Cultures are colliding at an unparalleled rate. As the globe continues to shrink via media, Internet and other communications, there is increased awareness of similarities and differences between groups of people. This new understanding can lead to fresh questions, particularly with regard to theology. As a follower of Christ I have witnessed the recent atrocities in Southeast Asia and have been forced to ask, “What is the Christian’s responsibility toward the Buddhist neighbor?” Surely we must do something.
Burma is exploding
Over the last two weeks hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Yangon protesting the oppressive rule of an illegitimate military regime. These marches were led by Buddhist monks until the military junta conducted a raid of monasteries in which they beat and arrested 600-700 of these holy men. Security forces have besieged the monasteries, fired upon protesters and cut off communication with the outside world, signaling a crackdown that has not been seen since the slaughter of 3,000 protesters in 1988.
Burma’s history is troubling. In 1962 a violent military coup ended the country’s brief period of democracy. In 1989 the junta changed the name of the country to Myanmar, and the city of Rangoon to Yangon. Resistance movements around the world still refer to the country as Burma.
In 1990 the illegitimate government bowed to international pressure and held its first election. The democratic party of Aung San Suu Kyi scored a remarkable victory with over 80 percent of the vote. In an act of brazen defiance and unparalleled arrogance the government nullified the election and arrested Suu Kyi. She has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest or in prison. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to peace and non-violent resistance in the pursuit of democracy. She has had the chance to leave Burma to join family in the United Kingdom but refuses to abandon her oppressed people. In 2000 the rock band U2 immortalized her struggle with their hit “Walk On.” Though she recently had a brief meeting with monks and another with a United Nations envoy, she remains under house arrest and unable to speak to her followers.
Christians and Buddhists have something in common
Aung San Suu Kyi and the Buddhist monks hold much in common with followers of Christ. They are working for justice, committed to a way of peace and non-violence and suffering unimaginable horrors for their beliefs. As a powerless people, the monks and their followers have been persecuted and killed by a repressive tyrannical government much the same as Christians have throughout history. One only needs to remember the persecution of early Christians in second century Rome or the assassination of Archbishop Romero in twentieth century El Salvador to find parallels.
Christians and Buddhists do not commonly talk with one another. Their vastly different theologies would seem to prohibit any discussion of substance. Adherents of both faiths might be fearful that deeper interaction could lead to syncretism and compromise. Inter-faith dialogue is often met with skepticism, even though there is much to discuss.
The call to help one another
There is not only a need but a biblical mandate for such interaction. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 is often used to teach that we should help our neighbors. While this is true, such a trite moralism falls short of the story’s intended impact. The surprise of this parable is that the abused Jewish man is helped by his enemy, the Samaritan—a man of different social status, different ethnicity and different religion. A vile Samaritan helping a pious Jew would have been incomprehensible to the religious scholar Jesus was speaking with. Even so, “Go and do likewise” was the teacher’s instruction to his pupil.
Christians are called to help the poor, speak for justice and stand against tyrants regardless of whether the people suffering from oppression are Christian or non-Christian. This is a critical time for Christians to support the monks and Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers. Theirs is a way of peace and non-violent protest. Can Buddhist worshipers share the same values as followers of Christ? It appears so. Should Christians pray for and support Buddhist monks in Burma? Indeed.
Pray for the monks. Pray for Aung San Suu Kyi. Pray for peace in Burma.
Tim Neufeld is a professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University and on a pastoral staff in a local congregation. When not in the classroom or leading worship, he can often be found blogging on issues of church and culture at www.timneufeld.blogs.com.