A CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT
Asia is not a Christian continent. In some Asian countries less than 1% of the people are Christians. How, then, can the YCW (which claims to be a movement for all young workers) also be a ‘Christian’ movement? Is it a movement of evangelisation inviting membership of non-Christians with the aim of converting them? Or is it perhaps a movement that only calls itself Christian but, in reality, gives so little regard to Christ that it does not merit the name Christian?
We must be clear in saying that the YCW is not an evangelising movement in the sense of aiming to convert non-Christians to join the Catholic religion. The primary characteristic of the YCW is that it is a worker movement. Its sphere of action is the world of work. It begins with the worker situation rather than with dogmas or beliefs. The Christian characteristic of the YCW, we believe, belongs more to the realm of vision, orientation and motivation than to the area of fundamental objectives.
How then does the YCW live out its Christian characteristic in an Asian, non-Christian context? The question could be answered in many ways. I would like to answer it by pointing out several themes widely used in Asia Pacific YCW. These themes have a special meaning and relevance because of our Asian context and because of some characteristics that are definitively Asian.
Respect and esteem for Jesus
Jesus Christ is, of course, a person rather than a religion. He was born into a poor worker family and, as the Gospels tell us. He gradually grew in wisdom and strength. He lived in a specific political, social, cultural and economic context and this affected him. He clearly recognised that his mission was a response to these things. The Gospels are clear that he continually spoke about life, took examples from life, and explained his truths through parables from life. He is not an unapproachable or alien figure.
YCWs are often very moved to realise that Jesus spent the whole of his life as a young worker. He was only 33 years old when he died. In many special ways he truly was ‘one like us.’ He worked as a carpenter for many years. He faced worker problems and took clear options.
He had a method as well as a vision. He was not just a politician with a cause, or a teacher with a set of truths. Instead, he seemed to need and he certainly worked, to achieve love and solidarity. Read the Gospels as a young worker and you can find in him one who could be hero or leader.
And when it came to the end, He died as he had lived. To mention only a few things: he wept over Jerusalem, stopped off to visit his friends Mary and Martha, drove the mercenary dealers from the temple, organised a last supper with his friends, pleaded for their support in the garden. He got help from Simon to carry the Cross, and finally he forgave the thief who hung beside him. It is possible to love such a person.
This respect and esteem for Jesus gets a unique flavouring and impetus from a distinctive Asian characteristic – their sense of history and their depth of history. Asia is, and perceives itself as being, very old. They respect age and believe that age is the time of wisdom. They respect and revere their ancestors. They easily recognise Jesus as one of the ancients and a wisdom figure. They approach the Bible and the Gospels with reverence and candour.
This attitude can be compared with Western societies who tend to view the aged as weak and frail people who come from a primitive past when there were no computers or even TVs. Their stories, therefore, may be interesting or even occasionally thrilling but they are of no special value for learning to cope with the problems of the present.
I have sat in a group of Buddhist young women talking about their struggle in the union and one of them will point at the crucifix on the wall and say: “Tell us again the story of how he died.” All of them stop talking to listen. And when I have finished another will say: “Tell us the story about when he met the prostitute.”
Details greatly interest them. “How old was Jesus then?” they ask. So, Jesus was only thirty years old, a poor young worker who slept in the streets, surrounded by his gang of fisherman friends, when he confronted Mary Magdalen. He was not an older man wrapped in a clean white garb with a halo around his head. He fitted into that crowd. He truly was “one like us in all things but sin” – and that is important. That means he can be imitated. It means he can be loved.
Such stories, they seem to believe, belong in the world and are revelations of a great wisdom, they are about spiritual things. But such stories, they also seem to believe, are a bit like poetry. They say more than can be put into words and there is no one definitive way to interpret them. It reminds me of what St Thomas said: “We cannot say what God is – we can only say what God is not.” No human words can measure God.
This non-Christian following of Jesus is not something superstitious or confined to the ‘simple.’ Some of the greatest Hindu intellectuals define themselves as ‘Hindu Christians.’ Many Muslims recognise Jesus as a great prophet. It is based on who Jesus is (as revealed by the goodness and wisdom of what he said and did) rather than who he is as the Son of God. It is coloured by the traditional respect for the goodness and wisdom of the ancients, and the belief that they possessed deep truths and wisdom that are more important than modern inventions.
The deepest meaning of life
When we talk about the meaning of life, we are talking also about the things that motivate people; the things that give meaning to life, the things that people will strive to attain. This is a subject of great interest to psychologists who want to understand human behaviour, to advertisers who have things to sell, and to employers who want to motivate employees to work. Not unnaturally there have been many books written on the subject.
Perhaps the most famous way of presenting a picture of what motivates people is the ‘pyramid’ attributed widely to Abraham Maslow. The pyramid depicts a hierarchy of human needs – from the physiological to self-actualisation needs. The thought is that people start from the ‘lowest’ needs at the base of the pyramid and progress upwards. As they progress upwards, they may be willing to forego ‘lower’ needs to attain the higher, e.g. A person may be willing to forego needs for sleep (physiological) to attain self-actualisation needs.
The ‘pyramid’ has value as a simple schematic method of presenting human needs. As a schema of human motivation, however, the pyramid has many limitations. It is too simplistic, and it ends in an apex as though self-actualisation is the summit of human motives. It gives no room for the higher aspirations of human life.
At the basis of all human motivation is the desire to be happy. A hungry person is not a happy person, but food alone will not provide the answer. As Schumacher has said “To progress in the quest for happiness we need to move higher, to develop our highest faculties, to gain knowledge of the higher and highest things and, if possible, to ‘see God.’ If we move lower and develop only our lower faculties which we share with the animals, then we make ourselves deeply unhappy, even to the point of despair.”
Western society finds it more difficult to be comfortable with these concepts as matters of truth. Following Descartes (the ‘father of modern philosophy’) they consider religious truths and spiritual concepts to belong to the area of ‘beliefs’ not truths. Following Bentham, they claim that the ‘good’ is identified with the ‘useful.’
This, however, is not characteristic of Asian society. In Asian society there is a sense of religiousness or spirituality, a religious outlook on life. Life is not only what appears on the surface. Life has a meaning and a purpose. Things in life are symbolic. They have their own meaning but point also to deeper meanings. Something that has this character of symbol in large measure has a truth more important than historical or scientific truth and is respected as such.
I was in the state of Kerala, India for the period of the Onam holidays. I asked them what is the meaning of these holidays. “Oh,” they said happily, “Onam is a myth – just a story but it has a deep meaning for us. We, Keralites, love Onam.” I asked them to tell me the story and this is what I remember.
There was once a king in these lands who was a great and wise man. He ruled his subjects with wisdom and justice. No corruption was seen in the land and people were given knowledge of all that was happening quite openly. This, in India, was a paradise and the subjects were happy and contented. The king, however, was so successful and his people so happy that the other kings were jealous and wanted to get rid of him.
They went to the Lord of Creation and asked his help. The Lord of Creation agreed to help them. He appeared to Onam in the form of a small Brahmin boy. The Brahmins are the highest caste in India, and it is said that an appeal from a Brahmin boy must be obeyed. The boy asked Onam for as much land as he could measure in three steps and Onam agreed.
Immediately the boy increased in stature till he was bigger than the largest mountain. He took one step and he measured out all the earth. He took another step and measured out all the heavens. There was now no place to make his third promised step – so Onam bowed his head and told him to make the step there and push him down to the nether world. But, before this happened, he asked to be allowed once each year to return and see his former subjects.
So, each year the people from Kerala travel home to feast and celebrate. What? A myth? Yes, but something much more than a myth. Onam and his story are a symbol and hold deep truths about values and how to live. It is not a concern that the story is not historical. It is true in a deeper way. It opens the veil between appearances and the deepest meaning of life. It is in some way a religious story.
Western society tends to view stories in another way. Sometimes you will see a crowd streaming out of a theatre with tears streaming down their faces. “Oh, it is so sad,” they say. But if you see the film you find that it is not really so sad and that, in fact, the tears begin with the happy ending. Such stories are usually about human values. The situation faced in the film strikes a chord in the hearts of the viewer. The tears come not from the situation of the people in the film so much as from the personal experience of ‘what this means to me.’
Western society tends to define these tears and this experience as pleasure. “It is a great film. You will enjoy it very much.” Asian society on the other hand defines their stories as truth or wisdom. A good storyteller is not an entertainer. They are a wisdom figure who opens the door between material things and the deepest meaning of life.
The redemption of work
The term ‘redemption’ has been chosen in preference to ‘liberation’ for a reason. Liberation can mean simply getting rid of an oppressive system. Redemption includes a struggle to restore the true dignity of work. It is a theme that is of great significance in the Bible.
The first book of the Bible shows us an experience and vision of ‘good work.’ God is presented as a worker – creating the world. At the end of His week’s work, the Bible says, God rested from his labour.
“On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.” Gen. 2:2-3.
Note that the word ‘work’ is repeated three times to give it importance and to present God’s work as a model for human work. God works freely, expressing Himself in the world. It is a work that produces something worthwhile. Seeing what He has done God says: “This is good.” His work is a source of enjoyment and contentment. And then when the work is successfully completed “God rested.”
The second book of the Bible shows us a different experience of work. One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on the heavy work with which they were burdened – and this is what he saw.
“The Egyptians set taskmasters over the people of Israel to afflict them with heavy burdens. They made them serve with rigour and made their lives bitter with hard service. in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field: in all their work they made them serve with rigour....
The same day Pharaoh gave orders to the taskmasters: You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks. Let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made heretofore you shall not lessen...So the people scattered abroad throughout the land to gather straw.
The taskmasters were urgent, saying: Complete your work, your daily task, as when there was straw. Then the foremen of the people of Israel were beaten and were asked. Why have you not done all your task of making bricks today?” Ex 5:6-8. 12-144
What is it that has made this work a burden and suffering? Firstly, this work is imposed and endured. It is not a chosen work. Secondly, there is too much work – a burden too great for the worker’s physical and spiritual strength. This causes bitterness and anxiety. Thirdly, the work is of no benefit to the workers but only to Pharaoh:
“Then the Lord said in Moses: I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them. Come I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my profile out of Egypt.” Ex: 3:7-10.”
It is because of the work situation that God intervened. Note that God is the active person. He says. “I have seen. I have heard. I know I have come down.” The workers are no more on their own in their problems. Liberation has begun. Read on and you will find that the liberation was not instantaneous. God sent Moses – there were many, many setbacks and difficulties. It was a struggle.
Over the years the telling of that story changed. When the Jews were in exile and worried about their future as a people, they told the story as though God came to liberate people because they were Jews. But the people were not all Jews, some of them were poor, landless, Egyptians (the Hebrews). Read the story and it is clear; it was not a nationalist struggle, but a class struggle.
This story, so central to the whole Bible, has great significance for us in Asia. All Asian nations are class divided; wealth and education are not well distributed. Structures of dominance and oppression are our situation. Even in the more ‘developed’ countries we experience imposed work, stress of too much work, and the indignity of working for things we do not own and things we are not proud to achieve. We are familiar with the problems of migrant refugee workers, oppressive foremen, landless farm workers, discrimination against women etc.
It is with these same situations that the Bible begins. In the struggle against this the people came across a God different from the gods of kings, landlords and generals who delighted to live in huge temples and elaborate grand liturgies. When the people began to struggle they discovered a God on the side of the poor and oppressed
The story of the methodology of that struggle for liberation or salvation is developed throughout the Bible. It has its fulfillment when Jesus came as the new Moses. What were the situations in Jesus time that really offended him? Do they have relevance to Asia and YCW in Asia today? We look at these questions in the next chapter.