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On Vocation: The Mystery of Risk
The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace by John
December 07, 2006
Since I was cut from the reed-bed, I have made this crying sound.
Ė Rumi, The Reed Flute
our way in the preceding pages, I have hinted at but not fully explored
the fourth discipline: risk. Commitment to relationship always entails
risk. Sitting in the messy ambiguity of complexity while refusing
to frame it in dualistic terms requires risk. Belief that creativity
can actually happen is an act of risk. Walking into the camp of
a warlord is taking a risk. Meeting with all of the armed groups
in Magdalena Medio was pure risk. But what exactly is risk?
Risk is mystery.
It requires a journey. Risk means we take a step toward and into
the unknown. By definition, risk accepts vulnerability and lets
go of the need to a priori control the process or the outcome of
human affairs. It is the journey of the great explorers for it chooses,
like the images in the maps of old, to live at the edge of known
cartography. Risk means stepping into a place where you are not
sure what will come or what will happen.
The word mystery
has been cropping up continuously in my work. In a recent research
initiative, I could find no word other than mystery to explain
certain kinds of attitudes, activities, and responses of people
who live in settings of great violence. The Maryknoll Center for
Research had taken up an effort to study grassroots community responses
to violence. When I was first contacted by Tom Bamat, the research
director at Maryknoll, I thought he had made a mistake. He wanted
me to accompany the research process, listen to the findings, and
then make theological comments on what I heard and saw. After
several go-rounds of clarification about my likely shortcomings
as a theologian, I accepted.
During the research
I very much did what Tom described. I attended meetings and listened
to the on-the-ground researchers who were interviewing local people
and conducting ethnographic and survey research in communities directly
affected by violence. The research was carried out in Mindanao,
Sudan, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and inner-city
gang territories from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. The people to
whom the researchers talked were not professionals of peace-building,
nor did they use such a title at an informal level. They were common,
everyday folk who were sorting through how they should respond to
violence in order to survive. The researchers looked into how people
thought about broad themes like peace, violence, and images of the
Divine. The result is found in Artisans of Peace, which captures
these studies and grassroots responses (Cejka and Bamat, 2003).
Toward the end
of the first phase, preliminary case studies and findings were presented.
My task at that meeting was to present my early impressions about
the theology of what I had picked up as initial themes emerging
in the voices and findings of the case studies. I shared some thoughts
on the topics of time and space, which became subsections in that
book and subsequently are being explored more fully in this book.
The third section I suggested was the "Theology of Mystery".
In our meeting
that afternoon, I decided what I meant by the theology of mystery.
It was my sense that the people being studied at the grassroots
levels in the case examples had responded with their lives, in many
cases undertaking extraordinary actions, but the researchers were
somewhat perplexed that these same people did not have an explicit
cognitive theology nor theory of peace. When asked about their view
of peacemaking, since they were engaged in reconciling with their
enemies, many of the respondents did not have a well-honed speech
or practiced explanation. It was as if they had not fully thought
it through. They had to stop and think what words to give to their
actions. They had found ways to constructively engage and even reconcile
with their enemies in the midst of violence. But they did not have
words to describe what they had done. The results were initially
reported by the researchers as apparently insignificant, simple
phrases: "It was the right thing to do," "We believe
in stopping violence" "Peace is Godís way." This
was, I suggested, not a reflection that these folks lacked theology
or sophistication. It was a reflection that the action taken was
mysterious. They had ventured on a journey toward a land totally
unfamiliar. Exploration of that unknown land called peace-building,
I thought, was akin to the mysterious journey toward the sacred.
It is the same land, I have come to believe, that the moral imagination
requires us to explore.
to what I was suggesting, our Northern Irish researcher, John Brewer,
provided an extraordinary insight. Reflecting on Northern Ireland
In our context
of thirty plus years of the Troubles, violence, fear and division
are known. Peace is the mystery! People are frightened of peace.
It is simultaneously exciting and fearful. This is mystery. Peace
asks a lot of you. Peace asks you to share memory. It asks you to
share space, territory, specific concrete places. It asks you to
share a future. And all this you are asked to do with and in the
presence of your enemy. Peace is Mystery. It is walking into the
unknown (Cejka and Bamat, 2003:265)
I found in the
case studies, in peopleís explanations, and in the researcherís
descriptions something I have often found in settings of protracted
conflict. People find innovative responses to impossible situations
not because they are well-trained professionals or particularly
gifted. Innovative responses arise because this is their context,
their place. The essence of the response is not found so much in
what they do but in who they are and how they see themselves in
relationship with others. They speak with their lives.
When we approach
the mystery of risk as part of peace-building in settings of violence,
I believe we are exploring life purpose more than professional effectiveness.
The two are not unrelated or antithetical but life purpose takes
us to a deeper soil not readily available if we stop only at the
level of professional ethics and conduct. Risk and the moral imagination
dig into this special kind of soil, one that is not commonly discussed
in either the scientific or professional literature on conflict
transformation and peace-building. It is the soil of finding our
voice, finding a way to speak with our lives. It is the potentially
rich but too seldom tapped or fed soil of vocation.
I first understood
this from Parker Palmerís book Let Your Life Speak (Palmer,
2000). Vocation, he clarifies, is rooted in the Latin for
"voice." As he put it, "[V]ocation is not a goal
that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell
my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling
me who I am" (Palmer, 2000:4).
resolution and peace-building we expend a lot of energy teaching
people how to listen. The focus is on how to listen to others. I
have often been struck with how little energy we invest in listening
to our own voices. Yet the two are intimately connected. I am increasingly
of the view that people who listen the best and the deepest to others
are those who have found a way to be in touch with their own voices.
To deeply understand
vocation as voice, we must go beyond what is initially visible and
audible, to that which has rhythm, movement and feeling. Voice is
not the externalization of sound and words. Literally and metaphorically,
voice is not located in the mouth or on the tongue where words are
formed. Voice is deeper. Words are only a small expression of that
ways we talk about and perceive voice. We speak with admiration
of a person who has a deep, resonant voice. Baritones or sopranos
whose voices ring in such captivating ways that you nearly forget
to breathe never sing from their mouths. They sing from deep within,
from a place that sustains the longest of vowels and notes. I once
had voice lessons to improve my singing. Although it did not improve
my stature as a singer, I do remember the instruction. The one thing
upon which the voice teacher insisted was this: Push from deep,
from diaphragm up. The sound and sustenance of music must tap deep,
or it is weak and incomplete. The least important element is the
mouth. The most important is the foundation of the voice, the home
where voice is found. That place is literally where heart and lungs
Voice is located
where breath dies and is born, where what is taken in gives life,
where what has served its purpose is released anew. Voice is located
at the source of rhythm, the internal drumming of life itself. When
the poet Emerson said we walk to the "beat of a different drummer,"
he was talking about voice, the sense of internal rhythm. We cannot
underestimate the enormity of the Genesis stories, and of parallel
narratives in many traditions, of how life itself came to be: God
breathed into clay. Life was created from the place where breath
and earth met, and from that place voice arose. Voice is the essence
of being a person.
Where you find
that meeting place, the home where heart and lungs gather, where
breath meets blood, there you will find voice. When you find your
way to that home, there you will find yourself, the unique gift
that God has placed on this earth. You will find the place from
which your journey begins and to where it returns when the road
is confused and hard. This is the deeper sense of vocation.
I have been
reading Persian poets as part of my personal education for working
in Central Asia, mostly in Tajikistan and the Ferghana Valley. I
have had the privilege of coming to know new friends in this part
of the world. One of them is Faredun Hodizoda, the son of the most
prominent living scholar on Persian literature in Tajikistan, Rasul
Hodizoda. As we traveled recently through the most southern part
of the Ferghana Valley, where Faredun works, I inquired about the
poets I was reading. I have found that the poetry, written from
within an Islamic context and tradition, has a feel much like the
wisdom literature I find in Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and the
Psalms with which I am familiar from the Old Testament. Attar, Saadi,
Saanai, Rumi, Hafezóthe names are familiar to a few specialists
in the West and nearly household words in the oral traditions in
much of Central Asia. Within Islam, these poets are the mystics,
the Sufis. They speak of love, life, and the nature of the Divine.
They often write in teaching parables and stories. I began to notice
that many of these poets used references to the reed flute. I asked
Faredun on one of our trips about the meaning of the flute.
reed flute," he replied. "You see, the flute is made by
cutting the cane, the reed. When the flute is played, lips are place
on the mouthpiece and breath is blown into [the] reed. The sound,
you may have noticed, is mournful. It calls out. It is said that
the reed always wants to return home, to its place. Rumi once wrote
the story told by the reed."
Since I was
cut from the reed-bed,
made this crying sound.
apart from someone (s)he loves
what I say.
pulled from a source
to go back. (Barks: 1988:17)
the sound of
the reed flute is a call to find a way home. The poets use the reed
flute to say it is like God placing lips on humans and breathing
life. The breath creates a sound, a voice in the body that searches
for this source of life. So the reed wants [to] return home. It
is a return to God. The poets say the voice of the flute is a longing
for true home.
a true home, this is vocation. Finding a way to that home is a journey
toward understanding who I am. At its essence, home provides a sense
of place. Vocation is the same. Knowing who you are is finding where
you are, as in "I have a sense of my place in this world."
We often seek our sense of place by what we do professionally. This
is where the confusion comes that link vocation with work, jobs,
and titles. But vocation is not a profession. It is definitely not
"work" and even less a "job". Vocation is knowing
and staying true to the deep voice. Vocation stirs inside, calls
out to be heard, to be followed. It beckons us home. When we live
in a way that keeps vocation within eyesight and earshot, like the
needle of a compass, vocation provides a sense of location, place,
and direction. This is why we may say to friends as a deep compliment
of appreciation for their genuine acceptance, "I feel comfortable
here with you. I can just be myself. I feel at home."
People who are
close to home no matter where they live or travel or what work they
do are people who walk guided by their voice. They are voice walkers:
They can hear the reed flute. On a permanent journey, they always
are within earshot of home.
have known a lot of voice-walkers in my life. They rarely stand
out immediately. You come to recognize them after a while more than
from first impressions. Lives donít speak in one-time conversations.
They speak over time.
You may notice
them first for the things they donít confuse. They donít confuse
their job or activities with who they are as people. They donít
confuse getting credit with success, or recognition with self-worth.
They donít confuse criticism for an enemy. They donít confuse truth
with social or political power. They donít confuse their work with
saving the world. They donít confuse guilt with motivation.
Then you may
notice something that is not easy to put a finger on: It is not
so much what they do as who they are that makes a difference. They
listen in a way that their own agenda does not seem to be in the
way. They respond more from love than fear. They laugh at themselves.
They cry with otherís pain, but never take over their journey. They
know when to say no and have the courage to do it. They work hard
but rarely too busy. Their life speaks.
to whom I dedicate this book, was a voice-walker with an extraordinary
moral imagination. She gave her life to walking, literally, up and
down the ethnic clash areas of the Rift Valley in her native Kenya.
She helped initiate and then carry the Community Peace and Development
Project of the National Council of Churches of Kenya. She was a
magician in the best sense of David Abramís definition for she was
at the edge of her own community, moving and mediating between the
worlds of tribal wars while being a part of the fabric where they
happened. She was, in the worlds of the Van Morrison song, a "dweller
on the threshold."
I had the privilege
of many meetings and conversations with her and was able to watch
her be among her people. She never feared talking to the highest
level political or religious leader about what was happening on
the ground, the impact of their words and actions on real peopleís
lives, or what new ideas needed to be pursued. And she never lost
their attention or respect. Rose was known for walking, seemingly
without fear, into enemy tribal areas when things were about to
explode. This middle-aged woman called on every intuition she could
muster, from motherhood to ancestors, when on more than one occasion
she waded into open and violently explosive baraza meetings
(open town square meetings) that could avert or lead to war. She
moved with equal courage towards those from her own tribe, never
forcing a false choice between love and truth.
I saw her laugh,
contagiously. I sat with her when she wept from deep inside. I saw
her give birth to hope in others. With a life portfolio of experiences
and accomplishments in on-the-ground peace-building few of us could
possibly imagine, I watched her insatiable desire to learn in seminars
and classrooms. But mostly I saw a person who walked in touch with
her voice, and from that place she gave voice to others. Rose lived
the mystery of vocation, the mystery of risk.
In October 1999,
Rose died in a tragic car accident returning from meetings in the
Rift Valley. Two years later, Kenya, through a process of national
elections, passed to a new era of leadership. For perhaps the first
time in contemporary Kenyan history, the electoral period took place
unmarred by extensive violence. A decade of Rift Valley voice-walkers
with their seminars, workshops, barazas, elders meetings,
conversations with parliamentarians Ė but mostly with their presence
Ė had given birth to a nearly imperceptible gift: a space for change
to happen without violence. I am sure the ancestors watched. And
I am sure Rose laughed contagiously.
is a sense in which the whole of peace-building could be summed
up as finding and building voice. It happened between the warlord
and the philosopher, between the young man and the chief. This was
the case when the peasants engaged the range of violent actors around
them in Magdalena Medio. Starting with a few in the market, a whole
community found a voice that stopped a war.
These are the
kind of things we usually visualize as our work: how to help people
find that voice that sustains and makes change possible. The journey
toward change that those people make requires more than a strategy
of good ideas or technique. Fundamentally, it requires a willingness
to risk and great vulnerability. They are stepping into the unknown,
into the mystery of risk. The journey of voice finds its source
at the level of life and vocation.
In the important
process of the professionalization of our fields, we have not adequately
attended to the need that we touch and listen to the voice of vocation.
We cannot expect others to enter the mystery of risk that takes
the step beyond violence and into the uncharted geography of relationship
with the enemy unless we ourselves understand and engage the mystery
of risk and vocation. We cannot listen and provide support to others
as they find their voices if we ourselves see this only as a technique
or the management of a process. The capacity to incite the moral
imagination connects at this level for it taps the source of what
makes transcendent change possible: the capacity to risk.
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