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Technique A: Aggression

He recognised me straight away.  As I walked into the photocopy shop he instantly saw that I was a foreigner and beckoned me over.  Ignoring my enquiry about whether I could get some documents copied, he sent for chai.

“Ah, British!” he said, smiling to himself.  “The British really messed up Pakistan, didn’t they?”.

I didn’t know what to say.  It was partly true at least.  It was also very un-Pakistani to begin with such hostility.  His smile was thin and insincere.

“Are you a Christian?  I see.  Well, you ought to convert”.

I smiled and considered my response.  Everyone in the shop was looking at us, eager to see where this would go.  As I opened my mouth to give an answer he jumped straight in again.

“If you converted, you would be so successful in life.  So wealthy, so happy, everything going right for you.  Why don’t you think about it?  All you have to do is recite the creed”.

This was odd, like an Islamic version of the Christian Prosperity Gospel.  I opened my mouth to respond once more, but to no avail.

“Hold out your hand” he barked in command.  Dumbly, I did so.  He smiled again.

“Just as I thought” he said.  “Your palm says that you are a good man.  But you could be so much better if you turned to Islam.  Why continue wasting your life?”.

I wanted to say something back, to engage in dialogue, but he clearly had no intention of letting me speak.  He outlined in rapid-fire Urdu the benefits of conversion and the dangers of hellfire.  It was not a conversation; it was a monologue, a verbal assault.  Finally, with an abrupt gesture he cut it short and bid me farewell.

“Think about it, won’t you?” he said, his eyes glinting.

The whole experience felt hostile.  Oddly, I felt as though I were a schoolchild again and had been told off by the Principal, subjected to a verbal grilling about my failings in life and how I might improve.  The man was not interested in dialogue, only in knocking down my beliefs.  Frankly I failed to see how this approach could conceivably lead anyone to a greater interest in Islam; it only succeeded in making me feel small and foolish.

I then wondered how many Christians use this approach with non-Christians.  It is so much easier to make speeches, to engage in monologue rather than dialogue!  No tricky responses, no difficult questions to answer, just empty air to fill with arguments.  It is easy.  It is also pointless.

 

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Near our house is the visa office for most Western countries.  Anyone living in Pakistan who needs a visa for the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia or a range of other destinations makes a pilgrimage here, armed with application forms, documents, flight bookings, and a face of grim determination.  Every morning I see them queueing up, hopeful and perhaps just a touch desperate.  They are eager to leave.  Many people are.

One of the many contradictions of which the nation of Pakistan is constructed is that people here feel both a fierce sense of national pride and a strong tendency towards self-criticism.  Many Pakistanis love Pakistan deeply and proudly, and yet criticise it without hesitation.  Many would leave, given the chance.  Many have already left, setting up colonies in Toronto and New York, London and Birmingham and Melbourne.  Even the fundamentalists who scream hatred of the USA would give their right arm for a chance to live there.

We have done the opposite, moving from the West to live in Pakistan, and everyone thinks we’re insane.  At first I did too, wondering exactly why it was that we had chosen to swap reliable electricity and sensible governance for the myriad eccentricities (if I’m being kind) and baffling illogicalities (if I’m not) of the Land of the Pure.  The electricity comes and goes.  Corruption is rampant.  The police can’t be trusted.  It’s hot and dusty half the year, cold and dusty the other half, and everyone stares at me whenever I walk outside.

Yet it would break my heart to leave.  Why?  What would I miss?  The straightforward kindness of the people, for one thing, who have every reason to resent a British man and yet never seem to do so.  The kindness and generosity of Muslim people.  The smell of rain on dusty ground.  The epic monsoon thunderstorms which split the sky asunder with a terrifying roar.  The mountains of the north.  The chance, the wonderful chance, to do something positive in a place of need, to praise Pakistan, to honour its people, to promote education, to bring peace between Muslim and Christian in a time of great fear and mistrust.  The opportunity to see God move in the lives of others, to see him mould and change and refine us, to experience his love precisely when we most need it.

I do not want to leave, not yet.  There is so much good here, so much beauty, and we are almost uniquely privileged to witness it when so few Westerners ever come here.  I love Pakistan very much.  I rather suspect I always will.

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When I was a child the season of Advent seemed magical to me.  A time of anticipation, largely of the food and presents that would come my way when the Advent candle finally burned down to 25.  A time of joyous expectation.  It tied in with the decorations in the town centre, with the Christmas music on the radio, with all of the trappings of Christmas in a Western country.

The older I became, the more the glitter and magic of Advent wore off.  As I thought about the birth of Jesus it struck me that this was a rescue mission, a final and stunning act of lavish and proactive generosity on the part of a God who could not bear to be separated from his people.  My rejoicing was replaced with wonder as I realised just how much humanity needed God, just how much God longed to be reunited with humanity, just how extreme and astonishing the rescue mission was.

And now in Pakistan Advent seems more miraculous, more bizarre, more incredible than ever.  Most people here simply cannot believe that God would stoop to enter the world as a human: it would be beneath him, unworthy of his majesty.  I can understand the objection.  The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is a phenomenon not seen in any other religion, at any other time, anywhere else in the world.  How could a divinity lower himself to such a level?  It is unthinkable that God would require food, would stub his toe, would cry.  I understand the objection, though I do not agree with it.  The aspect of God’s nature which makes the incarnation possible is the unthinkable depth and breadth of his love.  He would do anything, anything, to be with his children.  What father would do less?

Apart from Pakistani Christians, nobody here marks Christmas.  Save for the gaudily-decorated lobbies of the expensive Western hotels there are no decorations, no Christmas songs, no Christmas adverts on TV.  We celebrate it quietly.  I enjoy this very much.  It is in keeping with the season of Advent: a secret rescue mission, a tiny baby delivered in a humble room in an irrelevant backwater of the Roman Empire, welcomed by lowly shepherds.  The baby who would go on to turn the world upside down after three decades in isolation.  Jesus, the ultimate sleeper cell.  Not many here know of him, but he is there, and his love is as broad and deep as it ever was.

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He died suddenly, over dinner.  Chest pains had been bothering him for a few hours but he disregarded them, saying that it was merely indigestion and that people should stop worrying.  He went out for dinner with friends and family at a restaurant and it was there that he died, collapsing suddenly as his heart stopped, his life vanishing as suddenly as the morning mist.

He was a Christian and had worked at the site manager for a church for several decades, earning a reputation for trustworthiness and kindness.  It was to that church that his body was brought.  A coffin was prepared, a thing of thin wood and black fabric, decorated with a single strip of silver fabric, and into the coffin his body was placed, smartly dressed in a clean shirt and trousers as though he did not want to disappoint God by slipping into eternity in old clothes.

The relatives all came.  In Pakistan burials take place quickly, usually within 24 hours, and no relative would want to disrespect the deceased by not attending the burial.  They came from all over the Punjab.  They left jobs and family life; no employer would begrudge them the day off.  Family networks are strong here, one of the few sources of support available to Pakistanis bereft of money or connections.

The funeral was swift: a Punjabi zabur (Psalm), sung from memory, and a reading from Scripture.  A simple but powerful message was given from the pulpit, one of strength and comfort drawn from the truth of the Bible and the confidence that Christians have in the eventual resurrection from the dead.  The congregation were invited to gather around the coffin.  A woman fainted.  Others wept, wailing openly over the face of their uncle or brother or father or friend, their grief made raw by the suddenness of it all: one minute ordering food and sipping Coke, the next dead, gone, a life ended.

The coffin was placed into a van and was driven to the cemetery.  Here are buried Christians from several centuries, from British imperialists to contemporary Pakistani Christians: he would share a patch of soil with the deceased “NCOs and Men of the Somerset Light Infantry, 1917-1919” and with his own wife, buried nearby after passing away a decade ago.

The mourners filed through the cemetery as dusk settled over the city, illuminating their path with the light of their mobile phones.  The coffin was nailed shut, his face seeing the light for the very last time, and was laid into the grave.  More prayers were said, spoken loudly over the sound of sobbing.  A bottle of rosewater was poured over the coffin and handfuls of soil were tossed in.  His son wailed, sudden and stunningly loud.  The grave was filled.  Lavish handfuls of rose petals were poured on top and candles and incense sticks were studded into the soil until the fragrant smoke rendered the fresh soil all but invisible.

Christians do not grieve as those without hope.  This does not mean, though, that we do not grieve.  The pain of burying a father still cuts deep.  The sudden disappearance of a human being, the vanishing of an existence, the final full stop at the end of a life’s tale – this is an event accompanied by pain and loss.  Yet there is still hope.  There is always hope.  More than that: there is assurance.  As the mourners made their way out of the dark cemetery, as the bats swooped and flitted around the streetlights, squeaking softly, hope still lingered, delicate and eternal.

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I have several friends who voted for Donald Trump.  After Trump won the election I did the only productive thing I could think of: I invited one of them over for dinner.

Does that sound crazy?  We live in particularly divided times.  The online dialogue about the US election has been divisive at every level, with Nazi comparisons and vicious trolling flying around like confetti.  My friend and I sparred online in our discussions of events, though thankfully we were more polite to one another than some people are.  We have never compared each other to Hitler, which in the current climate makes our discussions oddly courteous.

But this is part of the problem, isn’t it?  Online discussions are a terrible phenomenon.  Email and Facebook are terrible means of communicating as they strip out the personal aspects of a discussion and reduce it to mere ideas.  Offence is easily taken.  We infer the worst intentions from comments, get defensive, and arguments ensue.  So dinner it was, sitting and eating together, discussing things face to face.  And here is what I learned.

  1. Not all Trump voters actually like Trump. My friend – a white, middle-aged, Christian man from a southern swing state – does not. He finds him crude and offensive.  So why did he vote for him?  Because he dislikes Clinton more than he dislikes Trump.  It really is, for him, the lesser of two evils.  The thought of electing a politician widely thought to be corrupt, duplicitous and incompetent was enough to make him switch to Trump.  Interestingly, he would not have voted Trump if Sanders had been the alternative.
  2. A lot of American people feel left out, sidelined by what they see as a sweeping, liberal agenda that perpetuates intolerance in the name of tolerance. The social and political mainstream automatically condemns anyone taking an alternative point of view on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, or immigration. Whether Donald Trump is likely to take a different stance on these issues is not important: what matters is that he is outside the establishment, refuses to subscribe to the liberal narrative, and enables their anger to be heard.
  3. Oddly (to me, at least) Trump is not seen by everyone as an aggressive candidate. My friend perceives him to be less interventionist and therefore less likely to embroil the USA in the mucky scuffles of recent years: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on. Trump as less warlike than Clinton?  It sounds baffling, but that is how some people perceive him.

What mattered more than all of this was the simple act of meeting and talking in person.  This enabled me to see my friend as a human, not as an abstract collection of ideas and motives.  I saw him smile when I joked.  I saw the pain on his face when he discussed abortion.  The simple act of sitting together made me soften what I said to him (and he to me, I think).

I still disagree with him and I am profoundly shocked and worried by Trump’s victory.  But in an increasingly divided world, and one that is separated and made more remote by the technologies that were intended to improve communication, I found it a helpful and uplifting experience.  Politics cannot be boiled down to black and white issues, to anonymous and intangible ideas and policies.  People, actual flesh and blood human beings, are involved at every level.  Whether or not we agree – in fact, especially if we don’t agree – we have to listen to one another, lest our divisions grow even more stark.

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We were having dinner with a Pakistani family in Toronto a few months ago.  The food, unsurprisingly, was excellent.  We chatted amicably about Pakistan and the things we appreciated and admired about it.  Our hosts found this strange, saying that they saw nothing good in Pakistan, but only corruption and anger.  It is odd but true that some of the staunchest critics of Pakistan are expatriate Pakistanis.  My wife and I found ourselves in the odd position of praising Pakistan to Pakistani people, who only wanted to criticise it.

The man who had invited us to dinner looked me straight in the eye.  “Of course you enjoy Pakistan” he said simply.  “You can leave any time you like”.

The statement was made so simply, so truthfully, that it cut through me like a knife.  He wasn’t being malicious or critical, he was merely stating the truth.  And it is undeniably true.  My white skin and British passport give me a uniquely privileged position in Pakistan.

Think about it: if I ever want to leave, all I have to do is buy a plane ticket and head to the airport.  I have enough money for it, and a choice of airlines and destinations, and I could be out of here in five hours.  I could come back in a week, or a month, or not at all.  If I get in trouble in Pakistan the British High Commission will (at least in theory) take the responsibility of getting me out of it.

And then there’s the traditional hospitality which Pakistanis extend to foreigners.  I am regularly waved through police checkposts.  I am never asked for bribes.  Everyone treats me like a celebrity, to such an extent that I am actually embarrassed by it.  A few weeks ago I was queueing at the bank to pay my electricity bill.  When the people in front of me discovered that I was a foreigner they all stepped aside – all twelve of them – and let me go first.  I was profoundly embarrassed but rather touched.

All of this is very nice, and very unfair.  Why should I be treated differently to anyone else?  If I were a Pakistani citizen, especially one without the benefit of wealth or personal connections, life would be much more difficult.  Is that fair?  Not in the least.  But that’s the kindness of Pakistanis for you.

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I think I can remember precisely when I fell in love with America.  I was driving on a highway somewhere in that enormous country of yours when I noticed small signs at intervals along the side of the road.  Each sign bore the name of a particular group which had sponsored that section of road – the local chamber of commerce, the boy scouts from a nearby town, a group of veterans.  At first I found that odd.  In the UK the government would take responsibility for the roads rather than leaving it to citizens to tidy and maintain the highway – but then I realised how wonderful it was that local people would take the responsibility for doing it.  It demonstrates pride, social investment in services, a sense of public spirit.

I’m really very fond of that country of yours.  You are wonderfully kind and hospitable people.  Your land possesses astonishing natural beauty.  You have produced some of the great thinkers of the world, some of the greatest politicians, some of our most cherished inventions.  America saved the world from Communism, saved Europe with the Marshall Plan, and gave us Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and The Simpsons.

Of course it isn’t an entirely rosy picture.  I cannot understand your obsession with guns – where else in the world would half the population defend the wide availability of weapons which cause 30,000 unnecessary deaths a year?  Nor, as a Christian, do I appreciate your invention of the mega-church and the celebrity pastors, who all too frequently bear as much resemblance to the humble Prince of Peace as I do to an armadillo.  And then let’s not forget that it was Americans who put cheese into a spray can, a crime which surely ought to have involved the International Criminal Court at some point.

So it is with sadness that I look upon the mess you seem to have brought upon your own heads.  At first this increasingly bitter election campaign made me feel angry – how dare Donald Trump speak like that; how dare Hillary get away with being so duplicitous – but now I just feel sad.  Whether one or the other wins, almost exactly half the country will be seething with rage.  Whoever wins, everyone seems likely to lose.  How did it come to this?  How did the nation of Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Thomas Jefferson descend to such a level of crudeness and vituperation?  What was once intelligent debate has turned into insult.  What was once public discourse has turned into slander and abuse.  At one point two candidates for the most powerful job in the world were arguing over ther size of their genitals.  I hate to think what George Washington would have made of it all.

Somebody will win this election, but that is not the point.  It is what comes after the election result that concerns me.  Where do you go from here?  What comes next?  More division?  More political insult and division?  More cynicism from people angry – justifiably so – at the self-serving, squabbling élites who refuse to utter a single word unless it has been weighted, fine-tuned, and presented to a focus group in order to maximise its impact?  Or will you look back at 2016 as the moment you came close to the edge – and changed your nation for the better?

The system is broken.  Everyone says it.  I think so, too.  The two-party system naturally leads to separation and an entrenchment of dogmatic belief.  Politicians have become adept at spin, at the cynical manipulation of truth to fit their own ends.  Small wonder nobody wants to trust a politician.

But here’s the thing: you and I are part of the system.  We are, all of us, a part of society.  We are involved.  We can change it.  Ordinary people can change it.  That is what has always happened.  Did Lincoln throw his hands in the air at the evils of slavery and blame the system?  Did Dr. King sit in an office moaning about civil rights?  Did Eleanor Roosevelt resort to writing newspaper columns criticising the lack of cooperation between the nations of the world?  It is not enough to complain about the bad things in the world; we have an obligation as conscientious humans to improve them.

You chaps have always been good at that.  The Berlin Wall was bad; you managed to have it knocked down.  The world was not enough; you sent men to walk on the moon.  Slavery was bad; you fought a war to end it.  The situation which faces you is bad too.  So stop bitching and do something positive about it.  That, surely, is the American Way.

Most of the rest of the world wishes you well.  I certainly do.  Although seriously, cheese in a spray can?  What were you thinking?

With best wishes

A Sweaty Pilgrim