Two Stories in the Midst of Conflict: Both are True

The lead editorial in The Christian Century’s December 2023 issue is titled, “Bearing witness to multiple stories: Israelis and Palestinians alike are traumatized people who love the land and deserve to live there in peace.” (See lead photo.) The title caught my eye because I have researched and written extensively about how our brains are wired for story, to define our world and ourselves as well. I’ll return to that theme below. But first, let me do a bit of justice to that editorial.

The editors did an excellent job of giving the reader a brief history of the two peoples in that corner of the world. First, the Jewish people’s connection to that land goes back to ancient times. In their scattering over the face of the earth, the Jews have faced persecution and death — most recently from “Christian Europe” and the Nazi regime, committed to destroying them as a people. Thus, after the war, and with the United Nations’ blessing, Israel was created “to give Jews a homeland in a world that so often has turned them away or worse.”

But turning to the second story, Arab inhabitants’ connection to that land goes back at least to the seventh century. Thus, the creation of Israel “displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war.” Pushed to the Gaza strip of land on the west bank, “most remain stateless, including those who live a narrowly circumscribed life” and humiliated at every turn. The editors end their essay this way:

When Palestinians have tried to resist the Israeli occupation by nonviolent means, their efforts have been undermined by the United States and other allies of Israel. The current Israeli government is no partner for peace — it is committed to preventing a Palestinian state, not working toward one. So Palestinians, for all their international support, continue to live under oppression and deprivation.

Every conflict involves competing stories, but often one story clearly embodies far more truth than the other. Not in this case. Both of the stories sketched out here are factually sound, historically informed, and morally compelling. Each is true.

Our tradition has it that Pilate asked, “what is truth?” There are verifiable events that are recorded in history, and then there is what is true for me. In my book, The Fiction of our Lives, I reference Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal (see second photo below) where he writes that our “brain circuitry shapes the chaos of our lives” into story. Quoting myself, I say we create a sense of self-coherence, ultimately weaving together our sense of present, past, and future.

According to Gottschall and others, our storytelling mind allows us to experience our lives as a whole, in an orderly and meaningful way — making life more than a confusing, buzzing series of disconnected nows (The Fiction of Our Lives, p. 18). Indeed, there is a narrative shape to our lives that reflects the way our brain is neurologically wired to make sense of the world around us.

As you can imagine, there are multiple letters to the editor in the latest issue of The Christian Century — most of them grateful for the balanced treatment of the stories from both sides of the conflict — but at least one stands out, striking a critical note. Dale Loepp of Berkeley, California, writes that these are not equivalent stories. He writes, “if we look honestly at this situation through a Christian lens, it is very clear that the people of Gaza are the last and the least in this context and that they deserve whatever support we may be able to give to them.” He concludes that no one wielding power in this current situation should be supported, including Hamas (which most Palestinians also do not support) — but importantly, that includes the Israeli government with its vast resources, including U.S. backing.

Well maybe we can end this blog by again asserting that both stories are true and that both are heartbreaking and tragic. Both come from two peoples who love the land and deserve to live in peace. “Peace has long been stymied by political missteps, cycles of violence, and intervention by those who can only see one story’s truth,” The Christian Century editorial reads. Perhaps the best place to start is where we began: “Bearing witness to this conflict begins with recognizing that it contains more than one true story” ... and then struggling with what and how to support the least of those caught up in this horror.

 

 

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.