Friday, October 25, 2013

The Danger of a Single Story (October 13, 2013)

This title comes from a wonderful Ted Talk by Chimamanda Adichie, which was the inspiration for this sermon.

Tomorrow is Columbus Day. Going to elementary school in the 1970s we used to celebrate it by making construction paper cut-outs of ships…we all remember those ships right? The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria... and we learned the story this way:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
I was taught that while most people in the 15th century thought the world was flat, Columbus believed it was round. We visualized how brave it would be to risk sailing right off the edge of the world for the great cause of science and navigation.

Columbus Day is a holiday in many places around the country, a day to honor Christopher Columbus as the first European to sail to the Americas. A day to celebrate Columbus as the brave explorer who discovered the New World.

If you are of Scandinavian heritage, however, you might point out that Leif Ericson, the Viking explorer, is thought to have landed in the North America some 500 years before Columbus.

And of course we should ask “how can anyone discover a continent already home to roughly 50 million people?” [i] When I was in elementary school, I was only taught a single version of this story, so no one in my class was even asking these questions (except my friend who lived across the street who had Vikings in her family tree. She sure had something to say about this.)

When I moved to Berkeley to go to Seminary in 1994 the holiday “Indigenous People’s Day” (celebrated on the same day as Columbus Day) was only 2 years old. Critics of the new holiday responded with a general rolling of eyes and complaints about the tyranny of “Political Correctness.” It was then that I started to hear other stories. These were stories about cultures and peoples long established in this land and Stories about the beginning of a genocide which decimated many indigenous cultural centers. Even the story of our intrepid explorer Columbus was being retold using more recent and comprehensive scholarship. For example, According to Bryan Strong in his new York times article:

“On his second voyage, in December 1494, Columbus captured 1,500 Tainos on the island of Hispaniola and herded them to Isabela, where 550 of ''the best males and females'' were forced aboard ships bound for the slave markets of Seville.

Under Columbus's leadership, the Spanish attacked the Taino, sparing neither men, women nor children. Warfare, forced labor, starvation and disease reduced Hispaniola's Taino population (estimated at one million to two million in 1492) to extinction within 30 years.”[ii]

Wow. That is a difficult story. Not one you would want to share with your first grade class.

How do we deal with these very different stories? It’s hard to hold those happy memories of cutting out paper ships along with the decimation of the Taino people. It’s hard to hold the bravery of an expedition across the Atlantic alongside acts of cruelty and injustice committed by the same men. Perhaps part of that eye rolling and diminishing as “political correctness” comes from the discomfort we feel at having to try to hold two different stories in our minds. Spiritual Director Janet Ruffing describes a “Fragmentation of identity and the erosion of meaning that often results from encountering conflicting viewpoints”[iii] – for example, when we first heard a new story of Columbus, it interrupted the meaning we had made about our country, and perhaps even about our right to be here. It invited us to question ourselves, to question what we thought we knew. That’s not comfortable.

One approach to this discomfort is to say “well, you have your story, and I have mine.” But I think we have to go deeper. This is different than me and my friend having conflicting stories about who was the first to own that Pat Benetar album when we were kids, because significant power is tied up in the stories of the moment Columbus and his crew first set foot in Hispaniola.

Says Chimamanda Adichie :

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” [iv]

What happens if you start the story with the rich culture of the Taino people living on Hispaniola? The story of a matrilineal culture with nobles and commoners and priests. The story of an Island people who navigated the sea in dug out canoes, a people who farmed and fished and hunted. They were a people who had art and culture distinct from our own, who played not baseball but batu, a game played with a rubber ball with 10-30 players on a team for which ball courts were designed in the town centers. Their sculpture, their jewelry, their archeological artifacts are all that remain to tell their story.

If you’ve been following the debate about the Doctrine of Discovery, you know that what story you tell can dispossess a continent full of people. In Columbus’ own journal he tells us that when he and his men:

“Arrived on shore, they saw trees very green, many streams of water, and diverse sorts of fruits. The Admiral called upon the two Captains, and the rest of the crew who landed, as also [the] notary of the fleet, … to bear witness that he before all others took possession (as in fact he did) of that island for the King and Queen his sovereigns, making the requisite declarations, which are … set down here in writing.

Columbus Continues “Numbers of the people of the island straightway collected together. …As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted,”[v]

This is the story of Columbus “taking possession” of the Americas, a joyful story of arrival after a long journey.

But as his journals continue, we see that it is also a story about greed: as he writes “my desire is to make all possible discoveries, and return to your Highnesses, if it please our Lord, in April. But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.[vi]

And it is a story about power; In 1495, Columbus and his men went on a raid in the interior of EspaƱola capturing as many as fifteen hundred Taino, men, women and children. He picked the 500 best of these Taino people and sent them to Spain. Two hundred of these people died on the way. Columbus’s response? "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."[vii]

As the scholarship about this historic event changes and grows, we learn that Columbus represented not only the best of European civilization- it’s technology, it’s ambition, but also the worst- it’s greed and cruel subjugation of other peoples.

To this increasingly complex story, let me add another. [viii] For Italian-Americans this day is a celebration of their heritage. Dr. JOSEPH SCELSA (Founder and President, Italian-American Museum; Professor Emeritus of Italian-American Studies, Queens College) offers this interpretation of the event:

“In 1892, when Benjamin Harrison, our president at that time, made this a national holiday, which was 400 years after the exploration of Columbus, it was done specifically to bring Native Americans and Italian-Americans and others together.

I mean, it was only two short years after Wounded Knee, and it was only one short year after the largest lynching in the United States, which was of Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

So it's really seen, by me at least, and by many others, as a bringing together of people, not a separating of people.”

Remember, for the first generations of Italian Immigrants to this country, they experienced discrimination, prejudice and even violence [ix] . Columbus Day originated as a celebration of Italian-American heritage and was first held in San Francisco in 1869. Maybe when Italian-Americans marched in their Columbus Day parades back then, it felt like I do at a Gay Pride parade- a day of pride in my identity, and pride in my community. Columbus is still a symbol of Italian American pride to many of that heritage.

But there is without question more than one story to tell on that day. Says Diana King, an enrolled member of the White Earth Indian Nation in northern Minnesota,

“Columbus Day is not a typical holiday. We don't celebrate 500 years of being dominated, exploited, enslaved and nearly exterminated by Europeans. But we do celebrate our survival.[x]

"We should have been wiped out," she says. "It's a miracle Native people still exist. I have never liked the word 'conquered.' We are still here after 500 years. And maybe every time Columbus Day comes around, we should rethink who the real heroes are: the explorer or the survivors?"

Let’s go back to the discomfort we feel at having to try to hold multiple stories in our minds. Remember Ruffing describes a “Fragmentation of identity and the erosion of meaning that often results from encountering conflicting viewpoints.” Seeing these stories juxtaposed next to one another invites us to question ourselves, to question what we thought we knew. It invites us to a deeper, wider, more complex and mature view of the world.

So when we encounter multiple stories, our job is not to figure out which is the “right story.” Because there is no single story that holds our diverse experiences. The European colonizers did not move and think as one- take for example the Domincan Friar Bartolome De Las Casas, who came to live in the Americas in 1502, who wrote a treatise beseeching the pope and the Spanish Monarchy to end the enslavement of the indigenous peoples.[xi] Neither were the Taino people a monolith- sometimes answering the invasion of their land with peace, other times taking up arms. And Native Americans today are not a monolith- each has a different story of how this land was shaped and what it means. The single story is dangerous because it is another form of stereotyping which cannot hold the true complexity of our lives.

As Universliasts, we believe in an underlying unity beneath all things. We know that we are all part of one interdependent web of life. But the variety and diversity of the lived experience of all beings is incredibly complex. So our spiritual challenge is to be able to hold multiple stories. I don’t mean to hold them all equally- part of holding Columbus’s story when “he before all others took possession … of that island for the King and Queen his sovereigns” is to say “wait a minute now, you did what?” or when he says “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold” to say “That sounds like blatant attempt to use religion to rationalize of a truly unjust act.”

By recognizing the danger of a single story, it calls us to notice who is telling the story, and notice who is silent. Who do we invite to tell the story of the Taino people?

By recognizing the danger of a single story we recognize that, as my teacher Don said at my training this past week “each human being is a mystery- they are really mysterious. If we don’t really know that, we don’t know people, they become just a category.” The reality of multiple stories calls us into a deeper listening for the Other, allowing for their mystery to be revealed.

By recognizing the danger of a single story, we are invited us to notice where our own story leaves the dominant narrative. It allows us to cry: “but I don’t want to grow up to be Ozzy and Harriet- I want something different for myself. My story is a new one that has never been told.” The reality of multiple stories allows us to bravely honor our own story, to honor our own mystery. We are invited to see that there may be more to our story , to our Self than we have dared to imagine.

Universalism does not claim that “underneath, we are all the same.” Instead Universalism is a radical affirmation of the worth and dignity of multiple stories. It suggests that each story is like one thread in a technicolor web, of which we are all a part.

[i] (that figure is controversial- ranges are from 10 million to 100 million depending on the scholar) 
[ii] Slavery and Colonialism Make Up the True Legacy of Columbus. Published: New York Times November 04, 1989
For more information about the Taino People see or
[iii] Janet Ruffing “To tell the sacred tale” p. 21
[iv] from Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story
[v] Thursday, 11 October 1492
[vi] Friday, 19 October
[ix] or
[x] An Ojibwe view of Columbus Day Article by: MARK ANTHONY ROLO , MCT Forum Updated: October 7, 2012 - 6:46 PM
[xi] “Bartolome de las Casas: The Only Way” ed Helen Rand Parish