So far, 2022 has been the year of book bans. School districts have banned books on sensitive topics, and lawmakers have pushed legislation that gives parents the right to sue schools if their child is exposed to “obscene” content in the classroom. The state of Florida has passed new legislation, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which attempts to prevent educators from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students from kindergarten to third grade. The State of Texas defines gender-affirming care as “child abuse”. There is a common thread in these attacks: conservatives use censorship and the “family regulation system” to prevent marginalized people from controlling the telling of their own stories.
For example, the McMinn County school board in Tennesee banned Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir. Maus, calling some content “inappropriate”. Authors Gwen C. Katz and AR Vishny wrote about banning Maus as an example of “pajamafication”. Pajamafication is a term used to describe the softening of literature used to “introduce students to difficult historical subjects” such as the Holocaust.
In a virality threadTwitter user Taber Bain (@cakesandcourage) pointed out that the power of Maus is that “it’s told from the perspective of a Jew, and it’s told in a Jewish way”, which makes it uncomfortable for white Christian audiences because it has no arc of justice or of redemption. The way Maus delivers his story protests against hegemonic Christian narratives of redemption and forgiveness.
Storytelling can be a way to take power back, as stories help us establish reality and give meaning to our lives. Stories can keep us from repeating human atrocities, but only if we allow those stories to be told without softening or pajamafying them. For stories to work as resistance, those who tell their stories must determine not only which stories are told, but How? ‘Or’ What we tell them.
How we tell our stories not only impacts how we understand history, but also how we understand identity. Gender expression is deeply shaped by the stories we tell. Our mainstream narratives around gender expression communicate that gender exists on a binary. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill is not only an attack on LGBTQ children, but also an attempt to exert control over people, including children, who challenge gendered ways of telling stories. stories and give meaning. The insistence on associating queerness with adulthood and the discomfort of believing that children can know they are trans is an attempt to impose a heterosexual narrative on younger generations.
Decolonial theologian Maria Lúgones challenges these narratives around heterosexuality in her article “Heterosexuality and the Colonial/Modern Gender System”. She argues that the insistence that gender expression conform to a neat binary is a product of white European colonizers. Colonizers imposed this narrative on Indigenous peoples whose gender expressions did not fit neatly into hierarchical structures.
This has a real cost: Lúgones observes that the binary of gender and the category of “woman” developed in a certain way as a result of the colonization of the Americas. Ultimately, to be identified as a “woman” under colonization, the person had to be a white, colonizing woman – Indigenous women disappeared from the dominant narrative imposed by colonization. Lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality also addresses this problem: if your identity does not fit into the categories established by the dominant culture, your experiences are lost when efforts to combat oppression are confined to one category at a time. that time. Identities that challenge dominant ways of thinking and living can disappear into the interstices of the stories being told.
By retrieving missing stories and telling our own stories in terms that undermine dominant narratives, we affirm our humanity and agency, our ability to resist and interpret our lives as meaningful. We must theologically question the way we tell stories and the temptation to censor the perspectives and stories of marginalized people in favor of a dominant narrative. It’s because the stories get to the heart of how humans, created in the image of God, make sense of what happens to us.
There is perhaps no more poignant example of this narrative-as-resistance than the book of Job.
In Bible scholar Edward L. Greenstein Job: a new translation, he observes how Job’s friends try to impose on him a narrative that explains his suffering as a righteous response from God. According to them, Job’s punishment is either due to Job’s sinful nature or to that of his children (8:4, 11:6). Job’s friends also posit that his suffering is a challenge that will be easily overcome because God always deals justly with the righteous (4:7-9; 5:18-27). But Job insists on telling his own story, which radically contradicts the narrative that his friends impose on him. What makes this story intriguing is that Job not only dares to argue with his friends, but he demands an audience with God (23:3-5).
Job demands an answer from God and insists on telling his story – both to God and to humanity – without censorship or softening. Job’s demand is an act of epistemological as well as ethical resistance. In other words, Job’s claim is not only that he is innocent but that he has the right to be heard.
Greenstein points this out, writing that “the theme of the book is…truth in God’s speech”. He says, “Job gets his ideas from experience.” In Greenstein’s translation and interpretation, God’s response to Job—emphasizing God’s freedom and agency—is amoral, and Job’s final response to God is not the acquiescence to God’s claims of power, but insistence on sticking to his own story – for which God commends him for his honesty (42:1-7). As journalist Abraham Riesman says in a recent essay on Greenstein’s translation, at the end of Job, “God does not praise Job’s ability to suffer and repent. He praises him for telling the truth about how awful life is. Ultimately, Job is justified only in and by telling his own story.
When reading Job, we are tempted to reduce the ancient text to a story that fits into a comfortable setting: we want to “pajamafier” the story of Job. In the same way it is a mistake to ban, censor or soften the stories of marginalized people now, it is also a mistake to do this with the Job account.
In modern society, as well as in the story of Job, justice for the oppressed requires affirmation of the stories they tell about their own communities. Radical honesty demands a multiplicity of stories, empowering people to tell their own experiences. When we seek to soften, control, or tell these stories on our own terms, we assume the role of Job’s friends, enforcing a narrative that prioritizes our own understanding and privilege. For the powerful, giving up the act of control over the stories of others is an act of reparation. For the marginalized, reclaiming their stories is an act of liberation.