Storytelling as Peacemaking

Storytelling as Peacemaking: Knowing Truth and Living as if it Were So
2012 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical contest presentation
by Elijah Tracy


"Here is the story of the now and coming Kingdom of Heaven. I have told people for years that I would love to become a story-teller. You know, one of those people who you could just listen to for hours as they weave a tale that sweeps you up and away, a story that you can connect to, a story that rings true and transforms. We tell stories to find and create meaning. This can be understood as one of the things that makes us human; we are the meaning makers. We are the creatures in the created order who give meaning to our existence and relay that meaning through our use of symbols. This usually manifests itself in language, which then leads to storytelling as a framework for conveying this meaning. Now, if we remember that, according to John Howard Yoder, "The people of God are called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately", then we can know that the churches particular way of storytelling can be understood as the most true or most human way of telling; the most true way of knowing meaning.

We spend a good amount of time remembering and telling stories. We do things like go to Sunday School and remember the story of God creating all that is and calling it good, that Jesus came proclaiming good news. We pray with one another to corporately remember our blessings, thanking God for them, and also petitioning God for those things that we need help with, all-the-while uniting our stories together. These are but a few of the stories that we tell so that we know who we are. This form of storytelling recognizes that we are all called to be swept up into the now and coming Kingdom of Heaven; to include our story in the grander story of the Ultimate Reality of our Mysterious God. We must learn to be truthful story tellers, and then live as if those stories were true.

The first step in living as if it were true comes in knowing that, "we are all called". In this statement there is both a recognition that our stories are all explicitly connected, and that ALL of our stories must then be told, because no one is outside of the call of the now and coming Kingdom of God. We know that we can be quite good at telling our own story, but what happens when we drown out or exclude the story of others? J. Denny Weaver writes in "The Mennonite" about a CPT, Christian Peacemaker Teams, delegation that he was a part of in Haiti in 1992. In a time of political upheaval and violence, a time where the voices of many were obscured or silenced, they went to learn of the stories of Haitian people so that they might retell these stories, and live as if they were true. Here we see an example of what it might be like to see the peace-building work of true storytelling. The voice of the violent oppressors was being heard loudly and clearly, but the voice of the oppressed was being silenced, and so they went to learn the story so that they could retell it and live as if it were a true part of the grander story, because we recognize that everyone's story must be included for truth to be known.

In this they recognized that in order to know the story of another, we must listen. In this delegation, they listened and gathered stories. They did this because they knew that if these stories were heard, change would come. They knew that the way that violence was continuing was because these stories were not being included in the grander story. To tell the story of the other without having listened to them tell it first is to perpetuate the exact same violent silencing that occurs when their story is not being heard at all. But here we must pause, because we must take a moment to recognize that even when we retell the story of another whom we have listened to fully, we often do not get it right. We mis-tell, and thus mis-know their story, which leads to us living in a less true way. We must recognize the mystery that is inherent in all of our relationships, beginning in how well we can know and speak of God, and then also in our relationship with other creatures, including humans. This knowing of the mystery of other, or levels of "unknowability" call us into a certain way of being.

It is here that we may point to things that some might call "Christian Values", or Christian ways of being. We must be humble, ask for forgiveness, and then live differently. Our Humility makes it so that we are able to recognize when we have misrepresented another, or lived in a way that has hurt another, a way that has ignored the truth of their story. It also enables us to seek the forgiveness of that person. In seeking forgiveness, we will desire to know what is true, so that we may resolve the harm which has been done and then live differently. This cycle of Humility, Forgiveness, Living Differently is one that we must constantly be in if we are to be true Christian storytellers. The place for me to most clearly see the importance of this practice is in the close relationships I have with my immediate family members. The people I am closest with, whose stories I should know best, are the people that I often do the most harm to. I believe that this, in large part, comes from my assuming that I know their story. I often am quick to over simplify their story so that my own complex story can be told more easily. It is here that a piece of our theological foundation comes in to make sense of things. It is our knowing of Jesus' Resurrection that enables us to live rightly. The Resurrection of Jesus shows us that our meaning does not end with death, and so we are able to value others in our lives and their stories because our story is not going to end. This knowing is cause for celebration, and also calls for the celebration and recognition of the times where we see truthful storytelling occurring.

Examples of this truthful storytelling can be seen in the way that our campus community promotes trainings for learning to understand persons who fall into societal minorities, whose story is not being truthfully told: We invite the Damascus Road Anti-Racism team to help dismantle racism and better understand the story of it's victims, we hold a Safe Spaces training to help learn the story of folks who are sexual minorities to better learn their stories and help to dismantle heterosexism, we offer a Mediation Training which helps us learn to think about offenses committed and the solutions to those offenses restoratively, understanding that relationships, not laws, are the true concern. These are ways of telling the story that speak clearly to me, and I have had the distinct privilege of attending each of these trainings and can attest to their transformative power. These trainings are the reason that I am up here today. These are but a few examples of knowing truth and then living as if it were so, that can be seen in our immediate community. I can imagine that it is not hard for you to bring to mind ways in which truthful storytelling, in whatever form, has impacted the way in which you live.

As humans, we make meaning out of our existence, which we convey in forms of story. This often leads to violence as we seek to tell our story over and above others so that we may have meaning beyond death, leading to an untruthful storytelling, and by extension, untruthful way of being. Jesus comes and, through his death and resurrection, shows us that death is not the end. This, paired with the recognition that we are called into the grander narrative of the now and coming Kingdom of Heaven, allows us to know that we can live truthfully, listening and telling the story of all, particularly those which have been forgotten or mis-told, as their stories are necessary to knowing truth. We learn that in order to live in this way that recognizes truth, we must constantly humble ourselves, ask for forgiveness, and live differently under the new truth which has been revealed. This is how we can know truth and live as if it were so.

I tell people now that I would love to be a story teller, one who tells the stories that connect us together, whose words reveal truth, whose life is a testament to the transformative power of the now and coming Kingdom of Heaven. "

Works cited

John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1992.

J. Denny Weaver, "Nearer my God to Thee: An experience in Haiti of the Presence of God," The Mennonite, 2012-03-01.