A single story? July 29, 2018
1 Samuel 11:1-15
“The danger of a single story…” is the title of a 2009 TED Talk by Nigerian American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is the author of award-winning novels and non-fiction and she is a sought-after speaker. Her 2009 TED Talk “the danger of a single story” has been viewed several million times on Youtube and has become one of the most popular. In it, she talks about stories… how stories form us as children and adults alike and how stories can both oppress and liberate us.
The “single story,” she says involves showing a people or a place “as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, [until] that is what they become.” She describes how, as a conventional middle-class Nigerian family, they employed household help and the single story she heard about one particular houseboy, Fide, was that he and his family were poor. How shocked she was to later discover that Fide’s family also made things. She describes an experience of visiting Mexico from the US after living there for several years, and realizing that she had absorbed a single story of Mexicans as “the abject immigrant.” Other examples of “the single story” in our time might be Muslims as terrorists; the lazy, drunk Indian; the dangerous crazy person. Tell one story, and one story only, of a people or a place, over and over again, and that is what they become. They become stereotypes and, as Adichie says, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity.”
The phenomenon of the single story also impacts how we understand the bible and what we hear in biblical stories. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when we heard a story of the newly minted King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, as it was processed into the new royal City of David. I preached about the story, but didn’t say anything about one particular verse: “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” Twice after the service, I was asked about Michal… Who was she? Why was she so upset? During my sermon prep, I had thought about saying something about Michal, daughter of Saul, who also happened to be “wife of David,” but in the end, I went with what I had been taught: to preach the core story. To say something about Michal would have meant saying a lot about Michal, as the important, fascinating and tragic character she is in the overall narrative. Michal’s is not a single story, but a multi-faceted one that deserves to be told. But the primary narrative is about King David. And so I preached about David.
And here we are again, with another story about King David. Today we hear about David’s desire and David’s indiscretion. We hear David’s plans, David’s words and David’s actions. As the story extends beyond this passage, we hear David being chastised and David’s repentance. David is a man not of a single story, of this single story, but of many stories. We have well-rounded and robust understanding about who David was: the good, the bad and the ugly. If I was going to preach about David today, I would talk about how we are defined not by our successes but by how we respond to our failures. I had some ideas for that sermon, and I’d be happy to share it after church if you want.
But in this story, there are other characters: Joab and Uriah and, of course, the object of David’s desire, Bathsheba. Bathsheba is described as beautiful, and by her relationship to the men in her life: she is daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah. We hear much about David’s experience and David’s response to circumstances, but hear nothing of Bathesheba’s. David sends for Bathsheba and “she came to him, and he lay with her.” There is no mention of coercion or violence, but if we’re honest we know that Bathesheba had little or no choice in the matter. Even if David didn’t physically force her to have sex with him… even if calling this a story of rape is going too far… the reality is that David had all the power. Could Bathsheba have resisted? Did she? Maybe. We don’t know. Bathsheba’s desire, her thoughts and feelings, her words and her actions, are not stories that are told here. Her’s is a single story. Temptress, perhaps. Or victim.
A single story of victimhood is particularly common and particularly damaging. This is true on a macro, societal level as well as on a personal, individual one. A single story of victimization of an individual or a people is damaging because it creates a particular power structure, and maintains it, by violence, if necessary. It keeps some people “on top,” with the power to “help,” to be lauded as kind and generous, even as such good intentions bolster unjust systems of power that create the need in the first place. We are happy to help the homeless or feed the hungry, around the world or right here in our own backyard, but we tend to be much less willing to address the power structures that create the imbalance in the first place. A single story of victimization attempts to deny our common human vulnerability. A single story of victimization means we don’t have to see or encounter others in our common humanity.
The irony is that those who become the single story of victimization too often end up using it as a means of oppression and control of others. Victims of childhood abuse, for instance, often become abusers themselves, because they have internalized the powerlessness they experienced as victims. Something similar could be said of the state of Israel today. There is no doubt that Jews have been victims far too often over the centuries, but so too have they become oppressors. When powerlessness becomes an eternal truth, a single story, it is usually dangerous for somebody… just somebody else. The tragedy of a single story it that it doesn’t allow for a new story, for a story of resurrection, for a story of healing. Becoming a single story fails to recognize when power has shifted, or when things have changed. Imposing a single story on someone else creates and maintains a power imbalance that denies our own dignity or that of someone else, a fellow human being.
Today’s story of victimization is not Bathsheba’s only story. In a podcast commentary about this passage, a scholar implores preachers: “Whatever you do, don’t call her a victim; don’t de-humanitize her agency, because she is one kick-butt lady. She is probably the strongest female agent in the Deuteronomistic History… Don’t diminish the rest of her.” Bathsheba doesn’t have a single story any more than Michal does. Just a dozen verses later, after David has successfully had her husband murdered, Bathsheba makes lamentation for Uriah. And when she is then brought into David’s house, she becomes his wife and bears him a child. That son is struck down but she gets pregnant again and has another son who she names Solomon.
A veritable soap opera ensues over who will succeed David as king from among his children. It is Bathsheba, with the help and support of the prophet Nathan, who engineers her son’s accession to the throne. And once Solomon is firmly established as king, Bathesheba goes to him with a request and, as it says in I Kings 2, “The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.” Bathsheba may have started with today’s story of victimization, but she is not a single story. Instead of internalizing her powerlessness, Bathsheba embraced the circumstances beyond her control, and wrote a new story. She became a “kick-butt lady,” though really, she probably always was. She was smart and crafty, along with being beautiful, and used her agency to its fullest.
How different Bathesheba’s story is from David’s. I’m not sure who has it harder… King David who has all the power in the world and has to learn to use it for good, when he could use it however he wants. Or Bathesheba, who begins with none of David’s power and yet overcomes her victimization to make her mark in the world. Their stories are different… very different… but neither is a single story.
So what is your story? What is the story of St. Andrew’s? In what ways are we guilty of clinging to a single story, for ourselves or that we impose on others? Are there stories of our community, or in our lives, that we’d rather not hear or rather not tell? We want to be particularly wary of a single story of victimization, individually or collectively. Such single stories hold us back and have the danger of being used a weapon. We all have responsibility at some point and we all need help at others. None of us are only one thing. We are not a single story.
A single story may be true but it is always incomplete. May we have the courage to listen even to stories we don’t want to hear, thereby affirming or restoring the dignity of all. May we be a community that seeks to hear a multitude stories, about ourselves and about the world. And in doing so, may we know the fullness of life, the abundance of life, that God promises.