February 27, 2008

Brave People

2008 1506 page5 caperhaps like many of you reading this editorial, I feel I’ve lived a very sheltered life. For whatever reason, I’ve managed over the years to find myself well removed from the hotbeds of breaking trouble. During the dangerous civil rights marches and demonstrations of the 1960s, I was always far away from the epicenters of the conflict. When the FLQ (political) crisis hit Quebec in October 1970, leading to the imposition of Canada’s War Measures Act, I’d already left the area for Ontario. And while hundreds of thousands, risking life and limb, took to the streets of Manila in 1986 in the (so-called) People Power Revolution that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos, my family and I were ensconced in relative safety some 90 minutes away from the storm.
My lot thus far has been to watch, from the safety of my television, others getting shoved around, others getting beaten, others getting arrested. My nose has never been punched out of joint or my head bloodied for standing up for anything. I feel like a spectator on the sidelines of history, smugly observing the courage of those who man the barricades, face down the tear gas, and stand up to the pepper spray and water canons for a cause they support.
These thoughts came to me some time last month as I followed reports on a garbage crisis—of all things—gripping the city of Naples in southern Italy, where some 100,000 tons of rubbish had piled up in the streets, scandalizing the entire nation, and even getting the attention of the European Union.
2008 1506 page5But what struck me most profoundly about the story was 
a dimension brought out by veteran reporter Sylvia Poggioli, senior European correspondent for National Public Radio, about the role played by Italian author Roberto Saviano. (See www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18028075.)
After scouring court records, the 28-year-old writer went undercover to infiltrate the Camorra (the local Mafia), eventually exposing the group as the wicked culprits behind the garbage crisis. His book, Gomorrah, documented the Camorra practice of combining “dangerous toxic wastes” from companies in the north of Italy with “cement, nonmetal car parts, and even the remains of the dead . . . ,” and then dumping the lethal trash into landfills in Naples. The billion-dollar business, says Saviano, had created “a silent plague that has killed hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Today, Poggioli said, “Saviano goes everywhere with a 24-hour police escort. For more than a year, he has been living under a Camorra death sentence triggered by his book.”
And that’s what caught my attention. Here’s a young reporter with the courage to take on the Mafia in a region that, according to the report, “has the highest murder rate in Europe.”
Could I have done that? And more to the point, would I?
Far-fetched, you’re probably saying? Then let’s bring it closer to home. You’re in a group of Adventists on a Saturday night where a movie is in progress with four-letter words and other obscenities flying—are you brave enough to object? You’re part of a group in which racial slurs are being thrown around in jest, what do you do? You’re on a committee where the reputation of someone not present comes under vicious attack—do you remain silent?
If we’re content to stand down in situations that pose no real threat to life or limb, then how will we face a crisis with real teeth? Many of us, in cowardly neutrality, await “the time of trouble”—the big one, when we’ll demonstrate to all and sundry what stuff we’re made of. But “if you stumble in safe country, how will you cope in the jungle of the Jordan?” (Jer. 12:5, paraphrased).
Perhaps “brave” is not the best word for the Christian setting. For in the spiritual realm it’s really not our personal bravery that matters, but the power of God. I use the word, however, to make the point that often I see in “people out there” a quality I believe God wants His people “in here” to possess.
I see it in a prominent opposition leader holding firm under house arrest for more than a decade. I see it in a man standing in solitary defiance in front of a high-powered machine gun in a huge city square. And I see it in a young attorney hanging on to his convictions while languishing in a South African prison for 27 long years.
Brave people—courageous, daring, fearless. Am I a member of their tribe? Are you?

Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.