How widely Jesus ranges

Witness amid religious pluralism requires respect and receptivity.

By Molly T. Marshall

They just kept coming. Clad in colorful traditional dress, the varied ethnic tribes, primarily from the hill country, announced their presence through their distinctive attire.

Many had traveled up to six days, partly on foot, to be a part of the Judson Bicentennial Thanksgiving Celebration held in Yangon this past weekend. I had the privilege of being in the estimated 30,000 Baptists to gather for this historic event.

I have been pondering this question of late: what if the Judsons set out for Myanmar today? It might be hard for them to receive mission support at their tender ages of 22 and 21, yet we know their capacity to garner funds.

Of course, it would be much quicker than sailing on the Caravan, and they might not have time to re-think their theology of baptism. Reluctant Baptists they became. As Ann recorded after they were immersed:

Thus we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wanted to be, but because truth compelled us to be. We have endeavored to count the cost, and be prepared for the many severe trials resulting from this change of sentiment.

Baptists around the world have spent this past year reflecting on the Judson legacy. We have probed issues of missiology, theology and colonialism for the purpose of gaining insight into their practice and the implications for today.

At the heart of this pursuit is learning the truth of this phrase from a hymn beloved by Ann Judson:

Think how widely Jesus ranges,
Nations wide from pole to pole.

What form should the proclamation of Jesus take in a land where Buddhism still claims over 90 percent of the population? Reviewing the history of mission in Burma/Myanmar, it seems there are three stages: conquest, conversation and contextualization.

Early in their mission work, their writings suggest that the Judsons perceived the people of the land as heathen, in utter spiritual darkness. In his two early tracts, “A View of the Christian Religion” and “The Golden Balance,” Adoniram described Burmese Buddhism as “atheistic,” “false” and “idolatrous,” among other disparagements.

Yet, they did not find a religious vacuum in Burma, and the Buddhists were incensed by the notion that they were somehow “morally inferior” in the Christian worldview. A conquest form of mission did not succeed, and the Judsons soon learned that conversation was the appropriate method.

Judson, the teacher, was willing to engage Buddhists thinking theologically, and he learned respectful conversation. He had invested considerable effort in learning Pali and Burmese to be able to converse intelligently with Buddhist scholars, even adapting language and images where he could.

Baptist scholars from Myanmar highlight this aspect of the Judson mission in the context of religious pluralism. They call for a dialogical form of mission rather than a proselytized form, a method that requires mutuality and humility.

If going today, would the Judsons find nothing culturally commendable in the religious pursuits of the primarily Buddhist Burmans and the animists of the discrete hill tribes? Might they understand the challenge of contextualization in using ethnic religions and cultures as a source for theology rather than something to be displaced?

Two hundred years hence, we have learned a lot about the shape of global Christianity and the North American mission enterprise, in particular. We have become much more conscious of the ways in which American missionaries have been seen as agents of western imperialism.

As I teach doctor of ministry students at Myanmar Institute of Theology, the issue of contextualization is always before us. There is a persistent question: how does the gospel take root in authentic form in our culture? What stories and practices from our people can help us translate the story of Jesus in a profitable way?

Samuel Ling, a Chin scholar, offers this guidance: “Life-enslaving elements in cultures are to be pruned by the truth of the gospel, and life-enriching elements are to be fertilized in light of and with the power of the gospel.”

Grounding the good news in the cultural patterns of the people of the land is essential. This is a creative, Spirit-guided practice. Christianity, as Lamin Sanneh observes, is communicable in all languages; the translatability of Christianity has made possible a global church.

Encountering spiritual kin in Myanmar, I marveled at the tenacity of Christian witness where minority religious status will likely continue. This has come at great cost to many, and religious liberty has been hard won.

At the American Baptist Mission Summit this past summer, Yam Kho Pau, general secretary of the Myanmar Baptist Convention invited missionaries to return to his land. They had been expelled from Burma in 1966 by the military regime.

If missionaries were to return, the mission would have to be undertaken as servants, with humility. Then we would realize “how widely Jesus ranges” when self-emptying is the method.

Witness as faithful presence in the midst of religious pluralism requires respect and receptivity. I believe this is possible and would be transformative.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.