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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 governments.

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 governance.

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 higher.

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 indebted."

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. Furthermore:

  • 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 lower.
  • 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 irretrievably lost.

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 attained.

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 challenges?

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.



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