Our Stories Make the World
In my seminary thesis, one of the arguments I tried to make was this: there's a mutually affective relationship between story, social structures, and place. What I mean is that our interpretation of the world around us both contributes to the world's characteristics, while at the same time our experience of those characteristics shape our interpretation.
This pattern holds true whether the place in mind is a church building, a city's public spaces, or the land inside the boarders of the United States. We'll look at examples of each below.
Graphically, the relationship between place, story, and social structures looks something like this:
Each of these things reinforce -- or "produce" -- one another.
It's a nonlinear process, but if I had to pick a starting point, I would chose "story."
I would choose "story" because that's where we have the greatest agency. We have the ability to reflect on our beliefs, open ourselves to "facts" and to other people's stories, and choose to adapt or retain our ideas.
Of course, this isn't easy work, particularly because the ideas I'm referring to don't usually float on the surface of our consciousness like whether we prefer vanilla or chocolate. These are deep ideas, built into our subconscious or "worldview" by family and culture when our minds were developing as children. People sometimes refer to these stories as myths, metaphors, or metanarratives. I like to keep it simple and stick with 'story.'
In my work with homelessness over the past several months, I've watched the power of story to influence social structures and places up-close.
ABC Church of Denver (lets call them) wanted to host some people to live in their basement through the winter. The basement is easily accessible, has showers, plenty of room for storage, and there are quite a few folks living outside in their area. Members of this congregation held a story that framed their roles and responsibilities in terms of compassion and hospitality to the poor (some might call this story "the gospel"). Their stories about the homeless in particular, however, were more mixed -- a smattering of fear and empathy.
When neighbors were invited to participate in the decision making process, a whole new set of stories were unleashed. Many of these people didn't share the baseline commitment to hospitality and compassion. Instead, they told extreme tales of violence, rape, theft, and drug abuse, and prophesied of neighborhoods in decline with housing values dropping through the floor.
(Pause: violence does happen and homeless people are sometimes the perpetrators. The problem is, when you do the math, homeless folks aren't much more likely to commit these crimes than anyone else. The difference is, these people are forced to live their lives in public places where their every action cannot be hidden behind closed doors. Lots of people do drugs and drink alcohol, but only homeless people have to do these things where you and I can see them. More importantly, because homeless people are never afforded the safety of private shelter, they are far-and-away the most common victims of violent crimes as this study shows.)
The voices who told these damning stories were loud, and they spoke to the anxieties within some members of the congregation. When ABC Church took a final vote, they didn't get enough of a majority to go through with the plan. And so, ABC Church remains a physical place influenced by stories that created policy (social structures) that keeps out the poor (That said, I think this congregation is wonderful. They are one of very few who even considered this idea).
Those same fear-filled stories hold sway over many leaders in Denver. In the halls of power, however, this fear is usually not so much focused on physical safety (what psychologists call "basic anxiety" for its connection to survival) as it is on financial safety -- the threat homeless people pose to economic success (one form of "neurotic anxiety" which refers to deeper existential/cultural searches for meaning). Like my little drawing above tries to show, these stories led to a public policy: Denver's Unauthorized Camping Ban.
Since the ban passed in 2012 the rally cry for homeless rights in Denver has been, "Move along to where?"
That question reaches into a crisis of place. "Homelessness" is a disembodied phenomenon -- a "problem" whose "solutions" can be debated. But a person without a home is just that: a person. And people come with bodies that have to exist somewhere, some place. When a homeless person is told to "move along" without having anywhere to go, their personhood is being negated.
What I'm describing here is a text book picture of structural violence: policy that inequitably harms the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of powerless peoples.
Like all violence, it begins with our stories. And like all violence, it deepens the separation (physically and emotionally) between "us" and "them."
Community, it turns out, does not grow well in the soil of animosity and alienation.
Dr. john a. powell (sic) -- a scholar of race, ethnicity, poverty, law and policy at UC Berkeley -- has a flow chart that's helped me visualize these phenomena.
The days and months right after 9/11 are the only other time in my lifetime that compares to the level of anxiety Americans walk around with today. Shortly after that we went to war.
Powell's model challenges us to dig beneath the surface for the roots of anxiety.
At one level racial injustices and tensions, economic inequality, 'safety' (from internal and external 'threats'), the fragility of America's role in international relations, untrustworthy leadership, and conflict between political poles are all generating incredible stress. That's all stuff to unpack in other posts.
But I want to name one other source that is beneath and behind and within and echoing from this first group of stressors -- a seismic shift splintering across our nation's collective unconscious.
In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer lists several of the stories that have historically grounded the American project, such as: America is the world's leading superpower, the American economy is capable of endless growth, America offers more economic opportunity than any nation on earth, America is a 'melting pot' where everyone wants to 'be an American.'
To these, we could add other myths like: America is a Christian nation, the wars America fights have always been just and waged for freedom, white people are 'normal Americans,' and Americans/white people are good people.
Palmer believes our deepest anxieties are rooted in the unraveling of these stories:
"Taken together, myths like these have been foundations of national pride, and we have taken their truth for granted. The rumbles we feel in the land are not merely those cased by ideological clashes and the so-called politics of rage. The deeper rumbles are caused by the cracking of our foundations, the visible failures of our invisible national mythology."
If a person's stories no longer offer an adequate answer to our basic existential questions -- who am I? where am I? what am I supposed to do? etc. -- we have entered into a civilization altering crisis.
All this is going on regardless of the 2016 political cycle. But the election offered the nation our most prominent leadership. And those leaders told competing stories to explain our circumstance and guide us toward solutions.
You don't need me for a post-mortem on the election or to identify the types of stories our leaders pandered to us -- from both sides. While "Stronger Together" may have been a shallow attempt at a bridging story, too many people on both sides were left with overpowering reasons to grow their fear and distrust.
It's worth noting what happens when a breaking story is taken to its extreme conclusion. In a nutshell: you get Dylann Roof. Imagine what it's like as a white supremacist (fyi, white supremacy is a story), to believe one day you're the epitome of goodness, normality, and righteous power and wake up the next to discover your race only makes up 13% of the global population, is well on its way to being less than 50% in your own country, and history puts your people in a pretty bad light. Like animals backed in a corner, people with breaking stories lash out when they lose control.
Friends, this is the great challenge before us: when the other guy lashes out, how do we respond with enough creativity, resilience, and kindness to break the cycle?
The kind of place America will be depends on our answer.
Let me leave you with a couple more thoughts, then turn it over to Walter Brueggemann to talk a little more about the difference between American stories and Christian stories.
We are all leaders. The stories we breathe into neighborhoods, congregations, social media, families, and work places guide people deeper into alienation and violence or community and compassion.
So if your explanations of the world leave you more afraid, you aren't explaining the world in light of the incarnation, cross, and empty tomb.
If the stories you tell don't draw you into communion with "others," you aren't telling the story of the gospel.
If your beliefs stir up more anger than love, you aren't believing in Jesus.