Passive Voice, Active Voice

I’m considering my voice—not my physical voice, but my ability to speak out to others and what means I have at hand to do so. I am, by nature, a quiet person and usually reluctant to speak or intervene. This might not readily change; I don’t think I’ll ever be the ‘in your face’ contender out on the frontline. But I do need to understand the bounds and abilities of my voice and use it wisely.
Last week I read several news articles relating to weapons, war, video games (playing at war) and the general glorification of violence as a social norm. I think we need to pause for consideration when a new battle simulation video game garners nearly $800 million in its first two days of sale in a time when there is such a need for the ending of wars and fostering peace. I know video games are the easy end of the spectrum to speak about, ‘oh, you know what happens when kids play those violent video games’. I’m not sure I do; but, regardless of what the games in themselves encourage in people’s minds, I do know that ‘actual war’ is increasingly engaged through the medium of a computer screen rather than in person. There are still troops on the ground facing real risk; but the movement is toward a sterile press the button and the figures on the screen are dead warfare. One of the other articles I read last week was about a new cruise missile in the US that can be launched from the States and basically target anything in the world within an hour. Soon, like an online multiplayer game, our wars may be fought by telecommuters at home in their socks.

Which brings me back to voice; I am, at this very moment, sitting at home in my socks. What havoc for peace might I bring from here? What is the balance of what I can and can’t do with these tools at hand? I don’t want that to sound like dithering as I am actually aware of what can be accomplished. It’s more a question of what is the next action and then the next. I know that, in the face of these conflicts we hear about abroad (and at home), that one voice may seem moot. But this is no reason or excuse not to speak (that’s been said over and again—one voice does make a difference when raised up in a chorus of others). I stood and spoke at Meeting on Sunday saying, It is neither weapons nor the glorification of violence that are evil’s most potent tools; war is best served by the apathy of those who do nothing to speak against it. That is the crux of it, if nothing else it is put upon me to speak what I may in the way open to me.

I interviewed John Michaelis, the editor of Quaker Voice on Wednesday at the Devonshire Street Meeting House here in Surry Hills. Quaker Voice will be (it’s still in the works) an online forum for ‘Quakers and likeminded people’ around the world to speak out and discern social issues where they are. It will be a conversation where that first person voice of real people on the ground is shared with others of concern (rather the opposite of digitally mediated warfare). I’ve just edited the interview with John and you can listen here:

Quaker Voice Devonshire Street Interview by quietamerican

Spiritual Autobiography

This is simultaneously an ideal and what I’m attempting to live out in this life. I am not always so sure of the reality of it; but I must affirm something and strive to keep it true. I hope for nothing less than to fully discover humanity and spirituality in this—though that discovery is sometimes painful if it’s complete. I speak below about scars and wounds, about how I heal and want to heal others. But it’s becoming clear to me that the deepest scars are those self-inflicted ones and the wounds we must first heal in others are those we have given them. Otherwise, these are all just pleasant words on a page. A spirituality that lacks that awareness and action is wholly destructive.
At one time, not so long ago, I would have described myself as a religious person. I was comfortable in that—not really proud or self-righteous, I just felt that God had blessed me by putting me in with the right people (it was a faith of polarities; everyone else was obviously wrong). I was at a time in my life where I needed physical and psychological order. I wanted to be in a place where I knew exactly what was expected of me and how others would react and behave in any given situation. This is something I’ve realised in retrospect and, had I known and been able to discern the underlying motivations at the time, I may have made different decisions. However, these were the decisions of dogmatic youth and perhaps to be expected in the life of a seeker.

I was soured and would even say scarred by my experiences with a presentation of Christianity in a specific cultural and historical context. I have had enough time to reflect and observe that my experiences are not unique, though they were my own. Though I was in what I would call a spiritually abusive environment, it was not so much ‘me’ that was wounded but my concept of God. I was not angry at God nor did I think the idea of Christianity is fruitless. I was just at a loss concerning how to genuinely integrate the religious structure presented to me into my own experience. I emerged from that time with a sorely tried expression of God in my life. Nonetheless, I realise the value of those experiences in opening up space for a genuine and personal reconnection to a world that is spiritual and present with me.

I see, rather than lost time in the past, these experiences as preparatory to the present. I would not be able to comprehend as much now without such a personal history. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with shepherds along the way who have seen what’s truly happening and have guided me gently from one threshold to the other. My perception of God and my connection to spirituality is now far beyond the box once provided. That’s not to say ‘better than’ or even more ‘right’; it is, simply, the truth of the experience I have had and the response I must make to be alive and growing.

Two things happened as I began to travel extensively outside the US. One, I realised that there were other Christians in the world and, behold, they had different thoughts about the living the Christian life. Two, there were people of other religions (who I had always thought of as The Other) who seemed to have a genuine connection with God and an understanding of their own spiritual lives. What’s more is that I saw interactions between these two groups; the other kinds of Christians were connecting with The Others in ways which I had not thought possible (or, frankly, right).

What I began to see was that my own understanding, or more properly the understanding thrust upon me that I accepted, limited legitimate connections with other people (it was some time before I realised that it also hindered connections with my own spiritual self). The prejudices ingrained in my understanding of other expressions of Christianity, let alone other faiths, placed a cap on my perceptions. I had, prior to this, a severe self-limiting filter that would quickly dismiss anything that was not in line with my own beliefs and methods of faith. Travel, a complete removal from the cultural and religious atmosphere I was accustomed to, made this all apparent.

However, I did not come to a crisis point where I was faced with a decision to move from one system to another; this has been a journey along a wide arc of belief and personal understanding. Also, I have not embraced any particular ‘system’ that wholesale replaces my previous one. I have come to a place that, while I still cannot fully articulate a definitive statement of faith or list of doctrines, I feel more balanced and fulfilled than ever before. Indeed, I don’t feel it necessary to quantify an exact list of these things or match them up against any other. Rather than living by the dictates of a particular denomination or creed, I am attempting to be present with my spirit and the connection with a larger truth that may be beyond ready definition. That’s not to say that faith is ambiguous or that I’m ambivalent about truth; but I believe there is more to what is true than what any one group of people can codify.

God makes a statement of existence in the Old Testament, ‘I AM’. It’s a statement of complete connection; there is no separation of physical and spiritual perception. It’s both a statement of the present and statement of presence; God is present in the moment that ‘is’ and coming to understand this has given me the insight that there is no separation between ‘my’ spirit and ‘your’ spirit (or, ‘us’ and ‘I AM’ for that matter). Essentially, I believe our spirit is; there is a dynamic part related to our understanding of it and that changes over time. But our spirit is not a ‘thing’ that is built like a house. Our experience of the spiritual is a matter of connection or disconnection.

This is not an easy stance to have. It’s not the ‘anything goes’ spirituality that is so derided in any given religious community; that explanation is too simplistic. It’s only now, after a decade or so of living this through, that I am at peace with it. I’m not entirely sure I would still describe myself as a ‘Christian’ in the sense that is generally accepted. I find myself increasingly distanced from the ideals that are promoted by ‘Christians’. However, if I can make the distinction, I’m more open now than ever to the emergence of Christ in me. This emergence is something I meditate upon daily and hold at the forefront of my everyday experience.

About four years ago, I discovered that a maternal ancestor was one of the founders of Quakerism in America. as I began to research and read about Quaker thought, the path of spirituality presented there resonated with me. It was as if the principles were long dormant and emerged when called upon. What I find so compelling about Quaker practice is the almost complete dissuasion from forming dogma. There is discussion surrounding the meeting, but the meeting itself is not to promote a certain set of beliefs or an agenda. It’s an experience where one can be let alone, yet it’s also meeting with the God in each other—the God presence in community. Quakers seek to ‘see that of God’ in others; this is a positive affirmation of the Divinity present in us all rather than a refutation of what others may or may not believe. After many years of holding to a belief that others must acknowledge a god in the shape my people have made, I’m glad to find a way to see the expression of God in every person.

I once saw spiritual growth as a tiered system; one day, I might hope to achieve some advanced level of saintliness with enough work and grace. I’m sure there is some lingering thought of that in my head; but my heart says something different now. I am on an open journey in which I hope there is no ‘ending’, just continued unfolding. I realise that we perceive linear time and the flow from one moment to the next. But there is another reality of spirit that I’ve caught glimpses of. It’s a reality in which the spirit is fully present in a whole and magnificent state; where we see each other as abundant and unlimited beings who are fully connected to the nature of the Universe and each other.

My greatest hope is to bring healing to myself and others through this connection. In my travels and experiences, I’ve met many people who are deeply hurting and wounded physically and spiritually. Though I carry scars myself, I’ve also been blessed with healing and an understanding of wounds. It’s through this that healing comes; Jung said, ‘only the wounded physician heals’. I feel called to be that for the people I encounter in whatever way I can. My name, Jason, means healer. I take that as both what I am called and my calling in this life.

Always coming and going

I’m befuddled by words; by their sparsity when called for and their sometimes overabundance. They are such potent packets of potential; a turn of a word can save souls or send everything into oblivion. I doubt I’ll ever be master of them and right now feel they may have bested me; but unlike a competition where there is a clear path from play to victory or loss, I can’t seem to understand the rules of the game. I feel like I have the wrong gear for the field I am on; that I may have injured another player and lack protection where an errant ball may strike sorely.
8 July…slowly finding the words that resolve the life that words sometimes abuse.

Agency

Some further thought on my previous entry.

I’m not suggesting the creation of a journalist elite class; my thought is that ‘Journalist Citizens’ would be a hybrid between journalists as we understand them now and ombudsmen (think UN special observers). They would be (ideally) distinct from national or editorial demands that might overtly or inadvertently influence the story. This would probably necessitate an independent news agency in Iceland that would act as both a sending agency and repository for the information gathered (it’s just taking the IMMI concept a few steps further than proposed).

This is, of course, idealistic; a special passport is not necessarily going to gain access to a radical madrassa or protect a journalist from harm. However, I think the overall concept has merit both in the present and future. There is a need for neutral observers in our highly polarised and market driven society (and again, I’m speaking from an American perspective noting that there are yet excellent media here and elsewhere). But to look beyond the present, there will be a need for recognised neutral observation fifty or a hundred years in the future. The analogy that comes to mind are the seed banks built to house pure strains of the world’s plant stock. Yes, there is abundant access to these plants now; but the time may come where we need to reference an unaltered seed set aside. We need a ‘seed bank of journalism’ somewhere that is dedicated to the most neutral observation of the present so we can reference and contrast at some point in the future.

Also, I’m not sure this isn’t happening now; obviously responsible journalists and publications rigourously research and then archive their stories; opening another news agency in remote Iceland won’t suddenly plant a beacon of truth superseding previous attempts at journalistic excellence. What it might do is establish a new set of independent benchmarks beyond editorial boundaries set by national and corporate constraints. I don’t want to get overtly cynical about these constraints because there are excellent journalists who work freely under them; however they are there and recognised both within and without. I think the only way to make a distinct separation is to step completely outside the structures into a new and independent agency.

Still mulling on this; thanks to the people who have emailed with comments.

Journalist Citizens

Since my return from India I’ve given much thought to the role photographers and journalists play in world events—or, perhaps that’s not the scale I’m considering—what is our role and responsibility to the individuals we document? This is not a novel question; it’s standard in the curriculum of J-schools everywhere and is (or should be) a primary consideration for any journalist of integrity. However, I’m trying to codify it for myself and make clear what I’m attempting when working with vulnerable people.
I’ve had a profitable discussion with David Wells over the past weeks; David is a former teacher of mine and experienced photojournalist. I suggested we might compose a code of conduct—a sort of Hippocratic Oath for photographers (again, not an original idea but one that might be revisited as the nature of journalism changes). I think it important that, as we travel into communities where we have free reign to work (often without thorough question of our motives), we clearly state our purpose and intent. We may not always fulfil that ideal but neither can a physician always save his or her patient. Journalism and medicine involve a careful balance of skill and serendipity; both carry the opportunity for healing as well as harm.

I celebrate the opportunities we have now for citizen journalism; the tools at hand take us far beyond traditional ‘gatekeeper controlled’ news. When someone with a pocket digital camera and a laptop can bring out hidden truths of a repressive government we’ve crossed a significant threshold. However, I wonder if we should not retain something of the old model—whether we are diffusing too much the role that a person defined as a journalist has to play in society. Everyone should be involved in the exchange of information and engage in the progress of their community, government, and so on; we have the ability to speak directly in a public arena without (generally) sanction or review by our peers. I just hope that, in the mêlée, the voices of Journalist Citizens are not forgotten. There is still room and need for people who are set apart for the specific task of digging deep and bringing out a story held to vigourous scrutiny. We seem to be loosing the ability to discern between citizens who express what they experience and journalists who write about the experiences of others; I speak from an American perspective watching and reading our news here. We readily accept the ‘journalism’ of a random weblogger (again, not to denigrate the medium; there are wonderful and thorough writers on the web) and simultaneously receive the rants of television anchors who speak without the backing of research or fact checking. Whether the medium is new and fluid or ‘old and respected’, truth suffers on both accounts. (Once again, this is an ongoing discussion all over the web and among journalists.)

To my point; I wonder if there is a place for a group of people set apart as far as possible from editorial coercion and political influence as possible. One of the issues photographers and journalists have in the field is their county of citizenship. There is always a political element if one is ‘an American photographer’ or an ‘Israeli journalist’; what if a neutral state offered a special conditional citizenship to journalists (in that, instead of swearing only allegiance to that state, the journalists would swear to uphold a strongly reasoned commitment to truth and transparency)?

Susan Garde Pettie (who will, I believe, be First Minister of Scotland one day) forwarded me a link concerning the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. IMMI is an attempt to build a haven for journalism by writing best practices for free speech into Icelandic law. Iceland would become a physical repository for free speech via the internet to put information beyond the reach of repressive governments and corrupt corporations (who might otherwise shut down the servers of bloggers and newspapers in their own countries).

Birgitta Jónsdóttir is the Icelandic MP behind this initiative; I e-mailed her yesterday and suggested that Iceland develop a journalism degree program that incorporates the best practices of investigative integrity. After completing the program, the graduates would apply for citizenship (in the same spirit that the British and other countries offer a two year work visa to graduates; it draws students into the country and builds the overall skill pool). The whole process would be open and the ‘Icelandic Journalist’ passport would become a recognised mark worldwide. (It would need to be an actual citizenship as well; I don’t know if people would necessarily renounce citizenship of their home countries; but it would need to be legitimately recognised as full citizenship so people could be linked to the international conventions on citizen protection akin to what they are attempting with the press haven.) Birgitta responded this morning with some positive remarks, so we shall see where that goes. (By the way, Icelandic MP’s e-mail contacts are published on the web and they use their first names in the addresses; access, transparency, and a bit of humanity.)

Addendum: there are, no doubt, conventions that limit the scope of what states can confer upon citizens—but what if the Journalist Citizen had the same level of recognition as an official or diplomatic passport holder? The bearer could apply for ‘journalistic immunity’ in the same sense that diplomats may have immunity to prosecution.