Heroes and Villains

“Logic cannot comprehend love; so much the worse for logic.” –N.T. Wright

What is the harm of the single story? Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains.

The myths we carry help us make sense of a life complicated by inconsistency and hypocrisy. Our fondest myths allow us to keep the lines clean, assign blame and credit, and sometimes even feel the pleasure of just…being right. We really hate it when the hero and the villain trade places, or become the same person. But isn’t that truer to life, with its complexity and heartbreak?

We are in a time when Reality itself feels like a jump ball between competing storytellers and their satellites. Many, including myself, have retired the naive belief that “good and decent people” will inevitably end up on the same side in some collective, global game of “Spot the Bully,” sound the alarm, and send in a referee.

We do not lack information. We are drowning in it. In this information war, skilled propagandists have so successfully inundated us with manufactured certainty, both through our cable news channels and our social media feeds, that we are willing to hate our own families, our own neighbors, ripping our society apart from within. We excel in snark and finger pointing. We fail again and again at empathy.

Instead of empowering us to help those crying out for relief, the information flood we receive leaves us confused, disoriented, and tired. Every day, we watch more solid ground disappear beneath our feet. We teach our kids to “look for the helpers,” but the frightening reality of disinformation is its ability to keep us calm, even as people drown in plain sight, because it has brainwashed us into believing the whole thing is staged.

This past week marked the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie. For those of you who don’t remember, on March 16th, 2003, Rachel, a twenty-three-year-old woman from Olympia, Washington, stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer to try and protect her Palestinian friends’ house from being destroyed.

Near the Rafah border of Gaza, as part of a nonviolent international observer group, Rachel had done this before. In the words of Rachel’s bereaved father, Craig, “This time, the jerk driving the bulldozer didn’t stop” and Rachel was crushed to death.

Along with condolence calls from strangers around the world, Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, also received threatening voicemails, accusing their daughter of being a traitor to her country, and of supporting terrorism.

To the former, Rachel was a nonviolent peace activist, bearing witness to the mistreatment of fellow human beings, using her body and her privilege as an American citizen to try and stop a machine from destroying their home. To the latter, her mere presence in Gaza, her vocal condemnation of the injustice wrought against the suffering Palestinian people, people she had come to live with and care for, she was a “terrorist.”

Rachel Corrie believed in the work she was doing. She believed in nonviolence, in bearing witness. “Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I’m having dinner with.”

I think about Rachel, who was close to my age. When I was twenty-three, I spent part of a semester visiting the occupied Palestinian territories. While there, I kept thinking, “If more people just knew what was happening here, they would work to stop it.” I believed that the bulk of the needed work was leveraging awareness in order to mobilize change to unjust policies, and to match humanitarian resources with the hundreds of thousands who needed them. I thought spreading awareness would help bring about change. I think I viewed awareness as the necessary key to ignite the heat of public opinion, bring the heroes running, and stop the bullies.

But upon returning home after that semester, it didn’t take very long for me to understand that before people were able to hear about what I had seen with my own eyes, before they could be expected to even be a little bit curious, it was on me to understand that what I was saying did not fit within most Americans’ existing worldview, and to expect pushback accordingly.

There were those who really had no prior narrative information about the Palestinian people. They knew about Israel and the holy sites, but had never read about or met a Palestinian and had never really had reason to be interested or curious. For them, basic awareness of Palestinian people as people, was a first step toward openness to know more, toward curiosity.

George Lowenstein, Psychology and Economics Professor, coined the term “information-gap perspective,” which says this: “Curiosity is the feeling of deprivation we experience when we identify and focus on a gap in our knowledge. We have to have some level of knowledge or awareness before we can become curious. We aren’t curious about something that we’re unaware of or know nothing about.”

The inverse is helpful to keep in mind as well. We aren’t receptive to new information in an area where we believe our learning is complete. You will always meet those who, despite a very wide knowledge gap, speak confidently on a subject, and allow themselves little room for any new learning that contradicts or disrupts their firmly held narrative. Sometimes this knowing shows up in slogans. In my case, I was told confidently, “Palestinians are all terrorists,” and “cannot be trusted.” I appreciate this observation from Brene Brown’s research, “Having to be the ‘knower’ or always being right is heavy armor. It’s defensiveness, it’s posturing, and worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullshit.” –Brene Brown, “The Courage Not to Know”

Although my time studying in the Middle East was brief, at 23 years of age, I was consumed with the burden to bear witness, to tell what I had seen and heard, talk about the pain of the courageous people I had met. In all this, the most frustrating barrier I faced had to do with the inadequacy of language in a world of competing ideologies. In my discourse with people who had always viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using neat narratives that came from their church’s Christian Zionist eschatological and premillennial teachings, I chose my words very carefully. I knew that regardless of who they knew me to be, were I to choose the wrong word (like injustice), I’d be cast aside and dismissed as “one of those idealistic activist types,” or “not a Bible-believing Christian.” One pastor told me, “You’re certainly passionate about your beliefs.” As a young person and a woman, I was able to crack that code fairly quickly.

As Rev. Esau McCaulley explains, “In Biblical studies, there’s this thing called illegitimate totality transfer. That’s the idea that every possible meaning of a word can’t be downloaded into every use of that word.

He continues, “This is also how discourse works. Words aren’t these closed ideas. They fit within the context of a worldview. So in other words, when I say ‘justice,’ the only way to understand what I mean by that phrase is to look at my general worldview, how I talk about the world, and my Christian values. So, when I say justice, you must assume as a matter of course that these are the things I have in mind.”

“But instead, we think that a word activates an entire worldview, and that thought allows us to avoid engaging with the topic at all. We’ve lost the ability to talk with one another. We have conversations between ideologies, not individuals. What is really necessary, is for Christians to actually listen to one another, and assume that you’re talking to the person right in front of you, not some book that you read or what somebody said on Fox News.”

One year after their daughter’s death, Craig and Cindy Corrie traveled to Gaza. They visited many of the people who had loved their Rachel, people whom she had tried to protect. While visiting, the Corries witnessed daily incursions of Israeli bulldozers and tanks into Raffah, heard gunfire at the border at night, and one morning saw fresh holes in the walls of a family’s home. As Rachel had done, they too bore witness to crushing injustice.

During their visit, the Corries also traveled to West Jerusalem to meet with a grieving Israeli family who had also lost their daughter in a bus bombing. After standing quietly at the memorial with this young woman’s father, Craig reflected, “It’s hard to take in even more sorrow. It’s hard. But you have to.” He added, “We spent a week in the Gaza Strip, and you look at one side of the violence, the fear. We were told by the United States that there was a very big imbalance in power. But the feeling of fear and tragedy on both sides is very real. Coming here we begin to understand that.”

Toward the end of the hard-to-watch film, “Death of an Idealist,” we see Cindy and Craig Corrie having dinner in the home of Dr. Samir, whose family had hosted Rachel many times. In one scene, the sun is setting, and Cindy looks in the direction of the spot where her youngest daughter, in her final moments, had stood between Dr. Samir’s home, and an IDF bulldozer. We see Dr. Samir’s youngest child sitting in the courtyard with a pet bunny on her lap. Cindy kneels down across from her and smiles.

“The rabbit loves you. What a good friend you are to this bunny. Rachel had rabbits too, when she was a little girl.”

***

A few years after Rachel Corrie died, 1,500 homes in the Rafah District were bulldozed by the Israeli military, including Dr. Samir’s home. It is a natural, or at least logical question, “Did she die for nothing?” I don’t have the words, nor have I earned the right, to tackle this specific question head on. But what I do have is a hope, a stubborn belief in God’s promise that our labor for the Kingdom is not in vain, that death is not the final answer. As N.T. Wright writes in “Surprised by Hope, “Logic cannot comprehend love; so much the worse for logic.”

***

“The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
― N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

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