Gracia Burnham’s hands-free Vulcan mind meld

BurnhamsOne of the pleasures of contemporary journalism is that it brings together a writer and subject who at first seem an unlikely pair. In this case the pairing is of poet and journalist Eliza Griswold with Gracia Burnham, missionary to the Philippines and former captive of Abu Sayyaf rebels, whose husband was shot to death during a rescue that saved Gracia.

Griswold’s article for The New Republic is less of a surprise considering that she has written about war and terrorism for National Geographic, The Nation, The New York Times, Slate and Smithsonian.

Other than describing Gracia Burnham as a “48-year-old pixie with blonde highlights” who was “dreamily eating cereal in front of the early-morning news,” Griswold mostly stays out of the way and lets Burnham’s pathos-laden story speak for itself. Here’s a passage that touches on the indignities of being kidnapped and on Burnham’s efforts to live by Jesus’ teaching of “Love your enemies”:

Gracia attended a senior-citizen Bible study at the First Baptist Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, where she’d been invited to speak.

Fifteen frosted-haired ladies, some wearing sweaters decorated with hollyhocks, gasped as Gracia pulled a piece of stiff batik fabric from a Voice of the Martyrs white plastic shopping bag. Using her teeth, Gracia showed the class how she’d wrapped the fabric, called a malong, around her to make a changing room and a bathroom. The toilet was a theme of the weekend. “The first few times I made a mess of it and had to wait until I got to the next river to wash it,” she said.

“You’ve washed it since you’ve come out of the jungle,” one woman said firmly. Gracia shook her head. “If I did, it might fall apart.” There was another gasp.

She then showed the ladies how the fabric served as a blanket, a backpack, and even, on one occasion, a stretcher for a 14-year-old Abu Sayyaf member named Ahmed. At first, she had loathed Ahmed for hoarding food when she had none, throwing stones at her while she bathed — fully clothed — in the river, and pushing her along the trail saying “faster, faster.” As she and Martin slowly starved, Gracia prayed to find a way to love Ahmed.

One day, he was injured in a firefight and soiled himself. Gracia could see he was mortified. Thinking of her own son, Zach, who was about the same age, she took Ahmed’s clothes to the river to wash them. There, she was filled with love. The last time Gracia saw Ahmed, who had been carried wounded through the jungle in the malong, like a sling, he had gone stark raving mad and was tied by the hands and feet to the walls of a hut in the southern Philippines. Someone had stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep him from screaming. She wondered aloud to the Bible study class where Ahmed was now — still crazy, perhaps, or pushing another hostage up another steep mountain path. Or, most likely, he had died and gone to hell.

Two minor style matters: Few evangelical Christians would describe themselves as “deciding at an early age to become an evangelical Christian,” but simply deciding to give their hearts to Jesus or to become Christians. And I think it would be news to George W. Bush that Franklin Graham is his personal pastor.

Griswold does not follow through on two interesting threads in her narrative. First she mentions Mercy Grace, one of three Mennonite teenagers who have traveled from Kentucky to meet Burnham, whose story has inspired Mercy Grace to pursue a missionary calling. Mercy Grace provides two endearing remarks:

I asked Mercy Grace what she thought of dying for Christ and becoming a martyr. “It would be neat!” she said, grinning widely enough to show her braces. Her mother nudged her. She closed her mouth. “It would be a privilege,” she corrected herself.

Then she’s gone. We never see a description of her meeting her role model. Did she ask for an autograph? Kiss Burnham’s cheek? How did Burnham respond to her?

Just as baffling is this passage, which follows on Burnham’s description of her young tormentor, Ahmed:

After Gracia finished speaking, she and I went out into the church’s hallway. “You know I don’t only think that Abu Sayyaf is going to hell,” she said, fixing me with her fierce and loving dark blue eyes. I understood that she was talking about me. For Gracia, absolute salvation is just that: absolute.

After a narrative free of any conflict between Burnham and Griswold, suddenly this appears? Further, from being fixed by Burnham’s “fierce and loving dark blue eyes,” Griswold is able to discern what Burnham was thinking, and even gain absolute insight into her steel-trap absolutist worldview? I’ve been on the receiving end of glares and menacing looks over the years, but if someone I was interviewing suddenly alluded to where I was likely to spend eternity, I would consider a few follow-up questions in order.

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  • Mindanao Examiner

    I hope all the best for Gracia and her children.

    Her being a strong woman and mother serves as an inspiration to many people around the world.


    Al Jacinto

  • Jerry

    Very often, I find something interesting by doing simple substitutions. So I reworded the post thusly:

    Abu Muhammad provides two endearing remarks:

    I asked Abu Muhammad what she thought of dying for Allah and becoming a martyr. “It would be neat!” he said, grinning widely enough to show his braces. His father nudged him. He closed his mouth. “It would be a privilege,” he corrected himself.

    Of course, there’s different ways of martyrdom, but how many reading the original post approved of it as a stand alone sentiment. How many would disapprove of the later. Our assumptions about what is meant by Christian martyrdom versus the Islamic equivalent are worth noting. Many would automatically assume that an Islamic martyr is a suicide bomber but that would not necessarily be the case.

  • tmatt


    The clashing definitions of “martyr” are discussed in the New Republic piece itself. Check it out.

    Meanwhile, the evangelical commentator Chuck Colson has also reacted to this particular piece:

    For years radical Islamists in the Philippines have been attacking Christians. In late April seven Christians were murdered on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.

    Regular BreakPoint listeners know that, unfortunately, this isn’t unusual. Around the world, Christians are suffering and even dying, because they are Christians. They know also that the victimizers more often than not are Islamist militants.

    But even by the standards of this tragic history, what happened on Jolo was an outrage.

    The seven, who were working road construction, were kidnapped by the group Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda affiliate.

    The group demanded more than $100,000 in ransom from the Christian community. When it wasn’t immediately paid, the seven, two of whom were teenagers working to help support their impoverished families, were beheaded. Abu Sayyaf then ordered civilians to take two of the severed heads to a military camp and left the other five at yet another camp.

    While the brutality sets this atrocity apart, as I said, there’s nothing unusual about Christians being targeted because they are Christians. In the past few months alone, I’ve told BreakPoint listeners about Christians being targeted in countries as different as Iraq, China and Burma.

    Someone who understands the scale of this persecution is Eliza Griswold, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. She has investigated “Christian martyrdom in Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, and Iraq, among other countries.” An “undercover priest” in Mosul, Iraq showed her the “blood of the first martyr of Kurdistan,” who had been killed during an attack on a Christian bookstore.

    In her article, “The Believers,” which appears in the latest issue of the New Republic, Griswold compares and contrasts the Christian and Islamic use of the word “martyr.” While in both cases, the word is derived from a word meaning “witness,” the similarity ends there.

    For Muslims, “martyr” indicates “a willingness to kill.” For Christians, it means a “willingness to die,”—a big difference

    She also describes what she saw and heard at a conference held by the Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian group that seeks to raise awareness of the persecuted church. “For people who have dedicated their lives to this issue,” she writes, “if the enemy far is Islam, the enemy near is political correctness.”

    By “political correctness,” they mean the failure to understand or the outright denial of Islam’s attitudes and actions towards what it calls “infidels.” Getting people to care about the persecution of Christians is difficult enough, but getting them to care when they are constantly being told, “Islam is a religion of peace,” is nearly impossible.

    For the conference attendees, this deadly kind of political correctness is a bipartisan offense. If anything, they are angrier at those conservatives who woo evangelical voters and then do nothing about the persecution as they are with liberals who defend Islam.

    There always seems to be a reason not to confront those who persecute Christians, whether it’s money or a fear of alienating a potential ally on some other, “more important,” issue. That’s why we must speak out on their behalf. We must make it impossible for their suffering to be ignored or bargained away.

    Their willingness to die is no excuse for indifference on our part.

  • David

    Gracia Burnham, missionary to the Philippines and former captor of Abu Sayyaf rebels, whose husband was shot to death during a rescue that saved Gracia.

    Wouldn’t Gracia be a captee, not a captor?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Indeed she would, David. I’ll correct my sloppy error.

  • Jerry


    That is a simplistic view of what Islam considers a martyr. Of course, this is a simplistic era where complexity is reduced to sound bites and differences are magnified into strong polarities, but I think it’s worth keeping track of the real complexity underlying the simplistic, black/white view that the media presents all too often.

    A woman can obtain martyrdom by the following means: Dying while giving birth, from post natal bleeding, and while the child is still in her womb.

    Both men and women can obtain martyrdom by the following means: While guarding the territory of Islam or the territory of Muslims, by falling from his mount while riding to battle or by falling from his mount, on his death bed while striving in the path of Allah (he died as a Muslim), due to the collapse of a building on him while he is still trapped inside, dies by being attacked by a beast, dies while being a stranger in a new land or place, from a stomach ailment.

  • MJBubba

    Jerry, yes, we understand.
    However, there is a big distinction that is sometimes noted but usually is not presented (or seemingly even understood) in many media accounts. The Muslim martyrs die for their faith while in the act of killing others. The Christians are killed because they have professed their faith, though sometimes they die for having given offense by somehow insulting Islam. In both cases, it is Muslims that are the source of the violence, yet both Christian dead and Muslim dead are called “martyrs.” I am not aware of any media accounts that use that term for Muslims who have died of the causes you cite in the quote above (#6), except for those martyred while carrying out some act of jihad.