LeaDev-Langham’s first Langham Scholar financially supported by Langham Partnership NZ, and studying in New Zealand, has completed his PhD dissertation.
Meet Aung Htoo, a lecturer from MEGST (Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology) in Yangon, who has spent the last five years at Laidlaw College in Auckland, researching, writing and taking a deep look into a theology of non-violence for his home country which – in spite of recent and hopeful changes – is still beset by a culture and history of extreme violence.
It’s understandable subject matter for Htoo; he was a teenager in the thick of Myanmar’s notorious ‘8888’ uprisings where thousands of Burmese people from all walks of life were killed by the military dictatorship for protesting their lack of freedom. A quick online search gives an idea of just how extensive the damage and loss of life was.
Htoo says that at the time, as a young evangelical Christian, he found himself in a dilemma:
“To my surprise many Christian leaders were very silent about the issues. Since Christianity was regarded as the foreign or colonial religion [Buddhism is the prevailing belief], Christians were silent about politics, culture and social justice issues. Some of the Christian leaders and pastors even condemned those who participated in those protests. The church I was part of was Pentecostal in style, so the spiritual dimension of life was emphasised and political and social justice dimensions were disregarded. So it’s this issue I am mad about and dissatisfied with, which is why I wanted to write about it.”
Again in 2007 during another uprising, Htoo tells how many Buddhists where shot by soldiers. He recalls that some Christians expressed their happiness that Buddhists were killing each other.
“I was really shocked, and so deeply disturbed by those comments. I find myself asking – both then and now – ‘how should we as Christians respond in this situation?’ Political and social injustice is so prevalent in my country, so as Christians how should we deal with that? Should we steal away from it and just focus on and emphasise the spiritual dimension as it pertains to spiritual salvation? I have to say I am not happy with that, and don’t think we should.”
Htoo takes a creative approach to this big and pertinent question, using the perspectives, writings and practices of three well known advocates of social justice. The official thesis title is “A study of Martin Luther King Jnr and Aung San Suu Kyi through the eyes of Walter Wink, with special reference to the political context of Myanmar.”
Of those three characters, King is probably the most well-known. Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s recently elected Foreign Minister and leader of the National League for Democracy, an acclaimed figure and emblem of freedom for most Burmese. You’d know who Wink (1935 – 2012) is if you’d ever studied theology: an American theologian known for his work and advocacy of non-violent resistance. Htoo analyses them individually, and then has them in dialogue interaction on the topics of leadership, religion and ethical principles.
In the final part he surveys the political history of Myanmar and then looks at it through the outcome of the three-way dialogue. He says it is clear that all three know and believe that violence has a spiritual dimension; that violence multiplies violence, and conversely non-violence multiplies non-violence.
“So this means the challenge for Suu Kyi [now that she’s in leadership] is to change the tradition of that invisible or inner-nature of violence in politics, and that’s the spiritual revolution.”
Given this spiritual nature of violence, he asks if it is possible for a non-violent activist in time to become a dictator, because for Myanmar, that’s the pertinent question. If there is not a genuinely spiritual revolution, will the violent nature of the country ever be overcome?
This is how Htoo puts it in his dissertation:
“Self-examination is hugely emphasised in both religions [Christianity and Buddhism]. But the problem is that our ego or self is, itself, a product of the web of socialisation. Thus Wink stresses that it is imperative to die not only to our ego, but also to the Powers. That means we are to notice the power of socialisation – how our culture and society has significantly impacted on us, whether we are conscious of it or not. We are not to be trapped by the outer forms of religion, and forgetful of its spirit. If it is so, the consequence will always be calamitous. Focusing on the external forms of religion at the cost of its interiority always adds fuel to the flames of the Domination System.”
A timely subject given Myanmar’s new democracy. Htoo believes that what he is proposing is “not going to be appealing” to the older generation of Christians, but for younger believers it will significantly stimulate and challenge their thinking.
Htoo returns to MEGST to lecture, but he says that this is just the beginning of his work on the subject; he wants to expand it to other areas and will be taking it further.
“At this key time, Christians in Myanmar should be developing and sharing the whole Gospel in every way, not just the apparently ‘spiritual’ alone; but how the Gospel pertains to all dimensions of human life. God has invested gifts in each of us – we are not all to simply be pastors – so we need to know what our gift is, and use it to serve society for Him.”