Thursday, April 12, 2007

Humility and conviction in the messiness of the real world: Christian witness in Pakistan

Christianity Today has this remarkable piece by a fellow of the Institute for Global Engagement (a non-profit that works to promote religious freedom), an evangelical Christian, who spent ten-months living in the North West Frontier Province of Paksistan (and rather close to the Waziristan, the new Talibanistan, and effectively beyond the control of the Pakistan state). He writes quite beautifully and powerfully about his experiences there -- doing dua at the funeral of the chief minister (if I read correctly) of the NWFP
When honoring the dead, a silent du'a is said. And it is said communally, such that when I sat down next to the chief minister, raised my hands, and softly said du'a kare, "let us do prayer," the whole tent in an instant responded by raising their hands with me in a wave of joint supplication—the politicians, the family, the elders with their canes—and praying in absolute silence for the soul of the departed. The moment of silence lingered, all eyes on us, until, in the traditional style, I passed my hands over my face and closed with a quiet Ameen.
or this Easter procession he participated in
At three o'clock in the morning, my friend drove me to the heart of the Old City. There we joined what was an extraordinary scene—hundreds of Christians marching through dark, narrow streets, with candles lit, in a line that stretched for an entire block. At the front of the line were Anglicans and Catholics, marching in their vestments. After them came—what else?—a decorated Suzuki minibus, with a pa system mounted on top and an eager young preacher in the passenger seat belting out sermons in Urdu, then Pashto, then Punjabi. Behind the minibus came a tightly packed crowd of dancing Pentecostals, who, much to the relief of the nervous Anglicans, somehow managed to keep moving along with the crowd. And all around this scene—around the flickering lights and the children singing hymns and the minibus creeping through the dark streets in the wee hours of Easter morning—were policemen.

It was my first Easter celebrated within a police cordon.

What dissonance to be saying "Jesus is risen!" in the still-dark streets of an ancient Muslim city while surrounded by men with batons and Kalashnikovs. Part of me felt a measure of awe that a state—an Islamic republic, no less—would go to such lengths to protect a declaration that has no standing in its received revelation. Another part of me felt a despairing sadness that police were necessary and that Easter needed to be managed as a security event. Amid all this, in spite of the dissonance of it all, I kept coming back to a lingering sense that this experience must be truer to that of the early Christians than the grand, note-perfect pageants I had come to know as "Easter Sunday."
Unsurprisingly, like so many religiously/spiritually inclined Westerners, he finds something appealing about the religiosity of places like South Asia (he ascribes this just to Islam, but it's as evident across the border in multi-religious India):
Second, in spite of feeling far from home, time and time again I found that I felt surprisingly comfortable in Pakistan, precisely because it was a deeply religious society. Despite the points of shared history and shared values, at the end of the day, I believe something quite different than the Muslims I met and lived with and prayed among. But I still came away admiring their devotion and appreciating a society in which religious conversation and values are honored.
[There's a huge tension here, a whole separate conversation about whether this kind of religiosity is inextricably tied up with things such as domestic violence against women, religiously inspired violence against minorities, etc. But yes, it is immensely appealing, and, I too, the child of the secularized, Westernized, English-speaking urban Indian elite, approach somewhat as an outsider.] He has some suggestions for Western Christians
In light of my experience with the suffering church in Pakistan, I feel more deeply the truth that has been reiterated many times in these pages: that the church in the West needs to redefine success and "suffer with those who suffer"—with Christian brothers and sisters, but also with the whole range of religious communities worldwide who feel overshadowed, beleaguered, and forgotten.
and for dialogue
I have come to think that this kind of interpretive witness is one calling of a true global citizen, and certainly of a Christian who takes seriously the way of Jesus. It is a witness that doesn't ignore the realities of politics and the brutalities of modern terrorism, but responds with something more than power and pragmatism. It is a witness that looks for ways to engage those who have divergent visions of faith and society and advocates for fundamental religious freedoms. More than anything, it is a witness that stitches together humility and conviction in the messiness of the real world—and does so in a way that points quietly, but inevitably, to the faith we profess.
One can argue continually about the specifics that last paragraph calls for, but, I whole heartedly concur: humble witness to the One we profess to follow, the crucified one whom death could not bind.

[And I hope any Pakistanis who stumble upon this would forgive me for tagging this post "India." This isn't because of any VHP inspired akhand Bharat fantasies, or because I wish to deny our brothers and sisters across the border their national identity. It's just convenience. I've created a separate Pakistan label as well.]


Mac said...

"Unsurprisingly, like so many religiously/spiritually inclined Westerners, he finds something appealing about the religiosity of places like South Asia...." Hmmm...I wonder which westerners are being referred to here (!). What are "places like South Asia," incidentally? The religiosity of South Pacific countries is to this westerner unappealing to the nth degree! Perhaps I know it too well.

Gashwin said...

Mac: "like so many" does not include all. You hardly fit the bill for any typical Westerner that I know :-)

"Places like South Asia" = places with a deep sense of religiosity that permeates public life. Lots of good, and, as you know, lots of bad in that :)