told me that he wasn’t a fan of Ghandi.
“Really?” I’d never heard anybody say that before. I almost wanted to tell him to keep his voice down – we were sitting in Credo Café, one of the main hubs of Urban Seed. In that organisation, to deny Ghandi is getting close to denying Christ! “Why?” I wanted to know.
“Well Ghandi called off the independence movement when it turned violent,” stated James, leaning against a wooden bench. A candle flickered while volunteers mopped the floor around us. “I think to myself: how dare he! If the people wanted to take the movement somewhere, stopping it was a complete abuse of power. It wasn’t his movement – it was the people’s!”
I sat there half-smiling, a little stunned.
James went on. “In fact,” he said, “The Ghandi story is simply a narrative that is popular amongst Americans. Same as Martin Luther King. He appeals to a white liberal audience, because he’s relatively nice. It’s all about racial harmony, as opposed to Black power. Actually,” said James, “the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was made some years before his death. Before he was assassinated, his speeches took on a stronger socialist flavour. But those speeches don’t get remembered and quoted!”
I am not surprised that James has picked up on – or rather has been around people who have alerted him to – the socialist leanings of Martin Luther King. James believes passionately in the power of the grassroots. He is a self-identifying activist, and continually wears a cotton red-and-white scarf that he picked up during his time in Palestine. A dense beard belies a youthful face and a crooked smile, which persists whether he’s extolling the virtues of a polyamorous lifestyle or condemning Israel for genocide.
James reminds me that the stories of the lives of people we love and admire – like Ghandi and Martin Luther King – are simply that: stories. Like any narrative, some aspects are left out and others are emphasised, and this corresponds with the agenda of the storyteller.
The Ghandi story, for many of us, is a principle in narrative form that nonviolent good will always conquer violent evil. We underscore the nonviolent methods Ghandi demonstrated, such as long marches to gather salt and the burning of British cotton. James, on the other hand, emphasises the fact that at a certain point Ghandi calls the movement off – taking power from the people and causing the Indian people to suffer even longer under British rule.
Similarly, we pick and choose from the historical reality of Martin Luther King – constructing a story of the man as a peaceful defender of civil rights, rather than a man of socialist persuasion. In fact, the whole Black civil rights movement is framed by the figure of the peaceful, Christian King, rather than the Muslim Malcolm X who believed in disciplined, violent defence. We construct a narrative and that becomes history.
As I write this, I think that it all seems so obvious it possibly doesn’t deserve a blog post. But it’s something I need to continually remind myself of – that there are so many versions of history, and when you seek to emulate an inspiring figure, all you can do is imitate the ways of a character in a story. A story based on a historical reality, yes, but nonetheless a story.
The Jesus that I know is a story character. A while ago I posted an analysis of a narrative in Mark, in which Christ overturns the tables of the vendors in the temple. Actually my interpretation is very much a product of my time at Urban Seed, where we tend to view the figure of Christ almost as a social and political revolutionary. My Dad doesn’t share these views, and responded to my post with a lengthy comment, arguing that Jesus’ purpose wasn’t primarily political or social
“I don't believe Jesus came to Jerusalem just to cleanse the Temple,” said Dad. “He came to die […] so that Man might live.” Dad went on: “His death would enable Man […] to enter that Kingdom, because without Jesus' death and therefore atonement for sin, NO ONE would be able to enter it.”
For me, Jesus was about restoration on Earth. For Dad, Jesus was about eternal life in heaven. There are many other narratives you can create around Jesus – I even read recently that Jesus’ mission was to free women and teach us about sexual liberation and the ways of the subconscious. The Gospels give us four separate stories about Christ, and we pick and choose from them to construct a narrative that works well for our own agendas.
Somebody turned the main lights off and we sat in semi-darkness. James related a story about the people of Venezuela, who defended the socialist President Chávez against a CIA-backed coup. Of course, James has his own narratives that he follows – his actions are inspired by the stories in which the common people win. Like me, he picks and chooses from what actually happened, constructing something that is useful for his life.
What actually happened? Who knows? All we can do is tell a story. That’s called history.