by Herman G. Tegenfeldt
The military coup d’ etat that vaulted General Ne Win and sixteen other army officers into Burma’s political saddle on March 2, 1962 marked an important milestone for the Christian church in that land. Anti-foreign feelings, already present in some measure, were strengthened and implemented by actions of the new government.
The military coup d’ etat that vaulted General Ne Win and sixteen other army officers into Burma’s political saddle on March 2, 1962 marked an important milestone for the Christian church in that land. Anti-foreign feelings, already present in some measure, were strengthened and implemented by actions of the new government. A spirit of isolationism has since characterized its relations with the rest of the world. Missioncries have been ordered out and nationals have been unable to get passports to attend world-wide Christian conferences outside the country. In addition, the nationalization of virtually all private educational and social service institutions has resulted in revolutionary changes for the church. These experiences of Burmese Christians have a message for all who are concerned about the spread of the gospel and the strengthening of churches in the non-Western areas of the world. But first, a resume of the past eight years will be helpful in providing a background for this message from the Burma experience.
The first and most obvious results of the change in government in 1962 were political. The prime minister, U Nu, many cabinet members, and other important officials of the previous government were placed in "protective custody" for indefinite periods. U Nu was released only after more than four years. Influential political leaders likewise were confined, and soon all political parties were banned, with the exception of the new government-sponsored Burma Socialist Programme Party. The old constitution was suspended and the country has been ruled since then through orders and laws issued over the signature of General Ne Win, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Council.
Economic changes were next. All banks were nationalized, followed in turn by the government’s take-over of all private business and industry except the very smallest shops. In their place, "people’s shops" were set up throughout the country and every family has had to purchase needed supplies of all kinds at these shops, using the ration cards which the government issued. Extreme shortages of many kinds of consumer goods have been experienced, including such basic commodities as canned milk, cloth, thread, nails, medicines, etc. Most agricultural products, including rice, could be sold by the farmer only to the government purchasing agencies, at the government controlled price. Black market activities increased greatly and marked inflation has resulted, causing great hardship to many. Conditions today are slightly improved over the nadir of mid-1967, when even rice was in extremely short supply.
Changes related to educational and medical institutions were among the most traumatic for Burmese Christians. In 1965 the government suddenly nationalized the finest of the private schools and the five outstanding private hospitals (three of which were mission or church related). The nationalization included all the assets of these institutions. Staff members were given the opportunity to join the government service, often at reduced salary rates. Most of them elected to do so.
The remaining private schools were taken over the following year. To see old and well-established Christian schools, which they and their parents before them had supported, thus expropriated was a most difficult emotional experience for many Christians in every part of Burma.
In March 1966, the government gave orders to all Protestant and more than half the Roman Catholic foreign missionaries to leave the country. The last Protestant missionary left in September of that year. Remaining Roman Catholics are largely those in the hierarchy, and parish priests who were in Burma before World War II. Indian Hindu missionaries of the Ramakrishna Mission were ordered out before the Christian missionaries had to leave. Upwards of 200,00 other foreigners, especially Indians and Pakistanis who were in private business, have left the country, finding it too difficult to continue living there. There are few foreigners in Burma today, outside of the diplomatic community and some non-Burmese still in the process of closing out their affairs prior to departure. Visits to Burma from the outside are greatly restricted. Between 1964 and 1969, visas were good only for a 24-hour visit, but more recently this has been relaxed to permit 72-hours in the country.
Despite such developments as have been enumerated, it must also be pointed out that the new government has guaranteed freedom of religion to all. Although at times "voluntary" labor, or attendance at government rallies has been required on Sundays, there has been little or no deliberate interference with church services. Nor have theological schools been nationalized. From the Christian viewpoint, this has been a major plus factor amid the more discouraging developments.
It is out of the background described above that the experiences of the Christians in Burma would speak to us. However, the experiences in Burma have not been unique. Such things as military coups, rapid economic changes, nationalization of schools and the expulsion of missionaries have taken place in other countries in Afro-Asia and South America in recent decades. However, Burma does provide another clear reminder of basic truths to which missionaries have commonly given lip service, but have often been negligent in actually implementing. One of these is to establish responsible churches, from the beginning. Ever since the era of Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn, a century ago, the goal of establishing churches that would be characterized by the "three selfs" –self-government, self-support and self-propagation-has been placed before missionaries. In numerous instances, mission efforts along these lines have in the end been crowned with real measures of success. However, the Burma experience would say to us that setting this goal to be reached in the end is not good enough. Instead, from the very beginning the newly formed bodies of believers must be expected to shoulder responsibility for the Christian work in their area.
In decades gone by, even among missions that emphasize the importance of the indigenous church, it has been common for missionaries in newer areas to make decisions regarding the work very largely on their own. Often times, to put it plainly, missionaries have followed this procedure because they were sure they knew better than the nationals what decisions should be made. Missionary self-confidence, even spiritual pride, provided the motivation. At times the nationals themselves reinforced this missionary attitude. Sometimes out of real sincerity, but also at times merely out of innate politeness, they would speak of their own inabilities, and would encourage the missionary himself to make decisions regarding the work. "We don’t know what should be done; you decide" was their response to the missionary when faced with difficult decisions.
In other instances, missionaries found it much easier and quicker to make decisions themselves than to involve the national Christians in the process. Bringing matters to the local people for decision might prove divisive. It was much "safer" not even to mention the problem to them. Or, if the matter had to be brought before the nationals, the missionaries would discuss it first and come to a decision, which was then presented to the nationals for the formality of their concurrence.
For one reason or another, it thus has been easy for the missionary to set as a final goal the establishment of a responsible church, but in actual practice to keep much of the responsibility for the work in his own hands for some years or even decades before "turning over the work" to the national church. "Devolution" was put into practice only after the mission felt that the local churches had proven their ability to accept and carry the responsibilities which previously had been almost completely in the hands of the missionaries.
The experience of Burma and of other lands where missionaries have had to leave with but short notice would suggest most strongly that in these days we may not have time to plan for such a gradual handing over of responsibility from the mission to the national church. Waiting for the time when missionaries consider that nationals are now ready to shoulder the load is fraught with serious dangers. One of these, of course, is the failure of missionaries to recognize that nationals actually are capable of carrying responsibility already, and thus missionaries often are too late in shifting the load to them. This has led to tension, and even struggles for power, between missionaries and nationals. The other danger is that time may be much shorter than anyone realizes. In a day when missionaries abruptly have to leave, the national church may be found largely unprepared to assume responsibility, due to there having been no real national involvement in decision-making during the previous years. This writer feels that we are faced with the necessity of involving national Christians in the responsibility for the work from the very beginning. How can this be done?
In the first place, such a policy will mean that national Christians, no matter how few or how ignorant, will share in all decisions regarding the Christian work in their area. To be sure, there may be times when they will not have enough background or understanding to contribute much to the decision being made. The missionary may have to carry the major portion of the load, but the nationals should always be involved. More time may be required by coming to decisions by this method, and this procedure also may prove more difficult, especially if there are factions or personality problems within the Christian group. However, this method will have the advantage of avoiding the errors that often occur when only one person (and a foreigner at that) makes decisions affecting the work as a whole. Unfortunate decisions, some of them affecting the work adversely for years to come, could have been avoided in many instances if missionaries, instead of coming to an independent decision, had brought matters to the nationals for joint consideration and decision.
Involving local Christians in decision-making from the beginning of the Christian work in that area will provide them with the opportunity to learn and grow through actually sharing in important decisions. The net result will be that if the missionary (or any influential leader, for that matter) has to leave suddenly, there still will remain a broad base for the work, made up of Christians who are sufficiently experienced so that they can carry on. From the beginning they will have had the feeling that this is "our work," and not "the mission’s work." Between those two attitudes lies a very great difference!
Second, the training of men and women to assume leadership in these responsible churches must have a high priority from the very beginning. Some of this training will occur out of the experiences of having to wrestle with decision-making, referred to above. In addition, somewhat more formal training sessions for Sunday school teachers, leaders of youth, officers in women’s and men’s groups, deacons, etc., will need to be provided, either for local churches or on a district basis. Annual sessions primarily for laymen and laywomen in such subjects as Bible study, evangelism, etc., will be needed, as well as yearly refresher courses for evangelists and pastors. Also, the establishment of Bible schools and seminaries for the formal training of the future pastoral leadership of the churches needs to have the early attention of the mission and the churches, leading to joint action.
A third aspect of the development of responsible churches is that of evangelistic outreach. This should include not only the spread of the gospel to others of the Christians’ own cultural or racial stock, but to those people with whom they have no particular bonds. It is more the rule than the exception for new believers to feel a burden to evangelize others of their own extended family, clan or language group. However, it too often has been the exception for new converts to have a similar burden for men of other cultures, even those living near them. Missionaries must accept at least a part of the blame for this failure of the younger churches to catch the true spirit of the gospel, by their not giving stronger encouragement to them from the very beginning to witness to those outside their own circle. At times, missionaries adopted the prejudices of the people among whom they worked, and evidenced little concern toward other groups nearby. In other instances, "until the new group of believers becomes stronger," missionaries delayed facing them with their responsibility to witness to all groups around them. In either case, the end result has been that a true missionary concern has been largely absent in large segments of the younger churches in Afro-Asian lands. Even the Karens of Burma, who possess one of the finest records of missionary endeavor in Asia, took the gospel almost exclusively to tribal groups who, like themselves, were animists. Karen missionaries to Burmese or Chinese Buddhists or to Hindu Indians have been rare. Even though deeply-ingrained attitudes and old prejudices may make it quite difficult, still the responsibility of the church to spread the gospel to every language group and tribe must be presented to new believers, from the beginning. Failure to do this until some years or even decades have elapsed may result in churches which not only have no strong missionary concern, but which also continue to maintain the old, pre-Christian prejudices toward others.
Finally, the establishment of a responsible church from the beginning will involve the matter of finances. This writer does not subscribe to the position that no foreign funds may be used to assist a local church or association of churches. On the other hand, for the missionary or mission to take the initiative in planning and then supporting any project without real involvement on the part of the national church seems very unwise. Instances of the development of projects by missions independent of the nationals have been productive of misunderstanding and even ill-will between missions and national churches in years past. Foreign funds need to be used not only with the greatest of care, but also with mutual understanding.
As a general principle, it would seem best to use foreign funds to assist the younger churches to undertake tasks which they have decided to initiate, and to support, but which unaided they cannot complete. Such a policy would place upon the church the responsibility for deciding both the projects which should be undertaken and how much of the needed funds it would raise. Only in instances where this would be inadequate would the church then turn to the mission for help. Even here, such assistance from the mission should not be for an indefinite time; rather, aid in the form of grants toward capital needs or for short-term programs will prove the best method whereby missions can help establish responsible younger churches.
A second reminder from the Burma experience is to accept and endeavor to bridge cultural differences. Adoniram Judson gave his 37 years in Burma primarily to work among the Burmese speaking people, in direct evangelism and through the translation of the Scriptures and the production of other Christian literature. However, after some years it became evident that among the Karens there was a far greater readiness to receive the gospel than among the Burmese. Missionaries were then designated to work among the Karens, and, learning only Karen language, identified themselves with that people. Thus there came into being the "Burmese Mission" and the "Karen Mission," with separate schools, churches and missionaries, sometimes in the same town. (Later, they discovered that there are two major linguistic divisions among the Karens, Pwo and Sgaw, and there arose both a "Pwo Karen Mission" and a "Sgaw Karen Mission.") This same pattern of designating missionaries to a certain tribe or language group was generally followed as missionaries later moved into the more isolated parts of Burma to work among the Kachins, Chins, Shans, Lahus and Was, etc. There were outstanding exceptions, but on the whole the missionaries working among these minority groups did not learn the Burmese language. Rather they tended to identify themselves strongly with the particular people among whom they served, including even sharing in some of their basic attitudes toward other language groups.
It should be pointed out that there is very sound basis for this sort of initial missionary approach, especially in such countries as Burma where there are numerous minority groups, each with a language and culture that differs to a considerable degree from the cultures about it. (Burma lists 126 different languages and major dialects within its borders.) Not only are these languages and cultures different, but many of these groups have antagonisms and prejudices toward their neighbors, deeply ingrained after generations of contact and conflict. Fear of being overwhelmed by more numerous or powerful groups has strongly reinforced nationalistic feelings and has raised definite barriers between the various peoples living within a given geographical or political area.
As a missionary began work among a minority group, it was of the highest importance that he identify himself as much as possible with the people to whom he came. It was especially important that he speak their language, rather than the language of the dominant group, whom they considered their enemies. In addition to such nationalistic considerations as these, there of course is also the basic truth that matters related to the inner spirit of man are understood and accepted much more readily when communicated in the mother tongue of the hearer.
Missionaries to the various minority groups in Burma accepted these cultural differences, learned the language and identified themselves to a very considerable degree with the group to whom they went. And this approach brought results, both in numbers of converts and in the strength of the churches which came into being. These churches, each made up of people of the same ethnic group and using the same minority group language, to this day have a marked sense of cohesiveness, and often demonstrate very real vitality. Along with other factors, their acceptance of cultural differences and identification with one particular group by missionaries in Burma undoubtedly contributed greatly to the outstanding progress of the gospel in that land.
However, in more recent years there has come a growing recognition that the missionary’s accepting cultural differences and identifying too strongly with any particular group in the end may result in major problems. Reinforcement of religion through language and culture, especially in areas where nationalism is a strong force, as is often true today, may easily prove to be a real barrier to Christian understanding and unity. The very method that proved such a help in the initial presentation of the gospel to different cultural groups may later prove to be a major stumbling block in getting Christians of these differing groups to work together as brothers in Christ. Today in Burma this is one of the major problems facing the Burma Baptist Convention, of which numerous minority groups (Karen, Kachin, Chin, Lahu, Wa, Shan, etc.) constitute about 95 percent of the total church membership, and the dominant group in the country, the Burmese, provide less than 5 percent.
What is the answer to this problem? On the one hand, too great an identification on the part of the missionary with any one minority group is not wise. On the other, a failure to learn the language or identify with the group will bar any effective communication of the gospel because of the nationalistic feelings involved. The answer lies somewhere between the extremes, living in tension between the two, bending at times but ever seeking to lead in the direction of the love and understanding that are truly Christian and therefore supranational. The missionary must manifest a very real sense of identification with those among whom he serves. This of course is shown in various ways, of which learning the language is one of the most effective. Aligning himself with the problems, the needs and the worthwhile aspirations of his adopted people also is very important. At the same time, he must use every opportunity to point out that just as he, a foreigner, came across cultural and other barriers to them because of the gospel, and has a very real sense of brotherhood with them, they, too, are called to reach across the old barriers to find fellowship and brotherhood in Christ with those who previously were considered their enemies. And despite the practical problems involved, the missionary working among a minority group also ought to have a working knowledge of the major language of the country, just to support his teaching by his own example! The missionary is called to accept cultural differences and to use them, especially that of language, in communicating the gospel, but at the same time to seek in every possible way, both by teaching and example, to help bridge such differences through Christian love, in order that the new Christians may both sense within themselves and display before others the basic truth of oneness in Christ.
Finally, the Burma experience would remind us that doors open and close; we must enter when we can. There is a segment of American Christianity that seems to have a basically pessimistic view of missions. There are those who appear to take some sort of satisfaction in referring to "closing doors" with the implied suggestion that possibly the end of all foreign mission endeavor is in sight. In some cases, a negative and pessimistic eschatology supports this approach; probably more often this attitude is only a very convenient rationalization for no real concern for missions in the first place! Isolationism, whether political or religious, has a strong appeal to the basic self-centeredness of the human heart. Thus, the news that the Burma government forced most foreign missionaries out of that land provided further confirmation to those Americans who view present day mission endeavor as fundamentally a matter of adjusting to "closing doors" everywhere.
Actually, doors to missionary opportunity have been both opening and closing through the centuries ever since Paul and Silas were prevented from entering the provinces of Asia and Bithynia, but were able to move on through an open door into Macedonia (Acts 16). For instance, during the last 1500 years, there have been at least three periods of major opportunity for the gospel to enter China. But each time these open doors later swung closed, as we are well aware at present. In fact, during our lifetime doors to missionary service have closed not only in China and Burma, but also in Sudan and some other portions of Africa, and most recently in parts of India. Burma is a reminder of the uncertainties of the present world situation.
However, if we are going to be accurate, over against these eve must place the record of newly opening doors. Space does not permit any detailed description, but merely a listing of some of these current tremendous opportunities: Nepal, formerly completely closed, where more than 100 missionaries are now serving; portions of Latin America characterized by an openness and receptivity to the gospel, in complete contrast to the persecution of evangelicals such as was experienced in Colombia a generation ago; large in-gatherings for Christ in Taiwan (Formosa) since World War II; and the spectacular change in Indonesia since the attempted communist coup and countercoup of five years ago, with several hundred thousand (at least one-fourth of them former Muslims) indicating their desire to become Christians. Less spectacular but just as real opportunities lie open before us in many parts of Africa and Asia, and through these open doors, too, the gospel is entering.
The lesson from Burma is the reminder that doors once open may in succeeding years swing in the face of the foreign missionary. To be sure, as is true in Burma, it may be possible to send books, magazines, packages ant financial support to continue to assist in the work. And of course the privilege and responsibility to pray for the nationals continues before us. However, missionaries are not permitted to enter the country, and there is no indication that the position will change in the near future.
The simple logic of all this points to the urgency of the hour; we must enter the doors as they open to us, for we know not when they may close. And if we expect results in good measure, we must enter in force. "Too little and too late" has often characterized missionary endeavor in years gone by. In the world of today this is less acceptable than ever before.
A WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT
It is four years since the last Protestant missionary left Burma, and to a degree not known before (except during the tumultuous days of World War II), believers there have been "on their own." Even though missionaries are no longer there, word received through correspondence and from occasional brief visits of tourists gives real cause for encouragement.
Although Christian schools and hospitals have been nationalized and there are few opportunities for Christian social service in an organized or institutional way, there is little restriction on the individual witness for Christ, both in deed and in word. In fact, any Christians who previously might have depended upon the Christian institutions to do their witnessing for them are finding the present situation impelling them to witness individually-and this undoubtedly is a plus factor on the present situation.
Theological schools have not been nationalized, and most of these report marked increases in enrollment, despite the sudden withdrawal of missionary personnel and increased financial stringency throughout the country. Thus, the enrollment in 15 Baptist Bible schools and seminaries has grown from less than 700 four years ago to a present figure of over 900. This augurs well for the future of the church. Similarly, work among the youth through the Sunday school, camping programs, etc., is continuing, although considerable care must be exercised to insure that the government understands there are no political undertones in such activities.
Bible conferences and annual meetings of the churches, both district and country-wide, have been held regularly, although travel difficulties and shortages of food have sometimes reduced the numbers able to attend. The Burma Baptist Convention, holding its annual meeting in the far north at Myitkyina just after Christmas 1968, reported as many as 6,500 present at some of the sessions. More recently in 1969, the 150th anniversary of Judson’s baptism of U Naw (Maung Nau), the first Burmese convert, was observed in Rangoon with several days of meetings with similar large numbers in attendance. And for statistics-oriented Americans, it can be reported that in the four years since missionaries had to leave, Baptist Christians in Burma have increased from 234,000 to 242,000.
The experiences of the church in Burma have a number of things to say to us, from which much can be learned. However, most basic and most encouraging of all is the illustration it provides of the word, "We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
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