Posted by: Titus Presler | April 7, 2014

Hard places – A reflection on risk in vocation

Events in Peshawar, and being attacked in February, prompt reflection on the element of risk in the vocation of global service.

Given the environment of violent extremism, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Afghan border areas, coming to Pakistan was a risk.  I was aware of that.  I thought it was worth it, and I continue to believe that.  Some have not been so sure, and others have simply been mystified.

Where does this risk-taking come from? Some have said to me, “You’re so brave – I could never do that,” or words to that effect.  I do not feel brave.  Bravery as a category does not come into it. What I have said to people, most recently to a participant in an interfaith conference here in Islamabad, is: “It came as a call.  When I came to assess the situation, the question I left with was not ‘Why?’ but ‘Why not?’ I had peace about it, the peace that Paul invokes as ‘the peace of God that passes all understanding.’  With that peace I have not had to screw up my courage, wince and face the danger – not at all.  I am at peace, and I come and go in peace.  So it is not bravery.  It is rather Emmanuel, God with us.  It is not virtue or achievement on my part.  It is God’s grace.”

On the circumstantial side, coming to Pakistan to contribute in church-sponsored higher education arose out of longstanding relationships of solidarity with local leaders. So I was not suddenly picking up to go into the dangers of a strange place with no connections.  My wife and I had visited Pakistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa much earlier, and she supported the venture. A daughter and a son had also visited Peshawar earlier on projects of their own.

The relationships that come our way in life are in a real sense random – we get thrown in with people through random circumstances. When the question arose, “Well, what about Peshawar?” responding positively seemed to be a God Thing, and I believe it was.  Not in the sense of “God’s Plan” – I don’t experience God working that way.  God gave up planning long ago when God created a cosmos much too random for planning.  

Rather, one godly thing – but by no means the only godly thing, and not the godly thing for everyone – is to reach out in the spirit of God and in God’s Spirit to where one can make a difference in places of threat and suffering in this world. One godly thing is to take connections that randomly come our way and do something with them.  Our intentionality can – possibly, but always with an element of risk – redeem places of random peril and bring some intentional grace.  That intentionality is a piece of the image of God within us – the God who reached out into random chaos at the beginning of time and created a universe, the God who reached out into the chaotic cruelty of Roman-occupied Palestine and became vulnerable to all of it at Bethlehem, the God who suffered chaotic darkness in a dump outside Jerusalem on a random Friday.  God the risk-taker.

Coming here involved risk assessment, of course.  Was danger imminent and overwhelming?  Could it be mitigated? With provision for security and with being careful, it seemed manageable.  And that was borne out.

What changed was that a long latent issue of human rights was brought to the surface when the Christian community pressed for religious freedom, specifically the right, set forth by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, of any religious group to manage its own institutions.  What changed was the resolve of some to seize that from the Church, and their resort to threats and violence because law and constitution were on the Church’s side. I stood with the Church, and that meant I had to be intimidated.

So then the risk was fulfilled: I got beaten up.  I was shocked by the hostility, the cruelty, the physicality.  Yet, while important, that was a surface and passing shock.  Deeper down I am not shocked.  The fulfillment of a risk freely undertaken does not prompt me to reassess the decision to come or the risk/benefit analysis.  I also am not particularly angry at the perpetrators.  I recognize evil motivations – the malice, duplicity, cruelty, hegemonic ambition – but I have not been angry with them.  Friends have raged against them, but I’ve not had a similar impulse.  Again: not virtue, but grace.

Secular and religious alike agree that some causes are worth risk.  Feminist Gloria Steinem just turned 80, and I’m sure she has reflections about the risks of doing something worthwhile for women.  As does Malala, who works from a religious perspective.  I’m always amazed by Green Peace activists who risk and sometimes lose their lives on behalf of the rest of us as they battle destroyers of the environment on the high seas.  Consider the risks and sacrifices of the late Nelson Mandela.  And then there are the thousands of forgotten activists who risked much to oppose slavery or apartheid or the depredations of various systems and regimes on various continents – on and on, and on and on, in a continuing dreadful chronicle of human inhumanity.

For me here it has been the God Thing: the grace, the peace that passes all understanding.  Just that.


Responses

  1. […] Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) amplify my posting yesterday about risk in putting oneself next to […]

  2. Dear Titus,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking letter. Of course your entire family, including me, have questioned your reasoning for putting yourself in harm’s way, but clearly you have thought it through and you remain committed to answering God’s call. Certainly God might call more of us to such challenging work if we were willing to accept the risk, and what a different world it might be.

    Grace & Peace,
    Sam

    • Thank you, Sam, for this note, which means much to me. For the wider group of readers, Sam Butterfield, brother of Jane, is my dear brother-in-law in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He has been struggling with cancer for seven years – mightily, humbly, prayerfully. His has been a hard place indeed, and his perseverance in faith has been an inspiration to me and many.


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