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Listen to Each Other’s Stories

July 13, 2016

Over 30 years ago, I wrote an academic paper about how the Cherokee Indians’ criminal justice system evolved from a clan-based revenge system, or “blood feud”, to one of trial by jury. In a primitive, clan-based system, justice occurs when anyone of your clan is punished for a crime against someone in my clan. The identity of the perpetrator does not really matter as long as someone from his clan is punished. Today, we can see the horrible consequences of tribalism in places like Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Somalia.


The tragic events of last week seem to threaten a return to this kind of “justice”, even here in the United States. As Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck said last Friday, “We have broken into tribes.   All of a sudden it becomes more important who your parents are, what the color of your skin is, than whether you are an American.” I see this attitude in those who trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement and also in those who vilify all police. Hearts harden as each side dehumanizes the other. Name-calling, stereotyping, and labeling are running rampant and have been encouraged and modeled by a major presidential candidate. How do we make it stop?


As people harden into their own positions and perspective, it becomes more and more difficult to break through conflict into empathy and understanding. But there is one method that has a power all its own: the power of a story.


In the Bible, the book of Samuel tells the story of King David, a man with hundreds of wives and concubines, who murdered one of his soldiers in order to cover up an affair with the soldier’s wife. The prophet Nathan did not confront David directly, but instead told a story about a man with hundreds of sheep who stole and slaughtered a poor family’s solitary lamb. The story enraged King David, until Nathan said to him, “You are the man!” David’s eyes were opened, and suddenly he repented and understood the perspective of the man he had murdered.


Another story that changed hearts is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. The novel’s compelling portrayal of the human cost of slavery finally awoke the nation’s conscience in a way that speeches and rallies had failed to do. Regardless of the book’s flaws, its message of compassion broke through hardened hearts and created the motivation the country needed to end the scourge of slavery.


As I have struggled to process the horrible events here in Dallas and across the country, I have been angered by the evil, foolishness, and recklessness that have led to loss of life. Even more frightening to me, though, is the hardening of our hearts and the descent into tribalism. It can only lead to more violence. I beg of you, listen to the stories of those who aren’t your tribe. Imagine what it’s like to be the parent of a black teenager like Trayvon Martin, who was shot while returning from a trip to 7-Eleven. Imagine what it’s like to be a police officer answering a domestic violence call where an armed man is threatening a woman and her children. Watch movies that show other people’s perspective, like Spike Lee’s award-winning Do the Right Thing. We have known for some time that reading literary fiction and watching movies can help people increase their empathy, so do it. After what has happened in this July of 2016, we should be shaken. This is an opportunity to break out of our tribalism, soften our hardened hearts, and try to see another’s perspective. An American Jewish Army Psychiatrist, Capt. Gilbert, who interviewed Nazi war criminals, said it best: “Evil is a lack of empathy, a total incapacity to feel with their fellow man.” In these evil times, let us listen to each other’s stories, so that we might find a way to feel for one another.

A version of this appears in the July 13, 2016 Dallas Morning News.

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