“History is written by the winners.”
So wrote one of my students in a list of ten quotes that were meaningful to him that I had asked him and his class to find and explain. His take on the quote was: “If you win, you get to be important.” Perhaps. Or at least you get to feel important, or say that you are since you won the right to control how the story gets told.
The quote came back to me twice today. First, I thought about it while listening to an NPR report about the CEOs who met with President Obama to talk about how to get the economy going. Part of the discussion had to do with the some two trillion dollars that big business in our country is holding on to; Obama wants them to turn some of that, anyway, into job opportunities, so we can get back to being Number One in the world. There was nothing particularly notable about the report, other than the really rich guys – the ones who make 263 times the salary of their average worker — were the ones who have the ear of the president. The second time came in a note from poet and friend, Nathan Brown, quoting a line from a poem by Charles Bukowski (I’m expanding his quote a bit):
the known great
but the great who died unknown;
but the lives of men.
Once upon a college, I was a history major. I was fortunate for my first professor to be Wallace Daniel, who taught his classes with novels rather than textbooks and was far more interested in how people lived that who won the war du jour. One of the things I learned from Wallace was that the story of humanity was more vital and varied than the polarities of most history books, which do reduce it down to who won and who lost. When we begin to talk about what people ate, where they lived, what they did for work, how they thought of family, and how they made meaning out of their existence, then we get to the essential questions on which we all feed and thrive.
If we only hear the stories of conquest and power, we will starve to death.
Or at least miss the point or what it means to be here. If power were the point, the Incarnation would never have happened. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us not so God could show us what real power looked like, but to remind us, as John says, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” Jesus’ birth narrative calls forth a cast of also rans and ragamuffins, the weary and the unwashed, to hear the angels sing. The Christmas story is humanity’s story, told in the losses and the near misses, at the margins and the fringes, among the unknown and the unforgiven, who heard the angel choir. Those who followed centuries later with crusades, military and otherwise, wandered horribly off script. The history of Christianity may be one of how it conquered the world, but that is not the story of our faith. Two thousand years of people gathering to pray together, to sing together, to eat together, to re-member shattered lives together: now, there’s a story.
In various ways over the past week, I’ve heard different members of our government from different branches talk about the need for us to “get back on top in the world,” which isn’t a helpful goal. Deciding what matters most is to be Number One leads us to spend all of our time looking in the mirror while we think we have a great view of the world. Besides, who decides who is Number One? Neither Billboard nor the BCS has a chart for that. The perspective sets us up for an all or nothing approach. As one of my other students said, in response to the quote with which I began, “Second place is just another name for loser.” The next step is to win at all costs, because all that matters is winning.
Though I’m sure Jesus lettered in several sports at Nazareth High, he shied away from sports metaphors in his parables. He talked about farmers and poor people. He talked about banquets for everyone and fathers who forgave unflinchingly. And he talked about lilies that rocked because they did little else but be themselves. Oh, yeah – and the meek would inherit the earth.
The Incarnation is not a statement of supremacy, not a call to conquest, but a tangible invitation to community, to connectedness, to a life more profound than winning and losing. No one’s keeping score: we are loved, we are loved, we are really loved. Every last one of us.
Even the rich and powerful.
P. S. — I couldn’t resist.