On Good Friday, members of the church where I am presently serving joined four other congregations in or associated with its parish grouping, as well as the local Roman Catholic church, for a walk of silent witness. Our route took us from outside one Church of Scotland parish, to the Catholic church, through the neighbourhood to another Church of Scotland parish. Two people led the way carrying a large wooden cross, and about forty-five people followed after.
The first thing I noticed was our police escort. Two constables walked with us, stopping traffic so our procession could cross streets, guiding us safely around corners, keeping away potential troublemakers, and generally watching over us. The organisers had needed to get municipal and police approval before going ahead with the walk. The police presence gave an ironic slice of verisimilitude linking our procession to the one we were symbolically emulating, only in that one, while the police may have been guarding the walkers, it was mainly to make sure that they did not escape from the road to their execution.
As we kept a careful pace, my observations widened. Across one street an old man, seeing what headed the parade, stopped and crossed himself before making a respectful return to his errand, whatever it might have been. Some girls playing in a front garden paused and stood to watch the strange band go by. Many people looked; many others took no notice and carried on with their lives.
Most of all, though, I considered my fellow walkers. They were of a range of ages, from senior citizen to teenager. Indeed, I think it was, proportionally speaking, the largest gathering of teenagers I have yet seen for a church event while I have been in Scotland. We came in all different shapes and sizes, too; we really were a ragtag crew. The group kept silent as we had been instructed, other than during a short prayer at the Catholic church. We all walked along, pondering the events of Good Friday, keeping our meditations to ourselves. It struck me how each person must have had their own reasons for being there, how each would be thinking about Christ’s passion from a slightly different point of view. Each of us brought our own stories to our reflection on the story of Holy Week.
As I pondered the mystery of this gathering of many stories, some public and some hidden, it brought to mind a blog post I had read recently. Bishop Will Willimon of the United Methodist Church in the U.S., reflecting on the nature of Easter preaching, wrote that
Christian preaching can never rest on my human experience, or even the experience of the oppressed, as some forms of Liberation Theology attempt to do, because human experience tends to be limited by the world’s deadly, deathly means of interpretation. The world keeps telling Christians to “get real,” to “face facts,” but we have – after the cross and resurrection – a very particular opinion of what is real. I don’t preach Jesus’ story in the light of my experience, as some sort of helpful symbol or myth which is helpfully illumined by my own story of struggle and triumph. Rather, I am invited by Easter to interpret my story in the light of God’s triumph in the resurrection. I really don’t have a story, I don’t know the significance of my little life, until I read my story and view my life through the lens of cross and resurrection. One of the things that occurs in the weekly preaching of the gospel is to lay the gospel story over our stories and reread our lives in the light of what is real now that crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead.
Willimon starts with the sensible reminder that human experience cannot confine God; he also presents the interesting idea that the resurrection of Jesus makes a lens for understanding personal life-stories. However, he then makes a leap to declaring that only Christians have a real story. He even claims that he did not have a story of his own until his life was placed within the story of ‘cross and resurrection’. Far from taking the stories of others seriously, Willimon here denies people who are religiously different the basic humanity of their own narrative.
This does not affect only people of other faiths than Christianity, or of no faith at all. Under this scheme, the people who participated in the Good Friday walk were not bringing much of anything of their own to the story of Christ’s passion; instead, all that we had to give were incoherent fragments which only became an ordered story when placed into the Easter meta-narrative. Perhaps this denial of value to the particular stories of particular people is supposed to change once you become a Christian and begin to order your life around the gospel story; however, the whole scheme is remarkably dismissive not only of the human capacity for creativity but also of the place personal history plays in generating a unique individual, beloved of God.
If Willimon’s theology at this point is inattentive towards even the stories of fellow Christians, what then of those on the periphery of the Good Friday walk, or standing outside of it? This kind of narrative theology blurs all the world and all non-Christians (even Christians who have different approaches to their faith, really) into one generic Other; it is blind to specific and local stories and the bodies that carry them.
At one level, it is an easy enough point to refute. Of course, people do not need the lens of ‘cross and resurrection’ to have stories of their own. I look at Alana, for instance, and see plainly that she has a story interpreted just as keenly through the lens of Sinai and Torah. Put simply, every person has a story. At another level, though, any theological reflection on the stories of others revolves around the question of value. Any Christian approaching this issue must consider how to appreciate the very particular stories of other people when those stories may differ significantly from your own. Willimon’s answer is a relatively easy one—ignore the stories of others, out-narrate them so that they fall away into the chaos of all that is Other and you no longer have to attend to them—but it is neither the only answer nor (by my reckoning) anywhere close to the best.
Holy Week and Easter make the question more urgent. The holy days at least remind me that I should not be careless about religious language, or about the entanglements of personal faith and relationships. Alana’s very presence and the complex questions she sometimes asks keep me from leaping too quickly to conclusions as we navigate the conjunctions of such events as Pesach and Maundy Thursday. Not just because this time of year has a long history of intolerance and religiously-motivated violence perpetrated by Christians (see here), but also because the Easter proclamation shades as close to triumphalism as Christianity ever gets. The language of victory over sin and death, of new beginnings and new life and a change to all creation, too easily becomes words of exclusivism which declare that we can contain God even if the grave was not up to the task. In the process of that containment, too many also deny value to those who are different.
Yes, Christian theology still maintains that Easter means something significant for the world, not just for believers. Just what that is exactly, well, that is a question that a Christian continually must ask. I think that any answer must always be provisional. Though I can be a little more confident of what it is not. Whatever Jesus died for, whatever the empty tomb means, it certainly is not to erase, absorb, or make immaterial the stories of others, but to attend to them in some way with great care. It’s that ‘in some way’ that is left for us Christians to figure out.
 Bishop Willimon is not the only person associated such a view of stories. This is also the basic line of thought presented by the ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most well-known American theologians, and co-author of a number of books with Will Willimon. But the ideas range far afield; at another end of the theological spectrum you find Elizabeth Stuart who maintains that ‘At my death all that has been written on my body will be once again overwritten by my baptism’ so that ‘culturally constructed identities’ just cease to be (‘Sacramental Flesh’, Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin, Blackwell, 2007, p. 74).