Following Coup, Myanmar Alumni Engage in Public Theology - Princeton Theological Seminary

In Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon, a father hears frequent gunfire and bomb blasts outside his apartment and wonders how he will explain the violence to his young children.

A woman joins a pro-democracy protest in which sarongs, or wrap-around skirts, are hung across city streets to keep male soldiers and police at bay.

A third person writes a poem about the current state of Myanmar, titled “Lost-Lost-Lost,” which concludes: “Lord! Have mercy upon our Burmese people.”

All three are Princeton Theological Seminary alumni who are struggling to survive unrest and resist repression in their native Myanmar. A February 1 coup returned this Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma, to military rule after a decade of democratic reforms. The country’s top elected leaders have been detained, while the military has launched violent crackdowns on protesters.

The alumni’s written accounts of the crisis were shared by Richard Fox Young, the Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Associate Professor of the History of Religions. Young, who specializes in World Christianity with a focus on Asia, reached out to the Myanmar alumni community in the days following the military takeover and collected their reflections. Their names have been withheld to shield their identity from military and security forces.

“They are undergoing a terrible, horrific collapse of their way of life, and the brutality and bloodshed is on a scale that is deeply troubling,” says Young. “These are people who feel deeply connected to this institution, and they should be remembered at a time like this.”

Over the course of several decades, Princeton Seminary has drawn about 20 students from Myanmar, several of whom are now pastors in the U.S. diaspora, while most returned to Myanmar to work in seminaries or in ministry. Three new students are expected to join Princeton Seminary in fall 2022.

“Princeton has always loomed large for the Burmese community,” Young says. “There is a lot of competition there to come here and a lot of prestige when they go back. It has always been a really big deal.”

In the current crisis, Christians, who make up as high as 6.2 percent of the population, have joined with the Buddhist majority to oppose the military takeover. Young notes that Princeton alumni are upholding a tradition of public theology, expressing their views in poetry and prose, participating in protests, and contributing in any way they can to the greater good.

The alumnus who wrote of hearing gunfire, for example, is a professor at a seminary that was forced to close because of the turmoil. His salary had already been cut in half due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, he and faculty colleagues pool their money to buy staples such as rice and oil, which they distribute to the city’s poor.

“In such a difficult time, sharing what we have becomes crucial and urgent, meaning we can survive only if we help each other,” he wrote in his account, which he titled “Letter from Burma.”

The protests by women, meanwhile, dubbed the “Sarong Revolution,” have drawn worldwide attention for the innovative act of making barricades from skirts, which plays on traditional taboos against men walking under women’s clothing. The alumna who joined the protest — also on the faculty of a seminary in Myanmar — shared that women are playing a major role in the struggle against the junta.

“Many Civil Disobedience Movement workers are women who are faithfully refusing to go to their jobs in an effort to cripple the military’s ability to run the country or to profit from its enterprises,” she wrote. “Women who are arrested and detained stay very strong in the prisons even though they are assaulted, tortured, and sexually abused. Many women have been killed.”

Another group suffering persecution is poets. On the same day that Young received “Lost-Lost-Lost” in his email queue, he read a New York Times piece reporting that 30 poets have been detained by the Myanmar military and that some have been killed.

The poem Young received includes stark lines like:

Truth is lost

Democracy is lost

Children are lost

Parents are lost

Good night sleep is lost

Good days are lost

Lord! Have mercy on our Burmese people.

“It’s a lament that reminds me of a biblical psalm,” Young says. “It’s very powerful.”

For Young, staying engaged with former students during the crisis is a moral obligation and a deeply held part of his role as a scholar of World Christianity.

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Young’s teaching and research have long centered on how Christianity developed in South Asia, and he taught overseas for many years. His dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania uncovered previously unknown Hindu responses to Christianity.

At Princeton Seminary, where Young is now in his 21st year, he and colleagues focus on the complex ways Christianity was integrated at the local level in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Their work moves beyond any simplistic accounts of Western missionaries and pays close attention to the experience of indigenous people.

“The whole of it is premised on empathetic listening,” Young says. “It’s about trying to hear the voice of the person who was somehow erased from the story the way it had previously been told.”

Young says he hopes that the Seminary community and the world hear the voices of alumni in Myanmar.

“For me, it’s all about their resilience, their tenacity, and their holding onto the kinds of hopes, aspirations, and values that we too hold dear,” he says. “These are tough people doing their very best under very stressful circumstances. Conveying that courage is what I hope comes out of this.”