Storytelling

The Cheyney Ryan Peace and Conflict Studies Essay Contest is an annual competition sponsored by the Master’s degree program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon. The essay contest seeks to provide an opportunity for undergraduate students internationally to consider and write about issues related to conflict and its resolution. It is open to full-time undergraduate students worldwide from any field of study.


The topic for the 2009-2010 contest was:
We know that psychological and social well-being are tied in significant ways to our sense of belonging, and that a key part of our identity is based on the groups to which we belong – our family, our community, our nation, our ethnic group, etc. We also see how our national, ethnic, or religious identities can be the source of much destructive conflict. How can we reconcile this dilemma? How do we encourage the positive elements of group identity and, at the same time, avoid the perils of identity affiliations?


This year, three winning entries were selected:


Pluralism and Posterity: Extricating the Positives and Negatives of Group Identity Through the Writing of Amartya Sen and David Brooks by Michael Cohen

Mestizaje as Strength: Articulating Plurality within Group Identities by Jeff Stoesz

and here presented:

Storytelling
by Caleb Paul Mechem


Each of us belongs to several groups, and our families, nations, neighborhoods, and religious communities all help us to understand who we are. One way communities develop a collective identity is to unite around communal myths and stories that help them understand their origins, their history, and their present role in the world. Storytelling is of major importance for any community. While stories can serve to divide groups and give rise to conflict, they can also create new relationships and can mend broken ones, both within and between communities. Stories are important to the formation of healthy collective identities and can be used as a tool to ease intergroup conflict.


A primary way that stories play a role in the formation of collective identity, whether national, familial, or religious, is myths. By “myth” I do not mean something inherently false, but rather a foundational story that is set in the distant past. The historical accuracy of myths is less important than the fact that they link the existence of a group to that past. The examples of the bonding power of myths are nigh endless and a nation, family, or religion without them is inconceivable. School children in the United States are taught the origins of their country by the stories of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere’s ride. They learn the character of their country from the stories of George Washington and the cherry tree, the Civil War, and the courage of Rosa Parks. Likewise, a family has its own foundational myths passed on from generation to generation, whether they are about the first member of the family to migrate to their current home, or about a father’s proposal to a mother. Clearest of all, religious groups are united around their myths. For the most part, Christians understand themselves through the stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and Jews through the stories of the patriarchs, Moses, David, and the ancient nation of Israel. Myths connect communities with past history, even if that history is not completely accurate.


The stories that groups tell and gather around do not have to be something of the ancient past, however. Stories continue to emerge from nations, families, and religious communities, and those more recent stories can be just as essential as ancient myths. For example, the biblical stories are not the last for Christians. Early church history, the Protestant Reformation, escape from persecution, and the arrival of missionaries all provide for essential stories for different sects of Christianity, and even on the smallest scale, the stories of pastors leaving or of major decisions being made within one congregation become rallying points for unity and common identity.



When there is a crisis of that common identity, and conflict within a group, storytelling is often a step toward reconciliation. By sharing their personal stories with each other, groups learn how to interpret their conflict, figure out what has happened, and move on with a new story of reunion. Storytelling can help bring different groups together into one community as well. In her study of the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, American International Affairs professor Lyn Graybill observes that “storytelling is significant because it is a way for victims, perpetrators, and bystanders to construct a common memory of past.” (1) Although it does not erase pain, or completely do away with contentious issues, the act of sharing stories provides at least a starting point for moving forward. In the case of South Africa, storytelling has by no means created a united community out of the victims and oppressors of the past, but a shared memory of history is an essential part of that unification process.


Undeniable is the fact that myths and collective stories can also be dangerous for both the development of healthy internal relationships, and relationships between communities. A good story tends to include a conflict or a crisis, and more often than not includes an adversary. When a group uses a story that gives them meaning to demonize others, conflict is likely to occur. For centuries, Christians found inspiration and justification to forcibly convert and commit violence against Jews because they perceived them to be the enemy in their foundational story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Similarly, some Jewish people infer from the biblical conquest of Canaan that all the land of ancient Israel rightfully belongs to the Jewish people, and non-Jews who live in that land are therefore opposing the will of God.



Stories can become one way that a group partakes in what conflict resolution theorist Marc Gopin calls “negative identity” (2) wherein people distinguish themselves and their group by highlighting those marks of their group that sharply contrast with others’. In their reconciliation work in Northern Ireland, American Mennonite Joseph Liechty and Scottish nun Cecilia Clegg expose several instances in Irish history when negative identity has played an important role in deepening the division between Protestants and Catholics, and when each group has identified itself first by declaring what is wrong with the other group, only then moving on to discuss in positive terms what it is that makes their group unique. (3) Liechty and Clegg point out that “at a basic and primitive level, a person or group always knows, in part, what it is by what it is not,” (4) and our collective stories often draw sharp lines between our own group and another. Our stories and myths can create and maintain deep divisions, particularly when they intersect with the stories of other groups, a clear example being the history of Protestant and Catholic relations in Northern Ireland. Protestants and Catholics are characters in each others’ stories, so their stories are likely to reinforce negative stereotypes about the other.


Though the possibility of damage done by stories should not be ignored, there are ways to enhance the positive aspects and downplay the negative. Christians have historically justified violence against Jews by a selective reading of the Gospels in the New Testament, but people of the two faiths share the immensely foundational stories of the Old Testament. While they interpret those stories differently, they can use their commonalities as at least a starting point to interfaith relationship. Again, though they interpret the stories quite differently, Catholics and Protestants share the Bible as immense common ground. To focus on that mutual framework rather than the more recent stories of animosity between the two groups is certainly not enough to end all their conflict, but it is a starting point. Even for groups who do not share any of the same stories, they are likely to find similar values and expressions of the human condition in their myths. Storytelling can help groups maintain a positive identity and find commonalities with other groups.


Storytelling can also help to ease outright conflict and to mutually heal the communities involved in past conflicts. Israeli professor Dan Bar-on has used storytelling on multiple occasions, under very different circumstances, to bring clashing groups together under the assumption “that if groups in intractable conflicts are to reach some degree of reconciliation, they must work through their unresolved pain and anger … through intergroup encounters.” (5) Throughout the 1990s, he organized several meetings between descendents of both Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, wherein members of the groups shared their own stories and those of their families. Although these meetings did not diminish the horrors of the Holocaust for the participants, or do completely away with animosity that the Jewish participants had toward the Germans, they did provide an opportunity for the two groups to come to recognize each other as human beings and to develop a shared understanding of the atrocities that had taken place decades earlier. (6) Reminiscent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, by sharing their stories, they were able to find a common understanding from which to move forward. In fact, they came to embrace so mutual an understanding, that they were unsure how they could integrate that new insight back into the communities from which they came. (7) The emotional pain shared in that setting was caused by something in the past, but after the success of those interactions, Bar-on used a similar model of encounter between Jewish and Palestinian university students in Israel. He and a colleague found that, even in the midst of current conflict – many of the Palestinian students expressed hesitance to participate in the class because of recent violence committed by Israeli police against young Palestinians (8)– sharing stories was an effective way for the two groups to relate to each other. Though the groups sometimes thought the other’s stories were unfair and one-sided, they were able to empathize with one another, (9) and conversely, by hearing personal stories, members of each group were able to recognize that the other was not monolithic. (10) Although problems were not necessarily solved through these encounters and there were moments of great tension and even hostility, the participants in the class were able to see the undeniable humanness of those from the other group, and, together, they came to share a synthesized view of the past. (11)


Some students expressed frustration with the facilitators of the class because of their insistence to keep the interaction rooted in storytelling. They “wanted to discuss politics, because that was what was happening” (12) beyond the walls of the classroom. Storytelling is not enough to solve the conflicts between groups embedded in deep conflict, be they ethnic, national, or religious groups, and deep discussion of the pertinent issues and compromise are necessary for groups to be able to move forward in peace. Sharing stories simply allows those involved to recognize each other as relatable human beings, which might make it easier to enter into the discussion of important issues.


Sharing stories is one means for different communities to discover their common humanity together, but it is only one. Communication between various groups, communities, and nations is an unavoidable characteristic of our increasingly global village. If we do not commit to discovering positive forms of interaction, we are destined to be plagued by negative ones. For some, the identity that comes from belonging to a religious, ethnic, or national group necessarily demands an attitude of superiority, and they are unlikely to welcome any interaction between their group and another that does not consist of domination or violence. A certain fear at the prospect of intergroup relationship is understandable to a degree; if we recognize our commonalities, then we may lose those aspects that make our communities unique, and therefore lose our identities. For healthy cross-cultural and interreligious contact, however, we need not let go of our uniqueness, but instead allow it to shape that contact.


The possibilities are demonstrated by David Ford, a religion professor at the University of Cambridge, when he writes about scriptural reasoning, a multi-faith meeting where Jews, Christians, and Muslims read and interpret their respective scriptures together. The goal of scriptural reasoning is not to find theological common ground; it is generally characterized by much disagreement and argument. (13) Yet the process acknowledges the deep similarities between three religious groups with a long history of animosity, and who still today experience violent conflict around the globe. Although scriptural reasoning is specifically for religious groups, it is a model that can be used for other communities as well. When people from different groups communicate their different beliefs, worldviews, and understandings of history – all of which are informed by their collective myths and stories – in a mutually respectful and humble way, they are likely to experience amity and friendship.


Peter Dula, an American Mennonite professor of religion, uses the ecological term “ecotone” – the borderlands between two different ecological areas – in his argument that, from a Christian perspective, positive interfaith interaction is beneficial, not merely because it can prevent religious conflict, but because it promotes “creativity, growth, and what the church calls reformation.” (14) For Dula, different groups should come together despite their obvious differences in hope that they can learn from each other, rather than in fear, and do not have to undermine their own identity in the process. That is certainly a challenge, particularly to religious groups who hold mutually exclusive truth claims, but it is not impossible. The humanizing effect of sharing our stories is undeniable, and we have much to teach each other. When different communities meet in ecotones to share their stories, they will find that they have much in common. While storytelling is by itself not likely to solve conflicts between different religious or ethnic groups, it is a starting point for finding common ground.


Bibliography


Bar-on, Daniel and Fatma Kassem. “Storytelling as a Way to Work Through Intractable Conflicts: The German-Jewish Experience and Its Relevance to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.” Journal of Social Issues 60, no. 2 (June 2004): 289-306.


Dula, Peter. “A Theology of Interfaith Bridgebuilding.” In Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World, ed. Peter Dula and Alain Epp Weaver, 160-170. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing, 2007.


Ford, David F. “An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning Between Jews, Christians and Muslims.” Modern Theology 22, no. 3 (July 2006): 345-366.


Gopin, Marc. Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Graybill, Lyn S. Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.


Liechty, Joseph and Cecelia Clegg. Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Dublin: Columba Press, 2001.


End Notes


1. Lyn S. Graybill, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 86.


2. Marc Gopin, Between Eden and Armaggedon: the Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 63.


3. Joseph Liechty and Cecilia Clegg, Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (Dublin: Columba Pres, 2001) 78-80.


4. Ibid., 78.


5. Dan Bar-on and Fatma Kassem, “Storytelling as a Way to Work Through Intractable Conflicts: The German-Jewish Experience and Its Relevance to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict,” Journal of Social Issues 60, no. 2 (June 2004): 290.


6. Ibid., 292.


7. Ibid.


8. Ibid., 295.


9. Ibid., 297-298.


10. Ibid., 301.


11. Ibid., 292.


12. Ibid., 299.


13. David F. Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning Between Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Modern Theology 22, no. 3 (July 2006): 349.


14. Peter Dula, “A Theology of Interfaith Bridge Building,” in Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World, ed. Peter Dula and Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing, 2007), 161.

                        author

Caleb Paul Mechem

Caleb Paul Mechem is a Bible and religion major at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.  He was raised in southern Indiana before he began his undergraduate studies at Vassar College.  Before coming to Goshen to complete his Bachelor's degree, he worked at an overnight drop-by center for chronically homeless men… MORE >

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