World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Anna May Chain presentation

17 February 2006

Plenary on Christian identity and religious plurality

Dr Anna May Chain is a theology professor and biblical scholar from Myanmar (Burma)

My Place/My Identity

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams has stimulated us with many critical issues relating to Christian Identity and Religious Pluralism.  I want to concentrate on one point and that is the place Jesus is in, and as followers of Jesus we are in, in relation to a loving and forgiving God and in relation to the world, both human and non-human

For a start I would like to begin by identifying myself as a Karen Baptist from Myanmar, a minority group among the Burmese Buddhists who form 92% of the population.  Further. I would like to describe my place as a Karen Christian at a time of political chaos in our homeland, that is, in 1949.

After the Japanese Occupation of Burma ended with the allied victory in 1945 we all thought that with Independence from the British, Burma could now build Pyi Daw Tha- Peaceful Nation.  But our peaceful world again erupted into flames with the Karen Insurrection in 1949.  The background for this conflict was the British colonial policy of "divide and rule" which had pitted the Buddhist Burmese against the ethnic minorities who were mainly Christians such as the Karens.  As ethnic Karen Christians we suddenly became the enemy to our Burmese Buddhist neighbors.  The Karens tried to find safety anywhere they could amidst cries of "Kill the Karens.  Kill the Christians."  When a mob met a person they asked, "Are you a Karen Christian?"  A Yes most often led to death.

In this life and death situation, our family desperately looked around for help.  At this point, Moslem neighbors offered us sanctuary.  My father and brothers were hidden in the mosque and I and other women were taken from one safe house to the next.  These Moslems neighbors, at great risk to their lives, kept us hidden and fed us out of their meager food supply.  Later, we were taken to prison for safety. 

Burmese Buddhist friends had been trying to get news of us.  When it was against the law to help the enemy they forgot their own safety to demonstrate their solidarity with us by  bringing food, medicine and clothes to the prison.

From jail, Father Perrin, a French priest, came and took us to St. Joseph's Convent.  In those days, for the Baptists, the Catholics were outsiders.  To get help from the Catholics was unimaginable for the Baptists.  However, sisters and brothers warmly welcomed us, gave us a place to sleep and food to eat. Father Perrin, a French priest, tried to rescue both Karen Christians and Burmese Buddhists and said, "Stop this fighting!"  On one of his mission of rescue, Father Perrin was killed.  All of us who had been brought to a safe place through the love of this man forgot our differences for one day and joined together in mourning him.  In times of conflict and war, the worst is brought out of us as well as the best. 

At this point in my life, the neighbors, Muslims, Buddhists and Catholics were in the place of Jesus to me.  I was at my most vulnerable and weakest.  They were my guard and shield.  They were the risk takers and life givers. My Muslim and Buddhist neighbors may not know the name Jesus but I believe God had found a path for himself to them.

My Neighbors' Place

Next, I want to talk about "my neighbors' place," the place where they come from, their perspective on life today and in the future.

When I say neighbors, I mean my close friends.  There are six of us, all women who meet irregularly.  We have been friends since we were in Grade One in a mission school.  Two of us are Christians, three Buddhists and one Muslim.

We have taken part in each other's festivals and family rituals.  Talking is an important activity in our get-togethers.  As teenagers we talked about make up, clothes, movie stars, and boys.  As young adults our interests were on college, work, husbands and children.

Now as Senior Adults our talk turns more on serious subjects.  All 6 of us are committed to empowering women. We find things in our religions that are liberating for women and others that oppresses us.  For instance, in Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Myanmar, although the path to Enlightenment is open to all, women cannot be a Buddha unless she is reborn as a male. To be a son is to be valued. My friend Miriam, the Muslim, also finds some restrictions against women in Islam.  As a Christian, I find the evangelical tradition prevalent in our country limiting the leadership and status of women in the churches.  As women, although from different faith tradition, our common for women empowerment unite us.

In another area, we do not agree but are learning from each other.  Last June, one of us, Than Nwe, died unexpectedly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  She was the first in our group to die.  We thought we were invulnerable, special.  But one of us, still relatively young, was dead.  We five gathered in sorrow and remembrance.  At one point I asked my Buddhist friends, "At Buddhist funerals, when the dead person leaves the house for the last time, the eldest son breaks a pot of water.  What does it mean?"  Tin Tin, who had lost her husband three years ago tried to explain, "For Buddhists it signifies that the person as we know him is no more.  The stream of his life which had mixed and flowed with ours has ended. As the spilt water from the pot cannot be gathered together again, that person no longer can be the person he was."  Aye, another Buddhist added, "The person we know as Than Nwe no longer exists.  Depending on her thoughts and deeds she will have another reincarnation."  Marjorie, the other Christian in the group asked, "Then there is no way we can meet each other after death?"  "No, for us death is the end.  So our life here together is so precious."  Marjorie said, "Last Christmas my eldest son died.  This year my little granddaughter died.  It would be unbearable for me as a Christian if we had no hope of a future."  As a Christian I respect my friends' spirituality, their commitment to live each day mindfully, to work to improve other peoples' lives today and not wait for tomorrow. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams has said we should not turn away from those who see from another place, not ours.  So I will continue to walk and talk together intimately with my friends.  Our lives are intertwined.  As I have learned from them to value living life today mindfully my conviction is that they will also learn from me about the lovingkindness, the forgiveness and mercy of God.  God in loving relationship with us and in infinite love and compassion for us, may have a plan for us, my friends and I, to continue this walk even beyond death.