From the Dean: How Stories Can Save Our National Soul

February 17, 2017

In the past few weeks, the United States has become a hotbed of political reactivity over a host of issues. Perhaps the most troubling controversy is the fight occurring around immigration. Some of those who are the angriest and most insistent about banishing the immigrant and refugee claim their position is based on religious convictions, with some of the loudest voices coming from Christians. Every time I hear that argument by a fellow Christian, I think about the shortest verse in my heritage’s sacred scriptures (at least in most translations): “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

How a person of Christian faith could come to the conclusion that turning away immigrants and refugees is supported by our faith tradition is beyond me, since the founder of our tradition Jesus of Nazareth, entered the world as the son of an immigrant and refugee family. But, let’s leave aside religion for a minute. America built itself on the backs of immigrants, many of whom knew bone-crushing poverty and oppression in the land of their origin, and came here for the chance at a fresh start in life. My paternal grandfather was one of those immigrants, and I grew up in a family system that had lots of stories about the experience of the immigrant.

At age 15, my grandfather left his home in Macedonia to join his older brother, Chris who had emigrated to the U.S. after the elder sibling showed up on an assassination list for his political activities. Despite our national rhetoric during election cycles, those of us from immigrant families know that the immigrant has never had an easy time in America. In my youth, I heard lots of stories from my grandfather about his experience with ostracism, ethnic slurs, seven- day, 18-hour work days for starvation wages, and the need to find shelter from persecution within the safe boundaries of Macedonian, Bulgarian and Greek communities in East St. Louis, where he could begin building a new life. From my grandfather I also learned that many of the women and men fleeing to our shores moved here only to face challenges almost as difficult as the land of their birth.

For those of us coming from second and third generation immigrant families, we often know that the immigrant in America has been a messy, imperfect process, with assimilation into the U.S. occurring slowly and often with great challenges and personal suffering for whole family systems, not just individuals. But, the reason so many immigrants have continued to come to our shores has been that most have found here something they can believe in: the possibility of participating in a shared vision of opportunity, community responsibility and the hope that humans can build a different kind of society than our species has known for most of its recorded history. One of the remarkable developments of these volatile few weeks is that so many Americans are taking to the streets on behalf of the rights of the immigrant. Although some people of faith are aligning with forces that want to build walls of separation from the rest of the world, most religious traditions are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the immigrant community. One of the reasons religious institutions are standing in solidarity is that people of faith have re-discovered their religious tradition’s mandate to welcome the stranger, particularly through the ancient stories of their traditions. Those stories have always been there, although some generations may not have noticed.

In Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach to Global Ethics, Darrell Fasching, Dell Dechant, and David Lantigua propose that the narratives of welcoming the stranger and alien into our midst has been critically important to religious traditions through the centuries. These stories have not only inspired people of faith to welcome the visitor from other cultures, but has provided a powerful influence more generally on the moral imagination. More concretely, Fasching claim certain stories in religious traditions have taught women and men how to make ethical decisions rather than what decisions to make – you make it more from your gut than your head, with your empathy and altruism always in full operation. This seems counterintuitive. Since the Enlightenment there has been a tendency (both within and outside of religious traditions) to assume the contribution religions make to ethical decision-making is in providing clear prescriptions for or against certain types of behaviors.

But, the scholars contend that stories engage us at the deepest levels of our consciousness, and religious and mythological story lines, in a unique way, frame an ultimate sense of right and wrong. Such stories create through the imagination sensibilities, intuitions, dispositions and emotional reactions to events, issues, and situations that are the primary drivers of ethical choices. The stories form us particularly in the role we will play as agents making the world a better or worse place, and suggest “the kind of story we think we are in and the role we see ourselves playing in that story.”

Some significant scientific research supports this important role of story in not only our moral thinking, but all consciousness. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research has convinced him that humans are story-telling machines almost from the time we begin to speak. This past Sunday, while at church, a little girl sitting in the pew in front of my wife announced excitedly to anyone in earshot: “Today I’m playing Princess Fiona all day long, and he (her brother) is playing Shrek!” The child’s imaginative play reveals something occurring inside us all – such role playing in a story is not just for children. “Narrative psychologists” are finding that we talk about our lives as if they were fictional stories, progressing as if our lives will come to a climax that will ultimately connect the dots of often chaotic experiences into a meaningful story line. Even the atheist Jesse Bering admits that regardless of our overall belief system we have a sense that something or someone is watching over us, and there is a storyline with a purpose woven into the fabric of our daily living. It is deep in our bones to play, tell, listen and watch stories.

Damasio has tracked three different story-telling operations in our consciousness – the Proto- Self, the Core Self, and the Autobiographical Self, with the former two unconsciously feeding the autobiographical self that we recognize as our identity. Damasio’s research suggests that narrative or story is the very foundation of our ability “to know” as human beings. Meanwhile, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that our ethical decisions are actually based on deep, emotional “hunches” that happen unconsciously, with the reasons for a decision getting fabricated from “facts” assembled to support the decision, coming after the fact rather than before it. If true, and the theory has some significant research support, then stories might be the primary formational element that frames our “hunches” about right and wrong. So, why do we have different hunches?

Fasching and his friends believe they might know why. The authors make a distinction between two different kinds of stories that are related to one another: the “sacred” story and the “holy” story. Although we often use them in English as synonyms, Fasching uses the term “sacred,” for those religious stories that awaken in us a common identity as fellow “humans.” Sacred stories bind us as a community and as a people. Religions have been masterful in using such sacred stories to build institutions and cultures that create “sacred” boundaries around their people, and most – if not all – of our cultures in the world have been deeply influenced by these boundaries, even if many of the contemporary thought leaders in those cultures are unaware or in denial about the connections. Along with sacred stories, there is an implicit or explicit sacred morality, one that is focused primarily, if not exclusively, on protecting me, mine and ours. Fasching would say these stories provide an essential ethical framework for building a common life.

But, sacred stories have a dark side. They can become distorted to a point in which people outside of our community are perceived as something very different than us, including profane, sub-human, or maybe even not human at all. The antidote to such religiously-informed stories gone bad are religious narratives that engage human conscious and unconscious “structures” at a deeper level. According to Fasching, these are stories that invite an embrace of the “holy,” calling us to deeper forces of justice and compassion that reach beyond me, mine, and ours, to an ethical code grounded in radical hospitality – a welcoming of the “other,” and more specifically the “stranger.” Such a morality of the holy makes me question elements of my own “sacred morality.” In my Christian story, the more significant holy stories are Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), his conversation with the Centurion (Matt. 8:5-13), his healing of lepers (Luke 17:11-19), and his call to Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (Luke 19:1-10). In all of these stories he violates social mores created erroneously from the structure of sacred stories.

The blind spot in sacred stories, because they inspire us to build and maintain a specific identity as a people, is that they play into the hands of our tendency to place complicated things into overly simple categories. Too many of us in our nation do this with the immigrant and refugee. Daniel Goleman, who has studied the specific human capacity to create categories of Us vs. Them, has observed that prejudice creates a widening gulf between Us and Them when empathy gets “silenced” in the human heart, and this, in turn, has the effect of diminishing our altruism. For all the good things sacred stories might do for us, they can also silence our empathy and shrivel our altruism. One of the things that holy stories do exceptionally well is to open us to doubt and questioning about our own religious location, which leads to new experiences of the holy, and this can cultivate a hunger for a deeper moral wisdom. But, a true holy story is not intended to overturn or destroy our community’s cohesion. Rather, its purpose is to transform my sacred morality, to help to break down the space between the morality of the sacred and the holy, and to integrate both into my personality and the personalities of my moral tribe.

In the U.S., the new presidential administration of Donald Trump has set loose opposing moral imaginations about the ethics of treating immigrants and refugees, especially from Middle Eastern nations. Some Christians are cuing off of sacred stories of the Christian tradition, emphasizing the importance of taking care of Christians first and foremost, while other Christians guided by holy stories are feeling the obligation to accept the stranger and alien with a radical hospitality, one that overcomes fear of the other with empathy and compassion for the other.

In my own Christian heritage, we inherited from the Jewish tradition a moral imperative to defend the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, caring for their needs even when such care seemed to work against the immediate best interests of contemporary culture, and even me, mine and ours. This tradition comes directly from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, who saw that these classes of people were not cared for by the prevailing “sacred customs” of ancient Israel, the very customs arising from the tradition’s sacred stories. Fasching tracks similar distinctions between sacred and holy stories in other religious traditions. In Buddhism, for instance, the Buddha embraced the lower castes who were ostracized in ancient Indian culture. He invited them into his holy community – his sangha – even while the sacred stories of Indian religions endorsed exclusion.

One of the things stories do for us is that they draw us emotionally into the center of both the story and its characters. It is in the mystery of our imaginative participation in the story that we can experience the mind-opening emotion discussed by Haidt – empathy. A story can help us feel an experience from another position, especially if it comes from a stranger, and this can open us to new perspectives. Holy stories are so potent to our ethical imaginations precisely because they engage us at the fundamental level of second-guessing the moral compass that we inherited from our communities of origin. Such stories erode the foundation of prejudice toward others that allow us to seek and encounter a more global sense of right and wrong behavior.

Holy stories from every religious tradition morphed into cultural stories no longer connected to a religious tradition. Some years ago, there was a weekly radio soap opera in Rwanda called New Dawn. The show had a story line that is similar to Romeo and Juliet: a young woman falls in love with a boy from a warring neighboring town, and her brother stirs up hatred of her boyfriend’s people. The story was an attempt to unpack the role of prejudice and hatred that fueled the Rwanda civil war between 1990 and 1994, which resulted in the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis by Hutus. It is a modern attempt to build a holy story. The little girl at church was also dealing imaginatively with such a story as she played Princess Fiona, a “Disneyfied” effort to demonstrate the power of love to overcome prejudice and judgments based on the shallowness of looks.

The right kind of religious stories can engage our ethical imaginations in completely unique ways. Through the imagination we can try out different characters, play with alterations in the storyline, rehearse our reactions to different scenarios of the story. This is the kind of imaginative play that can reshape our emotional reactions to situations, and fundamentally change the intuitions that lead us to our ethical conclusions. And, as surprising as it seems, in regards to our immigration issue this is how stories not only save us, but perhaps may save our nation’s soul.