I’ll start with a confession: There is no such thing as objective reporting. I know this after working around journalism for 20 years. If you and I were to see the same thing occur, we would likely see it differently. Experiences etched into our brains cause us to interpret the same scene through different lenses.
Often the more information we have, the more complicated the scenes become. Then there are the limitations: deadlines, language barriers, short attention spans of readers (and editors!), lack of space on a page. We are trapped by the inadequacy of communicating human experience through words. Yet, we try.
And then there are the biases, even in the newspaper you are reading. MWR is rooted in the General Conference Mennonite tradition, valuing autonomy and unity. We are biased toward the positive possibilities of Mennonite Church USA and other Anabaptist denominations. We are biased toward relationships within Mennonite World Conference’s big tent. We believe there is something good in us being together.
If you watch Fox News or MSNBC, there are obvious partisan preferences. The funding sources of RT (Russian) news or Al-Jazeera (Qatari) shape reporting and information gathering in quite different ways from U.S.- or U.K.-based sources. This summer’s unrest in Ferguson, Mo., played differently in China (where they are also afraid of insurrection within the nation’s diverse ethnic groups) and Russia (where the incident was viewed as an example of internal American imperialism).
In Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, we’ve seen how conflict is interpreted in different ways. I’ve written very little on any of these topics, fearing I might be wrong. It’s my privilege to be silent when I don’t have a deadline or the conflict isn’t at my doorstep. I’ve found myself silent, knowing all too well that my biases can get in the way of good judgment.
In the Midwest, the Middle East or Ukraine, it’s easy for me to identify oppressed and oppressor. My biases form quickly. I don’t trust Israeli offenses in Palestine. I am leery of police who shoot the unarmed. As a great-grandson of Eastern European immigrants, I am suspicious of Russian assertions of power and cheer on Ukraine’s move to align with the European Union and NATO. But the more I learn, the more I wonder about my easy-to-come-to conclusions. It’s like the more I know, the less I know.
More and more these days I trust these complex stories to on-the-ground interpreters. I hear the words of friends in Israel/Palestine. I hear their fears from inside Israel’s “Iron Dome” and the West Bank. I listen to the stories of those who witnessed the scenes that unfolded in Ferguson. I struggle to interpret what is happening in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq because of limited access to firsthand sources in English. Online I found an interpreted account of a Yazidi woman who is pleading for intervention to save her people in Iraq. It brought me to tears.
I am glad I am not entrusted to make foreign policy, particularly when I recognize how hard it is even to interpret what is happening in Missouri. Yet it is important to me, as a Christian leader/ writer/follower, to keep listening to those who bear witness to the justice, injustice, violence and hope of their own communities. And to believe that the Spirit is upon us as Jesus-followers to bear good news of freedom and possibility. And to know that I cannot persist in silence.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.