Pope Francis in Myanmar: Diplomacy, the Military Establishment, and God’s Call for Reconciliation
The Razor’s Edge
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Myanmar on Sunday, 26 November. I have previously written about the history of the Rohingya and their persecution by the Burmese military. Indeed, “persecution” is putting it lightly. The military has raped, tortured, displaced, and murdered the Rohingya who have been fleeing to Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands. In Bangladesh, the Rohingya face further difficulties in overcrowded, underfunded refugee camps. In the past, Pope Francis has shown sympathy for what he calls his “Rohingya brethren.” He has called upon us to pray for them and has placed a call- to -action for good people everywhere to rise up and help them.
Pope Francis is renowned for his care and concern for the poor and downtrodden, but this visit will be a real test of his diplomacy. If he strikes too hard, the Rohingya are sure to suffer even further at the cruel hands of the Burmese military. Moreover, he risks the health and safety of the nation’s Catholics. They are a small minority, only 700,000 in a country of 53 million. They would be defenseless targets should a freshly enraged and reenergized military choose to lash out. Top advisors have warned him that even saying the word “Rohingya” could harm both the Rohingya and Christians within the country’s borders, as the military doesn’t recognize the Rohingya people or their history.
At the same time, calling them Rohingya would affirm their identity in a country that has been desperately trying to erase their history and obliterate any record of their very existence. Pope Francis is intending to use his power and influence to create peace and reconciliation, but one must wonder how much influence a Catholic pope could have in a predominantly Buddhist nation. Though one might hope that His Holiness might make a strong push for equality and human rights, by doing so he may inflame tensions and harm the very people he’s trying to help. This visit will require style, finesse, and if it’s to be successful, wisdom that can only come from God himself.
Many experts are divided about whether or not the pope should go to Myanmar given the risks involved. They question if it’s the right thing to do, or his place to interfere. Only time will tell if his visit is successful, but there is no question about whether his visit is the Christian thing to do. Leviticus 25 reminds us that the earth is God's and we're all foreigners.The Burmese military has no more right to the land than the Rohingya, both were there for centuries. The land belongs to the Lord and we are to be its stewards. Staining the soil with the blood of their brothers brings grief to the God who created them. As Christians we all must do our part to heal a broken world.There is much that is evil and we are not called to sit idly by and pray for the evil to cease. We are to pray, and then act. God is with the Rohingya people and He doesn’t wish for them to suffer. The Rohingya were made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:26) Jesus died on the cross so that through Him, they would be saved. (John 3:16) God sees their plight and He grieves with them.
This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.— Jesus, John 15:12
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority, but God never told us that our love begins and ends with fellow Christians or members of our own race. God told us to love our neighbors. Full stop. In the New Testament, when a Pharisee asked who his neighbors were, Jesus told the famous story of the Good Samaritan. In that parable, a man was beaten by robbers and left for dead. A priest and a Levite went out of their way not to help the dying man. Instead it was a Samaritan, a despised religious and racial minority, who went to great pains to ensure that the stranger received proper care. We are to love our neighbors. The Rohingya are our neighbors, and we are called to be like the proverbial Samaritan and rescue them.
In the New Testament, Jesus instructed us to love the Samaritans, while the Old Testament tells the story of Ruth. The Book of Ruth stresses that Ruth was a Moabitess who lived in Moab. (A tribe which descended from Lot’s son, Moab. The Moabites were bitter enemies of Israel.) Ruth was a widow who had a close relationship with her mother- in- law, Naomi, who was from Bethlehem, in Judah. A widow herself, Naomi made the decision to move back to Judah following the deaths of her sons. Ruth, unwilling to leave her beloved mother-in-law, followed her to Bethlehem where she gleaned the fields for food. Ruth risked a lot in her move to Bethlehem. She faced persecution in a land where no one would protect her. Instead of persecution, however, she was treated well. She caught the attention of Boaz, owner of the field from which she gathered. They eventually married and she gave birth to a son, Obed, who was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David, ancestor to Jesus Christ. Not a bad fate for a religious minority.
Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?— Malachi 2:10
We Are Our Brother’s Keeper
The Israelites and members of the early church had their problems with prejudice and racism. Even Peter, the rock on which Jesus built His church, was guilty of prejudice. In his letter to Galatia, 2:11 the apostle Paul calls out Peter for acting hypocritically towards the Gentiles. This is the fallibility of human nature and contrary to God’s command that we love one another. Hebrews 13:2-3: Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who were mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Jesus himself often admonished His followers to take care of the needy. In Luke 14, while in the house of a prominent Pharisee, He assured the host that anyone who provides for the poor, crippled, lame, or blind will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.
God loves all of His children, and He instructed us to do likewise. Dueteronomy 10:18 put it plainly: “And God loves the stranger.” Why the stranger? German philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) explained it best; “The stranger was to be protected although he was not a member of one’s family, clan, religion, community, or people; simply because he was a human being. In the stranger, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.” Anybody can love their family and friends, as Christians we are to extend our circle of compassion to everyone, especially those who are in the most need.
Pope Francis understands this command. He is bringing the light of Jesus into a region filled with the darkness of violence. He is spreading God's gospel of compassion as he attempts to restore dignity to the Rohingya. Right now he needs our prayers. We should pray for God to bestow wisdom and diplomacy on the pope as he undertakes this sensitive mission. We should pray that the Burmese military open their hearts to forgiveness and peace, and that harmony will finally be restored to the war torn nation. We should pray without ceasing that one day peace will be reign.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."— Galatians 5:14
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© 2017 Anna Watson