The prize-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in the 1980s on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. She was an early reader, and what she read, beginning at about age 4, were British and American children’s book. She was also an early writer, and when she began to write at age 10, she wrote the kinds of stories she was reading. All her characters were white and blue-eyed; they played in the snow; they ate apples; and they talked about the weather – how lovely it was that the sun had come out.
The young Adichie wrote stories like this despite the fact that she had never been outside Nigeria. She had never seen snow or eaten an apple. No one she knew talked about the weather; they didn’t need to.
But because the only stories she knew included snow and apples and an obsession with the weather, she believed that’s what all stories were. Because all the books she had read were books in which characters were foreign, she believed that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them.
Things changed for Adichie when she discovered African books. She describes herself as going through a mental shift at that point. She realized that people like her – with dark skin and hair that resisted being tied into ponytails – could also exist in literature. She started to write about things she recognized.
Chimimanda Adichie left Nigeria at the age of 19 to attend an American university. Her American roommate was shocked to discover that Adichie spoke English. (English is Nigeria’s official language.) She asked if she could listen to what she called Adichie’s “tribal” music and was disappointed when the tape produced in response was of Mariah Carey.
“My roommate,” Adichie said, “felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me was a kind of well-meaning pity.” Her roommate knew only one story of Africa. In this one story, there was no room for Africans who were middle-class and educated. In this one story, there was no possibility of feelings toward Africans other than pity. In this single story there was only ignorance and violence and poverty.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple knew only one story about death. It was the end of the story of life. You were born into poverty, you struggled to survive, you lived resentfully under an oppressive foreign power, you worshipped at the Temple and obeyed the religious rules hoping that God would smile upon you. And then you died. If you were lucky, you found a teacher who spoke of hope and change and a new kingdom. But then he died. He was executed. And that was the end of the story.
Even when the next day dawned and there appeared to be some question about whether this story actually had ended, the two disciples could not see any other option. The text says they ran to the tomb, found it empty, saw Jesus’ grave clothes lying on the ground, and one of them “believed.” But they did not understand, it says. So they went home. End of story.
Mary, too, thought the story was over.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away,
tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
Even when the new story is being written right in front of her eyes, she still doesn’t recognize it.
You would think, though, that once the new story was written down and put between two covers, after it was printed and published and translated into every language possible, after it had become the most widely sold story in the world, we would have heard its message. But even a new story can be told like the old one.
For hundreds of years, the new story of Easter resurrection and freedom was told in the old language of death and oppression. Over the centuries, Holy Week – the week leading up to the celebration of God’s definitive act of grace and new life – was treated as a time of increased violence and persecution against Jews. The gospel texts read in Christian worship services on Good Friday served to intensify anti-Semitism.
In the middle ages, it was the tradition to bring a Jew into the cathedral of Toulouse where he was given a symbolic blow as retribution for Christ’s crucifixion. Rabbi Daniel Landes, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, remembers that the same boys he played football with the rest of the year would hurl taunts at him on Good Friday. They called him a dirty Jew. They accused him of crucifying their Lord. They kicked out one of his teeth.
And last week, on Palm Sunday, 2014, the first day of Holy Week and a day before the start of the Jewish Passover holiday, a man named Frazier Glenn Miller, a man with a long history of ties to white supremacist hate groups, drove to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and shot and killed two people, Dr. William Corporon and his 14 year old grandson, Reat Underwood. Then he drove from the community center to a nearby Jewish assisted-living complex, Village Shalom, where he fatally shot Terri LaManno, who was visiting her mother. After his arrest at a nearby school, Mr. Miller shouted “Heil Hitler” from the back of a squad car. Today, April 20, is the anniversary of Hitler’s birth.
As it turned out, none of the three shooting victims was Jewish. Ms. LaManno was Roman Catholic and William Corcoran and Reat Underwood were United Methodists. They belonged to the Church of the Resurrection, one the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States.
Mindy Corporon, William’s daughter and Reat’s mother, arrived at the community center minutes after the shootings. Her faith has been evident in many interviews following the shootings. “My dad and my son were at the wrong place at the wrong time for a split second,” she said. “I have asked my pastor why it is so important (for me) to speak and why people are asking to interview me. ... I have a peace about me. Literally, when I saw my father lying there I heard God say ‘He is in heaven.’ [My son] was with us for a wonderful 14 years; he had a really full life for a 14-year-old, and we were very blessed.”
Her pastor, Rev. Adam Hamilton, said “The family has a deep faith, and remarkable strength and courage. They don’t believe this tragedy was God’s will, but they do believe that Reat and Bill are safe in God’s arms. They believe that evil will not have the final word and that good will come from this tragedy and they want to work towards that end, even in the midst of their grief.”
In response to the old story of hate and death, Mindy Corcoran and Adam Hamilton are telling the other story, the story of hope in the midst of sorrow, the story of new life in the face of death.
Two days ago, on Good Friday evening, the University Church Confirmation class, plus a few of their parents, mentors, their teacher Sara Cardinal and I, visited Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the Jewish house of worship in East Lansing. The trip was scheduled earlier as part of the class curriculum: Rabbi Amy Bigman spoke with us for about an hour, then we joined the congregation for Friday evening Passover prayers and shared refreshments afterwards.
When Sara made those plans she didn’t know what was going to happen in Kansas on Palm Sunday. But God works in mysterious ways, and I was so proud that our church could bring a message of peace, understanding and mutual respect. We became part of telling the other story about Good Friday: that Jesus died on a cross not to spread a message about death, but exactly the opposite – to share God’s message of life.
The shootings in suburban Kansas City were a loud, unmistakeable telling of the old story of death. Most of the versions of that story are so silently woven into our daily lives that we hardly notice them. It’s deceptively easy to live according to those old stories – the ones that keep us from living as fully and completely as the people God created us to be. These stories that speak death in small increments. We become used to them. We even mistake them for stories of life.
You know these stories, I know you do. The stories that say
You’re not smart enough, you’re not thin enough; you’re not successful enough.
You’re not a good enough parent; you’re not a good enough student.
You don’t make enough money; you don’t save enough money; you don’t donate enough money; you don’t spend your money the right way.
You don’t know the right kind of people; you don’t love the right kind of people; you are not the right kind of person.
These stories don’t kill us the way a bullet would. But they prevent us from living fully and with confidence, they confine us and intimidate us and frighten us. And they can cause us to do that to others.
Those old stories are quiet, but powerful. Often it’s hard for us to perceive that any other story exists. And that in itself is a form of death.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple were still living in the old story when they entered that empty tomb, came out shaking their heads, and went home. Mary couldn’t see things any other way either, even when she saw Jesus with her own eyes outside the tomb.
But then she heard him, she heard him call her name – “Mary!” And her ears were opened to a new story about death and the life that death cannot stop.
That story transformed a sorrowful woman into a convinced messenger.
That story changed a group of leaderless, fearful disciples into fierce, fearless followers who could not stop talking and singing about what had happened.
They were witness to a new story, a new way of living. Their crucified friend was alive! Because death did not defeat him, there was no reason to fear anything, not even death.
Now you have heard the same story. You are being called by name as Mary was. What if you stopped living out of the old story and started listening to the new one? It has something new to say:
you are good enough; you are more than good enough;
you can start over;
you are lovable; you are loved;
you are God’s child, created by God to be the uniquely gifted individual that
you are, unique and precious.
Christ’s death means the old story has also died. Christ’s resurrection means there is a new one to live.
John M. Buchanan. “Easter Business.” Christian Century. April 16, 2014. Vol. 131, No. 8. P. 3
Kathy L. Gilbert. “Kansas mother's faith offers comfort.” United Methodist News Service. April 15, 2014. http://westmichiganconference.org/news/detail/3287
Larry B. Stammer. “Good Friday Renews Focus on Roots of Anti-Semitism: Tolerance: Religious leaders say Christians should renew efforts to put Jews' role in proper historical context.” Los Angeles Times. April 14, 1995. http://articles.latimes.com/1995-04-14/news/mn-54649_1_religious-leaders
Steven Yaccino. “Capital Murder Among Charges for Suspect in Kansas Shooting.” New York Times. April 15, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/us/kansas-shooting- charges.html?_r=0
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Danger of a Single Story. TED Radio Hour. June 07, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/09/20/186303292/what-are-the-dangers-of-a-single-story