By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
“The wise man does not argue or seek to overcome with stratagem rather he propagates his wisdom. If it is accepted he praises Allah and if it is rejected he praises Allah.” –Al-Hasan al-Basree
Rejection can take many forms. It can be directed at a person, a failure to recognize and accept an individual’s being or ideas. Or it can be collective: a rejection of a whole faith, ethnicity, culture, identity, or community.
All of us will experience some rejection in our lives, whether fair or not. How did the prophets deal with it?
The five resolute prophets—Jesus, Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, and Noah; peace upon them—all experienced tremendous rejection.
Noah, for instance, was asked to call people to God solely by talking with them. The Qur’an tells us that, after 950 years of telling people about God, Noah found only 80 people who listened. Yet he persevered in the face of constant rejection, calmly, with only minimal results to show for all his efforts.
Other resolute prophets persevered in the face of humiliation, disgrace, and physical attacks. Throughout this, they continued to believe and to endure with hope.
Another of the prophets who experienced great rejection was Jonah. The Qur’an tells of how Jonah lost hope of ever being heard and left town. When he was swallowed by a whale, he realized it had happened because he’d lost hope. But he never gave up trying.
Sometimes, the fruits of the prophets’ work materialized only after they left. But they persisted, continually calling people to their ideals, giving people space to reject them. Giving people this space can often be critically important.
What we can learn from rejection in art
I want to talk about two very different artistic portraits of rejection. They are William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies and the film Twelve Angry Men, originally written for TV by Reginald Rose and made into a film that appeared in 1957.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, rejection is absolute. In the novel, a group of boys is stranded alone on an island, and their lives quickly descend into violence and rejection. Anything that deviates from the violence at the center of the group of boys is destroyed. There is no talking or persuasion.
In 12 Angry Men, we get a different, more hopeful picture of persuasion and rejection. In this movie, a court case is raised against an 18-year-old Latino, and it’s up to twelve white male jurors to decide his fate.
The hero of 12 Angry Men wasn’t persuaded by the case against the teen defendant. But he didn’t try to force his views on the other jury members, even when he was initially rejected.
Instead, he persisted, slowly and calmly, in calling his fellow jurors to their own values.
Importantly, Juror 8, our protagonist, gives the other jurors the power to reject him. His is not a voice that controls. Instead, it’s a voice of conscience: a voice that invites, because it’s speaking out of love.
Manipulation v. persuasion
The prophets dealt with rejection in much the same way. Their guiding lights are important, since we all experience rejection in our lives.
Sometimes, rejection is fair, and healthy. If you’re pressuring someone else so that they’re not able to reject what you’re calling them to, then it’s manipulation. But Juror 8, like the prophets, isn’t manipulating his fellow jurors. He’s creating an open space for them to walk into and see different views.
For those of us facing harsh rejection in our lives, especially group rejection like racism or Islamophobia, we need to understand how the Lord of the Flies works. But we also need to understand how the voice of conscience works in 12 Angry Men, and how it stands up against rejection.
In Lord of the Flies, there is no space, no calling-to, and all the voices are fed on fear and despair. Those who would stand against violence don’t have the mental and emotional strength to convince others to come to their path, to isolate the sadist’s voice.
Lord of the Flies takes us on the journey of the worst that could happen and ultimately portrays a negative view of human possibility. Just as in 12 Angry Men, there are those with a sadistic tendency who want to rule. But here, there is no possibility of pushing back, and boys end up with mob violence and murder.
Golding’s novel shows us the worst that can happen in group thinking. Ultimately, the novel lacks hope and the light of faith.
12 Angry Men, by contrast, shows how a strong conscience can win out. Here, Juror 8, played in the film by Henry Fonda, begins as a lone voice saying there isn’t sufficient information to determine guilt. The others, each for his own reasons, wanted to find the teen guilty. Some were lazy, some wanted to get home, some were prejudiced.
But by offering them space and taking a stand, Juror 8 brought first one voice over to his side. After that, he simply asked to be heard, to have a discussion about his ideas. In this way, groupthink can be defeated: by taking one layer at a time and getting people to reflect on their own values and principles.
At first, none of the other men, besides Juror 8, wanted to take a risk and stand out. Most people can only speak out when they feel themselves in the comfort of a group. But when the first man comes to see Juror 8’s point of view, it makes it easier for everyone else to defect from groupthink and to join the space of open discussion.
Holding people accountable to their own values
It’s also important that Juror 8 isn’t trying to convince his fellow jurors of something entirely new. Instead, he’s discussing the values of the American judicial system, and holding people accountable to their own ideals.
In this, the judicial system is in this no different from a religion or other institution. If voices of conscience do not speak to the group, and hold the group accountable, then the worst of human behaviors can emerge.
In any place, there are women and men who have deep-seated prejudices. Some of the jurors have unreliable judgment. Some are fearful and ignorant and impatient. All these normal human permutations threaten to taint the group’s decision-making ability.
Yet what I like about the film is that, instead of simply showing how sadistic humans can be, it shows a process of growth within the group, as a single voice of conscience succeeds over time in winning over racist, ignorant and biased people, by urging them to listen to their consciences and uphold their values.
But it’s not easy
Just at the moment when the jurors are beginning to reach a consensus, that’s when the worst voices come out. Those who are lazy or ignorant are much easier to win over than the voices of extreme prejudice. But how Juror 8 deals with them is by not engaging them. If you engage them, they feed on that.
Instead, Juror 8 turns his back on them.
If you engage the voices of extreme prejudice, you give them attention, and that hurts society. If you isolate the voices of extreme prejudice, then they have to come to terms with that. Henry Fonda makes an excellent Juror 8, as he never portrays the voice of conscience as someone alone and bitter and angry. He never said: “If you guys don’t accept me and my views, you’re all evil.” Instead, he said, This is the voice of my conscience. I must stand by it, but I’m giving you a choice to have another voice.
The voice of hope, like the voice of faith, continues to invite and engage. This is very different from the voice of manipulation that takes advantage of those rejected by society. We may be rejected, but faith should help us deal with this rejection not with anger, but with hope, wisdom, and persistent engagement.
Dealing with rejection is part of life and part of faith. But we should always have hope, and never go the road of the Lord of the Flies. We want to stand up in the way Juror 8 did. In this moment, people might be against you, and mocking you. But you want to still take that stand and continue to help them see.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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