“The Stories We Tell”
by Liz Bennefeld
It has been said that communities are shaped in part by the stories that their members tell one another. I learned important lessons from the stories my parents chose to tell as I was growing up. Through the books they read aloud to me and my siblings and through their own personal stories of their travels during World War Two, we learned of children growing up in foreign lands and were able to imagine, or so we thought, what it would be like to live in far-away places. To us, everyone was our neighbor. Some just lived farther away than others. We grew up taking diversity for granted, and so it didn’t unsettle us when we were old enough to venture away from our small town and encountered people who looked or acted different from those we’d grown up with.
The stories that we heard as children led us to appreciate differences, and I wonder what stories in this country’s yesterdays have encouraged today’s increased intolerance of diversity? What stories are we telling in person or on television that help shape the communities of tomorrow? Recently, I’ve encountered some disquieting attitudes of intolerance directed at freedoms that have been taken for granted for decades.
One set of reactions relates to recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. This is an issue that once again came to the forefront in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the East Coast in September of 2001. While not as dramatic as someone’s shooting a total stranger because he looked like Osama bin Laden, in its own way, it is more troubling to me, because the United States was founded on the ideals of religious tolerance and separation of church and state.
Exemptions from reciting the Pledge, which is an oath of loyalty, for religious reasons have been enacted into law and accepted, for the most part, by people within our communities, just as it has been recognized that some, also for religious reasons, will not swear any oaths. Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, consider the salute to the flag during recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to be an act of idolatry.
However, in several communities in the United States, during the winter of 2001-2002, city council members were berated for voting against changes in council by-laws to require recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by council members before city council meetings or for not reciting the Pledge because of personal religious beliefs. According to online newspaper archives, members of one city council were told that any council member who would not “stand up for America” by saying the Pledge of Allegiance was a traitor and that one’s religion (Quaker, in this case) was no excuse for not saying the oath.
In Minnesota, a bill was presented to the state legislature which included “requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in all public and charter schools.”* Pressure from teachers and peers in children’s classrooms to fit in and be like everyone else can be overwhelming. Are we teaching our children that conformity matters more than integrity? That appearance is more important than truth? That freedom of religion is available only to those who will put country before God?
I suspect that increases in intolerance and hate crimes against people of different ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations may stem from the fears produced by uncertainty and anxiety in a world that seems more and more unpredictable and less and less safe. Much of what’s happening in our world, today—the fires, the floods, the droughts, and the prolonged famines that threaten wide areas around the world—is totally out of our control. Because of nearly instantaneous global communication, there is no longer a comfortable insulation of time and distance between us and disaster.
How do we escape that uncertainty and anxiety? Move to places that appear safer? Make enough money that we can buy safety? Find someone to sue, whenever our lives don’t go the way we expect? Blame everything that’s going wrong on those “others” whose appearance or lifestyle is different from ours? Lose ourselves in entertainment or in hobbies absorbing enough that we can ignore what’s happening around us, until disaster finally does strike close to home and finds us totally unprepared? There is abundant evidence, gathered over centuries, that these methods don’t work.
What we do need to do is to move on to a different type of questions. What stories can we tell to help ease fears and encourage more realistic expectations of life, which will never be safe or predictable? How can I make life better for my neighbors? What can I do in my own community to cherish and nurture the people with whom I live and work? How can I help them to be more secure in who they are and to recognize their own value and the value of others as individuals? I want to help shape my community so that anyone can safely walk its streets and find not just tolerance, but recognition, acceptance, and appreciation, and these are things that are within my control.
Originally published 22 August 2002, in High Plains Reader (Fargo, N.D., vol. 8, issue 48, p. 5), and revised in 2008.
*Note: It has been ruled in federal district court that requiring students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance violates both 1st and 14th Amendment rights. So far, attempts to take away from the courts the right to challenge laws requiring recitation of the Pledge have been unsuccessful.