Saturday, August 26, 2023

(Still) Learning to Tell a Story

I am currently in a time of transition. While I have never been particularly sentimental, a big part of my life has been taken up with reflective practice. So recently, I’ve been looking back as a way of looking forward, thinking about and learning from the last years. In particular, I've been spending time looking at writings from another recent time of transition, in 2015-2016. It has been nice to reconnect with aspirations and convictions I named then. For instance, it remains most important to me that we, as individuals and as communities, care for one another and our world. My reflective practices have value inasmuch as they integrate inner and outer transformation. I am interested in how cultural and religious beliefs and institutions help or hinder the development of social and ecological justice and lasting peace, and what we can learn from each other. I aspire to be open-hearted and willing to encounter truth and wisdom in each person and experience I meet, in resistance to the violent patriarchal, racist, capitalist fragmentation of our world and psyches, and to do this in community. 

That vision has stayed with me, but that is not by accident. It takes work to nourish these aspirations, especially when they are easily drowned out by other visions and voices. We cannot escape the narratives that surround us, stories told by those in power, in ways that preserve their power. And for those of us who had to, or still need to, recover from the old formulations of sin and shame have often worked to sap the life of our movements for social change through preoccupation with straining the gnats of personal guilt and trendy controversies while swallowing the camels of systemic injustice. It is an ongoing practice to fully embrace the stories and aspirations that stir our hearts. That is the challenge and the opportunity for any of us who take up the vision to come together, embody a beloved community, and ever more truly share peace with one another. 

These ideas were especially prominent in a reflection I wrote in April 2016, "Learning to Tell a Story." It was a reflection on religious naturalism, storytelling as meaning-making, and the aspiration to be a community of justice and wholeness. But looking back, what stands out most to me is that attention to what stories we remember and how we remember them. We mainly do this effortlessly, unconsciously, because this is how we make sense of the world and our place in it, “imbuing the ordinary acts of life with purpose, even in the face of [our] own extraordinary smallness, or the intractability of systemic injustice, or the vastness of time and space.” (Re)turning to bell hooks’ description of “collective black self-recovery,” she encouraged us to know and remember that -

 “Memory need not be a passive reflection, a nostalgic longing for things to be as they once were; it can function as a way of knowing and learning from the past, …. It can serve as a catalyst for self-recovery.  … We need to keep alive the memory of our struggles against racism so that we can concretely chart how far we have come and where we want to go, recalling those places, those times, those people that gave a sense of direction.” (Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, 40)

This type of re-membering is important for all of us working for justice and peace, and especially important when the dominant voices in our society are telling a different story. Take, for instance, the popularity of this summer’s controversial country music hits, such as Jason Aldean’s “Try that in a Small Town” and Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond.” There are plenty of analyses out there that address these songs, so I won’t take that up here. Instead, let’s note how they carry lyrics and images that resonate with people, that help make sense of the world while tapping their toes. But while Anthony’s song title takes aim at wealthy politicians, he also repeats harmful stereotypes, singing: “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat / And the obese milkin’ welfare.” He manages to shame both receiving food assistance and being fat, two easy narratives that are often used to shift blame and attention away from systems of economic injustice. 

How does such a song sound to the people actually affected by those injustices? In one response to Anthony’s song, Hannah Anderson shared her experiences in her recent article at Christianity Today. Her husband was a pastor and her family was, in her words, “the epitome of conservative values.” But they still struggled financially, working hard and still going hungry. She described the mixed relief that came when they accessed SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).   “At first, a weight lifted from our shoulders,” she wrote. But a new weight replaced it - shame: “I felt it creep in the first time I used my EBT card, and it grew each time I ran into a congregant or neighbor at the store. … Today, a decade later, I can see how shame dominated my experience of SNAP … .” The real shame was that a family couldn’t afford to eat, but our society has persistently avoided wrestling with that story in favor of blaming the poor, so that a mother like Anderson felt compelled to keep their situation and suffering a secret. Stories are powerful, even if they are false.

        While a lot of attention has been given to the country music hits carrying these kinds of messages, Aja Romano, writing for Vox, also pointed out that other musical groups “may not have the sound of country music, but they seem to have tapped the same well of reactionary extremist conservative ire.”  As an example, Romano described the music of  Tom MacDonald and Adam Calhoun, whose lyrics are filled with “virulent racist, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and particularly hateful anti-trans lyrics.” I looked at a few of their songs, and they came across to me as telling a particular story crafted especially for aggrieved white people. For example, in “American Flags,” they raise an alarm: “My people love this country and we’re under attack … If you man enough, come stand with us, take USA back.” And, as Romano noted, the lyrics specifically cast vulnerable communities as the Big Bad Guys. For example, in back-to-back lines they target transgender people first, including all of us nonbinary/gender-expansive folks: “Never hit a lady but it’s pretty hard to tell if you’re a girl / Or a they, them, theirs, these, that, those.” They then immediately pivot to people who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality: “I ain’t never gonna take a knee for the anthem, smack ‘em / I don’t give a damn, can’t stand ‘em.”

        And when I say target, this is both symbolic and literal, because the song is also an anthem to gun violence: “Ima shoot at somethin’ / Why you think we own these guns? So we can just go do some huntin’?” That song, by the way, hit number 1 this summer “on two Billboard music charts - Rap Digital Songs, R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs.” Its popularity is a reflection of the stories that people tell to explain their suffering and anger, with lyrics that resonate. In turn, the success of these songs reinforces those narratives. As Romano wrote, “none of this is about country artists … ultimately, none of it is about the music at all.” And at least part of what this is about is channeling outrage to re-establish cultural narratives that favor a specific type of people, to the exclusion of anyone they label as a threat - anyone who isn’t “My people.” 

We have witnessed a similar trend in teaching history. We’ve talked several times about this over the years, but Ron DeSantis has really gone the extra mile this summer. Last month, while speaking with reporters, he described the ongoing revision of the history of slavery, saying that the curriculum is “probably going to show” how “some of the folks … eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.” To put it another way, DeSantis claimed that slavery benefited at least some people, acting like a job training program that helped them in a later career. This is a horrible retelling of the history of slavery, diminishing its horrors and inherent violence.

        Thankfully, many folks have been pushing back, including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is also “the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate”. While campaigning in Iowa, Scott said:

“As a country founded upon freedom, the greatest deprivation of freedom was slavery, … . There is no silver lining … . … What slavery was really about [was] separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating. So, I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that.”

         Unfortunately, DeSantis doubled down during his own stop in Iowa, replying that: “part of the reason our country has struggled is because D.C. Republicans all too often accept false narratives, accept lies that are perpetrated by the left.”  He offered his version as a defense, saying: “The way you lead is to fight back against the lies, is to speak the truth. So I'm here defending my state of Florida against false accusations and against lies. And we’re going to continue to speak the truth.”

        I have not understood exactly what lies are being told, when the reports about Florida’s curriculum are largely just that – reports. Perhaps this is why Jamelle Bouie, writing in the New York Times, titled his July 28, 2023 article   “Ron DeSantis and the State Where History Goes to Die.” Bouie insightfully appealed to David Blight’s observation that: “A segregated society demanded a segregated historical memory. The many myths and legends fashioned out of the reconciliationist vision provided the superstructure of Civil War memory, but its base was white supremacy in both its moderate and virulent forms.” Bouie concluded: 

“The history we teach to students in the present is as much about the country we hope to be as it is a record of the country we once were. A curriculum that distorts the truth of past injustice is meant, ultimately, for a country that excludes in the present.”

So what are we to do? We return to hooks’ insight that “Memory …  can function as a way of knowing and learning from the past, …. It can serve as a catalyst for self-recovery.” In other words, we need to tell our stories, sing our songs, and re-member our communities. Anderson reflected on how vital this kind of re-telling can be

“Though I now realize my shame was unfounded, that did not make it any less real or any less harmful to my soul. And while none of us can singlehandedly dismantle the larger narratives that encouraged it, each of us can make small adjustments to ensure we’re not reinforcing those patterns. / We can take care of how we speak about programs that provide needed care for the poor, … . We can extend the freedom we enjoy in our own food choices to those who are dependent on social safety nets. … though we may differ in our political preferences, we can love our neighbors as we love ourselves.” 

“Loving our neighbors as ourselves” is one of these transformative narratives in a society drenched with images and encouragement to hate and kill, to take a gun and “shoot at somethin’.” But that means that this is another commitment that requires constant practice. In everyday life, it can be necessary to just shrug off the reality that millions of people are daydreaming of shooting you and the people you love. But the hatred does cast a shadow. We are left with a terrible choice: silence and oppress ourselves, keep our heads down so we draw as little attention as possible and hopefully avoid becoming a literal target, or speak up, perhaps loudly and persistently, risking being misunderstood on one hand and objects of violence on the other. I think, for most of us, we navigate a blurry spectrum between these poles, trying to judge how much we can say and be ourselves at any given time. It’s tiring. 

Which is why the community aspect is also so important, and why I found myself gratefully, and a little surprisingly, part of a church again when I entered those doors and heard Monty Python’s greatest hits. Please forgive me for quoting myself, but I think I got this right back in 2016, and it is good for me to hear it again:  

“We need communities, and we need to support communities, who care about justice, who understand systems of oppression and domination, to take up the pen, the brush, the stage, the drum, the microphone. We need all manner of art to help us think about these questions and stumble toward an answer. We need folk stories and historians. We need Role Playing Games. We need good friends and good conversations over cups of tea or on long walks. We need the singing of songs and the telling of tales. 

“We need to learn to listen, to interrogate our own complicity with the way things are, so that we can resist. We need to learn to tell our own stories, to find out how we got here and what we really think, so that we can understand and then resist the ways in which we’ve been conditioned into acting a part that often contributes to oppression and marginalization of others. We need to listen to the stories of others, so we learn we are not alone, and so we can understand how our stories and the systems of domination intersect, and so we can push the boundaries of our own understanding. We need to read outside what is familiar to us, especially to read and listen at the margins when we have become accustomed to seeing the world according to the Powers that Be. And we need to be reminded of what’s gone before us, to be proud and celebrate and to be sad and grieve. We need to learn what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and why. In other words, we need to hear stories where we are … on the right side of justice and grace, discerning what to do next. And we need to hear the stories where we are … in desperate need of a painful change. … In the hearing and telling of stories, wisdom can be born in us, in our communities and as a community. But we have to pay attention. We have to listen not just to the stories, but for what they mean and how they change us. We can choose the stories we hear and the stories we live with attention to what we care about, with attention to kindness, justice, and community.” 

         In this spirit, I want to close by offering a poem I wrote many years ago about leaving fundamentalist Christianity: 

 A Sower Went Out

 they always taught me
that Jesus' story about the seeds
and the soils was about thinking
the right things, agreeing with
the right people, falling into line,
measuring goodness with compliance.

but that's not how anything grows.

the old prairies here knew better,
knew that the soil needed the plants
as much as the other way 'round,
knew that the life in the soil was
a community of living and dying,
of bugs and bacteria as well as
beautiful blooms opened to the sun,
knew that the good soil had roots
reaching down fourteen feet
so that there was always
a place to hold the rain, to hold
the life when the dry times came.

you want to plant something
that will grow a hundredfold
in love and not in greed?
give up on tidy rows and telling
others what to do and think
and take a lesson from the
little earth that's left that we
haven't tried to squeeze for
profit or crush into submission.

for when the human heart finds
itself in a place like that,
no one has to tell it what to do,
and no one can stop it from
giving forth its own small
offering of love, or grace,
or justice, or truth.

        This is our ongoing work. We live with the aspiration to love one another in a society that profits from our alienation; hoping for community in a society that encourages the dislocation of our relationships; and nourishing a commitment to love and justice in a society where everything and every one is disposable. We look to each other for courage and grace to transcend the ever-present poisons of hatred and greed, to cultivate a boundless love, and to embody that love in our everyday expressions of kindness and the sharing of life together.

        I am grateful to have added a few pages to the story of this community, to help transform the stories that dominate our society and to “turn it around, offer kindness instead of hate, and justice instead of a tired resignation to the way things are.” One organization I belong to has a banner that boldly reminds us that we will not stand idly by, that we can make a difference, and that “Our own, very earthly voices can call one another to a more beautiful and just and altogether wonderful way of life.” Thank you for everyone who helps create communities and cultures where anyone and everyone can do that. My heart has benefited from having the opportunity to be myself and give forth my own small offering of justice and love.