Edmund Chia is a Malaysian theologian working in Thailand as executive secretary for the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
You would go bankrupt if you opened a shop in Asia selling Easter gifts and goodies. How then do Asian Christians communicate the message of Easter?
The Resurrection and the Incarnation:
Easter and Asian Theology
By Edmund Chia
NARITA, Japan -- I landed at Narita International Airport late in the evening on April 10 and had to lodge near the airport, so stayed in Narita city itself, which is located about two hours outside of Tokyo. The following morning, Easter, I asked around for a church. Someone who did not understand much English directed me to go down a road.
I did as instructed and was met by a congregation of a few thousand people, many of whom were engaging in acts of ritual purification, lighting candles and joss-sticks and chanting prayers. I had arrived at the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a temple of more than a thousand years, dedicated to the Fudomyo-oh Buddha. The people had gathered for the Taiko drum festival, a spring feast to celebrate their hope for justice and peace in the world.
A young Japanese college student of foreign languages helped me to understand the happenings there in the cozy little city of Narita on that Easter Sunday. Naively, I asked if the festival had anything to do with Easter. My Japanese conversation partner returned a stare as if I had just uttered a Greek word. The word "Easter" did not feature in his vocabulary. He knew little about Christianity, except that it is a Western and, by extension, a foreign religion.
This is not surprising. For every hundred people in Japan, perhaps only three or four might be Christian. This statistic is true also for much of Asia. Moreover, unlike Christmas, which has Santa Claus and "Silent Night" as marketing agents, Easter is in the main a non-event in Japan and in Asia as a whole. Even Easter baskets, eggs and bunnies (symbols of new life and fertility adapted from ancient pagan feasts) are largely confined to homes of Asian Christians who have been particularly urbanized and Westernized.
You would go bankrupt if you opened a shop in Asia selling Easter gifts and goodies. How then do Asian Christians communicate the message of Easter, the most significant event that gave rise to their religion, to persons who are not acquainted with the Western symbols of Christianity in general and Easter in particular? This is no mean task, especially since Christianity remains by and large a "ghetto" religion in Asia, not yet thoroughly integrated into the mainstream of the Asian cultural and social fabric. This is another way of saying that the Christian faith is alive and known only within the walls of the church. Most people outside the walls have little knowledge of Christianity, nor are they interested in it.
What has not helped is the fact that, historically, the church of Christ came to Asia as a product of European colonial expansion. The missionaries came alongside the military, mercenaries and merchants. Just as the latter's aim was to plunder the land and resources of Asia, the church has also been viewed as having come to plunder the souls of the people of Asia. It is not surprising that Christianity is treated with suspicion and hostility and kept at a distance. The crucified Christ has come to be perceived as a conquering Christ and so is unwelcome in the homes and hearts of Asians in general, many of whom have their own "Christ" figures.
In such a context, Asian theology is wont to give less emphasis to the Resurrection in favor of the Incarnation. It is not accidental that within the Asian milieu, Easter seems to be of lesser significance than Christmas. In theologizing from Easter, one would need to speak to issues of redemption and salvation, theological themes that are irrelevant to Asians, especially since persons of other religions have their own versions of what constitute religious ends. Why do we need salvation if we don't believe in a "fall" in the first place? If there is no need for salvation, then why have a savior, especially one who is proclaimed as having died for our sins? Incidentally, Mel Gibson's blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ" has passed off as a non-event to many people in Asia. The substitution theory of atonement is alien to most Asians.
In theologizing from Christmas, Asian theology points to God as having come to earth in human form. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. "Not only has God come as a human being, but as a poor human being," Sri Lankan theologian Aloysius Pieris is quick to remind us. That Jesus was born in a cow shed, that he was a refugee even in his infant days, that he was son of a carpenter and that he died as a common criminal are central themes that Asian theology speaks to when proclaiming the message of Christianity. It is a religion where the "savior" figure comes not as a hero or king, but from the underside of history, as one rejected by the people and eventually executed.
In the context of the massive suffering and poverty of Asian societies, such a message resonates more with the consciousness of the people. The Christ who shares in the lives and burdens of the Asian poor and who inspires a discipleship committed to alleviating their forced poverty is the stuff of Asian theology. A theology that begins with the Incarnation is, therefore, essentially a liberation theology. The Resurrection constitutes that liberation event. But before one expects Asians to understand Easter and appreciate the Resurrection, justice and liberation for the poor have to be realities evidenced in Asian societies.
That was perhaps the celebration I participated in when I went to "church" on that Easter morning. The Taiko drum festival at the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple symbolizes for me the hope that Christians in Asia have for the kind of celebration that Easter will one day become in Asia. When that happens, Easter will be well known in Asia, as will Christianity.