For a couple of weeks, the image of Nik Wallenda walking a steel cable hundreds of feet above a canyon floor without the protection of a net or tether has been in my mind.
I watched the live broadcast of the feat, complete with the dramatic buildup that included shots of his family in prayer with prominent pastor Joel Osteen. Later, TV personality Piers Morgan spoke of the event as an “advertisement for the power of prayer and Christianity in America.”
I was relieved, along with everyone else, when his daring endeavor was successfully completed, thankful for his family’s being spared a terrible loss. But something has not seemed right about that picture.
Risk has long been part of the stuff of entertainment, and daredevils of large and small scope can always draw a crowd. Most of the time, they court the edge of disaster and thrill an audience with their willingness to push the envelope.
But sometimes – as in the crash the day before Wallenda’s walk of a stunt plane carrying “wing walker” Jane Wicker in Dayton, Ohio – the outcome is tragic.
It’s part of the game, we are told. They know the risks and are willing to take them in order to entertain us, but it can be a pretty expensive form of entertainment.
Another image appeared a week later, as 19 firefighters from an elite unit specially trained to do the dangerous work of trying to control wildfires died in their efforts to protect a town and nearby residents in Arizona.
They remind us that every day, law enforcement, first responders and military personnel put their lives at risk, and sometimes lose them, in their commitment to protect people they probably do not know.
Risk is their way of life. Something seems very right about this picture.
I am wrestling with the question of the difference between risk that is inherent in the journey of life and risk that appeals to that part of us that wants to be entertained by the spectacular and extraordinary.
Intentional and designed risk, which seeks to demonstrate an extraordinary skill, seems very different from the risk of using another kind of highly trained skill to save lives that would be lost without it.
Ethical thinking invites us to consider values and commitments and how we put those into practice, both in our daily decisions and in our public policies. Perhaps I need a more carefully refined “ethics of risk” to help me with this task.
We are told, in many ways, that a willingness to take risks – to “let go of the side of the pool,” for instance – is necessary for growth and discovery. I understand that.
One can’t learn to ride a bike, for example, without the risk of falling, and the heritage of our faith journey reflects this kind of risk.
Abraham was called to leave his place of security and to journey to an unspecified land with the promise that his family would be a blessing to all nations.
Moses was directed to the risky task of dealing with Pharaoh about liberating some folks from bondage with only the promise that he would not be working alone as his assurance.
The call of Jesus’ first disciples is portrayed as a similar invitation to embrace a risky pilgrimage of modeling a different kind of human family from the one promoted by the empire.
Modern communities of faith are told that the future involves the risk of openness to the guidance of the Spirit to go into unexpected places – geographically, socially and theologically. Those unwilling to take those risks, we are told, will become lifeless relics of a bygone time.
Faith and risk-taking seem to be functions of each other.
Another image from the gospels that seems relevant to my question about different kinds of risk-taking is the report of Jesus’ wilderness temptation following his baptism. Matthew and Luke describe three specific challenges he faced.
One was to use his power to meet his own personal need (hunger), and another was the temptation to grasp worldly power. The third was an appeal to use his power to do something spectacular in order to prove to people that he was someone special, to which his reply was, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
We all are beneficiaries of a long legacy of faithful risk-takers who have borne the vision of the Kingdom of God through history, often at great expense. And we, ourselves, are called to the risky journey of costly discipleship.
But we are called also to the task of discerning the difference between the necessary risks inherent in our calling – such as, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, liberating the prisoner and working for justice – and the unnecessary risks, such as handling snakes, drinking poison and other risks undertaken for their own sake or for our entertainment.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.