Border Crossings

“Who shall find a valiant woman?” the Book of Proverbs asked, until the modernizing translators of the NSRV updated it to “a capable wife.” Well, there have been few more valiant women these days—or perhaps ever—than the peripatetic poet and journalist Eliza Griswold. Born into an intrepid Episcopal clerical family (she dedicates this book to her mother and father, Frank T. Griswold III, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church), Griswold chronicles her journeys in some very dangerous settings along the tenth parallel north of the equator—a kind of religious DMZ, running through Asia and Africa, where over half the world’s Muslims and Christians live. Over the course of more than half a decade, Griswold visited six countries where Christians and Muslims meet, not always in peace: Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In these far-off places, in sometimes tense situations, she ventured forth unafraid to ask difficult, even penetrating questions about interfaith encounters. 

Most recent accounts of Muslims in the modern world have concentrated on the Middle East, and The Tenth Parallel does its readers a tremendous service by reminding us that only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs. The largest number of Muslims live in South and island Asia; there are more Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, than in the whole of the Arab world. Griswold has gone where angels fear to tread, examining the root causes of social conflicts in these regions, including in Somalia—or what is left of Somalia, a nation she aptly characterizes as “the longest-running failed state on the planet,” torn to shreds by military gangs, some of whose leaders she interviews.

In Nigeria, Griswold finds a land that had a substantial Muslim plurality at independence fifty years ago, but has since witnessed a dramatic rate of conversion to Christianity, especially among its peasant population. Today the country is more or less evenly Muslim and Christian—perhaps the only country of its size in the world (roughly 160 million people) with such a demographic profile.  In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the verdant savannah between the arid north and the forested south, Griswold interviews Muslims and Christians whose territorial gripes in the past decade have led to bloodshed, as pastoralist Muslims seeking greener pastures for their herds infringe on areas farmed by Christian peasants. She points out the role global warming plays, affecting Africa more dramatically than any other continent, the encroaching aridity creating land-use pressure and spawning Muslim-Christian tensions that might not have arisen otherwise.

In Sudan, Griswold accompanies Rev. Franklin Graham on his visits to hospitals, where Graham attempts to succor desperately sick children with gifts of Bible tracts and bubble gum. The wretched Bashir government, still trying to curry favor at the time with the administration of George W. Bush, welcomes Graham, a fundamentalist with strong views on everything (including the certainty that Muslims and Christians who have not been “born again” are headed for hell). Graham’s zeal is hard to resist, and at one point he even persuades the somewhat embarrassed Griswold, daughter of a Brahmin Episcopalian tradition, to kneel with him in a one-on-one prayer session.

In Indonesia and Malaysia Griswold spends considerable time with members of Christian minorities, many of whom share the fundamentalist theology of Graham, convinced that they alone are destined for salvation. In a sense, it is a pity she did not interview more Catholic missionaries and indigenous clergy, who might have taken a more nuanced, Vatican II–influenced view of their Muslim neighbors’ chances for eternal life. In the Philippines, Griswold, like a good anthropologist, overcomes her own liberal theological and cultural biases to give us a sympathetic portrait of Gracia Burnham, the widow of an American fundamentalist pastor kidnapped in 2001 by southern Filipino Muslim insurgents and killed a year later during a botched rescue attempt by army counterinsurgency forces.

Eliza Griswold is a personable guide, and her book profits from an autobiographical dimension. From time to time, ruminating on countries rife with Christian-Muslim tensions, she recalls the ambiguities she experienced growing up as the daughter of a pastor and eventual bishop whose ordination of an openly gay bishop notoriously put his own life under threat in 2004. Her portrayal of Peter Akinola, archbishop of the Anglican Communion’s province of Nigeria—a severe critic of her father and the Episcopal Church—is a model of moderation, offering a sympathetic understanding of the embattled situation in which this leader of Nigeria’s 18 million Anglicans finds himself.

The Tenth Parallel concludes with a flashback to Nigeria and the lonely missionary apostolate of a Fulani herdsman, Rev. Abdu, who converted to Christianity in his childhood, along with his family. Tenaciously Abdu continues to evangelize his fellow Fulani herders who crisscross the Middle Belt of Nigeria; and though his apostolate seems doomed to failure, Griswold cannot help admiring this “man who believed what he believed for reasons that were mysterious even to him.” In Rev. Abdu, Griswold rightly recognizes “true religion”—the faith-filled solitariness of a missionary who “did not belong to himself, or to this world, at all; he belonged to God.”

Published in the 2010-11-19 issue: 

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

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