Bethlehem Diary 3: The problem of clashing narratives

Day 3 part 1: Narrative theme

The themes emerging about Israeli Palestinian conflict resonate with those of our Troubles in NI. ‘Narrative’ is one of those themes. Not everyone in NI likes the idea of ‘narrative’. For me it means the story we tell ourselves, sometimes about ourselves and sometimes about others, and that story helps to make us who we are. Salim Munayer provided some thinking about the function of narratives. They provide personal and collective identity, they give legitimacy to a community’s self-understanding and behaviour and they are selective about truth, choosing aspects of history that support identity.

When narratives clash, with a consequent clash of identities, each is adopting narrative to support their own truth and portray it as the truth. This a zero sum game. Narratives are thus employed to motivate and recruit, sustaining separated communities and resisting new information.

Munayer suggested four responses to move to a deeper and more shared truth:

Listen to each other’s narratives.
Recognise each other’s narratives.
Identify the weaknesses in our own narrative.
Critically assess our own narrative.

What I liked about this is that it focusses on ourselves. In the end of the day we may hope that others will change but the only person we have any real influence over is ourselves.

I was reminded of Vamik Volkan’s thinking about chosen glories and chosen traumas. Volkan argues that communities choose stories, some of glory and some of trauma, to sustain them over and against others. The difficulty is that these glories and traumas collide, each excluding the other. But traumas in particular have another quality to them. Munayer spoke of how our wounds become part of our identity and we embrace victimisation as a means of constructing and sustaining ourselves. While it is the case that wounds are inflicted by different events, the chosen traumas that are remembered and taken into ourselves, it is also true that the results of those traumas, the wounding, is no different for one side or the other. The glorious and traumatic events we choose to remember influence how we deal, or don’t deal, with our neighbours. The shared experience of woundedness provides a different opportunity for how we deal with and understand each other.

All of this presents us with a problem. If we are speak our narrative to those whom we want to hear it and if we listen to the narrative of others then a process of deconstruction begins. We leave our identity open to that of the other and it can feel very uncertain. It can feel like the familiar is slipping away and we wonder how we will survive it because we have become so tied up with the identity we have owned for so long. We wonder who we are and we wonder how we can survive it.

When it comes to who we are I have found it helpful to hold on to the belief that we are always more than we ever think we are at any one time. The New Testament writer speaks about putting off the old and putting on the new. There is always a new us up ahead. That new ‘me’ is more than I can yet describe but if I am willing to subject myself to the journey of deconstructing and reconstructing identity in light of new understanding and information then there is something new at the end of it. More than I can imagine.

When it comes to how we survive this process the best that I can say is that we can’t do this alone, In the process of resolving conflict and difference each party to the conflict needs the other to make the same journey. We need to draw on the shared woundedness and allow it to become part of us for the sake of the other. We are travelling people, people under reconstruction. We need each other – friends need each other, enemies need each other, divided communities need each other. Without each other the process of reconstruction becomes well nigh impossible.

So there is new light for me on the gospel teaching about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us. This is not just a command to be fulfilled nor only a lifestyle to aspire to. This is about the necessity for survival as people who share the world. We have a choice to either carve the world up so that we don’t encounter each other or to live in the enrichment of meeting and getting to know one another, together living through the deconstruction and the reconstruction so that something new and not yet seen comes to pass. And isn’ that what faith is all about – believing in things not yet seen?

* Salim Munayer is a member of faculty at Bethlehem Bible College, founder of Musalaha Reconciliation Ministries for Israel and Palestine and writer on subjects such as Palestinian identity and Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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