Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Chance Meeting that produced a Book

Here is something a little different. I have asked Rev. Dr. Jerry B. Cain, retired President of Judson University in Elgin Illinois, to provide a guest essay announcing the appearance of an important new book on the history of Christianity in Myanmar: by Angelene Naw, The History of the Karen People of Burma (ed. Jerry Cain; King of Prussia, PA: Judson Press, 2023).* What follows is Jerry’s review of the book for the curious reader. 

Charles W. Hedrick 

The History of the Karen People of Burma recounts the interactions of the three m’s that historians of the nineteenth century colonial period always have to negotiate—merchants, missionaries, militaries. The Karens (CAH-ren) were an animistic minority in Burma who took to the message of American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) while the majority Buddhist Burmese ignored or even persecuted him. Primed by a legend that a white man with a book would arrive on a ship from the west and show them their destiny, the Karens responded positively when Ann and Adoniram Judson disembarked from the Georgiana in the summer of 1813 with a Bible. Prophecy fulfilled!

This first generation of missionaries codified the language of the Karens (and the Burmese) setting up schools to teach them how to read and write their own language as well as English. When the British colonizers needed local bureaucrats, the Karens were skilled to fill these administrative positions often at the expense of the less-trained majority Burmese Buddhists. And the tensions grew as the British took more and more of Burma through three wars (1824-26, 1852-53, 1885) and animosity grew between the majority Burmese and the minority Karens.

Then came the twentieth century and the independence movements in India and southeast Asia. WWII stalled those independence efforts and in Burma the Karens sided with the British while the Burmese sided with the Japanese creating more hatred. Then the players changed, the war ended and independence was experienced, sort of. The story continues into the twenty-first century as both groups, Burmese and Karens, remember their sectarian and ethic struggles of the past 200 years.

Dr. Angelene Naw is uniquely qualified to describe the history of the Karen people, which is most often retold as oral history. She was born during the insurgencies of post-WWII Burma and lived her first six years in the jungles where her father was an officer for the Karen army in rebellion against the new government of Burma. Dr. Naw finished two degrees from the University of Rangoon before completing her PhD at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. I am honored that she came to the US to teach Asian history and culture at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, where I served as president.

The first Burmese I ever met was John Shandy, a former Buddhist monk, who was employed on the plant operations staff by Judson University. The arrival of Dr. Naw made number two from Myanmar. Soon another refugee couple came to town and the only place the Baptist church could find them a job was at the local casino. Under the leadership of Dr. Naw, who was a rock star in the diaspora Karen-American community, we gathered about 50 families and started the Karen Baptist Church of Western Chicago. (When I retired and moved to Kansas City, I affiliated with the Grace Baptist Church that hosts a Karen congregation every Sunday afternoon.)

My role in creating the book was to make Dr. Naw’s book readable for the western reading public. We had two audiences in mind for this publication, the student studying Southeast Asian history and the Karen diaspora spread around the world who will never return to Burma nor experience their desired independent nation, which they named Kawthoolei. Persecuted in Myanmar, the Karens have been emigrating to the US, Australia, Norway, Singapore, and other places from four major refugee camps in Thailand where they were settled by the United Nations. The History of the Karen People of Burma is now being translated into the Karen language to better reach these two audiences.

The History of the Karen People of Burma describes pre-colonial Burma before 1824 when the British military moved in and the impact of the American missionaries in establishing Karendom. The educational thirst of the Karen people was addressed by the missionaries creating tension between the minority Karens and the majority Burmese. The political and military intrigues of WWII between the Japanese, British, Burmese, and the Karens are described in detail because Dr. Naw and her family were intimately involved. The post-WWII political and military struggles by the Karen people take this story into the 21st century.

Since the last military coup of February 1, 2021, the Karens have again been given the “dirty end of the stick,” as they would say. Public focus has been on the Muslim Rohingya on the western side of Myanmar but forced labor, targeted bombing, and discrimination against Christian Karens on the eastern side continues as it has for the past 200 years. Their plight has been captured in major motion pictures including a 2008 Rambo movie starring Sylvester Stallone. The story of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been told and retold with great appreciation, but there has been little political movement from the outside world. She has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment since the 2-1-21 junta took over.

The History of the Karen People of Burma is important for anyone who wants to understand the recurring discord and dysfunction of cultural and political systems in modern Myanmar. It provides a 30,000-foot overview of the recycling military rule and futile attempts at democracy, and the recurring religious turmoil involving Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians from one who has lived it and continues to love her country with all its problems.

Jerry Cain

*For details on how to purchase the book see https://www.judsonpress.com/Products/J306/the-history-of-the-karen-people-of-burma.aspx

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Does God Tempt People to do the Wrong Thing?

Or put another way the question is: does God as depicted in the Bible entice, seduce, or lure us humans into improper behavior? I know the question may sound strange, until you recall that one petition of the Lord's Prayer is usually translated as "do not lead us into temptation" (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4; Didache, 8:2). Each week the Lord's prayer is recited in Christian congregations around the world. It is believed by the faithful to be a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. I have often wondered, did Jesus himself pray such a prayer?1 And when the prayer is offered at funerals and church meetings for what exactly is a person praying when s/he says "do not lead us into temptation"? Why would anyone suppose God would entice us to do something we should not do?

            Some translations attempt to resolve the situation by translating the petition used in the prayer as "do not put us to the test," or "do not bring us to the time of trial," as, for example, the New Revised Standard and Revised English Bible translate the word. The Greek word used in the prayer (peirazō), however, according to the lexicons can be used both ways, as either a temptation to do something wrong, or as a test to prove someone. The Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon prefers the translation of an "attempt to make someone do something wrong, temptation, enticement to sin" for both Matt 6:13 and Luke 11:4.

            The Greek word peirazō is used a number of times in the New Testament where it is clear that the situation depicted concerned an enticement to behave improperly, as for example, when the devil is tempting Jesus (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; see also 1 Thess 3:5 and Jas 1:13-15). In other instances, the situation clearly involves a testing: 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Cor 13:5; Rev: 3:10.

            In the Hebrew Bible God is frequently depicted as testing the Israelites. For example, God tested the faith of Abraham by telling him to offer his only son as a sacrifice (Gen 22:1-2). The stated reason was that God wanted to test his faith (Gen 22:12).2 There are also other passages where the Israelites tested God,3 although God specifically said they should not put the Lord to the test (Deut 6:16).

            I know of only one passage where God is involved in a situation clearly deceiving people in order to tempt them to improper behavior (1 Kgs 22:19-23). The prophet Micaiah had a vision of the Lord on his throne surrounded by the host of heaven. In the passage the Lord wanted to deceive King Ahab and solicited a "lying spirit" to "entice Ahab so that he would go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead" (1 Kgs 22:20). One Spirit came forward saying "I will entice him" (1 Kgs 22:21). And the Lord said, "you are to entice him and you will succeed, go forth and do so" (1 Kgs 22:22).4 One might well suspect from this passage that the ancient Israelite belief included a God who tempted them to improper or hurtful conduct (of course, believing a thing to be so does not make it so). At this point one may recall comedian Flip Wilson's immortal line: "The devil made me do it," which is the prevailing view amongst the faithful: the devil is our tempter. But still the Lord's prayer in most translations petitions God not to tempt us. Why?

One might also well suspect that God should have known the probable outcome when he placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, telling them there was only one tree whose fruit they must avoid (Gen 3:1-7). Of course, it was the serpent that actually tempted Eve (2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14), but one might make a credible case that the enticement was actually caused by God who set Eve up for her lapse, particularly since the popular belief is that God always knows what is going to happen. What was the serpent doing in the Garden of Eden, if it wasn't by divine design in the first place?

And this brings us back to where we began; for what exactly does one pray when one utters the words of the Lord's prayer: "lead us not into temptation"? Did Jesus think that God brought people into temptation in order to test them? Why not, if God also tested them in other ways? What is temptation if not simply another way of testing the faithful? So how should we pray that one line of the Lord's prayer?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See R. Funk and R. Hoover, The Five Gospels. What did Jesus Really Say? (Polebridge/Macmillan, 1993). The Jesus Seminar colored this line of the petition Grey, meaning for the Seminar that Jesus did not say it.

2Here are other instances where God tested the Israelites: Exod 17:2, 7; Deut 8:2, 16; 13:3; 33:8; Jdg 2:21-22; 3:1, 4; 2 Chron 32:31; Ps 26:2; Ps 78:41.

3In some passages The Israelites tested God: Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; 2 Kgs 20:8-11); Ps 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; 106:14; Isa 7:10-12.

4The same Hebrew word is used also in the following instances, where enticement seems the better translation: Exod 22:16; Jdg 14:15; 16:5; Prov 1:10-11; 16:29.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Is God Immutable?

Immutability means never changing. I recently heard a minister declare during the Sunday morning preaching hour: “Our God will never change!” Is that true, do you suppose? As is the case with all things religious: it depends on whom you ask. The minister declared what he (and his congregation?) believed about God. Others, of course, may not share that view. The question, however, is interesting and it may yet be a question that will remain open in spite of the heat of opinion on both sides of the answers.

With respect to the Greek Gods who frequently changed their shapes to encounter human beings and hence appeared frequently in disguise, Plato argued the following:

God is altogether sincere and true in deed and word, and neither changes himself nor deceives others by visions or words or the sending of signs in waking or in dreams.1

His rationale is that God is perfect and has no need to change. Therefore “any change must be for the worse. For God’s Goodness is perfect.”2

In his Republic, Plato dismisses the idea found in Greek myth and poetry that the gods can change in any way. Rather, Plato argues, God is perfect and cannot and does not change. For if a god is already the best possible in these respects, a god cannot change for the better. But being perfect includes being immune to change for the worse — too powerful to have it imposed without permission and too good to permit it. Thus, a god cannot improve or deteriorate, making any change within God impossible. Following Plato, the idea that God is perfect and cannot change became widely accepted among philosophers. Aristotle also accepted the idea that God was perfect and unchanging and it became a central point of his philosophy, which would influence philosophers and theologians throughout the Middle Ages.3

The view that God (the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible) will never change is still popular today. There are a number of passages in the Bible that are usually cited as confirming the idea that God does not change. For example, Malachi, the prophet, quotes God (translated into KJV language) as saying: “For I the Lord do not change” (3:6).4

            As happens, however, so often, between texts written over hundreds of years apart, if one looks long enough one will find contradictory ideas. Here are a number of biblical texts that (surprisingly) depict God as changing.5

When God saw what they did how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it. (RSV Jonah 3:10)

The Lord God repented concerning this; “It shall not be, “said the Lord. (RSV Amos 7:3)

The Lord repented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God. (Amos 7:6)

And if it [a nation] does evil in my sight not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it. (Jer 18:10)

And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exod 32:14)

The word of the Lord came to Samuel: I repent that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. (1 Sam 15:11, 35)6

Where should these passages leave us? Do we change our minds about God? Do we change our minds about the Bible, or do we try to explain them away in some way? For they clearly describe God as changing.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Plato, The Republic (P. Shorey, trans.; 2 vols; New York: Putnam, 1930), 1.2.382-83 (p. 197). My translation, in part. For another translation, see H. D. P. Lee, trans., Plato, The Republic (Penguin, 1955), p. 121.

2Shorey, p. 191; Lee, p. 119.


4Here are a few other passages cited in support of the idea that God does not change: Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Ps 33:4, Ps 90:2, Ps 102:25-27, Ps 119:89-90, Isa 40:8, Isa 40:28, 2 Tim 2:13, Heb 13:8, Jas 1:17.

5F. Brown, S. R Driver, C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1968), p. 637. The Hebrew word used in these passages carries the English concept of “be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent, of one’s own doings,” in other words to change.

6Here are a few more passages reflecting the idea that God can and does change: Gen: 6:6-7; 2 Sam 24:16; Ps 106:40-46; Jer 18:8; Jer 26:3, 13, 19; Jer 42:10; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 4:2; Zech 8:14.