When I hear people talk about how a particular group are, or what they all think, I am reminded of something from 21 years ago, and how it taught me the importance of the words we use. It also helped me come to the point where I automatically question the perceived view.
First, a bit of history.
Twenty One years ago I was working in a Finance Department of NatWest Bank, and the department had just completed a move into the NatWest Tower in the heart of the City of London. At one time this was the tallest building in the UK, and although there are now taller ones, that building remains an iconic one in The City.
During the preceding months I’d been a project assistant working on the project that resulted in a move to the NatWest tower, and for the few weekends prior to April 24 I’d spent a lot of time in the Tower assisting the IT team with the relocation of the IT equipment. Then we’d had a week working in the building, and I’d been busy as first level support to the users. That weekend I was not working, but some of my colleagues in the department had gone in, trying to catch up on the inevitable backlog that the move had created. So I was at home when I heard that there had been a massive bomb explosion outside of the building, and I still remember seeing on the television a pillar of smoke rising from the city.
What experiences like that teach me is the way our views are influenced by the narrative we hear and that we tell ourselves.
One way of telling the story of those times is that a group from a particular religion, supported financially by people from a foreign country, were terrorising us. There is another way of telling it, but for now I’ll leave it at that.
Just recently some of our good friends came and stayed for the St Patrick’s Day weekend and we went to two huge parades, as well as taking a tour of the outstanding Roman Catholic Basilica here in St Louis. Our friends are of Catholic Irish heritage, but on St Paddies day weekend, all of the country seems to be celebrating, regardless of ethnic origin or background! It was a really fun weekend, until I noticed the one sign, probably unnoticed by the majority of the crowd, saying “the struggle continues”.
Because – in case you hadn’t worked it out – the “group of people from a particular religion” that carried out the bombing called themselves Christians, and the “people from a foreign country” that gave them funds were American.
Should I therefore say that all Christian are terrorists, because of my experience? Should I think that everyone from America supports the bombing of UK civilians, because I know that some did?
As a Christian living in the USA clearly I can’t hold those views – but had that been my only experience of Christians and people from America, maybe I would do so.
Which is the reason I react so negatively to those who tell us that everyone from a particular religious or ethnic group are the same, that they all believe the same or that they all act the same. Just recently in the news there was a story of a Christian who had gone on the rampage and killed several people at a college – only we did not hear that it was a Christian that did this, nor did we hear calls for Christian leaders to condemn the violence. But had it been, for example, a Muslim who had committed this act, the press comments would, I’m sure, have been very different – he would not have been a “long gunman” but a “Muslim terrorist”.
The only real answer is to accept that all people are different. We do not need to accept the things that they do in the name of their beliefs, but we do need to accept that they have them, and that they are genuine in holding them. I cannot dismiss all people who fit a stereotype as being the same, when I know from my own experience that this is not the case.
We like to “label” people, it is easy and quick and saves us the effort of getting to know them. But it is also wrong, not only in principle, but because it distorts our world view. Unfortunately for this simple view of life, people are complex creatures, and there is no one that is wholly good, or completely bad.
What is true of a person is even more true for a nation, ethnic group, culture or religion. All of us – whether we accept it or not – are flawed human beings on a journey through life. I know that I am just a traveler, doing the best I can, where I am, and I am doing my best to accept that everyone else is too.
For those interested, here is the BBC report of the events, and a Wikipedia article about the background to the incident.