We are framed by stories. Our values, horizons and purpose are shaped by the stories that we have heard, read and absorbed. Some of those stories are constructed – and refracted, to reinforce prejudices and resentments. While we don’t yet know for sure if the gunman who burst into Club Q in Colorado Springs carried a story of hate, all the indicators suggest that he was influenced by a pattern of stories that suggest people who identify as LGBTQ are an aberration and therefore can be destroyed, which he proceeded to do by murdering five (at recent count) and wounding dozens with a long gun. Similarly, an ongoing story of resentment has no doubt been the key ingredient in lionizing Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people during an August 2020 protest march in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and who last week was invited by some members of Congress to Washington to tell his story. Some of those same Representatives are touting Kyle Rittenhouse as a hero of the Second Amendment, and predict that he may join their ranks in the future.
These framing stories of prejudice and resentment, which then get acted out in horrific ways, kindle (I am resisting the impulse to say trigger) a similar resentment and prejudice in me. About a month ago, while coming out of convenience store during a drive home from another state, I noticed two men who were getting into their truck. The combination of their dress, truck, facial hair, and the unfamiliarity of where I was prompted me to comment, “Trump voters”. And I projected onto them all sorts of negative attributes and intentions. It rather shocked me, because it was totally unfair on my part. I made all sorts of assumptions on the basis of a very brief visual encounter. I diminished them; actually I dismissed them, and as I did so I diminished myself. My visceral reaction wasn’t racial profiling, because the two men were white. But it had the same sort of dynamic. “Oh my God”, I said to myself, “I do it too.”
These framing stories are pernicious and destructive. They have the power to reduce us to hyper-reactive warriors, who then seek to distance, dismiss or even destroy those who the framing story suggests don’t fit into what is construed to be normal or acceptable.
How do we fix this? We don’t. Or we can’t. Another framing story that our culture carries is that we have the capacity to shape our environment. That we have the knowledge, particularly the technological knowledge, to fix the broken parts of society. A glaring example of how that is not working is what is unraveling at Twitter. Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, and by many accounts a technical genius, has forcefully brought his knowledge to his newly acquired company. He is applying a technical fix. Instead of building up Twitter, Musk’s actions are making it more fragile. People have been fired, and now people are leaving. Pundits wonder whether Twitter will survive.
I am not suggesting that we rule out technical fixes. As one who has worked in the gun violence prevention arena for several years, we need to legislate better background checks and institute (and enforce) red flag laws, ban assault weapons, upgrade mental health services, invest in community violence intervention, and so on. That will make a difference.
But we need to go deeper. We need to claim another framing story that can take us beneath and beyond resentment, prejudice and an unwavering commitment to technical fixes. From my vantage point, the framing story we need to claim should contain the elements of love and hope woven throughout. I’m not talking about love as a passing feeling or a pleasant experience; but love as an act of the will. Love that binds us closer together as members of the human family. And not hope as thinly veiled optimism, which wishes that things can be better; but a fierce hope that invests in better outcomes – even when the return on investment does not show immediate positive gains. As writer Jim Wallis has written, hope is believing in spite of the evidence; and then watching the evidence change.
Every religion that I know frames its foundational story around love and hope. Those framing stories often get lost when the institutional dimension of a particular religion becomes more committed to self-preservation or, more dangerously, to exercising control and claiming domination. That has happened – and continues to cause many people to either keep their distance or drive people away from religious institutions. But love and hope still shine through, despite some of religion’s structural intransigence and resistance. Martin Luther King spoke of this important and life-giving power: “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Love is not just a feeling. It is a power. We need to incorporate love – and hope, in a framing story. And keep telling it. And then watch the evidence change.