D. T. Niles Lecture III:
Building New Communities in the New Millenium:
Challenges and Opportunities for the Christian Church in Asia
by Leonor Magiolis Briones
The Long Journey to Tomohon
First of all, allow me to congratulate the Christian Conference of Asia
for organizing the 11th General Assembly in the light of the many challenges and
opportunities faced by Christian Churches in most countries of Asia. Indeed, CCA has gone
a long way since its founding in Prapat, Indonesia.
For more than forty years, CCA has responded to changing conditions and
challenges in Asia. Now it begins a new century of ecumenical work in an environment which
poses even greater challenges but offers exciting opportunities as well.
Yes it has indeed been a long journey to Tomohon. For most of the
participants in this Assembly, including the speakers, it was physically a long,
circuitous journey. In my case, while Tomohon is geographically very close to the
Philippines, my trip will take all of five days even if I will only be attending one day
of the Assembly. This is because I had to travel via Jakarta to come here and return to
the Philippines via Singapore - an exercise which requires me to stay overnight in both
cities. Yes, we Asians are geographically close to one another, and yet so far from each
other in so many other ways. This is a challenge to all of us even as we endeavor to build
new communities in the new millenium.
The Setting for New Communities in the New Millenium
I have been assigned the task of discussing the sub-theme "New
Communities in the New Millenium" as part of the overall theme of "Time for
Fullness of Life for All," as promised in John 10:10. What is the Asian setting for
new communities in the new Millenium?
At present, many countries in Asia are faced with deteriorating levels
of human development as measured in terms of income, life expectancy, and education. The
Asian financial crisis which started in 1997 first hit middle income countries and
eventually low income countries in the region. The crisis was followed by both El Nino and
La Nina phenomena which unleashed prolonged droughts and devastating floods and typhoons.
Other natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions wreaked damage on
agricultural production, in addition to loss of lives and property.
Other Asian countries had to deal with civil strife and internal conflict. As a result,
hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and rendered homeless. Children in
particular have become innocent victims of war.
The Asian financial crisis has dramatized the opportunities and threats
of globalization and information technology. Ironically, while a number of Asian countries
are considered at the cutting edge of information technology, millions of Asians don't
have access to the blessings of the information age.
We are told that middle income countries are already on the road to
economic recovery. This news is greeted with considerable relief in Asian middle income
countries and by regional and international financial markets. Nevertheless, this is
taking place amidst suffering and misery in other parts of Asia.
At present, Asia presents contrasting images of optimistic economic
recovery and exciting advances in information technology, with mixed blessings and dangers
from globalization. At the same time, Asians have to cope with he consequences of civil
strife and environmental degradation. This is the backdrop against which Christian
churches are building new communities in the new millenium.
Constraints and Challenges for the Christian Churches in Asia
When the CCA was organized more than forty years ago, it faced the
daunting challenges of the post-colonial period and wonderful opportunities for ecumenical
work. Now, CCA faces exciting prospects as Christian churches gear up for "Time for
Fullness of Life For All."
Nevertheless, our churches face formidable constraints and challenges
as they struggle to attain this quest. These are the challenges of poverty, debt, conflict
and civil strife and the elusive goal of unity and peace.
The challenge of poverty
The state of poverty is a persistent human condition which goes back to
Biblical times. Contemporary concepts of poverty go beyond income poverty which is
currently measured at less than $1 a day. According to the UNDP, human poverty includes
"lack of basic human capabilities: illiteracy, malnutrition, abbreviated life span,
poor maternal health, and illness from preventable diseases." Indirect measures of
poverty include lack of access to goods, services and infrastructure - energy, sanitation,
education, communication, drinking water - necessary to sustain basic human capabilities.
The broader concept of poverty as defined by UNDP finds some resonance
with John 10:10. surely, fullness of life goes beyond the capacity to provide for minimum
caloric requirements for physical survival. The Christian concept of poverty is even much
broader since it places greater importance on poverty of the spirit.
It is ironic that even as many of the world's richest are from Asia,
most of the world's poor also live in Asia and the Pacific. Multilateral institutions have
admitted that close to 900 million or 70% of the world's poor are from our region. They
survive on less than $1 a day.
According to the Asian Development Bank:
- Nearly one in three Asians is poor.
- Population growth is adding to the absolute number of poor.
- South Asia, one of the poorest subregions in the world, now has more than half a billion
poor people, of whom 450 million are in India. The People's Republic of China (PRC) has
225 million poor, and about 55 million more are in Southeast Asia.
- In the wake of the Asian crisis, over 10 million people joined the ranks of the poor.
Not surprisingly, absolute poverty has increased in the crisis-affected countries, and the
poor (particularly the children) have suffered the most.
The absolutely poor (earning less than $1 a day) present special
problems for Christian churches. These are human beings who are totally excluded from the
economy, the political and social system and from the national community. These include
victims of conflict as well as natural disasters. Most of the absolutely poor are not
reached by heavily funded anti poverty programs of multilateral institutions and
At present, the largest multilateral institutions - the United nations,
the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank-, as well as donor governments and
developing country governments have started massive anti-poverty programs. ADB alone will
redirect 40% of all public sector lending to poverty eradication. Civil society
organizations, including church-related endeavors, are focusing on poverty reduction in
most of their programs.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that even as anti-poverty programs
are responding to the problems of the poor, external events are creating many more poor
people, whether these are natural disasters, civil strife, financial crises and defective
Finally, it must be borne in mind that poverty is closely linked to
unemployment and social disintegration. High level of unemployment exacerbate poverty. At
the same time, escalating levels of poverty, especially absolute poverty, breed social
disintegration particularly breakdown of social systems and criminality.
The challenge of debt
Like poverty, problems of debt go back to Biblical times. While the two
are closely related, I am treating debt separately because for nearly two decades, low
income as well as middle-income countries have been struggling with this terrible problem.
The Bible contains at least 15 references to the subject of debt and the relationship
between creditors and debtors. It is not surprising that many advocates for debt reduction
join the Church in turning to Biblical precepts in finding a solution to this seemingly
insurmountable global problem.
The world Bank has been compiling data on global debt since the start
of the global debt crisis during the eighties. Latest figures show that debt stocks have
been rising inexorably, especially for Asia and the Pacific. In 1980, total debt stock for
Asia and the Pacific had risen from $132 billion to a massive $862 billion or an increase
of 652.7% in 1998. I would not be surprised if the numbers for the year 2000 are very much
It will be noted that the large increase in debt stock is accounted for
by East Asia and the Pacific, home of the vaunted tiger economies.
While data on debt stocks are useful, the more important indicator is a
country's capacity to service its debt. According to Jubilee South USA, six of the Highly
Indebted Poor Countries (HIPIC) are in Asia. These are Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR,
Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam. The World Bank classifies Indonesia as severely indebted and
classifies Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia as "moderately
However the most important issue on the global debt is its impact on
the lives of millions of people in indebted countries.
There is a correlation between the state of indebtedness of a country
and its capacity to render basic services to a people. Thus, the UNDP has noted that there
is a close connection between the burden of debt and human survival in all the HIPCs.
- Compared with the average for all developing countries, illiteracy rates in the heavily
indebted poor countries are a quarter higher, and access to safe water is around a third
- Heavily indebted poor countries have higher rates of malnutrition, infant mortality,
diseases and illiteracy than other countries in the developing world.
- Many heavily indebted poor countries lack the domestic resources to invest in human
capacity because their budget are drained by long standing debt obligations.
- Of 27 countries, only 10 spend more on basic social services than on debt servicing.
OXFAM, a leading non-government organization (NGO), has noted that
"a child born in a HIPIC is 30 percent less likely to reach its first birthday than
the average for all developing countries
and a mother is three times more likely to
die in childbirth."
The picture of what the excessive burden of debt does to HIPCs or
highly indebted developing countries is not the fullness of life envisioned in John 10:10;
it is more a description of what the thief does: to steal, to kill and to destroy.
What are the challenges which confront the civil society on the issue
of debt? The first challenge is how to make the HIPC iniative effective in reducing debt
burdens. The HIPC Initiative is a strategy of the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund to reduce the debt burdens of heavily indebted developing countries.
However, it has been strongly criticized by civil society and the UNDP since the
conditionalities of the program are considered too stringent and the procedures too
circuitous. hence, impacts are very limited.
A second challenge is the heavy debt burden of so-called middle-income
countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and India. While these countries are considered
middle income, they are actually burdened by huge debts and massive levels of absolute
poverty. Thus, the intolerable burden of debt is borne not only by low income countries
but also those which are classified as middle-income.
A final challenge is coming up with feasible and doable solutions. The
declaration of a Jubilee year on Debt is a step in the right direction and needs to be
sustained even after the year is over. Strategies and alternatives need to be worked out
which can be implemented and result in concrete reduction of debt burdens.
Perhaps the experience of the Philippines can illustrate this. For
years, debt activists had been advocating cancellation of fraudulent debt and reduction of
debt servicing to a percentage of foreign earnings. However, the government ignored these
proposals and the opportunity to reduce the debt stock of the Philippines was
When the new Treasurer came in, she implemented a policy of low and
sustainable interest rates which was supported by no less than the President of the
Philippines and the Secretary of Finance. This policy was implemented amidst strong
pressure and opposition from the financial markets and other institutions. At the risk of
losing her job, the Treasurer stuck to her guns. Her superiors supported her. Consistent
implementation of this policy resulted in substantial savings in interest payments, thus
reducing the debt service burden significantly.
Obviously, the burden of debt cannot be eliminated in one fell swoop.
Nevertheless, efforts to give relief to highly indebted countries must go on. Surely, the
continuing waste of lives is a fate worse than debt.
The challenge of conflict and civil strife
Even as Asian countries are struggling under heavy burden of poverty
and massive debt, they are also plagued with armed conflict, whether it be civil strife or
confrontations with neighboring countries. Armed conflict can only result in loss of lives
and property. Always, the innocent suffer.
The ongoing conflict in one Asian country is a case in point. While the
sounds of war can be heard only in a major island, the economic costs are significant. It
is estimated that over $250 million in export earnings has been lost as a result of
continuous fighting. Unemployment has worsened as manufacturing and agricultural firms
have either scaled down operations or closed shop. Armed conflict has resulted in
thousands being displaced and thrown into poverty.
Beyond the heavy economic costs, the human suffering brought about by
armed conflict is staggering. An anguished doctor cries:
"How many unaccounted deaths more could there be among the
civilians? How many innocent mothers and children more shall lose their lives? How many
hundreds of houses more shall be burned? How many acres of plantations are to be destroyed
by canons? How many infants more shall be psychologically traumatized? How many of the
displaced population could be victims of our neglect?"
Fullness of life can never be attained under conditions of war. When
innocent civilians, particularly women and children are held as hostages and brutally used
as human shields in battle; when unwary human beings are used as bargaining chips in
hostile negotiations, fullness of life can only remain an impossible target.
The Elusive Goal of Unity and Peace
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will
believe n me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are
in me and I am in you, "John 17:20-21. The major religions of the world have been
leading the quest for unity and peace. Christian churches in particular are inspired by
Jesus' prayer that all believers be one.
Unity and peace constitute the holy grail of the new millenium. It has
remained elusive for two thousand years. As Christians, we cannot wait for another
thousand years before unity and peace can finally be achieved and fullness of life
Towards Possible Responses for Christian Churches in Asia:
Building New Communities
With the rapid spread of globalization and information technology,
there is now much talk in business and financial circles about the "new
economy." This is a vision of an economy where many business transactions can be done
electronically without fact to fact contact. One can go shopping for virtually all of
one's material needs through the internet, and make payments using electronic money. The
"new economy" is identified with electronic commerce.
I am sure that the CCA's vision of new communities does not refer to
electronic commerce. During the past few days, the General Assembly has been discussing in
formal sessions as well as in Bible Studies the various dimensions of "fullness in
life" in the new millenium. As pointed out, however, there are real challenges and
constraints in attaining this goal: the problem of massive poverty, the burden of debt,
the costs of armed conflict and civil strife, and the elusive search for unity and peace.
What are the possible responses Christian churches can make to these
Beyond taking care of their own
For centuries, Christian churches have been taking care of their own,
particularly the poor. I have not seen a Christian church, no matter how small, which does
not have its own program, formal or informal, for poor members. Big churches have
extensive outreach programs which are not limited to their members.
Thus, Christian churches have been directly involved in helping the
poor. Much of these activities involve direct giving and assistance. However, there is a
need to go beyond taking care of their own. In Asia, Christians belong to the minority.
The magnitude of poverty is such that Churches cannot make substantial contributions to
poverty reduction merely by taking care of fellow Christians.
In recent times, many churches have gone further: they seek solutions
to the root causes of poverty, and not just its effects.
Speaking out on national and global issues
Regional and global church institutions have spoken boldly on the issue
of poverty, its causes and its consequences. Church-related NGOs, and prominent Christians
have joined hands in calling for debt forgiveness during the Year of the Jubilee. Perhaps,
it is time for Christians to leave the safe confines of their Churches and literally go
out into the world by joining and leading civic organization, governments and movements in
facing the various constraints which prevent human beings from attaining fullness in life.
Speaking out on issues of morality
The age of globalization and information technology has profoundly
changed Asian societies in terms of moral perspectives and values. Developments in science
and technology have raised issues which have serious theological implications and which
challenge the very foundation of Christian beliefs. At the same time the race for
modernization has shaken the foundation of Asian societies, particularly the family.
Reaching out to other religions
Asia is characterized by diversity in culture, political and economic
systems, and religions. The theme of the CCA General Assembly is "Fullness of Life
for All". Note that it is not "Fullness of Life for All Christians Only".
Since we are a minority in Asia, we cannot attain fullness of life for all, unless we
touch base with other religions who are just as concerned about poverty, debt, armed
conflict and other related concerns.
In many Asian countries, armed conflict is triggered by very complex
historical, political, economic, social and religious factors. Oftentimes, these are
oversimplified and labeled as religious wars. In the Philippines, Christian, Muslim,
Buddhist and other religious leaders have jointly called for peace and unity, particularly
in the island of Mindanao.
The new millenium offers exciting opportunities to attain fullness of
life for all: the blessings of longer, healthier life brought about by spectacular
advances in health; the easy accessibility of consumer goods considered before as
luxuries; better quality of life due to advances in science; and enhanced possibilities
for communicating and exchanging information with other parts of the world.
Many of the issues activists campaigned for at great risks to
themselves are now accepted by more and more people and institutions: poverty, debt,
environmental degradation, armed conflict, and gender. Concepts of human development are
now better understood.
When I was discussing poverty, I mentioned spiritual poverty. The
notion that excessive material wealth can be equated with happiness and well being is
being challenged, especially now that the dark side of globalization is emerging. More
people are turning to spirituality and look to their faith for inspiration and guidance in
dealing with difficult questions.
And yet, even as the possibilities for fullness of life for all are
increasing, formidable challenges remain. In some countries, the challenges presented by
massive poverty, intolerable debt burdens, destructive armed conflicts, and elusive unity
and peace appear to be getting worse.
I am confident that the Christian Conference of Asia will continue its
ecumenical work and assist Christian churches in their quest for the fulfillment of Jesus'
promise to all believers. Jesus has stated that He came so that we may have fullness of
life. As Christians, we believe that with Him as our Shepherd, this will come to pass. Let
us, therefore, all pray for strength, fortitude and courage in performing our respective
roles in the new millenium.