This past Sunday we finished the Christian year by celebrating the Reign of Christ. Next Sunday, we begin the season of Advent, eagerly embracing the rituals that prepare us to receive the infant of promise once again. Year A in the lectionary has flown by, and we begin the liturgical cycle anew, seeking guidance from Scripture to help us navigate our trouble-laden world.
In this liminal time, Pope Francis has chosen to visit Myanmar, an unprecedented journey. Christians are only about 4 percent to 5 percent of the approximately 55 million people who live there; of these there are less than half a million Romans Catholics. Clearly, his mission is more expansive than a pastoral visit to his flock in this remote country. Rather, he hopes to draw attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who are being driven out of the Rakhine State into Bangladesh, where they live the liminal reality of refugees. He is meeting with military leaders and state counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and then will visit representatives of the displaced in Bangladesh.
One has to respect his intention to use the power of his position to alleviate human suffering. Of course, he will bring his great moral and global sensitivity, and he is savvy enough to understand where some of the triggers lie. We pray that his pilgrimage will go beyond the symbolic and help open a way to peaceful resolution. Will he use the name “Rohingya?” It is an explosive appellation, filled with unresolved claim to indigenous identity. Kofi Annan, who oversaw a United Nations report on the atrocities being wreaked and endured, declined to use the term out of deference to the Myanmar government.
The Western press has kept this humanitarian crisis in view, yet tends to oversimplify the complexity. External interpreters of the Myanmar situation expected radical change after the National League for Democracy won the 2015 election, yet the power of “the Lady” as state counselor, or prime minister, is constricted, more honorific than controlling. The military retains inordinate power with a voting bloc in Parliament, and exploits a nation at war with itself. Roger Cohen, writing for The New York Times on Nov. 25 describes the impact of the election: “This was not a handover of power. It was a highly controlled, and easily reversible, cession of partial authority.” She is hemmed in by military red lines, yet she has influence and embodies the aspirations of her land.
Formerly portraying Aung San Suu Kyi as something of a saint, commentators have criticized her roundly for her handling of the crisis. Many call it a spectacular fall from grace, and Oxford University went so far as to strip her of an honor. Other Nobel Peace laureates have criticized her stance, suggesting her present inaction is unworthy of a recipient. Yet, the constitutional structure limits her from even recognizing the Rohingya as one of the ethnic minorities of the land. Her responsibility is to her country, not to our assumptions of how she should act, and the Union of Myanmar is so fragile.
Cohen perceives her decisions this way: “She is playing a long game for real democratic change.” She stands between the military and the people, and “there is nothing in her history to suggest she’s anything but resolute.”
It is easier to be a protest figure than to govern, and she is still learning the intractable political game. While the international community has little sway in the internal dynamics of governing Myanmar, strategic sanctions for a developing nation hold power. The United States was too quick, it appears, in lifting them. Perhaps with sufficient financial leverage behind her, she could speak forthrightly and galvanize justice for these displaced persons.
Religious difference plays a critical role. Buddhism hold a favored place in Myanmar, as the Preservation of Race and Religion legislation makes clear, and Buddhist monks have stoked fearmongering about the Muslim minority becoming a radicalized expression of Islam. Some Christians have contributed to this perspective, also.
The reading for the First Sunday of Advent begs God to put the world to rights: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …” (Isaiah 64:1). The prophet knows that humans cannot heal this world without divine assistance, yet God will not do it without us. When the people of God cease to call on God’s name, they are in peril, yet God will “meet those who gladly do right” (64:5). Advent is all about sensing the threshold where God is bringing redemption.
I will be in Myanmar in the coming week, and I am eager to learn from those on the ground about the impact of the Pope’s visit. I am also eager to enter into the liminal longings for peace, shared by all.