In a little over a week, fifteen students and faculty from Central will be traveling to Myanmar (Burma) for an immersion experience in inter-cultural dialogue. Through thoughtful participation in ecumenical lectures and travel to historic sites of early Christian mission and Buddhist shrines, we will engage in opportunities to grow in respect for the lived religions of others. Some might say that these activities are insufficiently focused on evangelism and that the notion that Christians might learn something about faith and practices of peace and justice from others is wrong-headed. I believe that doing mission in our day must reflect a new humility and receptivity to the patterns of faith long held by others. Myanmar (Burma) remains 87% Buddhist; the Christian population is a little less than 6% even though the work of the Judsons dates back to 1813.
What are we to make of the enduring vibrancy of Buddhism in this beleaguered land? What has it provided that Christianity has not? Obviously, we must pay attention to the moving of the Spirit of God honoring faith’s promise in this ancient tradition. We have been speaking of our journey as a pilgrimage rather than tourism, for we intend to return as changed persons. We have more to learn than to proclaim at this point. We do not want to extend the perception that many Burmese have of Christians—as arrogant and dismissive of the socio-cultural context of Buddhist Myanmar. We live in a post-colonial time, and guests need to respect their hosts. In my judgment, the Spirit is prompting this kind of interface in our day so that we might learn that God is not absent from the spiritual longing of humanity in any of its salvific narratives.
One of the best known poems in the West about Burma, “On the Road to Mandalay,” was written by Rudyard Kipling in 1892. It reflects the patronizing attitude of colonizers toward conquered peoples.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say;
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Kipling has been called “the prophet of British Imperialism in its expansionist phase.” His works revealed the interests of the British Empire, which included “taming the natives” as a part of its pursuit of domination. Burma was subject to this empire from 1885 to 1948, and Christian mission flourished, albeit in colonial dress. With little sensitivity to the Buddhist context, according to Samuel Ngun Ling, Principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology, these forebears in mission often “unloaded without listening” as they sought to communicate their love of Christ, which was always wrapped in western culture. Indeed, the proclamation of the Gospel was viewed as a part of British colonizing on the part of the Burmese. Echoing Gandhi, many Burmese wanted to have Christ—but not Christianity.
The question for contemporary mission is this: can Christ be preached without Christianity in Asia? Further, can Christians be faithful to their understanding of the ultimate revelatory act of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and at the same time seek to learn from a tradition deeply imbedded in the Myanmar context? We must engage how has Buddhism dealt with the challenges of suffering and the tragic. We must explore how the pact, better covenant, with Buddhist monasteries and monastic practice has shaped the spiritual hopes and realization of the nation. We intend to explore these (and other) questions and listen for answers appropriate to the twenty-first century.
As we are on the road to Mandalay, we carry the light of Christ in our hearts. We also seek to practice the engagement the Apostle Paul practiced when encountering the Athenians. With respect he acknowledged their piety and authentic seeking, and then bore witness to what had transformed his life. Central to his message was the affirmation of the one God “who is not far from each of us” (Acts 17:27). As pilgrims, we believe that God will meet us as we encounter Christian brothers and sisters and faithful practitioners of Buddhist religion in our journey. Our hearts will be converted even as we seek to express through attentiveness, humility, and receptivity the ways of the Triune God whom we confess.
Molly T. Marshall
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