It was an average Tuesday morning. My mom drove me to school. I sat through homeroom, trying to ignore the obnoxious ten year-old who was swinging his feet into the back of my desk. After roll call and announcements, I left home room and went to my pre-algebra class. Mrs. T was talking about triangles when another teacher knocked on the door. Mrs. T paused her lecture and went into the hall for a minute or so. When she returned, she had a distraught look on her face. She looked at the floor, glanced at the class, bit her bottom lip, and then began to speak: "Class, I have some very bad news. The administration thinks it's best to share this with you. A plane has just hit the World Trade Center." Honestly, as a fifth grader who had absolutely no interest in politics, economics, or global conflict, I had no idea what that meant. However, I learned quickly. We spent the entire day watching the news. I watched the second plane hit the second tower and listened to CNN broadcasters and experts speculate. Their speculation about the event quickly turned to the possibility of a national security breach. By the end of the morning, four planes had gone down. It could not longer be considered an accident and observers began looking where to point the finger of blame. Newscasters began reporting that this may have been a terrorist attack by an Islamic jihadist group. This was my first encounter with a narrative of Islam. I learned as I encountered other narratives of Islam that narratives need to be challenged. Otherwise we can hold a narrow and potentially problematic perception of the world. This past May, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend the TEDx Rammallah conference while I was in Israel and Palestine. TEDx conferences are privately organized TED events that harbor a vision of "ideas worth spreading." In this spirit, award-winning filmmaker Julia Bacha spoke about her groundbreaking documentary Budrus, and its effective use of narrative. Julia discovered this story seven years after it had taken place: Budrus is a town in the West Bank which was under threat of being destroyed by Israeli barrier construction. The town organized itself, Fatah and Hammas alike, and were joined by Israeli peace activists to peacefully protest the construction — civil disobedience in its purest form. Although this event made for a very compelling story, no one told the story while it was happening. This movement at Budrus took place during the height of the second intifada, in which some Palestinians were resorting to the use of bombs as a way of resisting the occupation. Also, these demonstrations were held only two years after the September 11th attacks. The story of Budrus wasn't told because it didn't hold with western mainstream media's perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the overarching narrative of Islamaphobia. When Julia stumbled across this story, she saw something there and got to work. She solicited information from local journalists and others who knew the inside account of Budrus's struggle and the footage to make it real. Hundreds of video tapes began pouring in. Julia pieced together the story through visual footage and personal interviews with eye witnesses. Her direction of the documentary revealed the inspiring story of a village that took on the Israeli government and their illegal and unethical acquisition of Palestinian land and the construction of the barrier. Julia's work was not completed, however, with the release of Budrus. Releasing the film was just the start. The film Budrus is merely a part of a larger political and ethical project. Budrus was produced by a non-profit organization for which Julia is a primary director. The organization is called Just Vision. Its mission is to promote media coverage of the Palestinian struggle. A showing of Budrus is not merely a film screening but also a discussion starter. Just Vision-endorsed screenings of the film are followed by a question and answer session. In Julia's TED talk she explained that this question and answer session is meant to help ease "cognitive dissonance," the uncomfortable feeling one has when grapping with competing ideas. Cognitive dissonance occurs when an idea competes with the confirmation bias the listener has erected through his or her narrative on the subject. By entertaining a competing narrative like Budrus, someone who previously only knew Palestinians as terrorists causes his or her self to experience a tension that must then be tested against his or her existing narrative. However, commonly the narrative someone holds is so ingrained that the confirmation bias repels any alternative information. With Just Vision, Julia offers another possibility. By hosting a question and answer session after filming the documentary, she works to broaden people's narratives rather than passively allowing the confirmation bias to deflect information that conflicts with their narratives. Based on her experience with the documentary and research by Norman Holland, a scholar of psychology and literature, Julia argues that our minds process information in narrative format. Furthermore, the use of personal narratives can be the most effective mechanism for alerting someone of a problematic opinion in her worldview, sparking cognitive dissonance. In combination with the question and answer format, Budrus's narrative affectively creates awareness and opens up the floor for dialogue and active discerning. In her TED talk, Julia reflected on an experience from one of these film screenings. Just Vision held a screening in Washington D.C. which was attended by a leader of the Tea Party, a political movement that tends to hold an Islamaphobic perspective. This leader approached Julia and requested for his organization to hold a private screening. She held the screening and the responsive discussion. During the question and answer session, a Tea Party member asked if the Palestinians were compensated for their land. Julia was strategic with her response. Knowing that private property was an important narrative for the Tea Party, she told him that some of the Palestinians were offered compensation but most refused because that would legitimize the Israeli government's infringement on their private property. This response caused a huge smile to spread across the man's face — the cognitive dissonance was at least somewhat resolved. After the discussion, the man approached Julia to co-write an editorial about how the Palestinian cause was a libertarian struggle like that of the Tea Party. Julia has not yet responded. Fortunately, my individual narrative on Islam was challenged by a competing narrative. In junior high, I shared a history class with a student named Bilal, a Palestinian. While covering a section on religious history, Bilal gave a presentation on Islam and his life in the Gaza Strip. He unfolded his own personal tale of growing up in a territory of constant threat of violence, a people that were physically and existentially oppressed, as well as those radicals that fought back. He gave us a brief overview of Islam, translating a bit of the Qu'ran and explaining a few of their rituals. For the first time, I saw the connection between Islam and my own faith. Although I had been taught that Islam also rooted back to Abraham, I had no idea of the implications that had for the religion. As Bilal read a sura that lauded the fathers and prophets of the Old Testament, I was able connect to his faith by incorporating the narrative he presented of his faith. Maybe even more importantly, Bilal put context on the political implications of the faith. He was a non-radical, relatively westernized moderate. He explained to our class that jihad was only one, very radical, expression of the faith, one that he sees as a perversion of his religion. Coming from a Christian tradition that emphasizes the double love command, love the Lord your God and love your neighborhood as yourself, I believe that we are not only called, but compelled, to consider other narratives. If we cannot consider the narrative of our neighbor, how can we know how to love him or her? By examining a competing narrative, we must emotionally and spiritually find connections with our own narrative. This opens up possibilities of a true dialogue and understanding of someone who otherwise may be looked at as "the other." This step is essential in truly loving one's neighbor. In "The Freedom of a Christian," Martin Luther argues that the "neighbor" is not a matter of physical proximity. Anyone who is the "other" is truly one's neighbor. The type of proximity that is important here is a kind of spiritual proximity. By spiritual, I do not mean cosmic or other-worldly, but rather a proximity that is divinely humanistic — one that is divine by its ordinance and humanistic in its development of positive human relations and flourishing. By connecting with a neighbor's narratives, a sense of understanding is reached and closer spiritual proximity is possible. This use of narrative has continued to be important to the ethical framework of the Lutheran Church. The ELCA utilizes narratives when constructing Social Statements. For example, the current study Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice utilizes ten different narratives that are based on true stories. Each of the ten narratives gives a different perspective on the criminal justice system, helping to orient congregations to openly discuss criminal justice within a broad framework. The stories compel individuals to feel cognitive dissonance and work to resolve that tension by asking questions that may help to broaden their personal narratives on criminal justice. Julia Bacha does not believe that the Palestinian narrative is the only one that needs to be represented and addressed. It is merely the one that has called her. At the end of her TED talk, she challenged us — and I extend this challenge to you — to be aware of our confirmation biases and consider other narratives. Do not take an opinion as fact because it seems right or another as pure fallacy because it doesn't "fit." To hold a responsible perspective, one that is truly respectful of our "neighbor," we must constantly consider competing narratives.
Libbi Wiliams is a third year in the College at the University of Chicago. She is studying philosophy and religious studies with a focus in theological ethics. This summer, Libbi interned for Studies in the Office of the Presiding Bishop at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
© November 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 7