A boy holding an AK-47 stopped a car along a deserted road in rural Burundi.
“Get out of the car and down on your knees,” said the child soldier to the driver. “I’ve been sent to shoot you.”
“I am a Christian,” Maggy Barankitse said. “And I do not get on my knees except to pray to God who loves us both. Are you a Christian?”
“Then I will pray with you if you get on your knees too.”
The child thought about it and accepted the offer. This child is now Maggy’s chaffeur.
In his book, “The Sacrifice of Africa,” Emmanuel Katongole tells the deeply moving story of Maggy Barankitse, the “Angel of Burundi,” and the village she helped to build. Maison Shalomwas built primarily for the tribe that killed Maggy’s family and friends. Maggy was named the foremost faith-based social entrepreneur in the world by the Opus Foundation, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper named her the winner of its Achievement in International Development Award.
Roughly 75 years before Maggy was nearly shot, another story was playing out. In “Shooting the Messenger,” the first chapter of Richard Tedlow’s book “Denial,” we learn how Henry Ford achieved the unimaginable and put America on wheels at a time when no one else could conceive of such a change. Ford revolutionized society by making automobiles affordable and significantly increasing the wages of factory workers.
But when competition entered the market, Ford refused to alter his product and “by the end of World War II, his company was skirting the edge of bankruptcy.” Nevertheless, Ford was presented with a clear opportunity to re-envision his enterprise. Ernest Kanzler (the brother-in-law of Ford’s only child) courageously confronted Ford, explained the state of the company, and offered his support in the face of adversity. He was fired. As Tedlow notes, “Henry Ford never changed.”
What do we learn from these very different stories?
At times we are in the role of the child soldier or Henry Ford. Shooting the messenger and denial are common elements of the human story. There is a mystery about human freedom. We all have it in us to not see the facts before us. We may find ourselves denying the truth with which we are confronted and trying to shoot the messenger who wants to save us.
“Denial-avoidance is a life’s work, not an agenda item,” Tedlow writes. He goes on to suggest that we should encourage listening, straight talk and truth-telling in our institutions. We should be asking, “Am I doing today what will enable me to succeed tomorrow?” These are good habits for us all.
What if we are in the role of the messenger and our message is refused? Is that the end of the story?
One of the most famous secular stories of “shooting the messenger” in Western culture is probably that of King Lear. It is a story about bad judgment at the top. Lear is fooled by two of his daughters into banishing his youngest child, Cordelia. He didn’t understand that she was his only child who really cared for him until it was too late.
In the play’s final act, when Lear realizes the horror of what he’s done, he meets the daughter he tried to destroy as both are going to prison. Lear repents and pours out a beautiful blessing of reconciliation to his daughter as she weeps over him (theologians might see this as the sacrament of baptism).
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales.
“Shooting the messenger” does not need to be the end of any story. There is a world beyond our own broken folly. Sometimes, like Lear, we get to see glimpses of reconciliation and love, even through the scars, even after the messenger’s been shot.
Allegra Jordan serves as executive director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. Thanks to Jeremy Begbie, who provided insight regarding “King Lear.”