by Amal Khan
Fifteen years ago, in a city fifty miles south of Lahore, a Bishop shot himself in front of the Sessions Court where a Christian had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. It was a particularly personal protest. A sixty six year old Roman Catholic priest took a pistol to his head and excluded himself from holy communion with God. An optimistic man; gentle and educated.
For reasons that we might better understand today, Bishop John Joseph decided that the model of the passive Christ, one who endures and suffers with worthy but ineffectual grace, just wasn’t his cup of tea. This was his act of self awareness; important to each of us in understanding questions of powerlessness and power. Especially, How much power do I possess?
This is a tricky question, one that deludes even as is it may enlighten. How much power do I really possess?
There is an argument to be made for complete powerlessness. We may find at some point in our lives that on our own, inside our homes, inside our cubicles and dormitories and the jobs we hate to do, we can’t do very much at all. We don’t have power to avoid foods laden with carcinogens. We don’t have power over our governments. We don’t have power over our money or where our taxes go. We don’t have power over the television our children see. Most of our lives, we don’t have power over how we want to spend our time.
But amongst only a few other things, we do have the power to choose how we want to see a story.
Two days ago, ninety people were killed in a massacre in Quetta because they were Shia. This morning, a doctor and his eleven year old son were shot dead in Lahore, during school rush hour traffic. We know something about the doctor, we know something about his life, there will be an obituary in a newspaper tomorrow, there will be a vigil for the innocent little boy whose class desk will sit empty for the rest of school term.
We will know nothing human of the ninety people killed in Quetta. We will never know their names, where they went to school, what their dreams were. And this is natural; to be moved by stories, by photographs, by first names and fine details above the faceless smudge of violent statistics. We are moved by airplane crashes because we can imagine the detailed horror of the three hundred on board, moments before impact. We are moved by the twenty school children gunned down in Connecticut because we know seven year old Grace McDonnell wanted to be a painter when she grew up. As humans, we are moved when we can relate, when we can engage with a story.
What Bishop John Joseph did, outside the moral boundaries of how we choose to view his suicide, was to create a story that would get our attention. The first Punjabi priest and bishop of Pakistan, with a doctorate in theology from Rome, shot himself outside a courthouse so people could see Ayub Massih, a young boy with a sense of humour, a sweeper, a son of illiterate sweepers, charged with blasphemy and killed in Sahiwal. It was a story-teller’s sacrifice. It was important that people knew, that they understood the value of lives whose stories we would otherwise not engage with.
There is a great deal of personal sorrow expressed by the citizens of Lahore today. We lost a doctor, a philanthropist, a family man. We lost an eleven year old boy with a bright future ahead of him. It pains us deeply, it hurts us in that most intimate way; he could be my father. He could be my son. He could be my brother.
Humanity is to feel pain that is not one’s own. But when the stories relentlessly reported, do not engage humanly with death (it is not their task to do so), we no longer take the trouble of interacting personally with them. Somebody everywhere has to make a noise, make a point, make a protest, create something that humanises clinical interpretations of death and violence in large numbers. Because all of it is personal. None of it should hit far from home.
How much power do I possess?
How much power do I really possess?