Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tell Me Your Story: Narrative Ethics and Peacemaking

Tell me your story. Stories carry within them the shape of life, the landscape of living. I can disagree with your logic, your theology, your political views, or any number of your opinions, but I cannot disagree with your story. It is, after all, your story. Stories are bridges of human understanding.

The use of story as a bridge for human understanding is the essence of the relatively new field of narrative ethics. Examples include interreligious relationships (Laurie L. Patton), biomedical ethics (Howard Brody, et. al.), LGBT advocacy (e.g. Reconciling Ministries in the United Methodist Church), Liberation Theology and civil rights (biblical stories of liberation, especially the Exodus), certain aspects of feminist ethics of care (Carol Gilligan, et. al.) and literature as a source of moral direction (Martha Nussbaum).

Unfortunately, I recall too many times in my life that I’ve argued theology or politics when the values of reconciliation would have been better served if I had simply said, “Tell me your story.” I’ve responded to questions about my theological perspective with didactic content and logic, leading to argument, when I could have deepened relationship by simply responding with, “Let me tell you my story….”

Stories invite us into a narrative journey with another person rather than confronting us with a combative argument that calls for a staunch “yes or no … I’m with you or against you.” Biomedical ethicist Howard Brody describes the magnetic attraction of story with the beautiful term co-human presence. Co-human presence doesn’t mean that we experience exactly how another person feels; it means that we enter a narrative field with the “other” and are thereby joined in a common journey. Stories, indeed, are bridges of human understanding.

I concluded a recent poem (see the 5/27/12 post of this blog) with the following words:

Tell me your story, I said,
In the innocence of
A child at bedtime.
And the tale that
Emerged on the lips
Of the suffering
Told the story
That created the world

Stories, as Hans-Georg Gadamer reminded us, create worlds. They also help to create peace among people of different worlds. The next time I’m tempted to argue, I think I will respond with a genuine, “Tell me your story.”

Grace, peace, and love,


  1. Awesome post Dr. Waters! As I've grown I've come to realize that the list of people who truly have my 'ear' is short. The number of people who can truly speak into my life is not a large number - but what I find in common with the ones that are on that 'list' is that I have heard their story.
    The 'Tell me your story' approach would alleviate so much conflict. From political divisions to theological ones - most believe and stand for things for a definite reason and their past will dictate why it is they feel that way about an issue.
    Both 'Republicans' and 'Democrats' love this great nation and are doing their best to make it better. .. Both 'Protestant' and other-than Protestant have reasons why they believe what they hold to and more than likely their story will reveal the force behind their passions.
    No one is simple 'an idiot'. . . their story is just different than yours. . sometimes remarkably different! - Thus the divisions only appear larger than they really are.
    I'll heed your advice -- great point, and what a way to diffuse tense situations.

    -- Jason Covington