Category: Pondering Peace

Thinking of Myanmar during Holy Week

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Every morning one of the first things I do is check my newsfeed to see what is happening in Myanmar.  Having visited there many times to teach at a partner seminary and thereby having had the privilege of meeting many teaching colleagues and students from across the country, I feel heartsick to see the violence of the military in power and the suffering of the people. The once bustling streets of the thriving city of Yangon now appear to be a war zone, and those we know tell us it is never safe to be on them, not even to go buy groceries in the middle of the day. 

The people of Myanmar have a long history of suffering, first under colonialism and then harsh military rule that lasted over 50 years.  Ethnic militias arose to protect their communities and territories, and fighting between them and the military has been sporadic.  A nonviolent movement seeking democracy emerged in 1988 and was brutally crushed.  Then in 2015 elections were held, and there was movement toward democracy as the first civilian government was formed.  With the military retaining significant power, full democracy had not been achieved, but it was a hopeful beginning for greater freedom, economic development, and engagement with the world. 

Then came February 1.  Seeing his power slipping away because of the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy, General Min Aung Hlaing and the military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders and took over the government in a coup.  The protest movement that immediately emerged with demands to restore their elected leaders has been amazingly nonviolent, creative, courageous, and tenacious.  It has been met with increasingly violent oppressive actions and murder by the military, which now appears to be fortified by Russia.  Meanwhile, the ethnic militias are beginning to rise up and express willingness to fight for all the people, as many flee the cities to hide in the more remote ethnic territories.  The situation looks increasingly dire.  Even while nations around the world struggle to determine an effective international response and the United Nations itself is still considering what it should do, the U.N. warns of a “blood bath” if this trajectory continues toward civil war.

This Holy Week, I have been reflecting on how the situation in Myanmar has many parallels to that of Jesus’ day.  Roman rule over the people of Judea was harsh and oppressive, pushing the people into grinding poverty.  Uprisings to gain national freedom were mercilessly repressed, and the instigators were brutally murdered by crucifixion.  The options for response were similar to those that the people of Myanmar have today.  They could choose the way of passive submission, complying to forced conditions and keeping a low profile so as to survive.  Or they could choose the way of violence and rise up in armed efforts to overthrow the oppressors.  But instead of those two options, as Walter Wink points out, Jesus chose a third way[1] – the way of nonviolent active resistance to oppression in the cause of justice for the people.  As enticing and easily rationalized as the way of violence is, the power for transformation lies in the way of nonviolence and love. 

In the midst of much evil and violence in the world, we cannot help but wonder, where is God?  If we believe that the presence of God was within Jesus as he lived under oppressive military domination, then we can assume that God is also in the midst of the suffering people of Myanmar.  In Matthew 25, Jesus identified himself with the most vulnerable – the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, and sick – all conditions being experienced right now by the people of Myanmar.  It was the humble people of his day who grieved losses caused by oppressors, longing for justice and seeking it in nonviolent ways that Jesus declared to be blessed by God (Mt. 5).

It is sobering to consider all this during Holy Week, because this week reminds us how the forces of evil violently opposed the One who embodied God’s love, rejected him, and sought to hang onto power by killing him.  The refusal to overlook injustice combined with the rejection of violence can lead to a path of suffering.  And so it was for Jesus.

Holy Friday and Holy Saturday are days of suffering, death, and burial, with the forces of violence and oppression seeming to have the upper hand.  They are days that are wrapped with painful grief, temptation to despair, and uncertainty about the future.  Such is the situation for the people of Myanmar.  The way of nonviolence is not fast.   It is not guaranteed to win, and certainly not quickly.  However, the research of Chenoweth and Stephan gives convincing evidence that nonviolent resistance movements are far more likely to succeed than violent ones, with much better outcomes for a durable democracy and wellbeing.[2] 

We must continue to believe that violence cannot be truly overcome by violence, for it simply continues an ever-increasing traumatic spiral of pain.  Rather, God’s presence in Jesus shows us that responding to violence with creative nonviolence introduces the possibility of human transformation through forgiveness and love.  This is the path of discipleship. This is the way of the cross.  This holds the seeds of hope for a rising up of new life.  It is for this that we continue to pray.

Written by Ruth Rosell, Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence

Posted on April 3, 2021

[1] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.

[2] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Columbia University Press, 2012.