I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story. The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community. While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…
First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York. Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.
I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses. Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard. The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene. Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.
I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England. Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob. Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events. (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.) History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.
Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing. They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.
We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others. So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us. I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”
Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American. One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice. After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.” She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”
The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done. I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination. I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.
Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist? No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors? No. Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways? No!
I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences. Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors. Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.
Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).