upper room daily devotions

Friday, May 08, 2015

Using Words to Discuss How Words Fail and the Importance of Narrative

Interfaith Partners for Peace
I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Israel and Palestine. Not only did I take a walk through the past, as so many pilgrims do, but my journey was also rooted in the here and now, and it was focused upon the future. This trip, put together by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' newly sponsored organization Interfaith Partners for Peace, brought together 28 interfaith religious leaders to study sacred texts, experience worship, tour one another's religious sites, and hear the stories of Palestinians, Jews, and Arab Israelis. These were intense days - long, hot, over scheduled, and deeply holy.

"Narrative" was the operative word of this trip. The land has stories to tell. Remnants of civilizations long gone are found in the dirt, in the landscape, and in the ruins of buildings. The people have stories to tell - stories of collective histories, despairs, and hopes. They have more localized and personal stories about conflict, betrayal, trauma, fear, and sometimes - sometimes - hope. Stories of suffering, struggle, and faith were thematic throughout the week. Moments came when I didn't think I could process another story, honor another narrative, or receive well the life entrusted to me through the precious words that were shared.

Stories were everywhere, even among the group itself. Together we told our stories - our narratives - and in them discovered deep difference and common hopes. There was little, precious little, quiet time. Instead, we were busy writing a collective narrative through shared experience all while hearing stories about the past, the present, and a future that has yet to be charted.

Ali Abu Awwad speaks with Rabbi Dennis Sasso
and Bishop Catherine Maples Waynick
When the words fell to the earth and silence descended in the all too short nights, I was left with a desolate truth - This place, which is holy to billions of human beings, is a crucible of trauma. This land and the legends and tales of our religious identities have always been marked by struggle, violent conflict, and battling narratives. When one person was sharing his story with us, Ali Abu Awwad, of The Roots, he told us that as a child he dreamed of being a pilot, perhaps, he said, because he wanted to fly away. It seems so strange that even as some cling to the hillsides and landscapes littered with religious history, there is also a desire to leave behind the particularities that have left so many dead and keep billions of humans suspicious of one another because of "otherness." The narratives that hold us are also the stories that drive us apart. The same stories that give us meaning and identity can also keep us captive.

We are recipients of narratives. We begin learning them as soon as light touches our eyes for the first time. We learn them in the stories we are told as children, in the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the games we play, in the neighborhoods we inhabit, in the people we love (and hate). Through our experiences, a narrative of identity begins to form in our core. This narrative tells us who we are (a hero? a villain? victim? a good person? a bad one? a girl, boy, or something else... a race, an ethnicity, a nationality, and so on...). It informs all that we do, and our experiences are filtered through it.

Many of us learn that we have to undo and deconstruct the narratives we learned as children, especially the parts that demonize and dehumanize others. The gift that we have is that with a great deal of work we can actually do this - we can unwrite our narratives and pen new ones. However, this hard and holy work is met with deep resistance. We resist this rewriting of self. (Without this narrative, who are we?) The world we inhabit resists this deconstructive work as well, sometimes violently. The world prefers the status quo - equilibrium. When we begin the disruption of unwriting narratives, we are undoing worlds. We are taking away people's world views. This is deeply disturbing - and for good reason. It undoes reality. Sometimes, though, reality is a damning thing that needs to be undone for the sake of a new and better one. Those who are engaged in deconstructive work understand that a further step will be taken; generative work will follow. New narratives are written. New identities will be formed. But, the liminal space is threatening. It is chaos, and its formless state robs people of power and privilege. Very threatening.

Chaya Gilboa from the Shalom Hartman Institute
For the past week or so, I have heard from peace negotiators, politicians, and others involved at the geopolitical level. Real peace, it seemed, will not come from them. They cannot give up on the narratives that have claimed them. And, for each and every one of them the narrative is the same. It can be summarized in six words: It is a victim-villain narrative. The only thing that changed from one person to the other was who the victim and who the villain is in the story. Real peace, it seems, like it so often does, is emerging out of the dirt, from the ground up, by people who have been the most traumatized, who understand the deeply wounding experiences of loss, betrayal, and even death.  Peace, for them, is not about winning or losing or about being right or wrong; it is about life and death.

In Israel and in Palestine, grassroots efforts are unwriting and rewriting narrative. Grassroots leaders understand the folly of narrative that keeps people bound as victims and villains. These courageous individuals are daring to reach across religious and nationalistic lines to form relationships and bonds that are at best considered suspect and at worst traitorous to "the cause." Settlers and Palestinians, Israelis and Palestinians, Arab Christians, Muslims and Jews, religious and secular - all kinds of people are transgressing the boundaries that have been drawn as circles around identity keeping some people in and some people out. These people realize that the words of our narratives sometimes fail us and keep us captive to necrophilic existences. These individuals hope and labor for something more - a biophilic, thriving, vital existence - a neighborly way of life.

I will be processing the particulars of the stories I heard for some time to come. I hope that I honor them and the lives they represent. These stories have been entrusted to me. I don't know that I'm honorable enough to have heard the words that were spoken, but I have received them. Now I have to decide what to do with them. They live in me now. The words - they do not disappear as the sound waves expand and dissipate in the world. The sound itself may have fallen silent, but the words and their meanings remain.

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