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On Vocation: The Mystery of Risk
Source: The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace by John Paul Lederach
December 07, 2006

Since I was cut from the reed-bed, I have made this crying sound. Ė Rumi, The Reed Flute

Along 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.

In response to what I was suggesting, our Northern Irish researcher, John Brewer, provided an extraordinary insight. Reflecting on Northern Ireland he commented:

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).

In conflict 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 depth.

Consider the 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 meet.

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.

"Ah, the 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,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone (s)he loves
Understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
Longs to go back. (Barks: 1988:17)

"You see," Faredun continued:

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.

Longing for 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.

I 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.

Rose Barmasai, 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.

There 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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