Editor's Note: From 14 to 16 January, the Archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, and the Secretary General of the Myanmar Council of Churches, Saw Shwe Lin, co-convened the first-ever meeting of Catholics and Protestants at the Catholic Bishops Conference in Yangon. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how the Church should respond to the emerging opportunities and challenges in the new Myanmar.
The gathering opened with tour-de-force keynote by Archbishop Bo, and concluded with a joint statement that described a roadmap forward for Catholics and Protestants working together on key issues, in the community context of their common citizenship with a majority culture that, to over-simplify, is Burmese and Buddhist. (Christians represent 10% of the population of Myanmar, and are overwhelmingly found among the ethnic minority groups along Myanmar's borders.)
Dr. Seiple, the only American present, was invited by the Archbishop and Secretary General to speak formally into this discussion through a prepared presentation, as well as respond informally at the conclusion of the conference. The below article is based on these two reflections, as well as the many conversations he had with the inspiring leaders of Myanmar's Church, Catholic and Protestant.
"Memory is the master of our history. We must change mindsets in order to change behavior. This conference is the beginning of the beginning."
—Father Alphonse Ko Lay, in reference to the rote memorization method that characterizes and stunts Myanmar's education, and to the fact that Catholics and Protestants from all ethnic minorities have never met to discuss such critical issues, leaving each to only their own understanding of their common history
I have never been more humbled or more inspired than to witness this gathering. This gathering is what Ephesians teaches, it is an example for the global Church. It is a story that I will tell and re-tell to anyone that will listen, especially in my home country of America.
I have no right to speak into your context as an American. I have not lived a life under an authoritarian regime. I have not experienced the ethno-religious tensions that have resulted in the various and ongoing conflicts on Myanmar's borders. I will never have these experiences.
It is my responsibility, however, to encourage you as your brother in Christ, a fellow member of His global body. I want to do so by sharing five principles of the Church that I have observed in my travels throughout East Asia and in Muslim-majority countries; that is, five observations about the Church's role in places where it is not of the majority culture. (And, I should note that I am making these observations mostly from my direct and indirect experience with the Protestant Church, not necessarily with the Catholic Church.)
My hope is to make the case of Ephesians and James: if we His body can demonstrate our beliefs through our behavior, and our principles through our practice, we will be relevant and sought after by the societies and states where we live. But we must act according to the standard that our Lord gives, and nothing else. We must show our faith by what we do (James 2:18). You can decide for yourselves what is relevant to your situation, although I will conclude with five potential implications for Myanmar.
1. Be Prophetic. Protect and Promote the inherent dignity that all humans have—they each bear the image of God—no matter their ethnicity, or if they believe or pray differently than you. Give particular attention to the most vulnerable: women, youth, and children, especially among minority "nations" (people groups). Remember, Jesus taught in the Temple's Court of Women. He was such a servant that He submitted even to female adulterers (in the absence of their male co-conspirator). And it was a woman who first witnessed our resurrected Lord.
Remember, Jesus said it would be better to have a millstone tied around our necks and be thrown into the ocean, than to let our young ones (youth and children) be harmed in any manner. Remember, Revelation teaches that every tribe and every nation will bow before the Lord. The majority ethnic and/or religious group must love the minorities, and vice-versa! If the Church can do these things, it will not only live out the commands of Jesus, it will serve the common concerns of all citizens of the state. Be prophetic in this manner, and the people will be with you.
2. Act as Ambassadors of Reconciliation. The defining characteristic of our global century is that no government or non-governmental organization can solve our global challenges alone. It is not a question of if, but when you will partner with an individual or institution that does not think, act, or pray as you do. Partnership is also the process of reconciliation, of mutually accommodated identities, of cooperation without compromise toward a common purpose. In other words, if you are called to work on our global challenges—from inter-ethnic conflict resolution to sex-trafficking—there are two chances to serve as an ambassador of reconciliation: in the process of partnership, and amidst the process of working on the global challenge itself.
Meanwhile, there is much conflict—physical, economic, social, psychological, and spiritual—in our world, especially among countries going through significant transition. The only long-term solution to these conflicts is not to arbitrate the positions, nor to re-imagine the interests of the various parties. While such efforts might prove useful, the only enduring solution is to transform the hearts of the parties in conflict. As my Nigerian friend, Imam Ashafa, has told me many times: "a conflict not transformed is a conflict transferred."
All faith traditions have something to say about transformation. In our own, the heart of the Gospel is reconciliation. If this was the model and method of our Master, as found in John 4, how can we do less?
I call special attention to the internal trauma that conflict produces. The Church must equip itself to help people heal internally, such that they might model the reconciliation that the world needs externally. Reconciliation also means reaching out to those who have left the home country, who sometimes remember their country as it was when they left, still full of enmity for those in the country who hurt them.
Finally, reconciliation requires that we understand those in our own country and culture who might have different opinions of what reconciliation is, and means to them. We followers of Christ must walk in the shoes of the other, if only because He first walked in ours. Take the time to understand and engage the holy scripts of another faith, and what they teach of reconciliation, as understood by a practitioner of that faith.
3. Steward your CitizenshipS. Is it possible to be entirely ethnic and a citizen of your country? Can you also be a global citizen, and entirely a citizen of the in-broken Kingdom that Christ brought with His resurrection? The answer is yes, but it takes great maturity. It takes the maturity modeled in the Apostle Paul.
Depending on the context, Paul was the "Hebrew of Hebrews," or he was a Roman citizen. He was proudly a Jew, and proudly a Roman. Yet, he saw both citizenships as gifts from Christ, a function of his Kingdom citizenship in Christ. If these citizenships and identities are in conflict within you, they can easily be manipulated by the forces of this world. Reconcile these citizenships in Christ, stewarding them as you serve the common good of your land.
To re-state this idea in the language of principled pluralism—where all have the right to bring their beliefs systems to the public square—what is the commonly understood narrative of citizenship within a country? Is that narrative big enough to not just include but invite all voices, especially minorities?
And because the Church is a minority—and therefore, non-threatening to the majority—could its building be used for dual-purpose? Could the church building be a house of worship, and a place where all citizens are invited to share their understanding and expectations of citizenship and civic responsibility? Could churches be a place where the majority culture mosque (Islam) or monastery (Buddhism) is invited on a regular basis to better understand irreconcilable theological differences yet at the same time cultivate common values?
Could the Church be a safe space to catalyze a society that is more civil and therefore a state that is more stable, because such an ongoing space and discussion helps everyone discover a common citizenship narrative—with common values rooted in different theologies—that gives permission to all peoples, especially ethno-religious minorities, to participate on behalf of the common good?
4. Build Trust, Build Institutions. As countries transition from authoritarianism, it is the human condition not to trust the government, nor for the minorities to trust the majority culture. And while I believe that it is the responsibility of the majority culture and/or government to reach out and engage the minority, in practice this doesn't often happen (especially if the majority has also been hurt by the government in the past). Therefore minorities have a choice: they can do nothing, or find ways to reach out themselves, to build a new trust. I think the choice to reach out is impossible if the Church does not first trust the Holy Spirit, for there is usually every reason not to trust the government, and/or the majority culture.
One practical way to build trust is to be excellent. In other words, as a society recovers from authoritarianism—as it begins to stop looking up for permission and instead looks out to see how it can contribute to solutions—I believe that the Church is perfectly positioned to demonstrate that God has not called Christians to be mediocre. If we are excellent in what we do—in every vocation and location—we will not only serve society, we will attract others to our product, and to us. If we continue to be excellent, trust will be built: no longer will people come because of what we do, but because of who we are, and how we do things.
Why should Christians be particularly good at this kind of impact? Because we are to be people of integrity, relevant to a hurting world. Jesus teaches that our yes should be yes, and our no should be no. He also teaches us to be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.
If such trust and integrity can be modeled among Christians, across ethnic and geographic lines, slowly, a ripple effect of mutually reinforcing trust will infiltrate and extend to trusting the institutions of the state. Trust will not take place because they are state institutions. That trust will be extended because those institutions will eventually be staffed by people of integrity who believe in each other, their fellow citizens, and their country.
By the way, such a rippling effect is good for the economy and the attraction of foreign direct investment. If the rule of law does not take root—if a transparent law is not equally applied to all citizens, and especially if contract law is not honored—then no one will invest in the country, and there will be fewer jobs created. Put differently, if business leaders worldwide believe that they can trust the institutions and individuals of Myanmar—and if they know that there is legal recourse to pursue those who do not honor contracts—then they will want to invest their money. Of course, that trust has to be reciprocated by outsiders, especially business people, according to the rules that the government establishes. As Pope Benedict XVI says in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate: "Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function."
And, by the way, such integrity and trust helps fight corruption, the #1 national security threat to the countries of ASEAN. Such integrity and trust also lends itself to a culture of innovation, of working together to develop new ways of thinking-and-doing that serve all the people of a country. Trust and transparency, as reflected in faithful Christians, faithful people of all religions or none, and the rule of law of the country is the key to economic success in the 21st century.
5. Work Top-Down and Bottom-Up, Simultaneously, and Transparently. In John 4, Jesus doesn't tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, He provides the practical example of how to love the bad Samaritan. And while His method is clear—He crosses every geo-gender-social boundary in mid-day in order to submit to her, by asking her for a drink of water, before demonstrating gracious honesty—it is sometimes all too easy to forget the model He offers.
It says in John 4 that He had to go to Samaria. It is here, among those the Jews most despised, that He announces who He is for the first time. Jesus responds to the Samaritan woman in the language of the burning bush: "I am."
Think of it, the Creator of the universe does not announce Himself to the Romans (the geo-political rulers of the greatest empire known to date), or to the Religious leaders (the Pharisees who had been told of Him by Moses). He announces Himself to the most Reviled person possible: the most despised, a philandering woman, of the most despised ethnic group...by first submitting to her. The top-down God of history now bottom-up Incarnate, reveals who He is to the lowest of the low. And to her credit, she responds by loving Him, a representative of the majority culture that hated her people. Such top-down, bottom-up engagement is a model for all of us, because it works.
In our own experience at the Institute for Global Engagement we have found that no change is sustainable unless government officials (top-down) and grassroots leaders (bottom-up) are working together at the national and local level. You can change all the laws and rules, but if the ideas and beliefs behind those laws/rules are not transcendent, or at least socialized and internalized among those who implement the law and/or policy, then they are nothing more than a bunch of words. Likewise, there can be incredible examples of grassroots service at the local level, but if such activities are not governed by a law and constitution that allows and encourages them to take place, then they will eventually give way to the whims of the local leader.
Accordingly, if government and grassroots leaders are in respectful dialogue with each other, then sufficient consensus can emerge around particular policies and related roadmaps forward. Our work in Vietnam and Laos best illustrates this approach.
Conclusion: Potential Implications for Myanmar. I think there are five implications for this gathering as you move forward, together, as His Church, in Myanmar.
Be Careful. Myanmar is the world's (the West's) flavor-of-the-month. Everyone wants to engage Myanmar. The world's attention span, however, is short. This moment will pass. Pick your partners carefully. Many "do-gooders" are now coming to Myanmar as it opens up. Most will have fine intentions. Of them, some may not have the capacity and/or a clue about how to help. Be discerning. Remember the miracle of John 6: the loaves and fish came from within the people. Only then did Jesus bless the gift and multiply it. Do what you can, show up with what you have, and expect Christ to do what only He can. Expect the miracle.
Be you, in Christ. Obey His commands. Be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Love God by loving your neighbor, preaching the service of others for the common good. Work for true freedom of conscience or belief—for everyone—because you believe that such freedom is the greatest gift after Grace from a gift-giving God. Because of your faith, contribute to a narrative of citizenship that respects the contribution of all. Seek a citizenship with integration as its base—of celebrating not tolerating the minority. Educate against assimilation—that everyone needs to act and think like the majority culture—and the inherent seeds of conflict that assimilation sows. The Kingdom of God is diverse for a reason and its richness is revealed in our respect for the dignity of differences.
Shepherd your flocks. Create a space in which you can edify and equip your flock to engage this world as it is, where the flock actually lives and works. The Church is that perfectly pre-positioned body of believers in every vocation and location. Teach your sheep how to be salt and light where they work and live, in a manner that honors God by being gracious, respectful and honest to those non-believers around them. Teach them to be followers of Christ who, by definition, will be good citizens of the state, contributing in tangible ways to the well-being of society.
Sustain the space in which you talk about these issues. Working groups will result from this conference that address the top five priorities that you have been led to establish. These issues should be engaged at three levels: 1) within our faith; 2) with other faiths; and, 3) with the government. Build working groups that can do all three. Include non-clergy, according to the expertise of their vocation, and also the strategic nature of their location. Consider including non-clergy from outside of Myanmar according to their vocation, and your needs.
Build educational institutions within the faith. Education is teaching someone how to think; training is telling them how to do something. The Church's seminaries must educate our priests and pastors how to practically relate theology to the real issues of the day. Consider developing a common think tank that provides theologically-grounded positions and strategies regarding the Christian response and contribution to the challenges that face Myanmar. Think about establishing a Christian school of public policy and international affairs.
You are citizens in community with each other and non-Christians. Cast an inclusive dialogue and vision of citizenship that builds the society you need, contributing to the corresponding constitution that your state needs. It will take time, but united, you cannot fail.
To be clear, Catholics and Protestants have worked together before on various projects in Myanmar history. However, this meeting marks the first time that all 16 Bishops from the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) and the 14 denominational leaders from the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC) have gathered together to carefully consider and steward their role as the Church in Myanmar.
For more on these ideas, please see, Chris Seiple, "Geo-Christianity: Back to the Future," 25 July 2003 (first published in Prism, available from: https://www.globalengage.org/issues/articles/christianity/382-geo-christianity-back-to-the-future.html.