Asian Realities That Impact On Asian Ecumenism

Several factors have affected the nature of ecumenism in Asia. Of the many local, regional and global factors, six features can be lifted up as features common to the whole region that have left their mark on Asian ecumenism.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 'Christians in a Religiously Plural World', in John Hick and Brian

Hebblethwaite (eds.), Christianity and Other Religions (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001), pp. 44—58 at p. 45.

Diversity and plurality

It is often said that the diversity and plurality of the peoples of the Asian land mass is so pronounced that 'Asia' can only be a geographical notion. The ethnic, cultural, religious and social plurality within and between nations are so great that no religion, political ideology or cultural tradition, however powerful, has been able at any time in history to encompass the entire region designated as Asia. The early missionary movement, for instance, was reasonably confident that by domesticating China and India for Christianity, the Asian region would be 'won for Christ', as was Europe and the North and South American continents. Enormous resources were poured into these two countries. But Christianity, despite powerful colonial backing, could not imitate even the limited, yet impressive, success of Buddhism and Hinduism. The irreducible plurality of Asia and its indigestible diversity were at odds with the grand design of 'unity' (meaning: 'one'-ness) embraced by the ecumenical impulses in the western hemisphere. This reality has left an indelible mark on the nature of ecumenism in Asia.

Christianity and colonialism

Christianity, according to established evidence, was present in Asia, especially in China, Tibet, India, Burma and Java, from the very early centuries of the Common Era. It was brought by Jewish, Arab, Persian and Armenian traders who had embraced Christianity to the settlements of their communities in different parts of Asia. The Nestorians, who were fleeing persecution in Europe, for instance, were among the first to introduce Christianity into China. But many of these eastern Christian traditions, with the exception of the Syrian church traditions in Kerala, India, died out.2 The predominant Christianity in the Asia of today came with the colonizing forces from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain. This introduced three factors that affected ecumenism in Asia. First, the Christian confessional and denominational differences, rivalries and divisions in Asia had nothing to do with the history of Christianity in Asia; they were 'imported divisions' and the doctrinal problems made little sense in the Asian context. Second, Christianity was associated with power and privilege and had to face the crisis of disempowerment and

For a good account of this history, see John C. England, The Hidden History of Christianity in India: The Church of the East Before 1500 (Delhi: ISPCK, 1996).

dependence in the post-colonial situation. Third, the Christianity that came with colonialism had a very negative appraisal of the religious and cultural traditions of Asia and had done much to isolate the Christians religiously and culturally from the rest of the community. At the end of the colonial era, churches had to struggle to gain credibility, to overcome alienation and to find a meaningful place in the post-colonial efforts at nation building. The Asian agenda for ecumenism, therefore, was vastly different from that of the mainstream ecumenical movement in the western hemisphere.

Asian poverty, deprivation and oppression

The Sri Lankan theologian Aloysius Pieris speaks of 'poverty' and 'religiosity' as the two Asian realities that should inform Christian theological reflections. Endemic poverty, certainly, is one of the most glaring features of the Asian continent. Much of the poverty rises from entrenched structural injustices that have been built into the social fabric expressed in the overt oppression of large sections of people based on class, caste, ethnicity and gender. The political liberation from the colonial powers did not assure social and economic liberation to the masses. Therefore issues of justice, human rights, gender equality, and human and economic development are among the highest priorities in Asia. Asian ecumenical consciousness, programmes and priorities are shaped by this reality.

The influence of religious and cultural traditions

The fourth prominent feature of Asia in general is what Pieris has described as 'Asian spirituality'. Asia is the home of most of the major religious traditions of the world. Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism still have a strong grip on the vast majority of people. Other religious traditions, from numerous localized tribal traditions to nationalistic Shintoism, diffused Taoism, Sikhism that sought to bring the best of Hinduism and Islam together, and Jainism that embraced radical non-violence, were born and are deeply entrenched in Asia. Christianity and Islam, although brought from outside, have a significant presence, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines and Korea. Unlike in Europe, no one tradition had been able to dominate the Asian scene or displace its inherent plurality. More significantly, most of the religious traditions in Asia are 'ways of life' that find expression as cultural traditions. The Christian churches, mostly built up as alternate communities and taught to reject these traditions, needed to find their place within them in the post-colonial era.

The issue of building a new relationship is further complicated for the churches by the fact that some of the religio-cultural traditions are closely related to the structural oppression in Asia. The Confucian tradition, for instance, is based on a strict hierarchy of relationships and much of classical Hinduism is caste-based. Uncritical loyalty to the emperor based on Shintoism brought about devastation to the Japanese nation. This meant that the ecumenical movement in Asia has been very ambivalent about Asian religious traditions. On the one hand, the movement has been at odds with the oppressive dimensions of Asian religions; on the other, it had to enable the churches to respond creatively to the religious and cultural traditions of Asia, to shake off their 'foreignness', and to win the hearts and minds of the Asian people.

Revolutionary upheavals

The last issue that influenced the development of the ecumenical movement in Asia has to do with the social, political and cultural revolutions that marked its history for over a century. The Japanese imperial expansion, its involvement in the Second World War with the devastating consequence of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean War that separated a people into two nations, the struggle of most of the Asian nations to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism, the subsequent internal turmoil in nation building, the rise of Communism in China and its impact on Taiwan, Indo-Pakistan and Sino-Indian wars, the Cold War fought out in Indochina, and the resurgence of religious and cultural nationalisms are only some of the upheavals that provided the context for ecumenism in Asia. For the churches, the additional problem was to assert their independence from their parent churches in the west, without abandoning the commitment to see the church as a universal fellowship of believers. All these struggles, played out at local, national and regional levels, have left a deep impact on the way the ecumenical movement has developed in Asia.

It is little wonder that issues of justice, people-centred development, human rights, church-state relations, indigenization, women's concerns, and rural and urban missions dominated the Asian ecumenical agenda. Today additional concerns like facing the negative impact of the globalization of the economic and financial markets, the search for peace and reconciliation, the social liberation of oppressed groups, the reunification of the Korean peninsular, an adequate theological basis to meet the challenge of religious plurality, the challenges brought by the rapid economic advances in the Far East, and the emergence of China and India as global powers demand the attention of the Asian ecumenical agenda.

To these we shall return in the closing comments on ecumenism in Asia. In the meantime, it is important to note that ecumenism in Asia has also developed and grown in the classical sense of the 'search for the unity' of Christians and churches. The earliest impetus toward this, however, did not come from the established churches but from lay movements, where Christians of many confessions and denominations were thrown together to face the challenges of living the faith in concrete situations of daily life. The foremost among these were the YMCA, YWCA and the student movements expressed as the Student Christian Movement (SCM) locally and as the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) globally.


It is significant that the modern ecumenical movement finds its beginnings, not only in Asia but also in all parts of the world, not in churches but in lay movements; it shows that the impetus for the movement came not so much from the inner faith dynamics of the life of the churches, but from the need for relevance in the world. The urgency for this relevance was felt most acutely in two areas: the mission of the church and the students' search for a relevant faith in a multi-religious and increasingly secular world.

John R. Mott, a Methodist layman from the United States, stands as a towering figure in the modern ecumenical movement because he became acutely aware of the need to transcend confessional and denominational differences both in the task of bringing the Gospel message to the nations and in student witness in school and especially university settings. In 1897 he published a book on his missionary journeys entitled Strategic Points in the World's Conquest: The Universities and Colleges as Related to the Progress of Christianity. In the Preface to his book he laid out his vision: 'It is hoped that this record [of his missionary journeys] will lead to a wider recognition of the universities and colleges in the spiritual conquest of the world and awaken larger interest in the [missionary] movement to make all institutions of higher learning strongholds and propagating centres of the Christian faith.'3

John R. Mott, Strategic Points in the World's Conquest: The Universities and Colleges as Related to the

Progress of Christianity (London: Nisbet, 1987), as cited by Ninan Koshy, A History of the Ecumenical

Mott followed up his vision with the creation of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) in 1895 and the establishment of SCMs in universities around the world. The YMCA and YWCA, also committed to having a relevant lay Christian presence in society, had already been established in 1844 and 1854 respectively in Britain. Although the ecumenical impact of these three movements was worldwide, in the predominantly multi-religious context of Asia they played a significant role in initiating and promoting ecumenism. Hans Reudi Weber rightly observes that, 'While for some Western countries an ecumenical history might perhaps be written without mentioning the work of SCMs, YM/ YWCAs, this is impossible for Asia. In Asian ecumenical history it was these ecumenical youth movements which pioneered to set the pattern.'4

The missionary societies were also conscious of the need to avoid competition and duplication of efforts in the mission fields of Asia and Africa. One way to resolve the problem was to come to 'comity' arrangements by which the missionary societies agreed to partition areas of the mission fields among themselves as distinct areas where specific missions would carry out their work. Mott went on to create, as extensions of the missionary movement, National Christian Councils (NCCs) that brought together all the Christian agencies and churches that worked in a country. These also became the places where Christians and churches met and where the ecumenical spirit was fostered.

Disquiet in local churches

While the lay movements were primarily interested in crossing confessional barriers for the mission of the church, there was also disquiet in some parts of the church in Asia over the imported divisions and the foreignness of Christianity in local settings. Some of this disquiet found concrete expression, for instance in China. A study of the history of Christianity in China would show that the main concern of those who dissented with the classical missionary enterprise was two-fold. The first concern related to cultural alienation and the second to the European divisions that were imported into the life of the church in China. Many thinkers like T. C. Chao, L. C. Wu and Y. T. Wu, among other notable figures, spared no energy in attempting to 'sinicize' Christianity in the context

Movement in Asia, vol. I (Hong Kong: World Student Christian Federation Asia Pacific Region, 4 Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs and Christian Conference of Asia, 2004), p. 39.

Hans Reudi Weber, Asia and the Ecumenical Movement (London: SCM Press, 1966), p. 111.

of the Confucian and Taoist cultures. At the Centenary Conference of 1907 that marked one hundred years of Protestant missions in China, for instance, the decision was made to bring about a 'Federal Union of the Churches' under the title Christian Federation of China. In so doing, they laid the foundations for the evolution of the China Christian Council and the patriotic 'Three-Self Movement' of self-support, self-governance and self-propagation. It is also on this basis that the mainline churches in China, after China opened itself to the outside world, presented themselves as the 'post-denominational' Church of Christ in China.

Disquiet with the classical missiology and patterns of church planning was also evident in India, even though much early effort here concentrated on indigenization and on issues of the Christian attitude to other religious traditions.5 However, through the very attempts to go beyond the classical teachings to reach out to Hinduism and Buddhism these pioneers relativized the significance of confessional differences within Christianity. In any case, the leaders of the churches in India, as also many missionaries working with them, found the divisions within the church a scandal and an obstruction to mission. It is this line of thinking that eventually led to church union negotiations in south India, resulting in the formation of the Church of South India in 1947. The church union in south India was quite revolutionary at that time because it was the first occasion in history when Episcopal and non-Episcopal churches were brought into an organic unity. The inspiration of the creation of the CSI led to church union negotiations in north India, Sri Lanka and several African countries.

Asian involvement in global ecumenism

The impetus for ecumenism in Asia was also fostered by the rise of the modern ecumenical movement at the global level. Mott, as mentioned earlier, felt that much of the Christian effort at 'winning the world for Christ' was being frustrated by the uncoordinated activities of independent missionary societies. He believed that if only the missionary agencies would get their act together they would be able to 'evangelize the world in their generation'. Believing that the 'decisive hour for Christian

5 Early pioneers in the field include: Rajah Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), Keshab Chander Sen (183884), Brahmabanhab Upadhyaya (1861-1907), Nehemiah Goreh (1825-95). Within the Roman Catholic Church the well-known scholars are Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), Henri Saux, renamed Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-73) and Bede Griffiths. In their very attempt to reach out to Hindu culture and religion they disregarded the confessional labels.

missions' had come, he called a meeting of missionary societies and mission agencies in 1910 for a World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. In fact, William Carey, the pioneering Baptist missionary in India, had already made the call for such a conference to the Baptist Missionary Society in Britain; he had suggested that it be held at the Cape of Good Hope in 1810. The Baptist Missionary Society, however, had dismissed the suggestion as a difficult one. A century later, Mott was able to call just such a conference, but there were only seventeen persons from the 'third world', most of them from Asia. Despite their small numbers, the Asians made a significant contribution. A much quoted speech came from V. S. Azariah from India who called for partnership in mission, challenging the missionaries to look upon their local partners as 'friends', pointing to the glaring inequality of the treatment of 'foreign nationals' and 'native workers' in the mission field: 'Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.'6 Voices from Japan and China called upon the missionary movement to be sensitive to local cultures and religious traditions. Thus, although tentatively, the Asian involvement in global ecumenism had begun in earnest.7

In the two subsequent World Mission Conferences in Jerusalem (1928) and Tambaram (1938) the Asian voices became much more prominent, primarily because of the uncertainties within the missionary movement about the Christian approach to other religious traditions.8 At Tambar-am, the Missionary Movement attempted, through the Dutch mis-siologist Hendrik Kraemer's preparatory volume, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, to re-establish biblical and theological foundations for the classical missionary understanding of mission as conversion of others to the church and to make the church the primary agent of mission.9 There were strong Asian voices of dissent at Tambaram and the

V. S. Azariah, World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, vol. IX (London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1910), p. 315.

Cf. Reports of the Conference, World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, vol. IX (London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1910).

For details, see S. Wesley Ariarajah, 'Christianity and People of Other Religious Traditions', in Ninan Koshy (ed.), A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Asia, vol. II (Hong Kong: World Student Christian Federation Asia Pacific Region, Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs and Christian Conference of Asia, 2004), pp. 139—65.

Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1938).

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