On principle, not consequence
A Quaker life in broadcasting
On Saturday 4 March 1972 I had lunch with a friend in a restaurant/cafe in Belfast. In the morning we had played hockey for our school team.
We left the restaurant just after two o’clock. Two hours later a bomb exploded in it. Two women were killed. 130 people were horribly injured: mostly women and children. One young woman – who was about to be married – lost both her legs, her right arm and an eye. The restaurant was The Abercorn.
I was eighteen.
My mother was brought up on a small farm in south Donegal. My father was an Englishman. I was born in northern Germany. Our family were outsiders in Ulster. Scratch us: you’ll find no orange or green. The wall murals, flags, painted kerbstones – evoked curiosity – not a sense of tribal belonging. I wasn’t engaged. The Abercorn bomb changed that. After it, I became engaged – and fascinated with some questions.
Why do people do bad things? Can we understand why they do them? What can we do about it? My career as a journalist, radio producer and filmmaker has been, in many ways, devoted to an engagement with these questions.
I was very privileged to be able to reach hundreds of thousands of people, each year, through my programmes – for over twenty-five years. But how did I get there – and what has Quakerism had to do with it? Well … everything. Today, I’ll offer some reflections on that journey … and on my encounters with religion.
At school I was taught politics by David Bleakley. He had been a shipyard worker in east Belfast – then he got a trade union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford. His father had also worked in Harland and Wolff and once hammered rivets into the hull of the Titanic. David Bleakley detested sectarianism. He said it was founded on a fear of ‘the other’. And this fear, he explained, was based on ignorance. So, the cure to sectarianism was to ‘get to know’ the ‘other’ – the Catholic, the Protestant, the immigrant – and we would find that they were a lot like us. David Bleakley encouraged me to go to the London School of Economics. It was left wing at the time. Religion was the ‘opium of the people’. Not a good thing. I didn’t need convincing. In the mid-seventies the troubles were all around me at home and religion was part of the problem. If religion was to have any value, shouldn’t it offer a solution to conflict – not be a cause of it? I had no interest in it.
In 1969 my father started a firm that cleaned drains. The Housing Executive had been set up, in the wake of housing discrimination in Ulster, to oversee all housing in Northern Ireland. His firm got a contract to look after working class estates in Belfast. On holidays I helped out. It meant going into Republican and Loyalist estates and cleaning out manholes, drains, sinks.
At almost every home in these paramilitary areas, after finishing a job, we would be invited in for a cup of tea. The kindness and courtesy of ordinary people – living in such a difficult situation – deeply affected me. The way we smelt! They didn’t need to offer us a cup of tea. Looking back, I was very privileged. I had an experience none of my friends had and developed a respect for people that, later in my life, would ‘speak to my condition’ in a religious context.
At LSE I studied some anthropology. After graduating I did voluntary service, as a teacher, in North West Nigeria. The village was remote and very poor. Lepers dragged themselves along the paths. I had a compound with several mud huts. All the compounds housed families. Each had high mud walls. I would sometimes sit with a few local farmers and share food and fellowship with them, eating with our fingers.
It was a Muslim village. I saw few women. They seemed to be imprisoned in their compounds. It was hard, even as an anthropologist, to celebrate this aspect of ‘cultural diversity’ – those words that Louis MacNeice wrote in ‘Snow’:
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
But, living with Muslims and learning their language I got to know them. If you show respect you tend to get it back. If you offer love it is usually returned. If you resent someone: don’t be surprised if they resent you.
As William Penn said: ‘Let us then try what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us’.
Some aspects of Islam upset me. Others impressed me. People prayed five times a day. At home religion seemed, for many, to be ‘just for Sunday’. In Africa I saw that religion could be part of everyday life and you didn’t have to join a monastery to live it this way.
When I joined The Belfast Telegraph, as a feature writer, in the early 1980s, there was violence almost daily in Northern Ireland – murders and bombings. The situation was often portrayed as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
At that time one country in Europe sent more Christian missionaries, per head of population, around the world than any other. Can you guess? Yes, Northern Ireland.
I was fascinated – living in a country that didn’t seem to be a great advert for the product. I spent months listening to missionaries and wrote a series of articles about them.
One retired missionary had a profound impact on me. As a young woman she’d felt a ‘calling’ to bring Christ’s message to a Muslim community. She became a missionary and spent most of her life in a North African community; but it had been very difficult. In fact, she confessed that she’d not, actually, converted anyone to Christianity.
As time passed she spent less time evangelizing and more just helping people.
As a sales representative she’d been a disaster. Number of churches planted – none! Number of converts – none! She’d devoted her life to the service of poor Muslims.
She never married. I remember her saying that she regretted her ‘failure’ to convert anyone. I didn’t think she was a failure at all – quite the opposite. I felt I wasn’t worthy to walk in her footsteps.
Her life had become one of deeds – not creeds. She had stopped preaching the message of Jesus Christ. She had become the message – simply by living it out. She had dwelt in the pure measure of love, life and truth within her. She’d responded to it in others. She had given love – and she had received it. It was a powerful lesson. I never met a more ‘successful’ Christian.
In the early 1980s two significant events happened. I joined the BBC and I began going to Quaker Meetings, thanks to a chance encounter with a beautiful young student from Trinity.
An early radio series I did – called ‘Street Corner’ – seemed to echo the encounter I was having with Quakerism. Listening to ministry on Sunday and learning about the history of Friends began to affect my work – in the way I approached it and the themes I started exploring. I saw that it was pointless to just report the violence. We had to explore the causes of it.
The violence hot spots were all in areas of severe deprivation. At the time Northern Ireland had some of the worst poverty and housing in Western Europe. I had seen it first hand. BBC Northern Ireland had developed a huge news and current affairs department to cover the troubles but it didn’t have one specialist correspondent for social affairs – for poverty.
I was interested in the problems faced by the people I’d met when cleaning drains in Loyalist and Republican estates. In ‘Street Corner’ I dealt with alcoholism, gambling, drug addiction, debt, post-natal depression, schizophrenia. My approach was to get to know one person, gain their trust, and interview them. I edited my voice out and that was it: one person telling their story.
And the stories were very moving. One woman, who was agoraphobic, could not leave her house. Her daughter was getting married. She had made the wedding dress. On the wedding day she walked to her front gate – but froze – terrified. She missed the wedding. I was drawn to the stories of ‘ordinary’ people – but they weren’t ordinary at all. They were extraordinary – inspiring. They often had to deal with enormous personal difficulties. The media, mostly, ignored these lives. They weren’t ‘dramatic’ like the troubles. Someone nicknamed the series ‘victim speak’. I wasn’t annoyed. Giving voice to the voiceless is not something to be annoyed about.
‘Street Corner’ reinforced the truth of a proverb I had come to like very much: ‘Before you judge someone – walk in his or her moccasins for a month’.
At that time going to Meeting for Worship – in South Belfast and Rathfarnham – was enormously important. Some visitors to a Quaker Meeting are confused by the absence of a creed or sermon. They yearn for ‘direction’ and don’t find it. They want clear guidance from a priest or a pulpit – a solid signpost – and perceive a weather vane. But ministry isn’t there to direct you. Over time you absorb it. You sponge up drops of ministry and are refreshed by them. They often validate feelings you know are right: tenderness, humility, charity, compassion and love. They are promptings of the spirit – the spirit of a living Christ – not reports about an historical one. But you must submit. This is difficult. I often find it so.
Belief and the outward manifestations of it – symbols, images and rituals – are part of most religions worldwide. They are not important in Quakerism. They never have been. Our faith is rooted in personal experience – not belief or ritual.
Our authority isn’t based on a hierarchy with an HQ in Rome. Our authority isn’t the written word of the Bible. Our authority is a radical, third, alternative. It’s found within us – not outside us: the Inner Light of Christ in our hearts and consciences. This was the revolutionary message of George Fox. The knowledge of God came through revelation – not instruction. So, we are mystics – but practical mystics. We don’t retreat from the world – quite the opposite.
The religion I found in Quakerism spoke to my condition. It confirmed my experience of people and what I had found within myself. There is a principle that is placed in the human heart. It’s in every human being. It’s not constrained by race or colour – culture or continent. John Woolman believed that it is pure, deep and inward, and that it proceeds from God. It was, he said, ‘where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.’ My experience also showed me that every individual has the capacity to love. My experience showed me that every individual, also, has the capacity to receive love.
As Quakerism became more important to me I began to read Quaker books and came across Thomas Clarkson and the words that inspired the title of this lecture. Clarkson (1760-1846) was an interesting figure. He was an abolitionist. He never became a Friend but worked a lot with them to oppose slavery. He developed an enormous admiration for Quakers, especially their integrity and honesty, and became fascinated with what made them different. He found something.
Clarkson published a history of the Religious Society of Friends and a book about William Penn. In both he made the same point. He believed that there were ‘two principles’ by which men usually regulate their conduct – whether it is private or public life. ‘The one,’ he explained, ‘is built up on political expediency’ and the other ‘upon morality and religion’. The one built upon political expediency looks ‘almost wholly at the consequences of things – regarding but little whether they be in themselves honest or not.’ It sprang from ‘the worst part of the nature of man’ and led ‘to oppression at home, to wars abroad, to every moral evil’.
The other principle was founded on ‘morality and religion’ and had its origin in the mind of man – but only where it had first been illuminated from above. He said: ‘It promotes all good. It is solid and permanent. It lasts forever.’
When Clarkson wrote that Friends acted ‘on principle, not consequence’ he meant this moral-religious principle. William Penn, Clarkson explained, was ‘entirely under the influence of this latter principle’. Penn was ‘never concerned with consequences but in a secondary point of view.’
Clarkson’s discernment fascinated me. In reading Quaker books I constantly came across stories of Friends who acted ‘on principle’ in the sense that he had explained.
Early Friends were driven by it. From the 1650s – until the Toleration Act of 1689 – Friends were persecuted for their faith. They were hauled out of their beds. Their cattle and goods were seized. Hundreds died in prison. Why? Because they refused to pay tithes, swear oaths, doff their hats in deference and attend the national church.
These convinced ‘Friends of Truth’ were acting on principle – not consequence. A principle rooted in that authority – the Inner Light. They were following others who, in the first century, had led their lives by it: the earliest Christians.
Clarkson deeply admired Penn. Penn said, of the early Friends, that their ‘fundamental principle, which is the cornerstone of their faith, their characteristic and main distinguishing point or principle, was the Light of Christ within’. It was ‘the root of the goodly tree and doctrines that grew from, and branched out of, it.’
Our personal encounter with the divine – our submission to God – the Spirit of Love – is the root of our Quaker testimonies. It’s the seed of so much extraordinary Quaker witness, over centuries, in the world. It’s what prompted John Woolman to wear un-dyed clothes in his opposition to slavery; Elizabeth Fry to campaign for reform in Newgate prison; shop-keeper William Edmundson, in Lurgan, to keep a ‘fixed price’; Quaker employers, like the Cadburys and Rowntrees, to look after their workers.
Here’s a story I like: Levi Coffin was part of a small Quaker community in America. In the winter of 1826-27 he decided to help fugitive slaves. His neighbours dissuaded him. He wrote: ‘They manifested great concern for my safety and pecuniary interests – telling me that such a course of action would injure my business and, perhaps, ruin me – that I ought to consider the welfare of my family – and warning me that my life was in danger…’
Coffin explained: ‘If by doing my duty, and endeavouring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go’.
And very important point – concerning acting on moral/religious principle – was highlighted by Penn: ‘A good end cannot sanctify evil means, nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it… It is as great a presumption to send one’s passions on God’s errands as it is to palliate them with God’s name…’ They are poignant words as we remember the slaughter of one hundred year ago.
John McMurray, a Friend and philosopher, addressed a question that every student of moral philosophy deals with: What is the right thing to do? But McMurray, the Quaker, goes on ask another interesting question: How do we know what is the right thing to do?
Well, for me, this goes back to Clarkson. The Friends he wrote about found it in silent worship. Clarkson understood that it was absolutely central to the decisions that Friends made in the world. It is in worship that we push the ego out, let the divine spirit grow within, and seek the will of God – the Spirit of Love.
Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, argued that ‘morality is doing the right thing for the right reason’. It is about motive. Quaker businessmen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not honest because it was ‘good for business’. They went to Meeting on Sunday.
I also believe that our faith encourages us to treat people, always, as an end in themselves – as unique individuals. Kant also used the phrase to ‘treat people as an end in themselves – never as a means to an end.’ It struck a chord.
Meeting for Worship, where we encounter the divine spirit, is also a shared experience. This is important, as Rufus Jones said: ‘Mysticism flourishes best in a group’. We begin our Meetings for Worship for Business with worship. This encourages reflection. Out of this we are prompted to action. If business meetings got stuck straight into decision-making our meetings wouldn’t last so long – but something precious would disappear. We would focus immediately on consequences. What outcome do we want to achieve? What is the best way of achieving it? Let’s make the best decision. No. That’s not our way.
In the silence we are guided to reflect on values and principles: we submit, wait and listen. This is why our ‘culture’ of decision-making is so important. Do it over centuries and it breeds a certain kind of mentality, approach, and person. Clarkson saw this.
There is a danger today because of understandable changes in the law and our lives, time pressures and so on, that decisions may become based more on consequence and not principle in the sense that Clarkson wrote. We cannot move away from our traditional practice without paying a price. We must allow time for reflection and for the right way to become clear.
Now, back to broadcasting. I had a way of making programmes that became very influenced by my Quaker values. But in what way?
Nearly all my films had no presenter or narrator. It became a ‘signature’ of mine. I just used the voices of contributors. Quaker worship does not need a minister – a mediator. Why have one? My approach was to spend many months getting to know people. Establishing respect and trust.
In anthropological fieldwork there is a phrase called ‘value freedom’ that means respecting the culture you are in. In Quakerism we use the term ‘non-judgmental’. I practiced this in my films and I feel that keeping an ‘open mind’, and heart, are essential in Quakerism.
Filmmakers do not represent people – we ‘re-present’ people – and there is a huge responsibility associated with that. We make choices. It is good, as a filmmaker, to be reminded – every Sunday – that there is that of God in every person.
Our approach is to value that of God in each individual. Every individual is unique. I cherish this belief in Quakerism.
People love individuals – not types. I cannot love Irishwomen in the plural – I can love one Irishwoman. We love what is unique and irreplaceable. This is what gives love its poignancy – its inseparable connection with the possibility of loss. When we lose someone we know – we lose something of our self.
So, I dislike stereotypes. They make me angry and I’ve spent a lot time challenging them – particularly in a series of sixteen films I produced about traditions in Northern Ireland. They were on musical traditions – sporting traditions and craft traditions: Lambeg drummers, Donegal fiddlers, Belfast flute players, uilleann pipers in Armagh –hurlers from Cushendall, sailors in Strangford. I wanted to celebrate the richness and diversity of cultural traditions in Ulster. I also wanted to get close to people in a community – and simply show them in their everyday life. You can subvert stereotypes in many ways.
Road bowls is an almost exclusively Catholic tradition. It’s popular in Armagh and
I made a film about it there. I remember a conversation with one road bowler that I’d got to know well. He said he had seen the film I made on Lambeg drummers and it amazed him. He confessed that he had never met one. He only knew the stereotype – the bigoted Loyalist drummer. But he said in the film they came across as a tight wee community. They just loved drumming and wanted to keep it going and hand it down to others. And their women folk thought they were completely bonkers. I remember him saying: ‘They are just like us’ – and that the film had a big effect on him. ‘Opened my eyes’ says he!
I love books. Not television. But almost every home in Ireland has a television. I felt that if I could make films and tell certain stories – well, you could reach a lot of people. I wanted to illuminate simple truths using that haunted fish tank. I wanted to show people, in each community, doing very ordinary things. As David Bleakley taught me, fear is so often based on ignorance of the ‘other’ and you have to find creative ways of challenging this. That’s what those sixteen films were really about.
The recognition of the uniqueness of each individual, I believe, is at the heart of our humanity. It is at the heart of religion. It exists in loving and being loved – at an individual level. We experience it through our relationships. Certainly, it’s the way I interpret the words ‘that of God in everyone’. It might not be the right interpretation – but it speaks to my condition and my experience
Let me give you an example. One of the ‘Musical Traditions’ films was on Reformed Presbyterians singing metrical psalms. It was set in north Antrim. A farmer, John, allowed me to film him, his wife, Anne, and his children singing psalms, as they often did, around the kitchen table. Just before the film was to be broadcast John rang me. Anne had gone into a coma. I said we would pull the programme. No, he said, he wanted it broadcast – because so many people had contributed to it. He was concerned about us. That’s why he rang.
We made a CD of that sequence – the family singing psalms around the kitchen table. John played it to Anne in her hospital bed. She never regained consciousness. I was so affected by John’s humility and kindness.
Religion is the best of people. Arguing, posturing, controlling – this is not the best of people. It’s the worst of people. Love, tenderness, charity and compassion is the best. We ‘experience’ this in the actions of people.
I had once rejected religion. It had no purpose. Then, gradually, I had found one that spoke to my condition. It was inspired by my encounters with people like John – the old lady who felt she had failed as a missionary – and by Danny. It was reinforced in silent worship. This faith informed my presenter-less films – my commitment to record people simply telling their stories – showing people ‘as they were’.
Now, Danny. In 2003 I spent over a year and a half making a film about a working class Loyalist estate in west Belfast: the Springmartin estate. It was half way up a mountain overlooking the city. The Catholic Ardoyne was a few hundred yards away. A sixteen-foot high wall separated the two communities: the Peace Line. Almost every family in the area had suffered, in some way, in the troubles. During that time thirteen people had been shot on the Springmartin, and nearby Highfield, estates. It was a heartland of Loyalist paramilitaries.
As a narrative device, I decided to make the film in the months up to and including the 12th July, when a huge bonfire was built in the middle of the estate and then, on the 11th night, burnt. Sequences were filmed at the local primary school, the community centre, in homes and, in the editing suite, intercut with sequences that showed stages of the building of the bonfire. So, there was a narrative spine – the bonfire rising – complemented by a portrait of everyday life.
The bonfire was built by young people mostly between the ages of 8 and 15. They would drag wooden pallets from everywhere, find old furniture and wood, get hundreds of tyres and build the bonfire higher and higher and higher. I spent a lot of time with them and got to know them well. They would make little huts with pallets and carpets and sleep out in them. They were protecting their wood from being stolen by kids from nearby estates. It was a ‘rite of passage’. I spent many hours with them in these huts.
One teenager was a real problem for us: Danny. He would rake around the estate on a small, noisy, motorbike. It drove our sound recordist mad. We were all fed up with Danny. He was out of control.
One night I was in a hut with some kids. I had a small digital camera and was experimenting with it. I was tucked in a corner and filming two of the kids. I realised they were smoking marijuana. One of them was Danny. Later, at about two o’clock in the morning, I left the hut and stood among the pallets. It was a beautiful, still, night. Frankie, a fifteen year old, came out, half asleep. We started talking. It was strange – the moon was out – the sky full of stars – the Peace Wall one hundreds yards away in one direction – and the lights of Belfast in the valley below.
Danny’s name came up. Frankie said that Danny wasn’t from the estate. He was from Highfield. This surprised me. Then he told me that three months earlier Danny had come home to his house one evening and had found his father, who he lived with, hanging from a rope in the stairwell.
When I went back into the hut I looked at Danny; but I saw a completely different person – not the ‘hard man’ he acted – but a lonely, hurt, vulnerable fourteen year old. I remember feeling overwhelmed with a wave of compassion, almost to tears. But I felt so humble, so guilty. Why had it taken such a shocking revelation to see Danny this way. I remember thinking: here, in this face, is the spirit of Christ. That spirit is in our neighbour, our friend, our enemy. This was powerful ‘immediate revelation’. I wasn’t in Meeting. I didn’t need to be. Today, I am reminded of the words of John Woolman: ‘This love and tenderness increased and my mind was strongly engaged for the good of my fellow creatures.’
Some TV executives would have loved the ‘observational reality’ of that sequence of the young lads smoking marijuana. It never made it to the editing suite. Danny and his mate did not know I was filming. If I had used those images I would have been using those kids as a means towards an end. Not following Kant. And I would have been acting on consequence – not principle, in the sense I have described today.
Many filmmakers, I must stress, would have made the same decision. You certainly do not need to be Quaker, or a Christian – or religious – to make it. We are not perfect people. We can only do our best. What I am saying, today, is that being a Quaker has deeply affected many of my work decisions.
My mother, who has had the most profound influence on my religious life, repeated a simple truth: ‘treat people as you would wish to be treated.’ This is the essence, for me, of Quakerism. There is little else to say.
What about the media today? Why do some professionals photograph semi-naked celebrities on long-range cameras – hack phones – selectively quote –consciously set vulnerable people up for humiliation on television? Thomas Clarkson would say that they act on that principle that springs from ‘the worst part of the nature of man’ and are led by consequence: bigger circulation or viewing figures – money – getting a ‘scoop’.
Looking to ‘consequence’ can be very persuasive. We can convince ourselves of all kinds of reasons to do it. Some bankers did. Some politicians. Some churchmen.
Isn’t it the way of the world? Well, no, mostly it isn’t. And, to be fair, situations aren’t clear-cut. Making a film sometimes involves difficult decisions. Some people make decisions I wouldn’t make. I don’t judge them. It’s often complex and personal.
A producer/director sits in an editing suite in Hampstead in London. He nips out for a cappuccino. He returns to edit a film that has unique footage of a conflict in Eastern Europe. He didn’t visit the war zone. A cameraman, on location, has captured images of soldiers killed in combat. They show close ups of two young men – in a sequence that he feels will tell the world of the tragedy of war. He’s pleased – he uses them. The film won awards – deservedly. But this story disturbed me.
I understood the filmmaker’s judgments. So, why did it trouble me? If the bomb had gone off in the café while he was having a cappuccino – and his two children had been blown apart beside him – and someone filmed them on a mobile phone – and close ups of their faces were broadcast on Al Jazeera that evening – how would he, and their mother, have felt? You see, we cannot ask people who have been killed: can I have permission to re-present an image of your dead face? Do the dead not have any rights? Or, only in the west?
So, what does all this add up to – principle – consequence – a spirit of love?
Every Friday evening, when I am in London, I try to visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. There is a painting that I have come to like very much. It is by Tintoretto – Christ washing the feet of the disciples. In the painting Christ is kneeling, in an inn, and washing the feet of a man. The people are humble, working folk, talking and taking refreshment. Nobody notices Christ.
The message? For me: no one is too great to serve others. That’s our purpose.
Ultimately, religion seems, to me, to be meaningless unless it involves a personal relationship with God, with the spirit of love. This should prompt us to offer a helping hand to our neighbours, to those in need, and to our enemies. This, for me, is the Quaker way. I was lucky to be able to pursue it in newspapers, radio and television.
If the Abercorn bomb had gone off two hours earlier that eighteen year old boy in Belfast might not be talking to you today; and, without Quakerism, he would not have been so troubled by big close ups of the faces of dead soldiers or have devoted so many years to seeing ‘that of God’ in everyone he recorded or filmed.
I will finish with a quote: ‘Those who would have a closer view of the divine must seek it in a life of love and service.’
Ian Kirk Smith.
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