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Borrowed Time, Borrowed Place

Roberta Green Ahmanson


Roberta Green Ahmanson originally presented this speech on the eve of the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997.

Let us begin by reflecting on the following passages from the Book of Psalms.

First, Psalm 15:

Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? Or who shall rest upon thy holy hill? Even he that leads an uncorrupt life, and does the thing that is right and speaks the truth from his heart. He that has used no deceit in his tongue, nor done evil to his neighbor, and has not slandered his neighbor. He in whose eyes an ungodly man is despised but he makes much of them that fear the Lord. He that swears unto his neighbor, and disappoints him not, though it were to his own hindrance. He that has not given his money upon usury, nor taken a bribe against the innocent. Whoso does these things shall never fall.

Next, these words from Psalm 119: 32, 45:

I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou hast set my heart at liberty. And I will walk at liberty; for I seek thy precepts. Today we meet in what novelist Han Su-Yin has called a “borrowed time, borrowed place.” As Christians, we understand ourselves to be sojourners, pilgrims, also inhabitants of a borrowed time and place.

On January 26, 1841, British trade superintendent, Captain Charles Elliot annexed Hong Kong Island by force of arms to gain trade concessions, to recover compensation for British opium confiscated in Canton, to establish British sovereignty over her own subjects on foreign soil, and to restore British pride. The event was covered – if it was covered at all – by print media, and that back in Britain weeks or months or even years later. The same was true when Kowloon Peninsula, too, was ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1859 and when the 99-year lease of the New Territories – the lease that expires June 30 – was signed in 1898.

But, when the Handover occurs at midnight June 30, it will be covered simultaneously by television and radio. Newspapers, magazines, and newsletters will follow. The Internet and home videos will gloss the change. We now practice our craft in an age not only of instant information but of unfiltered, unlimited information. We must understand ourselves and our work in that context.

We live at the end of a century whose events were unanticipated by most people alive in 1898. Perhaps a few could see what was coming – a century of unimaginable technical advance. But it has also been a century of horror – the bloodiest, costliest wars in human history, the cruelest displacement of unwanted peoples, the greatest and often most brutal social and political experimentation – and with all that a century of the wildest growth in the impact and reach of news media in history.

Why did I come to this conference in Hong Kong? I was first published at the age of 12. journalism was where I found my first friends – those people who C.S. Lewis says stand beside us working toward a common goal. I have been a freelance writer, a copy editor, a religion reporter at two newspapers in California, and a professor of journalism. Ink is in my blood and in my bones.

My husband and I also sponsor a program to inspire and train Christian students who want to be journalists and we are involved in a project to determine the feasibility of a news service covering persecution of Christians worldwide. Why are we all here? Why a gathering of journalists who are Christians?

Not because the great uncovered story of our time is the world-wide persecution of Christians, though that is true. Not because the church universal or local has asked us to reflect, though that would be a step forward. Not because our profession has sought a deeper understanding of the role of Christianity in the global picture, though, that, too, would be welcome. Certainly not because we need another conference.

We are here because the Psalms quoted above point out clearly that we as Christians are committed to truthtelling and because as people we are called to a craft specifically created to do just that. We must live out that commitment and calling in a time when the notion of truth is questioned or abandoned and the work of truth-telling is under fire. We are here to reflect on our calling to be truth-tellers. We are here to reflect on our profession at a time of radical change within it. We are here to reflect on our times.

We are also here because we have a unique perspective on global change. In his now-famous article on the world’s trouble spots in Foreign Affairs several years back, Samuel Huntington identified those trouble spots as places where cultures and religions confront each other. We meet in one of those places. Many of you live in others. We understand what is at stake. Finally, we are here to make new friendships.

What can come of this gathering? We are going to hear and engage three papers. The first by the Rev. Dr. Canon Vinay Samuel takes us to our roots to examine our calling as journalists. The second by Dr. Clifford Christians, director of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, takes us to the roots of what we do and asks us to confront the nature of the truth we seek to tell. The third by international journalism David Aikman reflects on what it means to tell the truth in the daily practice of journalism.

The profession, if we can call it that, is in transition. In the United States respect for the media is at an all-time low. Even Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes is asking for news councils to be set up to hear complaints and self-police the media, as a self-protective measure, of course. Enormous damages have been awarded to individuals who have sued the media for unfair or false coverage. Newspapers have become customer-friendly, giving us “news you can use” while being criticized for not providing news necessary for democracy. The term “ego-warming” has been applied to this new brand of feel-good news. Critics claim the press has become arrogant, that it is full of overweening pride and self-importance. One area often pointed to is religion coverage or the lack of it. Either journalists don’t cover religion at all or they completely misunderstand what needs to be covered or how to cover it when they do.

Another controversial area is the ethics of deception, instances when journalists pose as someone else in order to get a story. Recently Food Lion grocery stores won a famous case in which journalists posed as meat processors in their stores to do a story to show that meat sold in Food Lion stores was not safe. Still another example of a profession in transition is the way journalists now question their own shibboleths, such sacrosanct notions as objectivity, fairness, and neutrality. In our post-modern, ironic times, journalists now argue that opinion is part of the news and that advocacy is a legitimate endeavor for journalists. No more the facts, sir, and nothing but the facts. Many say there is no such thing as a fact, there is only power.

In addition, the profession has shortened its reach. Once every paper of any size had its own foreign correspondents, its own eyes and ears at the big breaking news of the world at the time. No more. The international press corps has been cut to only a few. And, no longer are reporters protected as non-combatants in the way they once were. Nor are there specialists in many areas, such as religion, as there once were. Now it is often considered a virtue-if the reporter on a story has no idea about the background of what is going on before their eyes. The reader is offered interpretation by someone who has no tools to interpret.

Beyond all that, no one knows what the Internet will mean. How will it affect research? Will its breadth mean any real depth, any increase in understanding? Because the Internet is everywhere, it has implications for access to the news. The deadline is becoming meaningless. There is no such thing as breaking news. The Internet also provides unfiltered access, but a filter is needed as no one can read every piece of information now available at a keystroke. Then there is the question of style, the very diction through which we communicate. The Internet welcomes a more ironic, more personal style. Is this the best way to communicate the news? Does it foster reaction or reflection?

And, the Internet is dialogue. The reader can no longer remain aloof; he or she becomes part of the story. The Internet is a virtual commons, a place where people can meet in ways they’ve never been able to meet before. It also provides specialized news, making it possible for people to limit their knowledge to one particular interest without seeing it in the context of wider events. It provides an avenue for insularity. Of course, the Internet is then able to provide news totally unconnected with reality; it is all real only in cyberspace. No one, of course, has any idea what all this means or where it will lead us.

Beyond that is the world of virtual reality. Who knows what that will mean? Again, no one.

And, finally, in this time of transition there are challenges to the freedom of the press. In many parts of Asia, free speech is not valued. It is consensus and harmony that matter most. Speech that breaks harmony must be stopped. But, Asia is not the only place where press freedom is under fire. In the Middle East, in parts of Africa and the former Soviet Empire, and other parts of the world the press is regulated in various ways. In an age of information, what are the affects of such regulation?

So, given the world in which we find ourselves, what can we do here? First, we can gain a deeper understanding of who we are and what we do. Then we can offer a rudder to our profession, a standard for truth-telling. And, we can develop a network, not only for support but for more profound news-gathering.

My own background was shaped by John Calvin. His notion of the cultural mandate, the command given to Adam and to Noah to subdue the earth and prosper, tells us that all of life belongs to God, that all callings -whether to law or teaching or preaching or dancing or journalism – are of God. Calvin’s notion of calling is based on the biblical admonition that whatever we do we are to do all to the glory of God.

That understanding has been further illumined for me by C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard. From Lewis, I learned, among other things, that we are each made for a particular place in God’s creation. The place was not made for us, but we were made for the place. We are not happy unless we are there. From Willard, I have begun to learn the importance of the drive to significance. Each of us has a God-given desire to do something with our lives that matters.

Unless we respond to our calling, our place in God’s master painting of the universe will be forever dark. Perhaps that is part of what Jesus meant when he said: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Category: Travel,


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