The son of American missionaries, Jonathan Addleton was born in Murree, Pakistan, and graduated from the city's Christian school that was attacked by Islamic gunmen in August. Addleton's book, Some Far and Distant Place (University of Georgia Press), focuses on his years at Murree Christian School. The book will be reissued in paperback later this month. Addleton, now the director of the USAID Mission to Mongolia, spoke with Books & Culture about the school attacks and the changing face of Pakistan.
As a former student of Murree Christian School, what was your response to the August 5 shootings?
I was devastated. Within a few hours, emails began to arrive from around the world, including some from people who had witnessed the attack. It is a miracle that no students were killed or injured. It is also important to pay tribute to the Pakistani security guards, two of whom literally gave their lives to help ensure the safety of the students.
Were there fears of this kind of violence when you attended?
Not really. High walls and security guards were not a part of the MCS that I knew as a child. Some political demonstrations occurred on occasion outside U.S. or European government buildings in Karachi or other large cities. But there was certainly a strong feeling among all of us that schools, hospitals, and places of worship were "neutral ground" as far as political demonstrations or violence were concerned. Also, Murree is a fairly remote place and seemed far away from the larger political events affecting the country and the region.
When was the last time you visited the school?
I last visited in the summer of 1996, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the school. One surprise was that enrollment at MCS was slightly higher than when I attended back in the 1970s. When I graduated in 1975, there were around 125 kids in the school. At the start of this year there were around 150. It has always been a tiny school but has had an impact that outweighed its size.
Another noticeable difference was that it had become less American over time. The British influence was always fairly strong, but enrollment expanded in recent years to include many more students and staff from several European and some Asian countries, as well as from the U.S., Canada, Australia New Zealand. Certainly, MCS in no way can be described as an "American institution."
One thing that MCS has retained is its strongly multi-national and a multi-denominational character. It was and remains a strongly Christian institution, though a "broad" one in the sense that it is supported by numerous denominations and mission boards. Looking back, this ability to maintain a sense of balance and perspective among a variety of strongly held theological viewpoints probably represents an important strength, one that should be more common in other missionary settings than is in fact the case.
You write that you desperately wanted to graduate from Murree Christian School. Why?
I have no doubt that much of my emotional and spiritual makeup is directly connected to my MCS experience. It was only during the last couple of years of high school that I realized how "lucky" I was and what a great "gift" I had been given as far as childhood is concerned. At heart, I wanted to delay my goodbyes for as long as possible. Even today, I try to maintain the sense of wonder and astonishment that was so much a part of my childhood in Pakistan.
Parenthetically, Some Far and Distant Place was written partly in response to the type of stereotypes that I encountered as a university student in the U.S.—stereotypes about missionaries, about missionary children, and about Pakistan. For some reason, I wasn't convinced that my upbringing was quite like those around me imagined it to have been! Murree had a large and mostly positive impact on my life, one that hopefully comes across vividly in the pages of this book.
Many of my memories of the school are associated with a strong sense of community; a closeness to the natural beauty that surrounded us; a fascination with travel; and an appreciation for the love and commitment displayed by several staff members who left an especially strong impression.
I attended boarding school at Murree from the age of six. Looking back, I realize that people react to such experiences in different ways. Nonetheless, many if not most of the "missionary kids" that I have met over the years do seem to grow up with a sense of community, spiritual wholeness, and affinity with the natural world that is difficult to recreate as an adult.
In the book you mention a time the school was closed because of war in 1971. How will its current temporary closing affect Christians in the region?
MCS briefly closed just prior to the December 1971 war between India and Pakistan. However, this was not enough to really disrupt school life, and it opened again by spring. Recent events are much different, involving a violent attack on the school with a clear intent to kill. I hope for the best but can't help but wonder whether the school will in fact be able to re-open at some future point.
What tensions do you remember being present in Pakistan when you were there?
Some Far and Distant Place alludes to certain underlying tensions, usually in connection with broader events taking place on the world stage—violence in the Middle East, wars between India and Pakistan, etc. In addition, there was always a distinct feeling that we were part of a tiny minority floating, usually but not always peacefully, within the much larger sea of Islam. I expect that Muslims living as a minority in Western countries have sometimes shared in this same sense of isolation.
What changes have you seen in Pakistan's Christian-Muslim relations?
Muslim-Christian relationships were much less polarized when I was growing up in Pakistan during the 1960s and 1970s. The notion of wanting to "bear witness" to one's faith seemed comprehensible to our Muslim neighbors within their own spiritual framework. And, when local newspapers suggested that certain pressing issues should be "attacked" with "missionary zeal," they meant it in a highly positive way as something involving a commendable level of energy, enthusiasm, and commitment. Increasingly, these attitudes appear to belong to another age.
One thing I have noticed is a widespread ignorance in the U.S. and Europe about Christian and other minorities living in the Islamic world. This is also a missing element in more recent attempts by schools and media in North America and Europe to "educate" people about the world of Islam.
The Christian population in Pakistan numbers around three million. In percentage terms, the proportion of Christians living in Pakistan is equal to the proportion of Muslims living in the U.S. Divided roughly equally between Catholics and Protestants, the Pakistani Christian community has its origins mostly in 19th-century missionary activity during the British Raj. The church is rooted in Pakistan and has been for many decades. Christians have made their mark in education and medicine, among other fields. Some have served with distinction in the military and on the sports field. But to a large extent the community exists at the very bottom of Pakistan's social order. Visitors are often surprised to find a Christian church in virtually every city and most towns—and even more surprised to learn that almost every sweeper and toilet cleaner in the country comes from either the Christian or Hindu community.
Somewhat related, there is a distorted belief that the recent attacks have focused on "American" institutions in Pakistan. Both MCS and the church in Islamabad were certainly international institutions that included American connections. However, other targets such as Taxila hospital and the church in southern Punjab can only be regarded as attacks on Pakistan's small Christian minority, one that some might well want to wish off the face of the earth. The specific targeting of schools, hospitals, and churches is deeply disturbing.
How does today's Pakistan resemble the Pakistan of your youth as depicted in the book?
The title Some Far and Distant Place suggests a place separated not only by distance but also by time. Many features of Pakistani society described in the book remain broadly similar. However, the political and religious context in Pakistan has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had a huge impact. It set in motion a series of other events, including the arming of the Mujihadeen, the unraveling of the Soviet empire, and the emergence of the Taliban. For understandable reasons, many Pakistanis attribute the emergence of a violent "drugs and weapons culture" during the 1980s and 1990s to the forces unleashed by this invasion. The violent religious extremism displayed in recent months is at least partly connected to these events.
Demographics have perhaps also played a role. Pakistan's population has more than doubled since I graduated from Murree in 1975, to around 140 million. In terms of population, Pakistan is now half the size of the U.S. It also has about the same population as Russia, though living in one-twentieth the space. If nothing else, Pakistan is a lot more crowded than when I was growing up!
Finally, globalization is a huge contributor to the changing face of Pakistan. I have a vague recollection dating to 1969 of the arrival of a Coke bottling plant in Shikarpur, the small town in upper Sind where my parents lived and worked. I grew up without television or telephones, but I also recall the introduction of television to Pakistan, also in the late 1960s. In retrospect, these seem like only the portents of the many dramatic changes yet to come. Also related to globalization is the emergence of large expatriate Pakistani populations in the U.S., Western Europe, and the Middle East. In that sense, Pakistan is no longer "some far and distant place;" in many cases, it is next door or just around the corner.
As someone working in foreign lands in the last year, how have you seen Americans and Christians viewed differently in the post 9/11 world?
I spent almost all of the last year in Mongolia, about as far removed from the Middle East or New York as possible. Mongolians expressed a huge amount of sympathy for the U.S. in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In fact, many sent flowers, notes, and even several thousand dollars in cash donations to the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar to assist in the relief efforts.
Perhaps more than anything, the stunning television images of the collapse of the twin towers contributed to this sense of solidarity during a time of national tragedy. The Mongolian view of the U.S. is generally positive. It was and continues to be seen as a land of economic opportunity, an attitude that has not changed at all since the September 11 attacks.
How have the events since September 11 and the war on terrorism affected aid work?
The international aid community is heavily involved in attempts to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Aid levels to neighboring Pakistan have also increased significantly, including in education. Interestingly enough, several MCS alumni are directly involved in some of the aid efforts currently underway in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
How is your work and life today a continuation of how you were raised as a missionary kid in Pakistan?
It is difficult to grow up in a missionary household without having a strong sense of life as a "calling." A relatively large number of MCS graduates have entered into the "service" occupations, especially teaching and medicine. Interestingly, several dozen alumni returned to Pakistan to work as adults, some as missionaries and others in various types of development work.
As a child, I was especially impressed by Christians who worked out their faith in a secular setting. I admired and respected my parent's missionary calling, yet never experienced it for myself. At the same time, I have no doubt that my subsequent education and work have their origins in my childhood as the fortunate son of a missionary family growing up in Pakistan.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)
Stop, Drop, and Cover … | Then hack your lungs out and die. (June 3, 2002)
Death of an Evolutionist | RIP Stephen Jay Gould. (May 31, 2002)
Closing The X-Files … | … with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is … | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)