Asian and American theologians focus on message of reconciliation

By staff writers
October 29, 2007

Thirty scholars and theologians from Asia and the United States gathered from 23-25 October 2007 at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), for a historic Asia-America Theological Exchange (AATE) Forum - writes Winfred Vergara for Episcopal News Service.

The first AATE Forum, organized by the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry (EAM), the Episcopal Church's Anglican and Global Relations (AGR) Asia-Pacific office, CDSP's Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership (CALL), in collaboration with Province VIII's Asia Commission and the China Friendship Society of the Diocese of California, revolved around the theme of "The church as Agent of Reconciliation?"

In a written message that was read during the welcome, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said that the theme of reconciliation "strikes a deep chord among us because God has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation." She noted that the catechism contained in the Book of Common Prayer clearly states that "the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."

"We pursue the mission of reconciliation through prayer and worship, proclaiming the Good News in Christ, promoting justice, peace and love," Jefferts Schori wrote. "In the Episcopal Church, we hold evangelism and social action as two wings of our missionary enterprise. The proclamation of God's saving act in Christ characterizes our liturgical life and the pursuit of the local and global actions on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has become our first priority as a church."

Jefferts Schori added that "we from North America are awed by the depth and excellence of your Christian witness in Asia and I look forward to learning from your insights."

The first presenter, the Rev. Shintaro Ichihara, a former engineer who became an Anglican priest in Japan and is now a lecturer and chaplain at Nagoya Ryujo College, said he viewed the church in Japan "as a minority community living in 'aimai,'" a Japanese word for vagueness or ambiguity.

Shintaro said that Japanese Christians live in a country that has totally absorbed western civilization while maintaining traditional Japanese cultures. As a result, the church in Japan has taken on an ambiguous character. While maintaining its identity as a Christian community, the church in Japan embraces both Christians and non-Christians in its institutions of learning and celebrations of liturgy. This unique sense of "ambiguity" gives rise to the possibility of the Japanese church becoming an "agent of reconciliation," he said.

Shintaro, whose parents were among the victims of the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima, said that the present church's task is not necessarily to solve the problems of the world, but to be an enabling agent in providing space where both victims and victimizers can sit down in dialogue and work out true reconciliation.

The Rev. Chun Wai-Lam from Hong Kong said he sees the church as an "ark of inclusivity." The church in Hong Kong, particularly the Anglican/Episcopal Church, has maintained its influence in the life of the people of Hong Kong, especially through Anglican schools and social services, he said.

"Geographically, the Province of Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui is the smallest, as well as the youngest among the Anglican Communion," he said. "Demographically, the membership is relatively small. Of the total 500,000 Christians, eight percent or 40,000 are Anglicans. And yet for the past 160 years, the Anglican Church of Hong Kong has been deeply involved in the various aspects of social, political and religious life of Hong Kong in great proportions especially as an agent of reconciliation to the diverse peoples. For that reason, the church in Hong Kong is small but not insignificant."

Dr. Young-Sil Choi, professor of New Testament theology and director and head researcher of the Institute for the Study of Theology at SongKongHoe University in Korea, dressed in traditional Korean attire and spoke from a feminist theological point of view. She discussed creating a culture of reconciliation through traditional Korean Mask Dance or Miyalhalmi.

"In a world where history has been dominated by the Anglo-Saxon make from the Western industrialized countries, the disenfranchised minjung (oppressed class) and women have suffered inexplicable agony, sexual exploitation and death," Young said. "Within Korean cultural tradition, Han has been used to refer to the particular experience of traumatic victimization that an individual is enabled to adequately express and forced to bear within themselves, an act of violence committed against them without a distinctive perpetrator who can be called to account.

"The Miyalhalmi dance depicts the tragic suffering of an abused wife, who after her death came back as a ghost not in order to avenge her murder but to trouble the living in an unjust society so that they would struggle together and work for justice."

The Rev. Deng FuCun, chief director of the research department of the China Christian Council (CCC) in mainland China and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), spoke about the church in China experiencing a series of reconciliations: first in terms of unity and solidarity of the various Christian denominations in China; second, in the development of self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating churches; and third, in their coexistence with China's socialist government in promoting a harmonious society.

Deng noted that the main approach of Chinese Christians is not proclaiming the Gospel through rallies or street corner evangelism but in "being involved in providing social and health services," such as the ministry of the Amity Foundation. In the witness of serving the neighbor, non-Christians are drawn to the generosity and selfless services provided by Christians, he said.

"By simply living the authentic Christian way, the Christian community becomes a leaven in Chinese society and as a result churches spontaneously grow," Deng said.

During the Western missionary era in China, Christians were not many because Christianity was considered foreign and anti-native. There was a saying in China that after baptism, there would be "one more Christian, one less Chinese," Deng said. The success of the three-self movement was the indigenization of Chinese Christianity or its incarnation in the Chinese culture. Because of that, the church in China has gained favor in the sight of the Chinese government and the Chinese people, he said.

"As disciples of Christ, we should help the poor and care for the marginalized. If we fail to recognize this priority of God's love for the poor and the needy, we are losing the focus of Christianity," Deng said. "As the Body of Christ, the church is the continuation of the Incarnation."

The Rev. Dr. Guen Seok Yang, vice president of SongKongHoe University, focused his thesis on "the meaning of reconciliation developed in Korea's experience of divisions and conflicts."

Yang narrated the history of conflicts and war in the Korean Peninsula, dating from colonial times until the Cold War. As a result of World War II and the subsequent division of Korea into north and south, there was the rise of successive dictatorships on both sides. The divided Korean people created not only physical violence and killings, but also created deep mistrust which would make reconciliation very difficult, Yang said.

"I may find it easier to communicate with non-Koreans than with fellow Koreans who belong to the North. I feel a deep-seated fear that when someday there will be a reunification, I may not know how to act or react," Yang confessed.

Expressing concern about the ideology of the Bush administration, Yang expressed fear that Korea is once again becoming a new frontline for the "hegemony struggle" among global superpowers, particularly America, Japan and China. The intervention of these superpowers with the goal of only protecting their interest would jeopardize the progress of Korea's reunification, he said.

"The issue of reconciliation is not a demolition of relationships but the recovery of true relationships," Deng explained. "We need to discover the new relationships which can replace or reject the superpowers' assertion of their relationship to the Korean Peninsula. We need to tell and retell and stories of peoples who truly love peace ad life, not the stories distorted and manipulated by the powers that be of those countries."

Episcopal Diocese of Taiwan Bishop David Lai gave a historical background of Taiwan as a small island with four major ethnic groups, explaining that the first three groups belong to the Han Chinese who trace their ancestry to Mainland China and the fourth known as Taiwan aborigines, the original inhabitants of Taiwan.

Like many Asian countries, Taiwan has also suffered historically from outside intervention, such as the colonization from Japan and the martial law of the nationalist China, Lai said. Today the conflict comes in Taiwan's relationship with mainland China, which tends to divide Taiwanese into pro-unification and pro-independence camps. Despite their victimization, Taiwanese are trying to live in harmony and the church has been at the forefront in the quest for reconciliation, he said.

The Rev. Ajuko Ueda, chaplain at Rikkyo University in Japan, shared her story as a minister among non-Christian students in a Christian university. Expressing frustration with the lack of connections between the local churches and the university, she said she hopes that the ministry she shares among the students may one day become a seed which will germinate in their desire to develop their own spirituality.

The Rev. Dr. KiSeuk Kim, assistant professor of SongKongHoe University, said he sees a new division and fragmentations among Christians as they respond to the issues in society, globalization, and the war on terror, ecological crisis, racial and cultural discrimination, religious pluralism, war and violence. He said he believes that praying together would erase distrust, achieve harmony and solidarity.

Dr. Joanne Doi, a Maryknoll sister of St. Dominic, described the annual Theological Pilgrimage to Manzanar she leads to one of the sites of internment camps of Japanese Americans in World War II. She encouraged Asian Americans to make similar pilgrimages that will bring open their "memoria passionis" (memory of suffering) so they can move on to their "memoria resurrectionis" (memory of the resurrection).

Doi said that the internment experience of Japanese Americans is considered by many victims and their families as shameful and something they buried in their memory. They do not want to talk about it and they continually suffer in silence, she said.

"The impact of the trauma of detention in these camps; the incarceration and the harsh physical conditions; premature death caused by inadequate medical facilities; shootings, beatings; the betrayal by one's own country; the internal divisions; the chaos of separation from family and community; are some of the stories that emerged from the internment experience," Doi said.

As young Japanese Americans engage in pilgrimage to discover the past that brought their parents shame, a "sacred encounter" occurs, and healing and reconciliation take place, Doi said. Their experience of confronting the past and understanding the contemporary situation help them become more compassionate with people who are suffering injustice.

"What is at stake is our very humanity, our capacity to connect with one another and empower each other's compassion and commitment to make present the tenaciousness of love in our world," Doi said.

Participants described the discussions and reflections that followed each presentation as profound and far-reaching. The gathering, they said, provided an environment for the theologians and scholars to ask thought-provoking questions and respond to each one in the spirit of collegiality and rationality. Those present agreed to continue the discussion through online discussions in which all the theologian-presenters serve as instructors and the rest are part of a virtual classroom.

The next AATE Forum will involve theologians from Philippines, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia. No date has yet been set.

The Rev Dr Winfred Vergara is Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry missioner and director of ethnic congregational development for the Episcopal Church.

With grateful acknowledgements to ENS:

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