Communicating Christ in Burma

Baptists in Myanmar share insights about being a faithful Christian witness in a religiously pluralistic world.

By Molly T. Marshall

Christianity has been a part of the land of Myanmar (Burma) since the early work of Catholic missionaries in the 16th century. Because of many difficulties, they had to withdraw from their mission.

Baptists date our beginnings there from 1813, with the groundbreaking work of the Judsons, and there has been continuous Baptist presence since then.

In spite of this long history, Christianity is still regarded as a “potted plant” that has yet to be fully transplanted into the Burman soil, to borrow an analogy from Dr. Anna May Say Pa, former principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology. I am here teaching for a week in a collaborative doctor of ministry program that Central shares with MIT.

The rich intercultural learning is transformative for practitioners of ministry, and these pastors and teachers have much insight about faithful witness in a religiously plural context. They have learned to use the commendable precepts of Buddhism as they articulate their understanding of the cosmic Christ, who brings light into the world.

Christianity came from the West, thus many see Christians here as somehow unpatriotic, too dependent upon a western vision of God. This remains a significant challenge for the minority Christian presence in a land nearly 93 percent Buddhist, a relatively stable percentage for many years.

Myanmar has a unique history, endowed with the heritage of Theravada school of Buddhism, which is regarded as essential to national culture. The royal dynasties imbued this way of faith with their blessing, and a social compact has existed between the monks and the governing structures for centuries.

Judson ran into the reality that the state protected Buddhism by expressly forbidding the proclamation of the gospel among the Burmans, the primary ethnic group in the land.

When finally U Naw came to faith, after six years of labor, Judson declared: “It is more difficult for a Burman to become a Christian than it is to extract a tooth from a tiger’s mouth.”

Only later would some measure of religious tolerance and freedom be instituted, and even today, it is primarily the ethnic groups that live in the hill country who have been most receptive to Christ.

The main problem with Christianity, thus, is its alien images of culture and socio-political structures. Buddhists have no trouble with Christians seeing the necessity of Christ but wonder if he can be preached without the accompanying freight of Christianity.

Does communication of Christ require the “Greco-Roman accessories?” Or is it possible, as one contextual scholar put it, to witness to Christ without the church?

This question might resonate with some new communities of worship and practice in the United States who want to follow Jesus, but without all the ecclesial trappings of bureaucratically laden denominations.

The evangelistic approach of some Christians to Buddhists has been that of outright condemnation, telling them that they are hell-bound. Suffice it to say, this lack of respect lessens any prospects of thoughtful engagement.

Patient scholars who pursue the labor-intensive work of dialogue contend that there are places of mutual understanding between the well-educated monks and thoughtful Christians. The awakening to the presence of the Holy, authentic spiritual pursuit and responsiveness, transcends polarizing dicta.

I have witnessed some remarkable interfaith projects while here -- Buddhist monks and Catholic sisters collaborating in education, community development and environmental initiatives.

There is a growing conviction that without peace between the various religions, there cannot be a larger peace or work for the common good. The work of healing, teaching, farming and providing technological infrastructure is a common need and serves the common good.

As persons of good will who have encompassing concerns for their people, they strive together to construct more promising horizons, religious respect and increased understanding.

It is a propitious time to be in Myanmar. Change is afoot, and the nation is emerging from years of isolation and repression. Our colleagues at MIT sense the wind of the Spirit in the emerging opportunities for long forgotten people.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.