The video begins with a drone shot view of rural Myanmar. Rice fields fill the screen with various hues of green. Then, music fades in and the volume and tempo increase as the view widens to include more roads and the countryside. A man’s voice narrates in American English as various images of Myanmar’s countryside fill the screen. He speaks of religious demographics and declares that most of the country is, to use the popular missiology term, “unreached.” His tone is excited, urgent.
This video is a promotional/awareness piece soon to be released by a conglomeration of ministries (including Francis Chan’s Crazy Love nonprofit) that plans to do outreach in Southeast Asia. In it, several leaders of American faith-based groups talk about their passion to make the message of Christianity known in every part of Myanmar, moreover, to see new churches planted in every community throughout the country.
Years ago, I would have found this piece of cinematography moving. I would have been the kind of person to share this video on my Facebook page. My old self would have asked people to watch it with me, adding the exuberant disclaimer, “This is what it looks like where I live. This is a great snapshot of life in Myanmar!” Years ago, I would have used a video like this not only with the intention of educating but also with the hope of challenging Americans to think bigger in terms of faith and outreach.
But there were a lot of things that the old me didn’t know. I was just about to move to Southeast Asia, and, as is often the case among expats, I had subscribed to the notion that a visit to, and an affinity for a new place, plus a set of local acquaintances, meant that I was now knowledgeable. It turns out, the work of actually moving to a new place and settling in was less of a culture shock and more of a deconstruction of my pride and sense of self-importance.
Today, I would never share a video like the one mentioned above. Instead, now when I watch similar promotional ministry videos, I realize that the White savior version of myself was blind to the most important aspects of the video and the way the story was told. Now I have concerns about storytelling, dignity, and the American Christian habit of muting other voices.
Here are some questions I would ask the creators about their ministry video:
- Why are the only motivational speakers in this video Western church leaders? Why didn’t they include the testimony of a Myanmar pastor?
- Why were there so many shots of White Americans grandly laying hands on and praying for Myanmar village people? (And did those Myanmar people consent to being part of a promotional photo op? Did they even consent to hands being laid on them?)
- Why did the video only include shots of Myanmar village life, or of slums, when there is much more to Myanmar than abject financial poverty?
- When the makers of this video used a celebrity pastor’s words, “heart of darkness,” while panning through images of Myanmar, did they really mean to imply that Myanmar is a place of utter darkness and evil?
- Did they mean to communicate, by their omission of any Myanmar voices, that Myanmar people won’t have anything to say about all of this?
- Did they mean to imply that there are no Christians in Myanmar? (Christians are about 8.2 percent of the population.)
I used to be okay with this kind of media material, partly because this was the narrative I had painted in my mind about Myanmar, and it was a narrative that carved out a space for an idealized version of myself: the narrative that Myanmar was broken, dark, and desperate for someone like me to come along and distribute dignity.
When I moved to Myanmar, I wanted very badly to start something cool, like a community health ministry, write some teaching materials, or help plant a church. I wanted to be the catalyst for something good. Even in my talk of simply “being a good neighbor,” I had an agenda. Behind my dreams was the notion that I cared about Myanmar more than the people of Myanmar did, that Myanmar needed someone like me to come in and help fix a few things.
This assumption was reinforced by the North American church, by people who said things like, “Myanmar really needs you!” There was a pioneering impulse bound up in my self-important dreams, an idea that no one had gone and done what I was about to go and do. But I’ve been changed by my relationships with Myanmar people—people who, as it turns out, know more than I do. I’ve been changed by relationships with Myanmar people who have a lot to teach me, and who care as much as, if not more than I do.
My husband, Jim, who has now lived here for nearly 14 years, has a favorite anecdote about one of his own embarrassing encounters with his pride. “I was living in a remote part of Myanmar,” he says, “and I decided to hike out somewhere where I hadn’t been before.” So he hiked out, in search of an adventure. He was beating through the jungle brush, following some barely recognizable trail. “I was congratulating myself as I went along,” Jim continues. “I was musing on the thought that no one was out here—it was just me! I might even be the first White person to have walked through this patch of forest. At that moment, I was climbing a tree in order to cross a stream, and when I landed on the other side, I was surprised to come upon another person.It was an elderly woman, probably in her eighties, out gathering firewood.”
Jim laughs when he retells this story, recalling the shock of realizing his pioneer instincts were so badly mistaken. “Here I was tromping around, thinking of myself like a wilderness explorer, when in fact, I was wandering through this grandma’s backyard!” It’s not only a funny story—it also paints a picture of the ridiculousness of the American Christian psyche when it comes to the way we describe places foreign to us, imagining ourselves to be the first to go somewhere, or the first to care about an issue.
Pioneering and Erasure
I was recently reminded of the connection between the pioneering mentality and the storytelling habits of American Christians involved in missions work when I learned of author and evangelist Francis Chan’s announcement about moving overseas.
Chan announced during a student chapel in November 2019 that his family would be moving to Asia in 2020 to do ministry work and plant churches in unreached places. Chan shared that he had made this decision in light of his recent outreach trip to Myanmar. He told his young audience that his experience sharing the gospel there had led him to re-evaluate his work. On his website, Chan summarized the decision by saying, “When I compare that opportunity to things I currently do in the States, the Kingdom profit seems much greater overseas at this point in my life.”
Chan’s announcement and what it might mean for the local Myanmar church intrigued me. My curiosity about Chan’s intentions for work in Myanmar and his prior visit led me to a video of the evangelist delivering a sermon to a group of Myanmar Christian leaders at a church seminar in July 2019.
In his sermon, Chan addressed Myanmar Christians saying, “I’ve just seen the faith of some of you and I wanna be attached to you. I feel stronger when I am connected to you. There is a security rather than being off by myself.” He went on to express his increasing conviction about the harmfulness of American pride, the tendency to go outside of America with the notion of being a help. He went on to say he realized that he was being humbled, that God intended for him to learn from the Myanmar church. “I need to bring this back,” he told the group. “That’s what I feel like my calling is tomorrow, to take what I’ve learned from you and to take it back.”
In his talk, Chan went on to warn the Myanmar church against the mistakes of the American church: “Guard your heart. Don’t try to make a name for yourself. The goal has to be that we are forgotten, and that Jesus is lifted up.” Chan critiqued individualism and competitiveness in American Christianity, and confessed to the group: “I’m done with my own strategy. … I just want to attach to something that is bigger than me. Because I’m tired of being independent. And I don’t want a name for myself. Let me pray that God would do that in our midst today.”
The talk Chan gave to this group of Myanmar pastors bore hints of a search for mutuality, of a desire to learn. However, his November ministry announcement to Azusa Pacific University students stood in contrast to the message he shared with Myanmar Christians.
Speaking of evangelism and ministry work in terms of fishing, Chan said during his chapel message:
“I feel like I’ve been fishing in the same pond my whole life, and now there’s thousands of other fishermen at the same pond, and our lines are getting tangled, and everyone’s fighting over stupid things… And it just feels like, what are we all doing here?”
Chan went on to explain that it was time to go somewhere where there was not as much competition—i.e., a place like Myanmar. Chan concluded earnestly, saying, “If my calling is to go fish, and there’s no one fishing over there, why wouldn’t I go?”
What happened to the Myanmar church in between Chan’s visit to them in July and his announcement in November? In marketing himself to American Christians as someone doing something in uncharted, unreached territory, The Crazy Love author erased the existence of an entire community of faithful Christ followers in Myanmar. The Myanmar Christians who, according to his talk back in July, had so much to teach the American church, had disappeared, and along with them, Chan’s previous posture of learning. As far as Chan’s American audience is concerned, the Myanmar church doesn’t even exist, or at best, their presence was irrelevant.
As Americans, we’re used to this kind of erasure in storytelling. We’re so accustomed to editing out the inconvenient people and willing to make excuses for other storytellers who do likewise. It’s like genocide, but in story form.
Chan’s decision to omit the Myanmar church in his presentation to the American public begs the question: why did he leave them out? This erasure suggests a lack of respect.
It’s the same lack of respect I hear about from Myanmar friends when they discuss their encounters with foreigners: “they look down on us”… “they think very little of us.”
The willingness to overlook Chan’s behavior or make excuses for him serves as an indicator of the level of respect we have for people in Myanmar. Tolerance for erasure like this is a tolerance of oppression being done in the name of Christ. What’s more, Chan’s erasive storytelling behavior is now a model for both Western and Myanmar leaders who admire him. Chan’s erasure fits comfortably with the Myanmar church in a chilling way: erasure is how many Myanmar Christian leaders have responded to the country’s Rohingya Muslims and the genocide they have experienced. If Chan can filter out the people he would like to ignore and get away with it, why shouldn’t the Myanmar church continue to do so with the Rohingya people?
Power, American Identity, and the Myanmar Church
The people who have the most power typically are the ones who understand it the least. Power can obscure a person’s capacity to understand and imagine the needs and realities of those who don’t enjoy the same degree of power. People who are used to power’s benefits are confused by different stories, baffled at the thought that other people don’t just reach for the same high shelves, unaware that the way power works is that, by the luck of the draw, some folks get to stand on stools, while others are forced to stand in deep holes.
The people who have the most power typically...understand it the least. Power can obscure a person’s capacity to understand and imagine the needs and realities of those who don’t enjoy the same degree of power.
Our power as Westerners has implications for the communities of faith in places like Myanmar.
Myanmar as a country has been through a lot in the past 75 years. The people of Myanmar have borne the weight of dictators and lived through natural disasters. Some of them persist in various forms of resistance and civil conflict. In some regions, they live beneath a perpetual cloud of threats of exploitation by powerful leaders and neighboring countries. A good deal of cultural, collective trauma has accumulated, and people are affected by the country’s hardships in a variety of ways.
One of the manifestations of this is a sense of inferiority. Some individuals will look at a place like America and see it as a powerful, respectable country that is the epitome of goodness and freedom. They will then turn inward and say degrading things about their own country’s perceived inferiority. A friend of mine here will often go out of her way to tell me how she is certain that Americans are “smarter” and “better” than Myanmar people. Individuals like my friend see Americans as worthier people and, just as certainly, believe Myanmar is inferior in every way.
So consider what happens when, as a Westerner, you arrive in a Myanmar Christian community, and out of deference to your high status as a good sort of person (an American and a Christian, a veritable prize package!), you are offered a leadership position in a ministry role for which you have no knowledge or expertise. For some people looking on, the Westerner’s choice to accept a position of power only serves to confirm the worst things they believe to be true about themselves. The act serves to reinforce the faulty idea that being American is better. It supports the notion that an American in leadership who cannot speak a word of the language is better than a native-born Myanmar person who has five times the qualifications for the work.
This sort of deference to power and Western status at the cost of Myanmar people manifests itself in a variety of scenarios. Honoring people who are esteemed and powerful is an essential component of Myanmar society. So is the habit of power by proxy, of taking an individual more seriously if they are connected to a high-status person. A Myanmar pastor I know counseled a support group of Myanmar Christians that had converted from a Buddhist background. “As your group continues to meet, try to have a couple of foreigners who participate with you,” he told them. “Make sure they’re cool people and that they’re not running the show. But try to keep foreigners involved at some level—it’s the best way to make sure that other Myanmar Christians will take you seriously as a group.” He continued, slightly tongue in cheek, but still serious: “Foreigners have a special anointing from God. They make you look credible.”
Myanmar churches, not infrequently, will invite a first-time guest to stand during service and share a testimony (or even a sermon) if they happen to be a foreigner. Some churches I’ve visited, eager to honor me even as a first-time guest, whisked me away to a VIP private room for a meal with the leaders immediately after the service. Meanwhile, friends from minority people groups or from Muslim backgrounds struggle to find churches that will even welcome them.
That preferential treatment and irresponsible use of power merit our attention shouldn’t be surprising to any of us familiar with the Book of James. The world is wired to show deference to those with power and resources, and the church is no exception; this is the primary reason why Western Christians doing evangelism work in Myanmar receive such a warm welcome. But a swift trip to the top of a church hierarchy in a new place makes it easy to forget that everyone stands on level ground before God, as beloved equals. A swift trip to a leadership position makes it easy for us to mistake our passion for God with a passion for a religious system that gives us power and influence. When we waltz into places where we automatically become leaders, with no introspection as to why we easily received such unmerited status, the most vulnerable people end up being crushed to uphold our pedestals.
As long as we insist on coming in power, on telling the stories on our own terms and neglecting to correct our false stories…as long as we are determined to operate as pioneers... we’re operating as oppressors.
A Myanmar pastor friend of ours has developed a few counter-cultural ground rules for engaging with Christian outsiders who want to co-work with his church. One of those rules is that, no matter how much money one brings or how many projects one wants to fund, major decisions rest with the local Christian community, not with the person with the most status. His reasoning is based on years of experiences with Christian missionaries. “People who come to work here in Myanmar want to be pioneers and parents,” he says. “But that is not a role that anyone should be occupying indefinitely. The end goal should be to be partners and participants.”
The Gospel of Power Is Not Good News
I think back to that promotional Myanmar ministry video, how years ago I would have described its message in terms of passion, how I might have said, “These people are on fire for the gospel!”
The video begins with a sense of expediency, a call to saturate the world with the message of the gospel before we run out of time. I, too, used to look at things through that lens. The time I’ve spent staying put in a place like Myanmar, observing the frantic evangelism habits of the missions world, has made it painfully obvious that this message of urgency gave too many powerful Christians the idea that the means (pressuring people to convert or start a church) justifies the ends (“people are being saved!”). I’ve been changed by my relationships with people in Myanmar, by listening to the testimonies that are filled with the lament—“They look down on us.”
I’ve changed my mind about what is the most urgent thing. I now think the truly urgent matter at hand is that we address our relationship with power. The witness of the American church is not going to be hurt by our love of comfort or our complacency, as so many pro-missions preachers like to declare. Rather, the witness of the American church is being hurt by our comfortable, complacent relationship with power and paternalism.
There’s a dearth of people earnestly pursuing mutuality, the obscure and narrow path of brotherhood. Don’t come in power. Come as a participant, as an observer. Come with the intention of remaining mute for several years. Pursue equality. Refuse the proffered podium indefinitely. Come—or stay where you are right now, like this.
It’s easy to find people who will defend a mission outreach strategy like the one being employed by the people in the missions promo video (i.e., Francis Chan and his ministry partners). Lots of people will say that their hearts are good, and that their intentions are not to hold power over others. But all that is necessary for power to work as poison is for us to be comfortable having it. Ignorance and a love of praise is all it takes to abuse power and trample people.
As long as we insist on coming in power, on telling the stories on our own terms and neglecting to correct our false stories…as long as we are determined to operate as pioneers, trying to parent other adults, we’re operating as oppressors. As long as we persist in looking down on people, our good news will never be their good news. Instead of it being the gospel of peace in Christ, it will be a gospel of power and domination.