In May of 2001, Martin and Gracia Burnham took a one-day holiday from their busy work in the Philippines for the New Tribes Mission, celebrating their 28th anniversary at the Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan, a Philippine island province in the South China Sea. Their 29th anniversary would mark a year’s captivity among the Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino Muslim terrorist organization with ties to Osama bin Laden. They would not reach their 30th anniversary. Kidnapped from their beds along with several other people at Dos Palmas, the Burnhams were held for ransom under horrific conditions until a less-than-successful rescue attempt by the Filipino army on June 7, 2002. Gracia, wounded, was the only hostage to survive the rescue.
In addition to being a page-turner of an adventure story, In the Presence of My Enemies, along with Christianity Today magazine’s full coverage of the story, brings up several issues:
The problem of unanswered prayer Despite the prayers of thousands—maybe millions—worldwide for their deliverance, the Burnhams were held captive for over a year, and only one of them lived through the rescue. One day, frustrated after many months of seemingly unheard prayers for release, Gracia prayed for something small but apparently equally impossible: a hamburger. A few days later, they were brought hamburgers, French fries, and Cokes.
The question of ransom The purpose of the kidnapping was to gain ransom money, a major source of funding for the Abu Sayyaf. Many of the Filipino hostages were released because their families and/or businesses “knew the drill” and did what was expected. New Tribes, along with other missionary organizations and the American government, were operating under standing policies against paying ransom on the logical grounds that it both funds terrorism and encourages further kidnapping.
International politics There is little question that the U.S. military, with their experience and technology, could have brought about a more speedy, safe, and effective rescue. The constitution of the Philippines, however, forbids foreign troops fighting on Philippine soil, and despite much anguish our government chose to honor the laws and official policies of our ally.
Media accuracy Gracia had been warned, and was careful to read from written, prepared statements when talking to the press. Nonetheless, many inaccuracies crept in. “The one that really upset me originated with the Associated Press and was picked up by Time magazine. They quoted me as saying of Martin’s death: “That is God’s liking. That is probably his destiny.” I would never say such a thing. In fact, this sounds more like an Abu Sayyaf comment than anything else. I wrote Time to protest the blatant misquote and got back a letter passing the buck to AP. The magazine refused to run a correction.”
Grief and recovery One of the burdens of tragedy is that it is impossible to respond in a way that everyone thinks is right. If you grieve too much, you are mentally unbalanced and “need to get over it.” If your grief isn’t visible and you are getting along with your life, then you are also mentally unbalanced, in denial, or perhaps uncaring. If you pray and grieve for those who have hurt you, you are suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome.”
Preparing for the worst Despite having had “kidnapping training” as part of their missionary preparation, the Burnams were not as well prepared as the more worldly-wise Filipino hostages. During captivity, Martin often said, “If I had known this was going to happen, I would have paid attention in that seminar.” One thing they did remember was that obedience to the kidnappers is of prime importance in the first few moments, because that is when they are the most trigger-happy, and that soon after it is important to make eye contact and become a “real person” rather than an item to them. Some of the other captives were aware and prepared enough to grab suitcases and water to take with them. Clearly kidnapping was the last thing on the Americans’ minds, but others were more “street smart.” It reminds me, on a lesser level, of the time I was rousted in the middle of the night by a hotel fire alarm. I wasted what could have been precious moments struggling to find my pants, my shoes, and my key. Now when I stay in a hotel I make sure they are handy before retiring. A basic knowledge of your captors is also useful. The American hostage who was chosen to be beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf had, possibly unwittingly, offended against the values of his Muslim kidnappers. Finally, the time to develop a strong faith is before you find yourself in a difficult situation. Even with all their preparation and strength, the Burnhams found their faith tried and tested at every turn. Others, who had not given spiritual matters much priority in their lives, fared far worse.The cluelessness of their captors The Abu Sayyaf may have been quick to be offended by those who don’t conform to Muslim values, but only two of the hundred or so the Burnhams knew about had actually read the Qur’an through—and it’s a small book. Even those two had only read it in Arabic, which they didn’t understand, on the grounds that translating it into a language they knew would have corrupted it. They were quick to quote what they had been told, such as “In Islam, if you're a thief, they cut off your hand. That's how things ought to be,” spoken by the man who had stolen Martin’s wedding ring. They were shocked when Martin suggested their actions might be wrong: “I hope my children don't take up the same attitude you have,” he told them. “I hope my kids back home in the States don't ever get a gun and shoot some Muslim because of what you have done to us.” “Done to you?” said one. “What's my sin against you? I've never done anything to you!”