Losing Your Voice
today's UPI column
So There I was…
Sitting in the front seat of a Land Cruiser just outside of Gitega, Burundi, Central Africa. I was working as a peacemaker, teaching for a Burundian Trauma Healing Organization, and I was in trouble, deep trouble. We had been delayed outside of town and it was now dark. It was the fall of 2003 and there was a war going on. The roadblocks went up at dusk. We had been stopped by a patrol that was probably government soldiers, might have been rebels, but it didn’t matter, because they were hostile, drunk, and pointing AK47’s at us. My host, who was driving that day, spoke quietly and calmly with the captain of the patrol. He told them the truth about who we were, who the “mazungu" (white woman) was. He told them that I had come to teach people how to “Make straight the hearts bent by the war”. He pled our case and talked us out of a very dangerous situation.
His voice was our only weapon, our only protection, that night.
At least he had his voice.
Dan Hunt of Ontario Canada lost his voice last year. When James Loney, Christian Peacemaker in Baghdad was kidnapped in November, he was in double jeopardy. He was a westerner suspected of collusion with the occupying force, and he was a gay man. While the families of the other hostages spoke out in the media, reminding the world of their plight, James’ partner Dan, went into hiding. While the other families could seek broad help, support and prayers, Dan had to be quiet out of fear that James’ orientation would become known to his captors in a land where one of the few things that most people agree on is that the penalty for being gay is death.
When you lose your voice out of fear for your life, or the life of someone you love, you have been robbed of a sacred, God given right. Of all creatures on this planet, we humans are given the gift of voice; the ability to tell our own story, to share what we know, to share ourselves with each other.
We must fairly say that James took the first risk; opened eyed and clear-headed he walked not into simple danger, but compound danger to be a peaceful presence in the midst of chaos. I call this courage. The kidnappers put his life in yet more immediate jeopardy. But if the kidnappers asked Norman Kember about his life, he could talk truthfully about his dear wife at home. James would have to lie and say he was single, or face a worse death than he already faced. It was religious fundamentalism that robbed him, and Dan at home, of the freedom to speak truthfully about their lives.
I define religious fundamentalism as the assertion of absolute truth and completeness of one’s own beliefs and practices to the intentional exclusion of the possibility of truth in the beliefs and practices of others. And whether it is Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or whatever kind of fundamentalism, it is a scourge and a plague on humanity. When it is mixed with the power of governance you get false theocracy. When it is mixed with weapons you get death. You get the Puritans and witch trials, the Taliban blowing up Buddhas, the bulldozing of Hebron, the Janjaweed riding in on horseback in Darfur. It is the progenitor of inquisition, crusade, pogrom and Jihad.
Our founding fathers had some real genius. They protected the human voice. They protected religion while separating church and state. I am a Quaker, a once persecuted religious minority. I have benefited greatly from their wisdom. One of my Quaker foremothers was legally hung in Boston, pre Bill of Rights. Part of my religion is that I am not willing to kill, not for anything -- that is just the simple teaching of Jesus. But there are things I would die for, and the separation of church and state is one of those things, and the free voice of people like Dan and James is another.
On that dark African night three years ago my friend’s truthful voice saved my life. I pray that we never spare tongue or pen or anything else in the protecting and publishing of every human voice.