The obvious meaning of the title of Amy Peterson’s memoir, Dangerous Territory, is that she lived in a country where being a Christian was dangerous. Owning a Bible, watching the Jesus film, talking to friends and family about Jesus, going to religious conferences—all of it was dangerous. So dangerous in fact, that Peterson won’t mention the name of the country (which is somewhere in Southeast Asia).
But the under-the-surface meaning is that faith is dangerous, that following God is dangerous. Perhaps, even, that God himself is dangerous. Like Mr. Beaver said about Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Safe?...Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This God—the good, unsafe God—is not the kind of God American Christians talk about often in their churches. But when Amy went abroad, she encountered him with the force of a head-on collision.
Experiencing a Dangerous God
It’s easy to hear Mr. Beaver’s words about Aslan, apply them to God, and quote them as true. Tingles run up and down my arms when I hear the sentence, and I’m inclined to worship this great, complex God. But being inspired and praising a dangerous God is a lot easier than experiencing him, or watching people we love experience him.
I have spent the last 14 years in three different countries in the Horn of Africa. One of the most common questions I get is: Are you safe? This is a hard question to answer. Do I feel safe? Yes. Am I actually, truly, really safe? Well…Yes. No. What do you mean by “safe?”
Do you mean, “Are there bombs going off and guns everywhere and high risk of kidnapping and I can’t leave my house or go out alone?” In that case, I am perfectly safe. But could I get malaria? Could my kids get dengue fever? Could there could be a car accident or a terror attack? Could I die or lose my faith? If you look at things that way, I am absolutely not safe.
Peterson was raised on a steady diet of missionary biographies, all the classics: Amy Carmichael, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson. She marinated in what she now calls the “missionary myth,” the notion that the best way to be a Christian, the best way to be a world traveler, and the best way for women to be active in ministry is to be a missionary. Because she loved Jesus and wanted to serve people in his name, she decided to train as an English teacher in order to work abroad.
Contrary to what her director communicated before she left the United States, Peterson found spiritually open, hungry people at the university where she taught English. She spent months investing in one young woman in particular, who then shared the gospel with her family, extended relatives, and close friends. Peterson writes their story as one of the delight and joy of discovery; this woman’s discovery of a loving God and Peterson’s discovery of this same God through fresh eyes.
Peterson was a little naïve in her first year abroad. There is nothing wrong with this; every expatriate—missionary, diplomat, soldier, businessperson, humanitarian—needs time to adjust. (I’m probably still at least a little naïve, even after 14 years.)
This comes across when she writes about not “being an expatriate but being a neighbor.” While the sentiment is sweet and understandable, the reality is that you are an expatriate and always will be, even as you try to live as a neighbor. She also writes about trying to adapt by eating local foods, wearing local clothing, and learning the local language. These are important steps, but they are merely the first and most obvious.
Living like a local means much more than eating rice with your right hand or taking a certain mode of transportation. There are deep-rooted traditions of politics, gender roles, religious convictions, moral standards, and interpersonal relationships to consider. I suspect this lack of appreciation of deep, foundational cultural differences may have contributed to some of Peterson’s shock and dismay when her efforts at evangelism led to persecution. Because she thought she had adapted, she was unprepared for the brutal response of those in authority who didn’t appreciate her message.
When Peterson left for her summer break, the government began a severe crackdown. Real, intense persecution began, targeting her friend and the network of people with whom she had shared her new faith. Peterson’s work permit was revoked. She was personally devastated and worried for her friend.
She returned to Southeast Asia—to a more open country, Cambodia. But the previous year and the year in Cambodia would leave her with profound questions she couldn’t shake, and here is where Peterson’s story really came to life for me.
She asked questions about God, about his purpose and character: Where is God when his people suffer? Where is God when dreams we thought he gave us are crushed? How do we follow God when we thought we were, and the door is slammed shut? Who is God, and how do we find him in darkness, loss, and grief?
She also began asking questions about the missionary endeavor: Why does the current model sometimes make you feel like you’re running your own business? Why do terms like “short-term missions” persist? Can God’s kingdom spread without missionaries, as the work is most commonly understood today? What is the role of women in the global church? What role does race play in missions?
These are all the right questions—and if Peterson, after two years abroad, claimed to have answers for them, I probably would have thrown her book against the wall. I had been half-expecting another nauseating white-savior-complex story with a bit of apologetic self-redemption near the end and some faux-authoritative declarations on how to solve all these complex issues. But to my relief, Peterson does actual research, rather than relying solely on her brief experiences, and she presents suggestions more than answers. She nudges the conversation in the right direction with helpful wisdom and the spirit of a learner.
Her suggestions are provocative. She wonders, for example, whether the church should chuck the word “missionary” altogether and focus on vocation: on the holiness of ordinary work, from changing diapers to teaching English, and on the calling of all believers to speak of Jesus, to be his ambassadors, and to live as fragrant offerings in the world.
She also suggests a re-conceiving of short-term mission trips, an idea I find quite promising. Ideally, we could move away from promoting the naïve notion that a group of high schoolers with no construction experience could build a church better than a community’s able-bodied men—or that their knowledge of attachment disorders among orphans matches that of its unemployed women. Instead, a teenager could say, in Peterson’s words, “If you would like to invest in me, would you help me travel to a different culture so that I can expand my view of who God is and how he works by learning about him in a foreign land?”
No Safer Choice
Whether we are in physically dangerous territory or the spiritually dangerous territory of faith, we will be challenged, stretched, and changed. Because yes, God is not a safe God. But he made the fish spit Jonah out before the digestive juices could finish him off. He spared the Israelites from the deadly plagues that swept over Egypt. And, through Christ, he provided a way for his people to be clothed in the righteousness he demands.
Like Peterson discovered in Southeast Asia, we are never safe when we choose to follow God. But at the same time, there really is no safer choice.
The thing is, I still believe Christians can change the world. I believe we must—with humility, with sacrifice, with love that translates into action, focused on individuals, serving one person at a time. We must follow this dangerous God into dangerous territory, into places of risk, places at the margins.
No, God is not safe. But, as Peterson has so beautifully chronicled, he is—and will prove himself ever to be—good.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives with her family in Djibouti. She blogs at Djibouti Jones.