April 14, 2005
Asian Christians Witness for Peace
Samuel C. Pearson
With a theme of "Building Communities of Peace for All," the Christian Conference of Asia held its twelfth general assembly in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from March 31 to April 6. About two hundred voting delegates from Asian Christian churches conducted business and shared in worship and fellowship. They were joined by an equal number of representatives of the World Council, other regional councils, and the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, as well as ecumenical partners from several European and North American churches and observers. Young people from numerous member churches served as stewards. Christian growth is now focused in areas outside North America and Europe, with Asian Christianity assuming an ever more important role in the life of the contemporary church.
Conference membership includes churches from Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the Philippines, where Christianity is a large and influential faith community, as well as churches in nations such as Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, where Christianity is a minority faith community living in a variety of relationships both with the majority and with their governments. Membership includes very old churches such as the Mar Thoma Church of India as well as young churches formed in the nineteenth or twentieth century.
Ethnic and linguistic differences add to the diversity represented by this regional conference and to the difficulties Asian Christians face in their ecumenical endeavors. In many of the nations whose churches were represented at the assembly, Christians are regarded with hostility and labor under significant restrictions. Yet the mood of the assembly was positive, as delegates celebrated their unity in Christ and struggled to define their role in building communities of peace for all.
Committees focused on specific issues of faith and unity, justice and development, ecumenical formation, gender justice, and youth empowerment. Given the difficult circumstances under which many of these churches labor and their striking diversity, recommendations for change tended to be fairly general in nature, and criticism of forces threatening peace tended to be more specific with respect to entities outside Asia than those within. Most decisions were reached without dissenting votes. The one significant exception came with respect to a resolution naming Asian nations responsible for violence and threats of violence, which sharply divided the delegates and seemed to leave the majority abstaining from vote.
It was encouraging to witness the way in which representatives of many different traditions and ecclesiologies were able to express their unity in Christ. Their harmonious relationships with the Catholic Church in Asia were also apparent. Father Tom Michel, representing the Asian Bishops' Councils, announced the death of Pope John Paul II, and the assembly expressed both condolences to the Catholic community and gratitude for the many ways in which this pope's ministry reached beyond his own church to the entire Christian community. On Sunday, delegates attending churches in and around Chiang Mai were welcomed by Catholics as well as Protestants.
Conference business continued with Dr. Prawate Khid-arn, a Thai, being chosen to succeed Dr. Ahn Jae Woong as general secretary. The presidium for the forthcoming five years includes representatives from Bangladesh, Laos, Taiwan, and Timor. The Assembly reached a decision to move its offices from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai, Thailand, a move that was advocated largely for fiscal reasons, but that may have other advantages as well. In that regard, one could not fail to sense the warmth of Thai hospitality toward the assembly and representatives of the churches of Asia. Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, delivered an address to the assembly on the theme of the meeting. As the political leader of a nation suffering considerable unrest associated with religious differences, he clearly had given a great deal of thought to the question of how religious communities may encourage peace.
Lectures in memory of D. T. Niles, a leader in the development of ecumenism in Asia, were presented by several speakers. Among the most interesting and challenging was one by James Haire of Australia, who offered theological reflections on the role of the Christian in the contemporary world. The thrust of his argument was that Christianity sought to replace the kinship relationships of the Graeco-Roman culture with "a fictive kinship religious community based on identity in Christ in which membership is voluntary." Noting that this community has sometimes encouraged and sometimes become an impediment to peace, he then suggested how Christians might more effectively build communities of peace for all.
With its critical awareness and the hopeful prospects it sketched, Haire's lecture summed up this conference, which was a testament to the flourishing spirituality and courage of Asian Christians today.
Samuel C. Pearson is Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Study
of Christian Culture in the
Department of Chinese Language and Literature, the People's University of China.