On Saturday, a gang kidnapped 17 North American missionaries in Haiti as the party returned from an orphanage in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Since then, the group, known as 400 Mawozo, has demanded a ransom of $17 million for the victims—who include five men, seven women, and five children—and threatened death if the demand is not met. While many locals have been kidnapped in recent years as security on the country’s roads has been increasingly threatened, this incident has drawn significant international attention.
This kidnapping comes roughly two months after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan. America’s departure and the chaos that ensued led many expats, including aid workers and missionaries, to leave the country.
This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to talk about how Christians in ministry should evaluate risk. What is worth putting our lives on the line for? How do we know when we’re acting selfishly or selflessly?
Anna Hampton is the author of Facing Danger: A Guide Through Risk, which is based on her doctoral dissertation at Trinity Seminary in Newburg. She’s been in full-time ministry for 28 years, more than 17 of those years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and other parts of Central Asia and the Middle East. She and her family are now based in the US, but still doing work in Central Asia, so Anna Hampton is a pseudonym.
Hampton joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss how the Bible discusses risk, what has shaped Western Christians’ perspectives on this issue, and how saviorism affects how we make these decisions.
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Music by Sweeps
Quick to Listen is produced Morgan Lee and Matt Linder
The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #285
Risk with God means something different from just jumping in because God will take care of you. Applying that to overseas work in dangerous areas, what is the key misunderstanding that we as Christians who are trying to follow God have?
Anna Hampton: I would just have to start with the fact that there's this misconception that a theology of suffering and theology of risk are the same thing. Risk is situational and most of the time when we have a risk question, it's a specific situational question. But the global church tends to answer the risk question with a suffering answer. While the answer is true that God is good and he works all things together for good, for those who love him, it doesn't answer the actual question and therefore it does not help. When we were in Afghanistan, we were responsible for an extremely valuable and very large project, and we had a lot of people that we were responsible for, and you asked the risk question and to get that verse was not helping us. It did not lead to resiliency. So, theology of suffering and theology of risk are different. Some of us have more risk than others depending on what our calling is in life.
A verse that might come quickly to mind when someone is debating whether to do something risky in ministry could be something like, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not lean on your understanding” (Prov 3:5) or “have I not commanded you be strong and courageous, don't be frightened or dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh 1:9).
Do we need to think of other verses or do we need to think of those verses through a different lens than it'll be okay because God's with you?
Anna Hampton: We have to define what okay means because one of the things that I discovered as I was writing the dissertation, I was bothered one day and I thought, what are all the things that people have said to me that were not helpful? The first one that came to mind was, “you're never safer than when you're in the center of God's will.”
As I kept on writing, what came out of that eventually was 14 risk myths that the global church says. These are things that we repeat to comfort us, but they're partially true or they're used in a way that’s not answering the risk question.
The verses are great, but we also have to say what does it mean to say it's going to be okay. Yes, it will be okay in eternity but I do need to look at what are the threats and the vulnerabilities I have when I go into an area with a high crime rate to share the gospel because this high crime part of whatever city you want to name in America right now; what am I risking and what is wise to do.
As for me as a young mom, there were certain things I chose not to do in ministry in Afghanistan because I did not want to subject my children to an even greater risk than we were already in. So, I didn't go to refugee camps, for example, because I had three small children at home. I didn't want to bring disease into the home.
I evaluated risk, even though you can say I was already crazy to be in Afghanistan with children, but you're always evaluating the risk in practical terms as well. Coming back to the verse as an example and has helped me to feel calmer. Picking one verse of many that have a very similar thought; Deuteronomy 31:6 (Deut 31:6) where it says “be strong and courageous. Don't be afraid for the Lord your God is with you and he won't fail you.” If we stay in English, which it seems like a lot of preaching does, ‘be’ is not an action verb in English, and ‘strong’ looks like an adverb there, I believe. Be strong. The problem is that in Hebrew, ‘be’ is not in there. It's stronging, it's a verb. It's stronging and courageousing not fearing.
What does the action of stronging and courageousing look like? You cannot have courage if you don't have fear, but I'll just have to tell you it's not helpful when the preaching says don't fear you can't help it when you're afraid and you actually should be afraid.
There should be some measure of caution when you go into a high crime situation because that's wise, you don't want to lose your life. We're not out here to just randomly let ourselves be killed. We're there to be purposeful about serving the Lord Jesus. In that moment where we walk with a lot of people who are in frontline hostile situations for the sake of the gospel, what is he asking you to do today for him right now? If you're a Chinese house pastor, is he asking you to go to the church today? Is he asking you to risk today or is he asking you to stay home today? Is he asking you to turn right on the street because the police are left? What is he asking you to do right now at this moment as you serve him and it's a very specific application of walking in the Spirit, but also reading the text as in Hebrew, not in just the surface English interpretation translation?
A number of people may say, fear is not the opposite of faith. Fear can be a way in which God does speak to us and call us.
There are certain ways in which we think of it, even despite our best efforts as the more dangerous the call, the more holy the call. Should we disentangle our attempts to hear what God is calling us to from that kind of view that God calls us to do the thing that we're most afraid of?
Anna Hampton: Taking Gideon as an example, there were thousands of men afraid and the Lord said, “send those men home.” Three hundred men stayed to fight the battle and the preaching on that one is commonly that, isn't that bad they were afraid, so God sent them home. But God didn't judge those people for their fear. I believe when you read the Book of Judges, that those men fought another day, they just didn't fight that day because God had other purposes in mind for the battle.
So, they were not condemned for their fear and sometimes our fear can disqualify us from a certain battle. But on the other hand, we shouldn't say, the more dangerous it is, then I should go do that because that's not how the Lord evaluates us. When we walk into heaven, when he says, well done good and faithful servant, he's commending us for our obedience and faithfulness to whatever it is that he called us to. He's not calling all of us to danger. That's not going to be the standard by which we are evaluated from God's perspective, it's obedience and faithfulness.
Would you say it is fair to say that God will hold us accountable for not doing things because we specifically went out of our way to avoid situations that made us afraid?
Anna Hampton: We could say if he was calling you to do something and you didn't do it because you were afraid, then you missed an opportunity. If somebody was able to walk with a person in that situation and disciple them and see, he's going to be with you in that.
This is where I would say, bring in John Piper's book Risk is Right. He wrote it to the North American church that's risk avoidant. The problem is that in Afghanistan you can't say risk is always right or in Haiti in this case, it's not always right.
There are times when we should withdraw. There were times that Jesus and Paul withdrew. So, we should not always risk our lives, but if he's calling us to do something risky for us, whatever it is, it might be as minor as, and I don't mean to downplay it but it's hard to go up to a stranger and tell them about Christ. But if we avoid something he's asking us to do, then we've missed an opportunity. We may have disobeyed him and grieved the Holy Spirit. He's a gracious God though.
As Christians, we probably have this assumption that much of our convictions about risk and danger in what bravery looks like come from the Bible but of course, they also come from our culture as well. What would you say has shaped most Western Christians’ perspective on what constitutes risk?
Anna Hampton: We elevate people who do those dangerous things, and we tend to not elevate people who are faithful day in and day out and it doesn't look big or flashy. What looks courageous, what looks worthy of risk as to the Greco-Roman white male body that's been honed for the Olympics and Aristotle and Plato, I think they were both similar on this, that it's only courageous when you are in a forward attacking position of battle when you die and that is what is the hero.
If you die and you're on retreat, then you're a coward and it's shameful. This feels a little bit sometimes like how the church responds. My husband and I have a working theory as we travel to different mission fields, that the missionaries in that geographic region begin to take on the spiritual and the issues of that culture and it impacts the missionaries and it seems like that in some ways in the church, we'll just talk about America because I'm an American. We elevate that forward risk-taker, even if it actually might be foolish instead of elevating faithfulness and obedience to the Lord and doing it in such a way that we're demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit. We're doing it with relationships intact and authenticity of not having lots of conflict with people. We’ve seen missionaries in the field, just not doing well relationally with others, but to the church back home it sure looks brave and courageous.
Ted Olsen: Related to that is the question of consistency. The Book of 1 Kings has a story on Elijah where God speaks directly to him and sends him to tell Ahab about the drought because of sin and he tells Elijah to go and hide from Ahab because he is going to want to kill you.
How are we supposed to know when God is telling us to rest and when God's telling us to confront or to hide?
Anna Hampton: The problem for me in Afghanistan was people would send risk stories, people would say, you should do it, Esther did cause you're there for such a time as this. Other people would say you need to leave, Paul fled over the wall in the night. We were getting this back and forth, which is why I said, what does the Bible say about it? In Hebrew, there is no word for risk. There are only stories that describe situations.
As we looked at the different stories, both in the Old and the New Testament, it seemed that you could describe three elements that contribute to a theology of risk. When we look at risking and the theology of risk, we want to say, what is our foundation?
We can't risk the project as it has become the foundation instead of God Himself. So, you're right for Elijah that must've been key he was trusting God and God's timing for when he was supposed to do what he was supposed to do. I would have to say he's demonstrating that kind of faith of really walking close to the Lord to know what he should do. God was his foundation. We can see that clearly.
For Elijah, he's walking with the Lord and obeying Him. He's not letting what other people think about when he should hide or when he shouldn't hide. If it's a high-risk situation, it's a minute-by-minute thing. I can only say we see God's faithfulness in all of these different situations in that passage in 1 Kings 17 of God taking care of him, even when the brook dries up and the Lord provides for him. You get a front-row seat, it’s a risky moment you don't know if it's going to turn out well or not turn out well. It's like this place where your faith grows and you see God working. It's such an honor and a privilege to be there, but it can be scary at the same time.
I can think of a time in 2008 in Afghanistan and God was just right there. He spoke to me, and it was a faith-building moment. Gail Williams was shot at point-blank range in the fall of 2008, two blocks from my house. She was working for another organization, and she was murdered by two guys on a motorcycle on the route that the kids walk to get to the international school. This had a major impact on the faith-based NGOs that were working there in Kabul. That day we went into lockdown. Everybody stopped movement on the street, so we could figure out what was going on. The long part of that story is it went into an eight-month lockdown and 75% of the faith-based workers left the country.
We went into lockdown and the country directors of all the faith-based organizations were meeting together to decide what to do. It was determined that we were going to have to go into this lockdown and the threats were getting even louder from the Taliban that they were looking to kidnap and kill foreigners. It didn't matter if it was men, women, or children and they amply did that a number of times with women. So, I was never more tempted in my life. I'm an emancipated educated woman. I can take the credit card and buy myself a plane ticket and get my kids on there and let my husband finish our contract and I was so tempted to do that. I was so afraid. I was sitting there in my kitchen on the rug, and the Lord just brought this vision to me, and it was his hands holding a cup and I couldn't see what was in the cup. What this was all about was, would I be willing to stay for the lockdown period, whatever it was, they were saying, it looks like it's going to be eight months for those of us who are just going to maintain the work in the country. It meant for me that I was going to have to somehow get myself and my children and just support my husband without long-term psychological damage. How can I be joyful and make this be a place of life and peace for my children, but also still be loving on this culture that's abrasive and these threats are just breathing down you of kidnapping and murder. He was holding this cup out to me, and he said, “will you drink it?” I looked in the cup and I couldn't see the bottom; I couldn't see what was the result. There were no guarantees. There was no, “I promise you Psalm 91. You're never going to stumble, nothing's going to come near you.” There was none of that. He just said, “would you stay, and would you drink the cup”? What it meant was could I stay joyfully and willingly, and would I do my best to make this a fun time for my children and a place of restoration for my husband as he was going out to do this significant work every day.
I looked at the nail holes in his hands and I said, it's a small thing he's asking me compared to what he did and so yes, I can do that. Would you know that right then and for the rest of the time, it was like a supernatural peace enveloped me and us, not that I was perfect in that I don't claim that but as a community, we felt this amazing peace that was over us, even though we knew at any point something bad could happen.
It was that moment of intimacy with the Lord and he's gracious, loving, and he's so gentle when he invites us to do something like risking our lives. He doesn't demand. He's not like a Middle Eastern ancient Mesopotamian God who demands blood. He's gentle and I would say he's worthy and he's worth it.
We saw more fruit of people choosing Christ in that dark time, among Afghans than at any other time that we were there.
Morgan Lee: Thank you for sharing that with us Anna.
One of the things that gets mentioned in your story, is the fact that you're talking about families that decide to stay. That's one of the really challenging elements when discussing risk when you were making decisions about risk that affect other people specifically one's children.
What type of wisdom do you have for those conversations and how have you seen Christians answer those challenges in different ways?
Anna Hampton: When we do risk assessment, for example for Haiti even before the earthquake, you would still say it's a little bit crazy to go down there with your family.
But in the end, when God calls us to do something like go to Haiti or go to Afghanistan, it's going to look irresponsible from a secular perspective and even from the average churchgoer's perspective.
I remember one time, a little old lady came up to me and said, “are you safe there” and I said, “no, ma'am, I'm not safe.” She was expecting a different answer.
First of all, we have to recognize that people are going to say this is crazy.
We walk with people and say, “what's your calling? What is God calling you to?” You have to know and it can't just be the husband. It has to be both the husband and the wife. What are they called to in agreement? Because when things get hard, that's when you want to leave and you have to remember what he's called you to and what you're willing to face.
Morgan Lee: I say that because I think of times where people have left because of pregnancies that they're concerned might not get adequate treatment if they decide to stay in a place. I would say that I personally, with that particular example, I've had somewhat of a visceral reaction to that because part of me says, didn't you know that was a risk when you decided to go down there and to leave a country for those reasons.
After you've said I felt called to go to a place. It challenges my kind of understanding about someone being called to a place.
When we think of calling when we're evaluating the risks, is it okay to evaluate those risks in light of being an American citizen and having an American passport and saying, if a certain threshold of things gets reached, I'll just go back and return? Or would you say that that's kind of callous to the situation that's on the ground and not showing a certain level of seriousness about what it means to be called, to be somewhere, or being called to a community?
Anna Hampton: But you can't just say there's only one way we're going to evaluate a situation because Jesus called us to also be stewards of kingdom resources, which includes my body and my pregnancy because that's two people. If I choose to say, “I want to be like the people and I'm going to give birth in a substandard hospital.”
It doesn't have appropriate cleanliness and no blood supply and no NICU and I or my baby dies, we as a family might be finished in ministry because we might not be able to recover from that. So, there's stewardship that has to be brought into the question. What is being a good steward and what has God provided for this?
Part of the problem is we can't always boil these things down to very simple blanket answers for every situation. When I first went into ministry, I had a calling as a single woman, but then I got married and so then my calling and what I was willing to sacrifice changed. When the children come, then I have to decide again, what is my trigger point? Where is my calling and when I'm going to sense that God's asking me to leave? Any risk consultant worth their profession would say you have to have a trigger point. You have to know when this thing happens.
So, it's wise to say, I'm called to this place. What are the threats, how am I going to deal with those situations, and what does being a good steward to longterm endure in that situation? The point of fact is we never can fully identify with the people, we will always be the outsider.
I just want to ask for grace and compassion as people work through these complex situations. The example use of pregnancy, it was never advised to give birth in Afghanistan and very few foreign women ever did. They usually flew out to Dubai or to their passport countries that had better medical care.
It's always wise to evaluate these things also from a kingdom stewardship perspective so that we can long-term serve in the place that he's called us to be.
How does saviorism affect how we Christians understand calling specifically Western Christians that may feel called somewhere and how we often evaluate risk and danger?
Anna Hampton: God will use scripture, but we have to remember that he's building his body around the church. It's a community. He might be calling me, but don't cherry-pick one verse and say, it's all about me and you're bringing in the risk and danger and decide you will go to the most dangerous place and risk of your life. And then for sure, God's going to show up and He's going to do something. One thing we discovered is that this is very uncomfortable, on a number of occasions we realized prosperity gospel has impacted me more than I realized and I don't subscribe to that one bit, that gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. But if I risk this much, then he should do this. That's prosperity gospel. I put this into the vending machine and I get this from God. There are no guarantees about that.
Saviorism means I'm the savior, I'm going to go do this thing, and then this is what's going to happen. That puts me on the throne of saving these people and that's pretty much a guarantee to fail because it's not taking into account a theology of evil and that those evil people are out there and they're operating under the father of evil.
When we're trying to do this on our own as the savior and not relying on the one Savior, not only is it likely to fail whatever it is, but then oftentimes we've seen people's faith shipwrecked on the rocks because they don't understand why God didn't work.
We've been talking a lot from the perspective of people who are on the field. Bringing it back to a little bit of us who are following this as outsiders. For those of us who are trying to make sense of these situations, would you advise us to analyze them based on the motives or what we believe to be the motives of the aid workers and missionaries who have decided to stay and as a result are kidnapped, or would you say that that’s the fruit of their decisions, be it kidnapping or being murdered, whatever it's going to be that should be the thing that we are using to evaluate the decisions that were made?
Anna Hampton: I agree with you. There are questions you have about whether they were paying attention to the situation, and we can very easily jump to what we think would be right or wrong. One thing I'm hoping is that the listeners are hearing that risk is complex. It's very difficult to have a binary right and wrong, black or white answer on these things. John Cho’s murder was evaluated extremely harshly by many people.
I understand that people want to evaluate, and they want to find out what's right, what's wrong, what's good, what's bad. I want to caution people from evaluating based on the public media. I would have compassion for the men, women, and children that are kidnapped. I think it's quite clear to everybody in Haiti and around the world that this is a dangerous place and people need to consider evacuating or they need to consider their risk if they want to stay knowing that that's the risk.
My armchair guess is that many Christian organizations didn't realize Haiti was so dangerous. We've been walking with a couple of organizations and consulting with them, for them to figure out what they should do because it's not just foreigners who are at risk in Haiti. It's all the Haitians that work for that foreign NGO, there's a lot of orphanages that are in danger, and so forth. So, I know we want to evaluate, I just would caution against it because people's lives are at stake.
Ted Olsen: Pivoting to a situation that we have all been dealing with, an issue that is very much dividing Christians right now, the masks, vacs, and vaccine mandates and stuff like that. We hear a lot of the same rhetoric about faith and fear especially on masks, to wear a mask is to show fear, and that as Christians, we are called to show that we're not afraid.
How would you apply that to all of us right now trying to manage or talk to folks who are wrestling with risks about masks, risks about COVID 19, risks with how we're witnessing to the world at this moment?
Anna Hampton: We can't agree on everything. We're a family in God's kingdom and we're all in a different risk situation when it comes to COVID-19. I'm in a town where there's a lot of old people. So, there are times when I might feel that I need to put on the mask out of care for my neighbor, but it's situational. I want to draw people back to Jesus Himself because this is such a complex thorny question, and there's a lot we could unpack about how we interact with science as Christians.
People need to know this and they probably do to a degree, but confirmation bias in the COVID-19 particular risk and threat is extremely high. What I mean by that is people can go to the internet to find any data set they want to buttress their view and their approach. That's not helpful. We can find anything we want to have our view and we can manipulate that data and we see the data being manipulated as well. So, it's very difficult to figure that all out, but we do have a standard that Jesus gave us and that is Mark 12:29-31. The young scribe said, “what commandment is most important?”
What he's asking is what are we supposed to do and what does Jesus say? He says, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. And the second is like it to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The question is, what is the Lord asking the Christian wherever they are in the world to do right now in this situation: to love God and to love their neighbors as they love themselves. Does it mean putting on the mask today in this situation? I guess the question is, what is the Lord asking you to do and to encourage people to be honoring to him and put his leading ahead of nationalism. I know some people won't like that. I'm always suspicious when somebody says this is what the Christian response is and then they give their view. That probably stems from what they want and confirmation bias because of whatever data sets they looked at.