Bethlehem 6: Bridging narratives

Day 4: Pain and separation

The brokenness of division is evident all around us in Bethlehem. It is visible too in the stories we hear, whether they be theological, historical or present. Daniel Juster spoke of the narratives we create out of our pain and how these narratives ultimately become self-justifying. He spoke of Jewish and Palestinian history, of Shoah and Nakba, and asked how these painful histories can be reconciled.

How do we come through all of this painful separation in a redemptive way? In a way that makes things better and heals?

As the church we are broken too. I have come to understand that there is politics at play in the theologies being engaged here in Bethlehem. A suffering people cry out to powerful America to examine the relationship with Israel Palestine and the theologies that underpin political opinion in the USA. It is a call for justice in the here and now. It is call to move hearts away from things too spiritual, to focussed on the end time when God will make everything right, and focus on things that are raw and real.

There is a need for another narrative to become part of the discussion, a bridging narrative. This other narrative cannot take away from existing painful, authentic narratives. But without another narrative then there will be no healing, at least not across the board. The pain of one cannot triumph over the pain of another nor justify inflicting that pain if the human community is to unite in a vision for the achievement of human potential.

The International community has come in for some criticism. Not unexpected. But I wonder about the International Church community. It is easy for us to be critical of others when, in fact, we ourselves fail to be the international force for justice and human freedom that we could be. We could be part of mining and articulating another narrative – if we were to fixate less on our differences and divisions. Our differences are, of course, important. But are they more important than the life of a child in danger or a person imprisoned unjustly or a people living in indignity?

Painful narratives expose in us a hopelessness and fear that what happened to us will happen again and that we will never receive what we need for our healing. The result is a sense of scarcity and anxiety. I am grateful to Ruth Padilla for the reminder of the power of narratives of scarcity and anxiety. These narratives suggest to us that there will not be enough justice for us all. There will not be enough healing for us all. We become anxious to hold on to what we have and get more for ourselves while ignoring or overlooking the narrative of pain from the other side.

How is it possible to move from the narrative of scarcity and anxiety when we are in pain, pain that stretches back into history and makes us all the more fearful?

For the church, it is possible from within the new identity that we share as the one people of God. But we hinder ourselves every time we resist this oneness. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland I reflect, all over again, on our losses in withdrawing from so many inter-church bodies and relationships and the lack of knowledge across the denomination about the relationships we do have.

For the human community, it is only possible when there is recognition of each other’s pain. It is possible when the common will for healing and for ‘never again this pain’ takes over from a narrative that suggests the other must fix my pain and pay for it in the process. The language of human rights is helpful for the human community. Article 1 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out what human dignity is all about:

Definition: Human Dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.

Legal Explanations: The dignity of the human person is not only a fundamental right in itself but constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined this principle in its preamble: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Is there any better place to begin than with human dignity?

The challenge, of course, is in those times when we believe ‘they’ have abdicated on their own dignity by their behaviour. In that we face the challenge of re-dignifying ‘them’ by our behaviour as we hope they would re-dignify us, our community, our people, our nation, when we fall into the grip of inhuman behaviour.

The strange truth is that when we allow our painful and separating narratives to meet in the place where another narrative creates room, we find that there is more than enough justice to go around and that our anxiety is lifted. That is because we find ourselves part of the whole human family and the resources of that family are far deeper, broader and more inclusive than we can imagine.

You don’t think your way into a new kind of living.
You live your way into a new kind of thinking.
Henri J.M. Nouwen


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