Facing the narrative gap: a conversation with Lisa Sharon Harper
February 13, 2023
Lisa Sharon Harper is a speaker, writer, activist and artist. She is the founder of Freedom Road consulting and the author of many books, including “The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right,” an exploration of what “shalom” can look like in today’s world and “Fortune,” which explores brokenness and repair through the lens of her own family’s history. Chimes is grateful to the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing for facilitating this conversation.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Chimes: What motivates you to write?
Harper: My motivation is that the church would be worthy of the moniker “bride of Christ.”
So the writing that I do — the stories that I’ve told, I’ve told them in order that the church might do the work required of us to be worthy of that moniker now. What that means in today’s world is that we must deal with racial hierarchy.
I am offering and have been offering an alternative way to see the world and our faith and to see it through the lens of one whose family and people have been oppressed.
I think that the work that we are doing here — through “Fortune,” through all of the books that I’ve written — has been to expand the canon of stories that inform our understanding of the world and our faith within the evangelical world and increasingly within the masses.
Chimes: What did you want to take on in “The Very Good Gospel” and “Fortune”?
Harper: The question of “The Very Good Gospel” was how has “shalom” been broken in our world? I looked at it through various lenses — there’s various levels of relationship that all of us live within … So at all of these levels I just thought through and considered how the Scripture leads us to understand how God works and wants us to work within each of these spaces to create a more just world at true peace with God.
“Fortune” was really an exploration of how we operationalize this … to ask the question, specifically, of how did the construct of race, which is a primary source of the break in American history and wherever nations colonized the world … how did that force called race break my family? And what are the implications of that … [to] then point the way toward repair? The last third of the book is all about how do we repair what race broke in the world?
Chimes: How can we cultivate a good balance between fully acknowledging brokenness and having a vision for repair?
Harper: In order to repair what was broken … in order to reach that “shalom” future, there is no way for us to get there except by reckoning with the things we did in the past.
Because [otherwise] we will continue to repeat the bad decisions, the decisions that we made over centuries that have benefited some and cursed others, blessed a few and in order to bless them, millions had to be cursed.
When we look at my family’s lives here in America since 1682, you can see in the lives of my family the ways that their bodies have absorbed the wrath of the systems and structures that lynched us. Their bodies have absorbed the wrath of the decisions made to create, entrench and protect human hierarchy on this land, white supremacy on this land. And that has actually helped me to understand Jesus better, because now I understand that Jesus lived in a very similar space … when Jesus was confronting the powers, he was confronting the same kind of powers that we were confronting in the book “Fortune”: the powers of the state. And that’s the same power that Tyre Nichols confronted a few weeks ago. And the same power that Michael Brown confronted a few years ago, and Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland and George Floyd.
So the story of my family intersects with all of that. It’s not possible for us as African Americans to move forward with a clean slate and just start all over without any reference to the past. Because the past is present. What happened in those very first slave patrols back in the early 1700s, late 1600s, in Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina — those very first slave patrols are living today.
When we ask the question of what’s past, present and future, there’s no way for us as people of African descent to build a future where we can flourish and thrive without the fear that we’re going to be snatched back into the 1600s by the slave patrol, which is now in the form of the cops. We have to deal with the reality of that history and how it is manifesting in our systems and structures today in order to get to that better future.
We live in a very divided culture. Where do you see those divides coming from, and where do you see hopeful signs of bridging?
I think that it’s actually very clear right now that one of the biggest sources of division in the U.S. is the gap between the narratives that we tell each other and that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and who we are and how we got here … and what actually happened.
It’s that gap between the stories we tell and the truth that keeps us from moving forward. And the most exciting work that I’m seeing right now, and it’s very exciting, is work that is addressing that gap. … That’s the work of “Fortune,” actually. “Fortune” was written to shrink the narrative gap, to bring another side of the story forward, to be considered and to be integrated into our national public memory.
How can churches, communities and institutions be moved to change their narratives?
That really has been my work for the last 30 years. I think that this book, “Fortune,” is one of those ways, the reason that I wrote “Fortune” in the way that I did.
I just don’t think that anybody can really understand until you bodily understand — until you are standing in that moment yourself.
A lot of my work to help the church has been in moving the church into spaces where they can gain that common understanding, they can hear the stories they never hear, and they can begin to integrate those stories into their story, … become more aware … that they have a particular story and position that particular story among all the other particular stories that are just as valuable in our nation and in the church.
So [I am] creating spaces where we can build empathy through writing my story and calling for repair. In the end, I could have written this book just as a straight textbook or a straight prose book, an academic book, because what I really wanted to write was a book about reparations … But I realized years ago that in order to reach the majority of people in America, particularly those who are of European descent, you can’t just tell them truths. They have to feel it. And until they feel it, they won’t feel urgency to change. They won’t feel empowered to change, actually. So I wrote “Fortune” in the way that I did in order to bring more people into this conversation, [people] who might have avoided it if this was just a straight up book about reparation. We all love story. Story is part of what it means to be human … so for churches and for educational spaces like this [Calvin], any way that you can immerse yourself in the story of the other is a worthy, worthy endeavor, and books, book clubs, movie nights, pilgrimages to the land where things happened and talking to the people that it happened to — all of those things are transformative.
How can we be more attentive to the stories that we’re absorbing and more discerning about what stories we accept as truth?
Almost everything is being interrogated right now. And it should be: Unless you’re reading the Scripture with people who are from or close to the social location of Jesus — his social location being his location on that hierarchy of human belonging, as a Nazarene in the Roman Empire, as someone who never lived inside of Rome, never went to Rome, a country boy, one whose people was serially enslaved, one whose neighbors and family members were executed after an attempted insurrection the year he was born — unless you are reading the scripture, and unless you are reading the newspaper with people who are close to Jesus’s social location, there’s just no way that you really understand what’s happening here.
I heard that there was a school in Colorado, I think, who fired a teacher because they put “The Very Good Gospel” on the curriculum. [And this happened] in a Christian school. So how do you have that and brown, colonized, serially-enslaved-peoples Jesus? You can’t; you’ve got delusion. You’ve got the delusion of whiteness, and you’ve got people who are absolutely committed to protecting the supremacy of whiteness. They are not committed to the truth. And Jesus said, I am the truth. So if you’re not committed to the truth, you are not committed to Jesus.