November 19, 2014

The Danger of a Single Story

The ideas bouncing around my head come somewhat from the ideas Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) presents in this TED talk. 

"It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is 'nkali'. It's a noun that loosely translates to 'to be greater than another.' Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person." - C.N. Adichie

Chimamanda discusses the impact of one story about a place or culture, and its deceiving impact on what people believe about the people of that place, namely, Africa. I am thinking about single stories as being told about a social place. Specifically, I'm thinking about the place where the lonely, the social outcasts, the lost and struggling in our society find themselves.

Some "single story" labels may include experiences in or histories of or self-identify as:
Abortion.   Gang Sexual Assault.   Porn Addiction.   Truancy.   Rage.   Fear.   Mental Health Issues.   Forgotten.   Sick.   Sex Work.   Substance Addiction.   Trafficking Humans or Drugs.   Trauma.   Robbery.   Assault.   Pimp.   Self-Harm.   Victim.   Homeless.  Crown Ward.   Dirty.   Used.   Broken.   Weak. 

I heard some first and second-hand experience stories today about Domestic Human Trafficking. Police, survivors, service providers, caregivers, and specialists spoke on the ways children, women, and men get lured, groomed, used and dominated by traffickers. This complex issue is one that this city's stakeholders are grappling with, as the charges of human trafficking have come to a guilty verdict for the first time in this calendar year.

Today, as I listened to how I as a social worker am encouraged to work alongside the victims of these crimes, much of the focus was placed on allowing for the individual to not 'just be' the identity as a victim, but to help them find the multiple storylines of their lives. The place of loneliness, helplessness and worthlessness where these individuals survived is all to common to people in different ways all over the neighbourhood, city, country and world.

I was more struck by the importance of my role also as a Christian in making safe spaces for these individuals to recover, discover and share their multiple storylines. I think the way the Church responds and cares for those who are otherwise rejected in many social arenas is very important.

What does the message from church have to be on the welcoming a sex worker to church? It has to be open arms. It has to be listening ears. It has to be a curiosity to learn and grow in the knowledge of hurting people's lives so that we can be effective in responding to the pain and isolation people are experiencing.  

This week at Knox we talked about Zaccheus. This is one of my favourite stories (along with A Woman Caught in Adultery and The Bleeding Woman) for thinking about how to treat these individuals who find themselves at the outskirts of society.

As a chief tax collector, Zaccheus is an exploiter of his own people; he takes their money, in large amounts, and gets rich by it. He's not very well liked. He had to climb a tree to see Jesus because he was short and no one in the crowd would like him get to the front. Jesus comes to the town and goes to Zaccheus' house, interested in relationship with him, saying he came to "seek and save what was lost."

The story that everyone in the town was telling was about Zaccheus is that he was a filthy, immoral tax collector. That's what he was (in)famous for. That's why they wouldn't let him in the front of the crowd when Jesus came by, because he wasn't one of them. But, Jesus saw Zaccheus very differently. He went to his house and welcomes him back (seek & save) from social isolation (what was lost). 

Too often it is society that shapes and frames the way I think about and judge those who stray from the norms of our Christian bubble. We are prone to snap judgements and gut reactions. We have closed doors and even placed fences around our churches with literal fences and formalities or expectations from those with complex backgrounds or who wouldn't pass a Vulnerable Sector Screening. 

No doubt, we need to protect the vulnerable and advocate for victims of crime and injustice. I fear, however, we have lost the importance message of grace in the life of those who are isolated, marginalized and broken in and by their circumstances. People are made to feel and remain ashamed of the things they have done, the ways they've been exploited by others, the cycle of trauma they are tied up in, or whatever life choices they have made that we deem negative. They can be made to feel worthless with a look, a facial expression, a Facebook rant, or a sidewalk switch. 

We have to reframe our perspective, our view of others. We must challenge our 'othering' and figure out what we are called to have as a response to people who are different, struggling, hurting, and suffering. Compassion instead of judgement, care and not disgust, must be what pours from us. We don't need anymore dripping, mouldy rags of shame to get dragged out in a "see-they-did-it-again-way" every time people fall short of our standards of success.

Matthew 25:40 says "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

We are to introduce people to the radical Gospel grace that we have come to know in Jesus Christ. This grace means that because of repentance and forgiveness, my ugliest stories of sin and shame are covered in Jesus blood and are no longer used against me to condemn me. It's Jesus saying -- "neither do I condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin". It's Jesus greeting you at your lowest state with -- "I'm coming over to your house today."

Allowing and creating space for multiple stories in people's current realities makes a difference. I work with youth who have been charged with various offences. I often have the privilege of redirecting these young men and women by telling them I know they are more than this charge, this level of apathy, this pattern of destruction. Without fail, their faces always light up. More often than not, they have believed or been told only one story about themselves.

It is our privilege to approach and come alongside with care instead of judgement those who most need us to be listening.