President Obama made a historic visit to Burma in November as the first U.S. president ever to visit the country. The streets filled with people to welcome him and sing his praises for spending six-hours in their long-closed country. Somehow he managed to make a speech at Rangoon University, meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in her compound, and make an offering in the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda within these six hours. His speech included an emphasis on the work ahead of deescalating ethnic conflicts and embracing ethnic diversity within the country, comparing the situation in Burma to the United States.
I recently read To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson, a biography of Adoniram Judson. Judson was the first American foreign missionary and spent his life translating the Bible into Burmese and preaching the gospel in Burma. He departed with a fairly imperial attitude, bent on “converting the heathens,” but even from the beginning there is something quite profound about what he takes on. When he departed in 1812, he offered his entire life to Burma, expecting, quite reasonably never to return to the United States of America.
As a young man before the emergence of his Burma fixation, he was raised in a conservative Congregationalist culture in Massachusetts. In his studies however he came to consider himself a Deist and for a while had little interest in the church, until finally driven from doubt he returned to study theology. He later converted and became a Baptist.
Every page of To the Golden Shore details seemingly yet another hardship. Judson endured the deaths of his loved ones and closest companions time and time again, yet remained steadfast in his mission. His imperial impulse to “convert the heathens” certainly dismissed the spiritual grandeur of Buddhism, but Judson’s life work cannot be dismissed as such. While his language is offensive in our modern pluralist society, his mission was certainly a conversion experience for himself also. His spirituality took on a markedly mystical tone after the death of his first wife, Nancy. He often read the works of the French Catholic mystic Madame Guyon, and perhaps under this influence, withdrew into a dark and ascetic period of his life aimed at self-annihilation. At his most extreme he dug a grave and spent hours sitting in it contemplating his own death.
In the center of the monks’ quarters at Pathom Asoke, a Buddhist lay-monastic community in Thailand where I spent a month during college, there is a glass casket with a decomposing corpse and various gruesome photographs of bodies in the throws of death. This horrific shrine functions as an emblem of the three marks of reality: dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self).
Before the death of his first wife Nancy, Judson also spent a couple of years in the horrid conditions of a Burmese death prison during the war with the British because the Burmese became suspicious of all foreigners. While imprisoned, he concealed his Burmese translation of the Bible in his pillowcase.
What motivated his steadfast commitment to such a hostile land? It seems the same faith that smacked of intolerance grew within him a great love and intimate knowledge of the Burmese language and people, so much so that he was willing to suffer immeasurably for his mission. This is perhaps closer to the original meaning of the word “tolerance” from the Latin tolerantia, or “endurance.” The casting of one’s entire life away for the cause of a people not one’s own has a great deal to speak to us today of tolerance.
Our pluralist society offers the easy temptation of relativism, which propagates the myth that we can live together without really knowing each other: a dangerous path of intolerance. Christian and Buddhist tradition alike are meant to cultivate the practice of endurance: endurance for the suffering and dissatisfaction that we necessarily incur by living in community, by existing in relationship with other human beings.
Two centuries later, Adoniram Judson’s Christianity is returning to the United States with the Karen and other ethnic groups from Burma resettling as refugees. I sit on a frigid metal folding chair in a clearing in the pine forest gazing forward towards the stage built of from pine logs for the occasion and elaborately decorated with colorful garlands and streamers. Reverend Tha Hgay stands reading scriptures in Karen and English, his voice blaring over the poorly adjusted PA system. There are over two hundred people in attendance today for this year’s Christmas celebration.
The Karen own almost forty acres of pine forest off of a dirt road in the Vesta Community of rural Oglethorpe County. On this poor land, Reverend Tha Hgay, the chair of the Karen Baptist Church in the United States, dreams of establishing a mission school to raise up young Karen leaders to engage in ministry to their people here in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the land has four family homes and countless small shacks and cabins erected from felled pines. It is quickly developing into a village of sorts, with doublewides and singlewides rather than bamboo houses. In July of 2013, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Judson’s arrival in Rangoon, Reverend Tha Hgay intends to enact his dream with the support of Karen communities nationwide and a faculty from as far away as Burma. He is personally inviting me to be a student.
While excited about the Karen self-empowerment of this project. I also fear it regressing into some kind of backwoods fundamentalism. With the bloody and exploitative history of Christendom, what space is there for missions? Yet we who would practice Christianity in the West and travel the road of tolerance will be sent, perhaps not to a foreign land but instead to our own neglected backyard. There is in post-Christendom perhaps a space for a negative missiology: a sending that positions us to receive.