Magazine article The Christian Century

Creating Better Stories: Alternatives to Narratives of Violence

Magazine article The Christian Century

Creating Better Stories: Alternatives to Narratives of Violence

Article excerpt

OUTSIDE A CAFE in the al Am'ari refugee camp in the city of al-Bireh on the Palestinian West Bank, where adults sip Turkish coffee and smoke a hookah, a Palestinian boy sits holding a toy machine gun. Looking carefully through its sight, the boy aims at my head and pulls the trigger. I am not scared. This boy is about nine years old, and the gun is a toy.

But when I notice the posters of dead teenage boys on the wall behind him, martyrs for Palestinian causes who are carrying real guns, I start to feel nauseous. The boy is only a few years younger than the teenage faces on the wall. I watch him wiggle and laugh outside the cafe, and I imagine a faded print of this boy's face staring down at me from these walls. It hurts to know that a child so young is already rehearsing the end of his story.

As I leave the refugee camp, I think about my own three sons. I remember their toothy grins, their disheveled brown hair, their skinny arms around my neck, and I wonder how I would feel if they were shot and I was left with only a poster. My muscles tense as I also remember my boys in the backyard pointing their sticks like guns, filling their pockets with sharp stones. They don't have toy guns, but when they reach into their pockets, lay their stones out on the grass, and hold their sticks up, they remind me of tiny soldiers standing at attention, ready to fire the minute they perceive a threat.

The tour bus passes through an Israeli checkpoint, and I notice a teenage soldier slumped forward in the manner of teenagers everywhere, studying a chiming cell phone. When he turns, I see a rifle strapped casually across his shoulder, and I remember that this soldier is not just any teenager. With the cell phone, he still seems a boy; with the rifle, he is a man whom I must obey if I want to travel on this road.

This is a land of competing narratives, stories that push and pull on each other like brothers striving to be the best beloved, the most important, the most moral. Jews and Palestinians tell different stories about their relationship to this land and make different claims about how to tell the sacred story.

In Jewish tradition, Abraham trudges up a mountain with a bundle of wood, readying himself to sacrifice his first-born son Isaac from his wife Sarah. In Muslim tradition, Abraham prepares instead to sacrifice Ishmael, his firstborn son from his wife Hagar. Which son was it really? Which mother? The religious traditions do not agree. When it comes to this story and others, people argue about what needs to be sacrificed to meet the demands of faith, what needs to be preserved at all costs. Such arguments seem to require winners and losers. A people's story is either right or wrong. There is no in-between.

I'm not sure any story is completely right or wrong. But I am convinced that some stories do real damage. It seems to me that the Israeli soldier, the Palestinian boy, and my American sons have all been conscripted into stories of redemptive violence before they were old enough to give their consent. I worry that their worlds never stop whispering these damaging stories in their ears. The soldier hears, "Show dominance. Fight for your people, who are besieged on every side by those who would hurt and destroy them." The boy hears, "Kill the other in the name of your people, for it is the only way you can protect the places that you come from." My boys hear, "If you can take it by force, it's yours. As long as you are strong enough, you can take anything you want. …

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