Shlach – Making Space for Difficult Narratives

There has to be space for deeper listening, for complexity, for discomfort, and for differing perspectives.  

Moses sent 12 scouts to check out the promised land.

They came back with outrageously big and beautiful fruits, and a report of a land flowing with milk and honey. But ten of the scouts said forget it.  The inhabitants are giants and we will never conquer this land.

Two said – עָלֹ֤ה נַעֲלֶה֙.  Let’s go up, let’s go up!  יָכ֥וֹל נוּכַ֖ל , We CAN, we can do this!

The people were fractured by a deep schism. The language on both sides was so extreme. The ten described the promised land as “eating its inhabitants”, and their followers would rather return to slavery or even die in the desert than go to that terrible place. 

The two, Joshua and Caleb, insisted – טוֹבָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד, it is a very, very good land. 

Then words turned to violence.  The majority tried to stone the two,  until God said: “ENOUGH!”  You want to cry, I’ll give you reason to cry. You’ll wander for 40 years in this miserable desert, until every one of you drops dead. And those children that you were so afraid for- THEY will inherit the land.”

The extremism of the language, the intensity of the disagreement – to the point of violence – the inability to hear the other side, to create space for a different narrative, or to hold a space in the middle.  It is all too familiar.

I wonder what would have happened if, instead of just insisting that we’ve got this, Moses, and Joshua and Caleb had first acknowledged: “I know you are afraid.  You have already suffered a lot.  And the uncertainty of the future is scary.”  And only then – only after giving space to the fear and the pain – they had said, “But we are in this together with God, and we can do it.”

What do we do when someone else’s narrative is so different from our own, that it threatens our sense of self?  Can we create space for them?  Can we hold their hand and feel what they feel, see the world the way they see it, without losing our own integrity?

Almost a year ago, the New York Times initiated its “1619 Project”, named for the year that the first slave ship docked in an American harbor.  The project, quote,  “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

The 1619 project was the dreamchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones.  Hers is the opening article, and she starts with a description of the American flag that was always on display in her father’s front yard. She wrote:

When I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.

That first issue was hard to read.  It told stories of abuses that are incomprehensible. Most difficult of all, it challenged us to view the entire history of our country through the lens of those abuses.  

But this was the story of the many writers who contributed to the project.  It is how they understand our country.  It is true to their experience, and by putting these thoughts in writing, they are asking us – as Pastor Hurmon asked last week – that we lament with them.

And I had the sense in Hannah-Jones opening article, that through her lamenting, she was finally able to discover her own American pride.  She wrote:

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all…No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good. 

She leaves us at the end of her article with a story to hold on to. Here it is:

When I was a child — I must have been in fifth or sixth grade — a teacher gave our class an assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation’s flag. As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no “African” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.

I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

The 1619 project offended many people. Among them is Robert Woodson, an African-Amerrican scholar who  has in the past been a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, a winner of a MacArthur Genius Award, and author of several books on urban poverty. He sees the 1619 project’s focus on the abuses of the past to be – in his words – “lethal”.  As a response to 1619, he spearheaded the 1776 Project, gathering essays by African-American scholars that forgive the sins of the past, focusing instead on celebrating  the accomplishments of black Americans and the promise of the future.  The 1776 approach is as deeply offensive to many as the 1619 is to others.  But it tells the story of its writers.  It is how they understand our country, it is true to their experience, and can we not create space for them as well?

Because, if nothing else, when we only allow space for one narrative, then all the experiences in between are forced out as well.  Yesterday was Juneteenth, commemorating June 19th, 1865, the day the Civil War ended and the final  slaves were freed.  I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of Juneteenh until a month ago, when a young African-American woman – a close friend – told me about it.  “It’s our 4th of July” she explained, “because that’s when our independence started.”  I asked her if her family celebrated Juneteenth when she was growing up, and she told me they did, but the 4th of July was really the bigger family holiday.  She’s glad that her boyfriend – who is white – is celebrating Juneteenth with her, and she is going to continue celebrating July 4th because – she said – it means so much to him. And, though she didn’t say it explicitly, I got the feeling that she wasn’t so ready to give up 4th of July either – even if it weren’t for her boyfriend.

How would the story of the Israelites have been different, if the two scouts could have really listened to the narrative of the ten, and the ten scouts could have listened to the narrative of the two.  Might, then, have there been space for the rest of us  to be both a little afraid and a little brave.  To oddly still feel nostalgia for Egypt, and also desire the promised land?

Why do we divide into camps of extremes?  

Emails are flying right now, with subject lines like: “if you are not with us, you are against us.”  People unfriending each other on Facebook, for refusing to sign petitions, or not jumping on some bandwagon.  Earlier this week, one woman told me she’d been told that she has to stop associating with anyone who does not support “the cause”.  Cut them off!?  Yikes!

Why do we let ourselves be reduced to nothing but clashing slogans? 

I don’t think that’s what Pastor Hurmon was asking of us last week.  It’s certainly not what Dr. King would have asked of us.  Oh yes, Dr. King had strong language for those who disagreed with him about the timeline of black people’s freedom.  But Dr. King believed in turning enemies into friends, and you can only do that through relationship.

There has to be space for deeper listening, for complexity, for discomfort, and for differing perspectives.  

We want America to be the promised land.  But the promised land wasn’t won until the Israelites learned to listen.  And it also wasn’t won once and for all.  It was won in pieces, and lost again, and won again.  What that means is that the 1619 narrative does not have to negate the 1776 one.  It is a relief to me, to know that I can acknowledge the pain of the past and the present, and still celebrate the founding ideals of our country.

Over the coming weeks, watch the Shabbat Shalom emails for more opportunities to learn about racism, to learn more of the history of African-Americans, to learn from the experiences of individual African-American.  I hope you will say yes, and come with an open heart.  I hope we can all listen, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s painful.  Because I believe that listening to each other is the only way to arrive fully, truly and completely to the Promised Land.