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Wives, Warriors And Leaders: Burmese Christian Women's Cultural Reception Of The Bible

Anna May Chain

The Bible in Burma
The first Christian missionary to Burma,[1] a French Franciscan named Pierre Bonfer, arrived in Burma in 1554. He found it difficult to proselytize the Burmese and left in 1557. The Bama, the Mons, Rakhines and Shans were staunchly Buddhist and had their own Scriptures, the Tripitakas, the Three Gems. The Christian presence became more permanent with the arrival of the Italian Barnabite Order in 1721 and the British Baptists in 1807. The arrival of Adoniram and Ann Hasseltine Judson in 1813 marks the beginning of American Baptist mission in Burma.

Judson took on himself the task of translating the Bible into Bama, which he accomplished in 1834. In Burmese Baptist church hagiography, Ann Hasseltine Judson is noted for the role she played in this work. When Adoniram Judson, together with other foreigners, was imprisoned in Letmayunt prison Ava during the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, Ann smuggled the manuscript, hidden in a pillow case, to Adoniram. Later, Judson was force marched to another prison, Aung Pinle and Ann rescued the manuscript. Ann was a scholar in her own right. She is credited with learning Thai and translating the catechism and the Gospel of Matthew into Thai.

Today, although the Judson translation of the Bible remains the most popular, there are other Bama translations. The Bible has also been translated into 18 languages of the ethnic minorities who form the largest part of the Christian community of Burma.[2] All these ethnic minorities had oral traditions but no written language. The missionaries had to invent scripts before Bible translation could begin. About 24 language groups still need written scripts and Bibles in their own languages.

The Bible and Burmese Christian Women
Ann Judson met regularly with groups of women who were interested in learning about the new religion. According to Arabella Stuart:

XXXXMrs. Judson met every Sabbath a society of fifteen to twenty females to whom she read the Scriptures, and talked about God. They were attentive, and willing to ask and answer questions, but for a long time experienced no abiding conviction of sin or of duty. Some were willing to serve Christ if they could do it without renouncing dependence on their own merits. Others would serve God, if they might serve Gaudama also.[3]

Ann herself expressed this about the women:

XXXXThe females of this country are lively, inquisitive, strong and energetic, susceptible of friendship and the warmest attachment, and possess minds capable of rising to the highest state of cultivation and refinement....This is evident from their mode of conversing.[4]

So that women might read the Bible for themselves instead of having it read to them, Ma Min Lay, the first Burmese Baptist woman convert, started a school where, for the first time, girls could get the same education as boys. [5] From the start, missionaries realized that education and mission must be tied together. The mission schools that arose were major centers for teaching the Bible.

Missionary wives and single women missionaries who followed Ann Judson continued her strategy of studying the Bible with the women. In the years after, Burmese women with at least primary education were given a basic theological training of six months to a year. These graduates, called "Bible women," would then be sent to work in churches to teach the Bible to the women and children. Some of the Bible women traveled from village to village, town to town, staying a few days or a few months to teach and preach the gospel.[6] This very basic type of Bible training for women would later develop into Bible Schools for women such as the Karen Women's Bible School, Burmese Women's Bible School, and Bhamo Women's Bible School. The graduates of these Bible schools taught the Bible mainly in sunday schools, daily vacation Bible schools and women's meetings.

Today, all the seminaries, except for the Bhamo Women's Bible School, are co-educational. The enrollment of women is rising in most seminaries. Although other ministries apart from children's and women's ministries are open to them, women graduates still have to struggle to find places as pastors, theological educators, and executives in associations, conventions, and synods.

Burmese Christian women read and interpret the Bible from their own religious, cultural, and social context. What they have learnt in the seminaries will have an impact on how the Bible is taught and received in the grassroots churches. In this paper, I will attempt to present Burmese Christian women's reception and interpretation of the Bible based on the theses of women students at one seminary, the Myanmar Institute of Theology, the writings of women in Christian magazines and journals, and the Annual Sermon Notes of the Myanmar Baptist Convention, Women's Department.

According to the available material, the majority of the writers concentrated on biblical women who were either held up as role models of "the good woman," patterned after Proverbs 31, or used as negative images to warn against disobedience and disloyalty to God. In resources that were written earlier, the emphasis was on being a good daughter, wife, and mother and serving God in one's given sphere of life. The impact of the teaching of feminist theology at the Myanmar Institute of Theology from 1991 on is reflected in the number of theses written on women issues and on specific biblical women.[7] The articles in magazines and journals also move away from the traditional reading of biblical texts to a more feminist reading.

Underlying all this is the cultural and religious context from which Burmese women write about the Bible. For some, the Bible affirms the traditional woman's role as wife and mother, her sphere confined to the house. The stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Naomi and Ruth, among others, resonate in their lives. They identify closely with these women as they lived in cultures and societies very similar to their own. They suffer together with Sarah in Pharaoh's harem, they are angry with Lot who was willing for his daughters to be raped in place of his guests, and they sympathize with Naomi and Ruth as they struggle for survival in a man's world. These biblical women's stories are their stories.

Others take a more critical look at the Bible. They see how the Bible is used in the churches to keep women in their proper place and to limit their potential. They therefore suggest how these texts can be read with women's eyes as liberating and empowering. The deeds of the women in the Exodus story, Deborah and Jael, Huldah, Esther and Vashti, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Priscilla, Junia, Phoebe and other women of the early church are highlighted. Most of the women's writings reflect their own situation, coming from either a Bama Buddhist background or an ethnic minority background. What is held in common is the importance of the Bible for the faith and life of the women of Burma, who struggle everyday against all odds for survival.

Biblical Texts And Burmese Christian Women's Reading: The Creation Narratives
In reviewing the material on the Creation narratives, the women came to these texts from their own situations in a Bama Buddhist country and from their tribal and ethnic cultural and religious backgrounds. They stressed the low position of women in both contexts.

Burma was a feudal society with a kingship system that was legitimized by reference to the Buddhist Scriptures. Each person's place is predetermined by one's karma. The place of the peasantry in the lower rung of society was foreordained. In a similar way, the inferior position of women in home and society was ordained by Scriptures. Cho Cho Win writes: The influence of Buddhism strongly shapes the status of Myanmar women. Men are believed to have an inborn glory or phon, which keeps them at a higher level than women. Women accept a subservient position in the family showing respect for the person of the male. In the family, the father is known as "ain-oo-nat." This means "chief spirit of the house." [8]

The path to enlightenment is open to both women and men in Buddhism. Through observance of the precepts, performing deeds of merit, and meditation, a Buddhist may escape from the cycle of birth and rebirth to reach the state of non-being called nibban. Yet a woman may not attain Buddhahood. This is a male prerogative. The prayer of a queen inscribed on a temple wall in Pagan states:

XXXXI wish to be freed from this state of woman. And when in future existences I pass through the abodes of men and spirits, I wish to be reborn as a man Endowed with virtue, understanding, truth and faith.

Among the ethnic minorities whose traditional faith included a belief in spirits that control the home, fields, and forests, similar attitudes towards women are held. In Chin society, women are not allowed to eat festival meats. They do not have the rights of inheritance, and they may be divorced by their husbands at any time for any reason.[9] For Kachin women, their lives are drudgery and toil. They are prohibited from taking part in the religious ceremonies, entering a newly built house lest they defile it, or playing any public role in the community.[10] In Lahu society, men make all the decisions, and women are expected to stay home and to be submissive and obedient to their husbands.[11]

The Creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 were often used in preaching and teaching to support the hierarchical structure of the society and the home. The women believe that if Genesis 1 and 2 are not reinterpreted, the biblical text will continue to oppress women just as much as Buddhism and cultural norms have done. For Aye Aye Win, these texts are used to explain why men are more valued than women in home and society. In Bama churches, Genesis 2 is especially used to show how the Bible complements the Bama Buddhist cultural heritage.[12] Eh Wah Hpaw who works with university women students, has experienced their low self-esteem and thinks the church has aggravated the situation by emphasizing Eve's role as secondary to Adam, as "helper."[13] For Kyi Kyi Aung, churches in Myanmar have understood Gen. 2: 18 to mean that Eve was created only to be subservient to Adam. So women are virtually the slaves of men.[14]

Nang Thuzar Mon who works in Kengtung, a border area from which young girls are trafficked for sex into Thailand is concerned about how Genesis is traditionally used in the church. "Human beings are created in God's image. Aren't women, too, created in God's image?" She thinks that the traditional interpretation of Genesis 2 has contributed to the present problem. "A woman is made to feel that a man is her master. He is the lord and the woman is his slave because she is created out of the rib of a man. She cannot raise her voice against violence because she has been taught not to." [15] Mary Dun agrees that from this reading of Genesis women are regarded as weak, intellectually inferior, and therefore unable to take part in the decision-making process.[16]

All agree that women and men are actually created in the image of God, especially blessed and equally charged with responsibility. According to Mary Dun, women have eindaray, an innate dignity that cannot be taken away from them. A woman with eindaray must have the beauty of serenity within her heart, complying to the five norms of loyalty, wisdom, compassion, alertness, and health.[17]

Another aspect from which Genesis 1 and 2 is read is from that of traditional myths of creation. Esther Danpongpee uses Karen creation stories in parallel with Genesis 1 and 2 to posit the fact that although there are many differences in the two traditions, men and women are created as equals for tilling the ground. Like Genesis 2, the Karen God, Ywah created man from the earth and then created woman out of man. She interprets this as the two being one and equal. [18] Kying Nang also agrees that Kachin creation myths demonstrate the equality of women and men. The creator goddess, Chyanun, brought forth a big pumpkin; from that one big pumpkin, human beings emerged, eight pairs, male and female. Such myths and legends should be used together with the Bible to posit a view of the equality of the sexes.[19]

Biblical Texts And Burmese Christian Women's Reading: The Wives
The lives of ancient Israelite women are mirrored in the lives of the women of Burma. Like them, Burmese women have to work hard to put food on the table, working outside in the fields, factories, and offices; at the same time, they must fulfill the traditional roles of wife and mother by caring for the children, doing household chores, and pleasing their husband. Kyi Kyi Aung points this out: "The Burmese housewife is obligated to serve her husband, looking after his trivial needs to the minutest details, unquestioningly and unconditionally."[20] Doris Paul describes the Akha women's lives, "The Akha women besides take responsibilities for food and clothing for the whole family in the same manner with the menfolk. They clear the jungle and till the land side by side with the men....They have to perform household chores and to bear male offspring to inherit the future generation of the clan."[21] In the Kachin family, women do all the work, while the husbands stay at home or are with friends smoking opium. In some families, the wife has been physically battered. As dowry has been paid for her, she is obligated to serve her husband and her parents-in-law.[22]

Of the matriarchs in Genesis, Sarah is most often cited. She is admired for leaving her homeland to follow her husband to an unknown land. At the same time, her silence is deplored when her husband, Abraham, forces her to acquiesce to his demand that she be recognized as sister and not wife. This and other stories show clearly that women are under the authority of the father and husband. Decisions about their future are made without their knowledge. They have no say in matters affecting their lives, such as the choice of a husband. Leah and Rachel are not consulted when Jacob makes his proposal to Laban. The rivalries of Sarah and Hagar and of Leah and Rachel revolve around the theme of bearing the male heir. However much Jacob loves Rachel, it is Leah who bears the sons, and Rachel, like Sarah, must plot to equalize the situation. The actions of these women are circumscribed by customs and traditions that are so familiar to Burmese women. They must act within the boundaries set for them. They have been taught since childhood to be obedient and passive daughters, wives, and mothers.

According to Biak Tha Hnen cultural discrimination and even violence against women are seen in the story of Lot's daughters (Gen. 19:1-30). Fathers and husbands make the decisions that affect their daughters and wives. "Lot served and protected his guests very well so as to get God's blessing. For him his guests were more untouchable than his own daughters. In order to get some benefit or good things from God he used his daughters as instruments." [23] Most of the women agree that the rights and dignity of daughters and wives are often not recognized.

Two other women within this circle of wives and mothers are Naomi and Ruth, who fiercely fight for their own survival and the continuation of their family line. They are praised for bonding as two women struggling in a man's world. Following Naomi's instructions Ruth finds security and a future in the house of Boaz. Htoo Htoo praises Ruth for being a woman of action who takes her future into her own hands. As with the women of Genesis, Naomi and Ruth have to act within the parameters permitted by society. Htoo Htoo admonishes women today to be bold, to be aggressive, and to take the initiative.[24] Kathleen James sees a parallel between the lives of Naomi and Ruth and the women she works with in the YWCA community development projects: "Poverty is a challenge for these women, who must either accept whatever is left of life or fight for their own lives and for the lives of those to whom they have given birth."[25]

Biblical Texts And Burmese Christian Women's Reading: Women Warriors
A recent book written by Burmese women who had undergone much suffering due to the political situation in Burma, stresses the struggles of women against oppression. This book was printed in Thailand, and most of the writers were living as exiles outside of Burma so they could freely express their thoughts. Women living inside Burma do not have that freedom so at times one has to read between the lines. The Public Scrutiny Board scrutinizes all material put up for publication. Writers and publishers have been jailed for their writings.[26] In spite of such constraints, there have been biblical writings that try to encourage, challenge, and empower women for action, of course, done in a discreet and circumspect way. In such writings, biblical heroines such as the subversive women of the Exodus story, Deborah and Jael, Esther, Vashti, and Judith figure very prominently.

Khin Than Soe, lecturer in history at Rangoon University (noted as the hotbed of anti-government demonstrations), chose to write on Women of the Exodus and Wilderness Wandering. She wrote that the midwives, Puah and Shiprah, the mother and sister of Moses, and the princess of Egypt all broke the laws of the land because they feared God rather than men and so obeyed God. For this they had to be subversive. She asks three questions: "Have we the right to go against unjust laws?" "Is there any rule or law in our country or church that is unjust?" and "In what ways can you overcome oppressive situations?" [27] Miriam is prophet and leader of her people. She and Aaron question the leadership of Moses. Yet she alone is punished. Assertive women's leadership is a trial to men, whereby she obliquely refers to Aung San Suu Kyi whose leadership is seen as a threat by the military junta State Law and Development Council, now renamed State Peace and Development Council.[28]

In a recent newspaper article, a pro-SPDC historian, Dr. Ma Tin Win, clearly referred to Aung San Suu Kyi and aggressive women like her:

XXXXIn Myanmar society there is a saying "It is woman that destroys the country" referring to bad women. Women who are sharp but anxious to be popular misusing their abilities and qualifications should take that point into consideration. Women and men are equally responsible for nation-building tasks and preservation of culture. However, such Myanmar women should not place too much reliance on their strong qualities lest they be put on record in the list of the women who destroy the motherland.[29]

In my paper on the Exodus, "Women Liberators of the Exodus Story (Exodus 1:-2:10), a Feminist Reading," I had two versions, one to be published in Burma and the other as Bible study for the Christian Conference of Asia, Sixth General Assembly, 1995, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In my Bible Study at the Assembly I added a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi's writings. For the Burma publication I did not have any reference to her, but, like Khin Than Soe, I referred to her leadership in an oblique way that would be a red flag to Burmese readers:

XXXXWho says women are to be submissive and fearful before unjust laws and tyrannical rulers? Who decrees that women should live lives of meritless obedience and timid reliance on male figures of authority? The women of the Exodus story challenge such thinking. They demonstrate the strength, the courage, the intelligence of women when face to face with authority, no-holds-barred power and monstrous, chaotic tyranny that leads to death. These women are life affirming and life-giving. Hallelujah for the Exodus women![30]

Hsi Yardar comments on the midwives:

XXXXThe action of the midwives was not only protecting the lives of the children, but also resistance against a dictator, oppressor and murderer and it was a struggle for liberation. There must be many "Shiprahs and Puahs" in our country. Women who dare to risk their lives for others by standing up against authority. They seek peace and justice, especially Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who is trying for democracy.[31]

The daughters of Zelophahad (Numbers 27:1 - 11) asked for their father's property from Moses and the elders. As their father had died without a son to inherit, the five daughters had no portion in the promised land. The five women boldly asserted their right to their father's inheritance (Numbers 27:1 - 11). Khin Than Soe points to the fact that in Burma, women have been denied many rights. Many women cannot inherit their father's property. Some cannot hold the highest office in the land.[32] Women must be courageous and assertive in claiming their inheritance. If they are timid and shy they will not get their rights.[33]

The judge and prophetess Deborah is a strong figure in the eyes of Burmese Christian women. Deborah Ling lists the qualities of Deborah, such as leadership abilities, skills in strategic planning, courage, and daring to take risks. She points out that it is Deborah who takes the initiative to fight against the Canaanites by commanding Barak to prepare his army for battle. And Barak's reply, "If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me I will not go" (Judges 5:8). She concludes:

XXXXDeborah was the only woman of that time who dared to unite Israelites against the enemy, the Canaanites. She acted as judge, prophetess and a commander of the army and a leader in many ways to end the suffering of the people. Therefore, we must accept the capabilities of women to be leaders and administrators.[34]

Nang Thida remarks on the lesson that Burmese women learn from the story of Deborah:

XXXXMotivated by a desire for a better world, including an end to war, some women are taking a cue from Deborah and seeking involvement in the political life of their country. While there are still people who will not vote for a woman simply because she is a woman. Fortunately others are beginning to realize that women do have much to offer in this area of our nation's life.[35]

Doi Ra (1994:33) describes the hard life of the Gurkha women among whom she works. Their religion, Hinduism, their social system of patriarchy, and their status as migrants in Burma are triple burdens for the women. The life of Deborah should be the unique example to these Gurkha women. The courage of Deborah in facing the unjust political, economic, and cultural structures is desperately needed today for such women.[36]

Together with Deborah, Jael is praised for her act in killing Sisera. For Deborah Ling, although such acts are not condoned, they must be seen from the side of the oppressed who have suffered under tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. Although she does not mention Ne Win and the SLORC/SPDC military junta, no one is in doubt who else she means.[37]

Judith is not well known among the Protestants in Burma. However, Khin Than Cho chose to write about her. She stresses the point that when the elders of the people were thinking of surrendering to Holofernes, commander of the Assyrian army, Judith steps up and challenges the people to trust in God: "Judith would not step back but with courage and cool determination asked God for help and guidance."[38] And Khin Than Cho compares Judith's leadership with Aung San Suu Kyi's. Aung San Suu Kyi had no political skills and experience, but when the country erupted with pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, she did not hold back, but came to the forefront of the movement and formed the National League for Democracy. She continues her fight for liberation and in the face of the power of the military dictatorship. She is a survivor and a fighter.[39]

Another biblical woman commonly cited is Esther. She came to her position as queen of Persia at the advice of her cousin, Mordecai. In a situation of danger for the Jews, Esther is called upon by Mordecai to save her people. She is to show ingenuity, courage, and risk-taking. As Lucy Po Ba comments, Just as Mordecai challenged Esther, "Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this," the situation in our country is challenging, "you have come to MIT for such a time as this." The wrong situation in Esther's day was the annihilation of the Jews according to the edict proposed by Haman, the Prime Minister. The wrong situations for our country is the plight of the neglected minorities in our land, the tyranny under which countless millions of people live in lands ruled by totalitarian governments and the vast chasm that exists between the small elite living in splendor while vast multitudes live in indescribable poverty.[40]

Another queen worth emulating for Burmese women is Queen Vashti. Doi Ra refers to Queen Vashti, who says "no" to the all-powerful king. She maintains that it is required of women to say "no" as Vashti did in that test of her human dignity, and she concludes that this would help towards "the formation of an alternative lifestyle under all cultural movements that are militaristic and oppressive" [41]

Biblical Texts And Burmese Christian Women's Reading: Leaders
Burmese Christian women have used the stories in the Gospels to show Jesus' concern for women, his healing of women so they could be liberated, and women who were active in Jesus' ministry. Even after two hundred and fifty years of the Gospel in Burma, women still need to assert their right to equal partnership in church and society. The Gospel narratives of Jesus' interaction with women and the stories of women in the early Church continue to be used for encouragement and empowerment. Burmese Christian women have had to struggle to open the door to full partnership in ministry. In this struggle, they have referred to women who played important roles in Jesus' ministry.

For Huai Man Cin, Jesus demonstrated high value for women in his life and teaching. He recognized the intrinsic equality of men and women. He valued the dignity of women as persons. He valued women's fellowship, prayers, support, testimony, and witness. He honored women, taught them in public and private, and ministered to women in thoughtful ways. As a result women, responded to Jesus' ministry warmly, and the kingdom of God was extended. In relation to the gospel and Burmese women, specifically Chin women, Cin states:

XXXXWhen the gospel came to the land it released women from such a cultural bondage and lifted them up to share equal rights and opportunities in society and church. As a result there are now a number of ordained women ministers in the Baptist and other denominations in Burma, especially since the 1980s.[42]

Esther Khaing Oo connected the story of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood with Leviticus 12, 15:19-30, the pollution of women, and with issues of women's leadership and ordination:

XXXXIn most of the (Baptist) churches, women are not encouraged to share equally in the ministerial work. Women are considered unclean during her menstruation and after childbirth. She is not fit to serve the Lord's Supper or give baptism. A theology has then developed to support the male dominant role in the church. Actually the teaching or understanding is purely from the world of Myanmar and an Old Testament "purity law" is used to support a cultural custom.[43]

Many denominations still deny ordination to women based on this factor. Esther reads this gospel text to show Jesus concern for the woman and not for his own purity. Out of his compassion he heals her and praises her for her faith.

The healing of the bent woman is also connected with how cultural and religious customs and traditions burden women. For Hsi Yardar, just as Jesus straightened the woman's back and called her "daughter of Abraham," Burmese women are given the chance to straighten their backs and take their place as leaders in the community. [44]

Sermon Notes for Women is an annual publication of the Myanmar Baptist Convention, Women's Department. Burmese Christian women contribute to the book which is a resource for women's meetings. In the 1995 issue, Esther Kyaw wrote that when the Samaritan woman recognized Jesus as Messiah, she did not keep this to herself but shared it with her people. In our culture, women are not regarded as important, just like the Samaritan woman by her people. Yet she had concern for them."[45] Nyo Zin Nwe Tin encourages women who feel that they are very inferior to look at the Samaritan woman and how she witnessed about Jesus. She overcame her shortcomings and was an evangelist to her people. Burmese women should overcome their obstacles and be doers of the word. [46]

Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus into their home at Bethany. Hospitality as mission in which women can play key roles is an important point for Burmese women. Burmese women in seminaries and churches feel that they are affirmed in their work through Jesus' praise of Mary for choosing the better portion. The assumption is that Mary chose to sit as Jesus' feet to learn as a disciple. However, there is also a feeling that the work of Martha should not be devalued, as in most churches the tasks of hospitality still fall to women. Also, Martha is praised as the first woman to make a confession of faith in Jesus as Son of the Living God.[47] In funeral sermons, Martha's confession has been for encouragement.

Mary Magdalene and other women were among those who followed him. They were there at the crucifixion and were the first witnesses of the resurrection. The very first copy of May Shu Daung, published by the Myanmar Baptist Convention, Women's Department, had on its cover the illustration of women running from the empty tomb to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. In an article, Moo Soe commented on women's faithfulness to Jesus and the privilege of being the first witnesses of the resurrection. This was taken as an affirmation of women's ministry as preachers, teachers, and evangelists of the Word.[48]

Burmese Christian women are encouraged by Paul's mention of so many women workers in the churches in Romans 16 and his teaching on equality in Galatians 3:28. Women like Phoebe, Lydia, Priscilla, and Dorcas are mentioned as role models for women's leadership in the Burmese churches. Phoebe, Priscilla, and Lydia are especially mentioned as women leaders in the early church who broke through cultural barriers to be leaders of house churches. Priscilla's instruction of Apollos is noted. What Lyn Lyn Ju says of Lydia is true of all women leaders of the early church: "Through Lydia, we can see the transforming power of the gospel that permits persons to be transformed. Not only can people be transformed, but also customs, conditions for living, attitudes and systems that humiliate and keep people in bondage."[49]

In the last three years, inroads have been made into Baptist churches by the Southern Baptist Convention and BILD International. In their Bible studies, these groups have interpreted texts so as to limit the ministries of women and to prevent them from the ordained ministry. At a women's conference, Titus 2 was used as a text to shape the ideal for Burmese Christian women. Although more has been written on texts that are positive for women's leadership, there is now an attempt to deal with such texts. Eh Tar Gay writes that such texts reflect the cultural and social situation of that particular period and are not binding for all times.[50]

Challenging and Transforming Culture
Burmese culture has many elements that are positive for the lives of women. The woman as wife and mother has an honored position. The food that women cook is essential to festivals and holy days. Proverbs, such as "Men to carry the firewood and women to carry the fire," point to the way tasks are delineated between the sexes. However, there are aspects of Burmese culture that Burmese Christian women identify as denigrating women.

Burmese women identify social and cultural customs and proverbs of their country that belittle women. They look at religious concepts and practices that make it very clear that women are the second sex. Burmese Christian women have read the Bible and interpreted it to challenge these cultural elements. While recognizing the fact that the Bible itself can be used to support oppressive cultural traditions and legitimate hierarchical structures, Burmese Christian women still read the Bible as the liberating word.

As we have seen above, by comparing the lives of women in the Bible with their own lives, by reinterpretation, and by using some of these women as role models, Burmese Christian women have experienced changes in church and community. The leadership of women in the churches is a growing phenomenon. As more women come to the seminaries, they are encouraged to take more demanding courses and to prepare for the pastoral ministry. Feminist theology is included in one way or another in the curriculum. Church boards and synods are opening up to the question of women's ordination. In society, cultural practices that once were accepted unconditionally have been questioned. One such practice would be valuing the boy child over the girl child. As cultural context shapes the way Burmese women read the Bible, so also the Bible shapes the way they now view their world.

Anna May Chain, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, Myanmar,

1. The country's name was changed to Myanmar in 1990 by the military dictatorship. In this paper, the ethnic group that makes up the majority will be identified as Bama and the other minority ethnic groups as Burmese.

2. According to some mission scholars, the success of Christian mission among the ethnic minorities was due to the fact that they had a legend of a lost book that would be brought back by their white brother. Similarities of some of the myths and legends with biblical stories convinced them that the Bible was indeed the lost book. See Harry Ignatius Marshall, The Karen People of Burma: A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology (Columbus, Ohio: University at Columbus, 1922), 279-280; Ola Hanson, The Kachins, Their Customs and Traditions (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press, 1913), 116.

3. Arabella Stuart, The Three Mrs. Judsons (Springfield, Missouri: Particular Baptist Press,1999), 43

4. Quoted in Stuart, 43.

5. Shwe Wah, Erville Sowards, and Genevieve Sowards, Burma Baptist Chronicle (Rangoon, Board of Publications, 1963), 34.

6. For the importance of Bible women in the growth of Kachin Baptist churches, see Herman G. Tegenfeldt, A Century of Growth: The Kachin Baptist Church of Burma (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1974), 441-442.

7. Rosemary Kathleen Harley has noted this in her thesis, "The Impact of the Feminist Theology on the Mission of the Church in Myanmar: with Special Reference to the Myanmar Institute of Theology, Yangon" (Master of Theology thesis, University of South Africa, 2001).

8. Cho Cho Win, "Liberative Mission: Reconstructing a Theology from the Perspective of Women" (Master of Divinity thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, 1998) 16.

9. Karen Sui Cer, "An Analysis of Women Leadership in the Falam Baptist Association" (Master of Divinity thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1997) 25 - 28.

10. Kying Nang, "Image of Women Rediscovered in Kachin Society" (Master of Divinity thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1993), 38 - 39.

11. Na Law Bo, "The True Portrait of Women in Hebrew and Lahu Culture" (Master of Divinity thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1998), 64 - 65.

12. Aye Aye Win, "Women in Creation and Today" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1998), 55 - 56.

13. Eh Wah Hpaw, "Women's concern in University Christian Fellowship of Myanmar" (Bachelor of Religious Education thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1998), 15.

14. Kyi Kyi Aung, "Communicating the Women's Suffering for Change" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1994), 6.

15. Nang Thuzar Mon, "Victimization of Women in Kengtung Area" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1994), 42 - 43.

16. Mary Dun, "Woman: A Special Creation," SCM Women's Magazine, Vol. 1 (1998), 32 - 34.

17. Mary Dun, "The Image of Women in Myanmar Culture," In God's Image, Vol. 19, No.2 (June, 2000), 28 - 29.

18. Esther Danpongpee, "Karen Stories of Creation," PTCA Bulletin, Vol. 13, Nos. 1&2 (December, 2000), 76.

19. Kying Nang, 23. See also, Ola Hanson, The Kachins: Their Customs and Traditions 109.

20. Kyi Kyi Aung, 7.

21. Doris Paul, "Life of Akha Women" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1997), 18.

22. Kying Nang, 52.

23. Biak Tha Hnen, "Revisioning Lot's Daughters: A Feminist Critical Reading of Gen. 19:1-9," MIT Annual Magazine, 2001 - 2002, 37-39.

24. Htoo Htoo, "The Book of Ruth for Today" (Master of Divinity thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1994), 46-47.

25. Kathleen James, "Women and Poverty: From a Myanmar Theological Student's Perspective." (Bachelor of Religious Education thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 2001), 22-23.

26. See Anna J. Allot, Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors (New York: PEN American Center, 1993)

27. Khin Than Soe, "Women of the Exodus and Wilderness Wandering" (Bachelor of Religious Education thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1995), 5 -17.

28. Ibid., 26-27.

29. Ma Tin Win, "Maternal strength," New Light of Myanmar, 19 June, 2005, 7.

30. Anna May Say Pa. "Women Liberators of the Exodus Story," Thamar Alin, Vol. 1 (1995), 9.

31. Hsi Yardar, "Reading the Bible from the Women's Perspective" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1996), 43.

32. This is a reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the 1990 elections but has been denied the right to form a government. 33. Khin Than Soe, 30.

34. Deborah Ling, "Deborah: A Woman Judge and Prophetess" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1999), 54.

35. Nang Thida, "In God's Image: Bible Studies on Women in the Bible" (Master of Divinity thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1991), 31.

36. Doi Ra, "The Life of Gurkha Women in Myanmar" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1994), 33. 37. Deborah Ling, 36.

38. Khin Than Cho, "Judith: Role Model for Women Leadership" (Bachelor of Religious Education thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1995), 5.

39. Ibid., 12 - 15.

40. Lucy Po Ba, "For Such a Time as This," MIT Annual Magazine, 1996 - 97, 50.

41. Doi Ra, 33.

42. Huai Man Cin, Jesus' Attitude to Women in the Gospels, In God's Image, Vol. 19, No.2 (June, 2000), 17.

43. Esther Khaing Oo, The Woman who Touched Jesus's Robe, Mark 5:25 - 34, Myanmar SCM Women's Magazine, Vol.1 (1996) 32 - 45. See also her "Theological Inconsistencies regarding the Ordination of Women in the Baptist Ministry in Myanmar," In God's Image, Vol.19, No.2 (June, 2000), 31 - 32.

44. Hsi Yardar, 50 -51.

45. Esther Kyaw, "The water of life, John 4: 1 - 42," (In Bama), Sermon Notes for Women, 1995, 20-21.

46. Nyo Zin New Tin, "The new woman," (In Bama), Sermon Notes for Women, 2004, 38.

47. Women's Group, "Our Friend Jesus," (In Bama), Sermon Notes for Women, 2000, 25.

48. Moo Soe, "Only Women," (In Bama), May Shu Daung, Vol. 1 (April, 1995), 4 - 5.

49. Lyn Lyn Ju, "Empowered by Brilliant Women in the New Testament" (Bachelor of Theology thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology, 1997), 15.

50. Eh Tar Gay, "An Asian Feminist Reading of 1 Timothy 2:8 - 15," a paper presented to Doing Theology Under the Bo Tree seminar, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, July, 2004, 6.

Citation: Anna May Chain, " Wives, Warriors And Leaders: Burmese Christian Women's Cultural Reception Of The Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2005]. Online:


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