When I was studying counselling in Seminary I spent many of my classes learning about Cognitive Therapy. This taught me to look for the story or belief that motivated a given behaviour. I learned that often by helping a person change how they interpreted an event, or the story they told about things, great changes in behaviour resulted.
What has been even more fascinating to me is the growing realization that this does not just happen with individuals. Groups of people, whether families, nations, denominations, or corporation, have these stories too. Each cultural grouping has not only its own stories of identity but also tells stories that explain those who are outside their culture and why they are different.
I have found that when interacting with a group of people who are different from me it is very important for me to learn the stories that they tell about themselves. It is also important for me to examine the stories that I tell to explain why they are different from me in light of their stories.
My first glimmering of this idea came when I was still in high school and I went down to Mexico for a summer on a mission trip to build a church. One of the first things that annoyed me about that culture was that nothing ever happened on time! If our team was asked to show up at a church service, we would get there, and almost no one was there. Like many white anglos before me I quickly made up a story to explain this strange behaviour: “Mexicans are lazy and irresponsible.”
But as the summer went on I saw more and more evidence that my story didn’t make sense. I saw many of those in the community getting up at early hours to work jobs, in some cases two jobs, and then come to our worksite and volunteer to work doing hard physical labour long after our team of American teens had packed it in for the day. As a result I was forced to change my story. I felt ashamed that I had jumped to such a judgemental and negative to explain something that I didn’t understand.
What struck me most is that in cultural conflict it seems that both sides are pro something. If I had to sum up my internal conflict that summer, recognizing that this is a huge oversimplification, I would say it was between those who were “pro efficiency” and those who were “pro relationship”. I don’t think anyone would have said they wanted to be known as “anti efficiency” or “anti relationship”.
As I have been living in this strange space trying to bridge the gap between the Christian culture and the gay culture, I have been extremely alarmed by the willingness to jump to tell stories about the other side in contrast to how rarely people are willing to do the work to hear the story of the other side.
If you start with a story like “Gay people are sexually immoral and don’t care about God” or “Christians are narrow minded hateful bigots” then there is almost no way to build a bridge. Christians have often framed their position in debates about homosexuality as being “Pro-Family.” But I have yet to meet anyone who disagrees with them who would describe themselves as “Anti-family”.
I think that a vital step in bridge building is taking the time to listen to the other’s stories, to understand how they think about themselves, and to examine the stories that we have been telling about ourselves and others.
In my next post I will examine some of the stories that I have told about both the Christian community and the gay community over the years, and how listening has changed those stories.