Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
I Kings 19:9b-10, emphasis mine.
Yesterday two of my friends shared stories on Facebook about conservatives feeling oppressed by liberals. The first was this post by Dennis Prager, titled “Fear of the Left: The Most Powerful Force in America Today.” The second was titled “‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Dialogue’“. Both argued that powerful liberals were oppressing conservatives in various ways.
In the comment section of the latter, someone pointed out that liberal Christians are (improbably) persecuting conservative Christians, ostensibly because when conservative churches leave the Episcopal Church for the ACNA, they lose their properties (which is a real thing).
And which is also a weird thing.
Because in my narratives, liberals aren’t mean, powerful oppressors. We’re scrappy heroes just trying to get the church to accept us as we are. My most popular blog post of all time was about what it’s like being an outsider now in the churches I grew up in.
It was a sad post to write, but it also felt really vindicating and righteous, and a lot of people read it and thought, “Yes! This is my life! This guy gets it.”
So when I saw those posts from my friends, I was really confused. The lone person or small group standing up for truth amid a group of powerful elites in a world gone mad was my narrative, not theirs!
As it turned out, we were both laying claim to the same thing: Nothing less than
The Western Narrative
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone in feeling like the lone righteous person, or small group of people, standing strong and brave against a powerful evil. That narrative is basically the Western Meta-narrative. Consider:
- Ulysses in The Odyssey.
- Martin Luther’s “Here I stand and can do no other.”
- Galileo refusing to recant.
- The American War for Independence where a scrappy group of colonists fight off the most powerful empire on earth.
- Star Wars Episode IV, with Luke Skywalker and a scrappy band of rebels fighting off an evil empire.
Look at Jesus Christ himself, the stone that the builders rejected. I Timothy 3:12 says all who live godly in Christ will suffer persecution, and look at Elijah. Finally, look at the biggest archetype of ’em all: a little shepherd boy standing strong with just a sling and five smooth stones against a giant clad in armor with a heavy sword: David and Goliath.
These stories are our stories. They allow us to transform our wounded sense of exclusion and isolation into a sort of vindication and righteousness, into something we can draw strength and hope from. They’re a Psalm: God how many are my foes, but I trust that you will conquer them. The persecuted few may even be defeated, as in the story of the Alamo, but if they are, they will be vindicated even after their death.
But what happens when everybody wants to claim David and Goliath for themselves?
Something really interesting, as it turns out, and basically all our modern American controversies. For example, the relationship of Donald Trump and the Media:
|As described by the Media
|As Described by Donald Trump
|A scrappy band of people fighting evil
|A powerful oppressor who would do anything to stop them
|A powerful group of liars who would do anything to stop him
|A scrappy businessman fighting evil alone
Which of these statements you think is true depends largely on which side of the political spectrum you’re on, but one thing is clear: Donald Trump and the Media need each other. Without Donald, who is going to play the Big Bad and try to destroy freedom of the press, try to make Democracy Die in Darkness? Without the media, what slimy villains would be left to slander The Greatest President of All Time and try to stop him from Making America Great Again?
Donald hates the media, and the media hates him, but each is fueled by their mutual sense of being wrongfully persecuted by the other.
Compounding the problem is the way Donald and the Media play into our own self-narratives: their relationship is one we see ourselves in. The media and the president are in some ways representatives for ourselves – people fighting on our behalf against our strong enemies.
So not only is Donald Trump a David to a media Goliath, but Donald Trump is a David to a conservative ancient Israel! The opposite, of course, is true for liberals.
|Seen by liberals & media
|Seen by conservatives & Trump
This works well for the president, but does it work elsewhere? Let’s try another one.
|As Seen By The Police and their supporters
|As Seen by Black Lives Matter and their allies
|The Thin Blue line; a small band of brothers bravely fighting evil
|A group of heavily armed oppressors defended by a powerful (in)justice system
|Black Lives Matter
|A large group of dangerous people who must be stopped before they kill all cops because they think any black lives are more important than police lives
|A group of oppressed people fighting injustice by a powerful oppressor.
Similarly, Michael Brown was either a dangerous black man who made brave police officer Darren Wilson fear for his life, or an unarmed black man who was murdered by an evil agent of the oppressive state. Which you think it is will determine who you think was the good guy or the bad guy.
In the Civil War, the North saw themselves as brave liberators of slaves, and the South sees themselves as victims of an evil empire who refused to allow them to leave.
There’s an absolutely nuts movie called The Birth of a Nation that, if it had any self-awareness, would know itself to be alt-history in the line of The Man in the High Castle. Birth of a Nation tries to portray the KKK as heroes saving vulnerable white women from evil, predatory mobs of black men. Yes, really.
A few more.
|As Seen By Israel and Israeli Supporters
|As Seen by Palestinians and their supporters
|The lone democracy in the middle east, surrounded on all sides by those who would drive them into the sea.
|A powerful oppressor armed and defended by the United States.
|Pawns of those powerful and dangerous enemies, probably armed by them.
|Victims who are just trying to survive in what ultimately amounts to the world’s largest open-air prison.
|As Seen By LGBTQ Persons and allies
|As Seen by Conservative Christians
|LGBTQ People and allies
|A few people just fighting to make sure LGBTQ people have the same rights everybody else does
|A group of powerful people supported by an evil media establishment and entertainment industry hell-bent on making them go against their beliefs
|A large group of mean-spirited people who want to rob LGBTQ people of their basic human rights
|A group of oppressed people fighting for the right to live out their faith in a world gone mad.
Try this on the #MeToo movement. Are the men powerful oppressors, or are they victims of angry mobs of lying women? Are the women finally speaking out doing so bravely, or vindictively? Who is David, and who is Goliath?
I should note right now that I am not saying each of these sides have an equally valid claim to being true. They absolutely do not. I firmly believe racism and police brutality are real. Sexual assault survivors deserve to be believed. Donald Trump is making terrible policy decisions that adversely effect people. LGBTQ persons deserve basic human rights.
What I am saying is that each side believes the same narrative, the narrative of David and Goliath.
The only difference is in who they have cast as David (always themselves or those they support), and who they have cast as Goliath (always those they see as their sworn enemies).
I think the reason this David and Goliath framework works so well is because of the underlying belief that God is on the side of the underdog. Even those who don’t believe in God believe in some force (God, the universe, karma, whatever) that will ultimately vindicate the underdog.
So instead of considering the merits and demerits of various positions, we often simply resort to David and Goliath mentalities:
“I’m David, you’re Goliath. You’re strong, and I’m weak, but God is on my side, and one day I will defeat you, whether in this life or the next.”
You don’t have to engage a Goliath, or reason with a Goliath. You just have to defeat him.
Q: Wait, but what about Hillary Clinton and how everybody claims she won the popular vote? Wouldn’t Democrats want to play that down if what you’re saying is true?
A: No. That she won the popular vote means that (a) righteousness is finally winning and (b) there are still forces of evil trying to keep it down, but victory is inevitable. Also for conservatives the victory of Donald Trump even though he lost the popular vote was their David beating Clinton’s Goliath.
So What’s the Solution?
How can we shake our Goliaths into realizing that they’re the evil oppressors?
I don’t have a complete answer. Mostly I just have a diagnosis. However, I do have a few suggestions:
1. Understand that being small in number doesn’t mean you’re right. It might just be you and a small group of friends who think that 2+2=5, but that doesn’t mean you’re right. Your belief that vaccinations cause autism is not less ridiculous because a lot of people believe it. Sometimes things most people believe are true in spite of being believed – or sometimes they’re believed by most people because they’re true.
2. Don’t play into the narrative. Counter-intuitively, when you villainize, you risk becoming the powerful evil villain in the eyes of your villains. This is especially true when you villainize in a way that the person you’re villainizing does not recognize as an accurate portrayal of themselves. When you do that, it’s easy to portray you as a lying villain.
What suggestions would you add?