This is urban Myanmar.
Since the opening of the country three and a half years ago, this bustling metropolitan area has grown dramatically- albeit abnormally; rushing to embrace all that globalisation can offer a country which forcefully held its doors shut for nearly fifty years. The scenes from the rickety white taxi tell the tale.
We pull out of the apartments and head south, away from the CBD. Passing by another apartment complex, John explains to us the confusing reality. This apartment two years ago was 300 dollars a month, now it's quite expensive. One thousand dollars a month to be exact.
In Yangon. Myanmar.
Where dinner can be eaten for less than two US dollars. A horn blares. The taxi jerks to a stop as a bus forces its way through three lanes of traffic. Size rules the road in this country. If you can't put a dent in the other vehicle, then move out the way. Run if you happen to be on foot and under 120 kilos.
After the gridlock, we bounced our way down an ill maintained road. Shops littering every spare space on the left and the right. A tea shop bustles with taxi drivers, and rail sized men in longies (traditional menswear resembling a skirt).
Lean-to's posing as stores are teeming with imitation electronics, snuggled next to sandals. Finely pressed clothes situated in a bamboo hut with a thin rusty roof- each one expressing its own flavour. After weaving through rickshaws and trishaws we heaved to a halt. This is it. Pastor John paid the driver and we hit the road. We had turned the corner.
Rich scents flooded my nose, much like before both pleasant and unpleasant, but not the same. Clear of the smog, I am flooded with another variety of scents. This time though, it is dust and human waste that launches an assault on my senses. Immediately I am confronted with the strange reality that this opulence and poverty can exist in such close proximity.
Confronted by two worlds
That I can be confronted by two different worlds operating in and amongst one another. That a country poised for such opportunity can be locked in in a state of desperation around the corner.
When I was on a five week trip in Myanmar at the beginning of the year, I was in a place all too familiar to those from countries of privilege. How do I respond? How do I love? How do I avoid walking away unchanged?
Perhaps there is nothing we can do? Immediately that is. Yet, often there are certain things we can avoid doing.
As followers of Christ the first temptation may be to pursue the path of liberal Christianity. The Gospel of social action. When confronted by such poverty and lack of human flourishing, every bit of us screams for what we perceive as redemption; and rightly so as we yearn for that coming day (Romans 8).
We are tempted to think "The gospel...was that God himself stood behind liberation, equality, and community; that Jesus died to promote them...and that he lives on in all efforts and tendencies favouring them" (Dallas Willard Divine Conspiracy).
Perhaps this has truth to it, but it eventually leads to the belief that the core of the Gospel is "Love comes out on top" (Willard). Leaving us to scramble for the definition of redemptive love, and it often resigns itself to whatever ideologies our native culture has ingrained in us.
So as I stand in the atmosphere of pungent smells, and confronting views of impoverished Myanmar, I begin to equate the Gospel and this Love (which comes out on top) to a version of the American Dream: "egalitarianism, happiness, and freedom" (Willard). Therefore the desire of these themes to be flowing through the world becomes sacred, because indirectly we believe we are pursuing the essence of why Jesus died.
We then quickly denounce as evil, anything that would put itself between humanity and this dream. In the end our minds have created another system of sin management, deriving its substance from our western "social and political ideals of human existence in a secular world" (Willard); slapping the title 'Heaven come down' or 'shalom' to our efforts, we march under a flawed banner.
So then, what becomes our response and how does the true Gospel motivate this without needing distortion? Didn't Jesus himself say that his role was defined by this prophecy: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners...to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4 verse 18)?
Tune in next time for Part 2.
Dan Peterson is from Chicago, Illinois USA, currently living in St. Leonards, Tasmania, studying cross-cultural ministry (his final year). Dan is a musician and personal fitness trainer, who loves exploring the Australian bush.
Dan Peterson's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dan-peterson.html