Outlining Rice-Roots Theology

by Deane William Ferm

Dr. Ferm is dean of the chapel at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 25, 1984, p. 78. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Liberation theology, although especially provocative, is little known to Western readers. The three continents of South America, Africa and Asia share liberation theology’s public enemy number one: the appalling political, social and economic oppression which has led to extreme human degradation.

Third world liberation theology has grown rapidly in the past decade – a phenomenon which most of us associate with Latin America and the prominent names of Gutiérrez, Segundo, Boff, Miguez Bonino, Miranda and others. We often overlook the fact that Africa and Asia are producing an impressive cadre of liberation theologians who deserve an equally wide hearing as they reflect their own indigenous situation.

I find Asian liberation theology especially provocative, but the least known to Western readers. To be sure, the three continents of South America, Africa and Asia share liberation theology’s public enemy number one: the appalling political, social and economic oppression which has led to extreme human degradation. In the underdeveloped areas of Asia more than 85 per cent of the population lives in abject poverty. While the peoples of all three continents have endured bitter confrontations with European and North American colonialism and are still suffering from the consequences, the religious situation in Asia is unique, with several major living religions augmenting the differences among the indigenous peoples.

Latin America does have native religions that predate Christianity -- a fact which its liberation theologians have yet to take seriously -- but Roman Catholicism is clearly the dominant faith. To their credit, African liberation theologians have been far more aware of the strong native religious roots competing with Islam and Christianity. But in Asia we find Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and other faiths in their almost infinite diversity. For the most part Christianity is a small minority faith (the Philippines is an important exception); less than 3 per cent of the Asian population is considered Christian.

It is ironic that Christianity, with its roots in the Middle East, has come to be considered by most contemporary Asians as a foreign religion, a product of Western colonial expansion (there are some important exceptions -- the Orthodox churches, for example). In recent decades the growth of anti-Western feeling throughout Asia has meant that Christianity has had to dispose of its Western baggage and leadership, and to develop forms more palatable to an Asian population. U Ba Hmyin of Burma set the future course clearly at the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi in 1961 when he said:

No theology will deserve to be called ecumenical in the coming days which ignores Asian structures. It may use the term “ecumenical,” but it will really be parochial and Western only.

As we list here several contemporary Asian theologians of liberation (there are many more) who are forging theologies unique to their own particular situation, we should remember -- as these individuals keep reminding us -- that Asia is a many-splendored continent and that, despite features common to all liberation theology, each country (and even some regions within a country) must have a theology built to its own cultural specifications.

Let us begin with Kosuke Koyama. Japanese by birth, Koyama has spent most of his ministerial and teaching career in Thailand and later in New Zealand. He has served as dean of the Southeast Asia Graduate School of Theology and at present is professor of ecumenics and world Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The book Waterbuffalo Theology (Orbis, 1974) is Koyama’s explication of theology for Thailand. Its title makes clear the author’s theme:

On my way to the country church, 1 never fail to see a herd of waterbuffaloes grazing in the muddy paddy fields... . It reminds me that the people to whom I am to bring the gospel of Christ spend most of their time with these waterbuffaloes in the rice field. The waterbuffaloes tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence-structure and thought-development. They remind me to discard all abstract ideas. and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible. “Sticky-rice,” “banana,” “pepper,” “dog,” cat,” ‘bicycle,” “rainy season” . . . these are meaningful words for them.

Koyama wants to articulate a “rice-roots” theology “from below,” one that comes out of the everyday experience of the farmers of northern Thailand. For these people the style and pace of life are radically different from those of most Westerners, a point which the author develops in Three Mile an Hour God (Orbis, 1980). He distinguishes between kitchen theology and living-room theology, the former an indigenous praxis-oriented way and the latter the typical missionary theoretical approach. For Thais theology takes place

while they squat on the dirt ground. and not while sipping tea with missionary friends in the teak-floored shiny living room. When I peep into the kitchen of their theology, the theological situation I see there is unique.

Koyama also sees a need for Christianity to strive for positive encounters with the other religions of Asia. In Three Mile an Hour God he notes how Christianity has for too long exhibited a “teacher complex,” adding that “one-way-traffic Christianity is an ugly monster.” Christians should learn from the Buddhist Bodhisattva symbolizing compassion and mercy, one who is willing to postpone personal salvation for the sake of others.

Another important Asian theologian is Choan-Seng Song. Educated in Taiwan, England and the United States, Song has served as principal and professor of systematic theology at the Taiwan Theological College and as an executive of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission in Geneva. In his book Third-Eye Theology (Orbis, 1979) he focuses on the image of the third eye in the teaching of the Japanese Zen master Daisetz Suzuki, who suggests that the aim of Zen Buddhism is to open up a vision of life that is usually clouded by our ignorance, a vision that will enable us to see ourselves as we truly are. Song uses this Image as a way for Christians to see Christ through Asian eyes, a way more intuitive than conceptual, more from the heart than from rationality.

Song also speaks of a “theology of the womb,” a theology of liberation which affirms the new life struggling to be free:

As a mother commits herself totally to bringing into fruition the seed of life within her, so Christians must be committed to the emergence of a new world in which light prevails over darkness, love overcomes hate, and freedom vanquishes oppression.

This “theology of the womb” imagery is effectively portrayed by Marianne Katoppo of Indonesia in her book Compassionate and Free: An Asian Women’s Theology (Orbis, 1980).

In The Compassionate God (1982) Song develops what he calls Chuang-tzu theology. Here he contends that just as Chuang-tzu tried to perceive the nature of reality from the perspective of fish or butterfly, so, too, should Christians seek to transcend the boundaries of history, religion and culture to develop deeper contacts with the mysterious ways in which God operates. “Such a theology,” he writes, “calls for a sensitivity that can respond creatively to vibrations coming from the depth of the human spirit outside the familiar realm of everyday life.”

Another of Song’s hooks, The Tears of Lady Meng (1982), presents a parable for political theology. Lady Meng, in her agony and tears, redeems the brutal death of her husband by denouncing the wicked emperor and sacrificing her own life. Similarly, the Asian oppressed, who also weep, must find in their experience the power that will unite them in their struggle against injustice.

One of South Korea’s foremost liberation theologians is the poet Kim Chi-Ha. In and out of jail for the past decade, he strives to make the figure of Jesus real in a Korean setting. His story “The Gold-Crowned Jesus” portrays Christ as an inert figure of gold imprisoned in concrete by his political and religious oppressors. A leper, the advocate of the oppressed, tries to liberate Jesus by removing the gold crown from his head, and Jesus encourages the leper, pleading:

My power is not enough. People like you must help to liberate me. . . . Only those, though very poor and suffering like yourself . . . can give me life again. . . People like you will be my liberators.

But in the end the forces of oppression from both church and state restore the gold crown to Jesus’ head, making him once again their prisoner.

On a parallel course is the Indonesian theologian Albert Widjaja, lecturer in economics at the Institute Oikoumene, in that country. He makes an important distinction between “theological begging” and “beggarly theology.” The first phrase, typical of most previous Asian theology, suggests the practice of imitating and borrowing from established Western theologies, assuming that they are normative. The second phrase emulates the spirit of the beggar.

The true spirit of the beggar can be discovered when he encounters a garbage container: He faces the garbage with a sense of anticipation. He believes that something will come out as invaluable, even though the garbage as 8 whole is considered junk by the society [Living Theology in Asia. edited by John C. England (Orbis, 1981)1.

Beggarly theology identifies with society’s outcasts. It does not become subservient to established theologies, but seeks its own authenticity in the context of Asian oppression.

Like Widjaja, Jung Young Lee (born in North Korea and educated in the United States) provides an alternative approach to theology. In an article titled “The Yin-Yang Way of Thinking: A Possible Method for Ecumenical Theology,” Lee deplores the usual either/or perspective that is so much a part of Western categories of thought, one which sets up a discontinuity between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Instead, Lee argues, suppose that what is not true may be both true and false. Suppose that Christianity has both a negative and a positive impact on other religions (and also the reverse).

Echoing process theology, Lee asks us to dispense with absolutes altogether and admit the relativity of our judgments. In the I Ching is a cosmology that supports change and growth. The yin and the yang denote different categories of reality, each enriched by the other. It is not necessary to accept some of the ancient biases -- e.g.. yin equals female and passivity, yang equals male and activity -- in order to appreciate the both/and approach. which allows for diversity and richness of experience. In Lee’s words:

We need both the yin-yang and the either/or ways of thinking to carry out successfully the theological task. . . The effective method of theological thinking is possible when both yin-yang and either/or categories complement one another [What Asian Christians Me Thinking, edited by Douglas Elwood (New Day Publishers, 1976)].

In what can be only a brief sampling of Asian liberation theologians, I will mention a few more of the many others well worth reading. One is Tissa Balusuriya of the Centre for Society and Religion in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Author of The Eucharist and Human Liberation (Orbis, 1979), Balusuriya suggests the adoption of an action-oriented liturgy committed to revolutionary struggle -- a liturgy which unabashedly proclaims a dynamic relationship between the material and spiritual. Another is Samuel Rayan, dean and professor at the Vidyajoti Institute in Delhi, India, who stresses the need for a new theological language to give expression to the diverse experiences in the world’s religions -- a language that will evoke harmony in the human community.

A third is Bishop Francisco F. Claver of Bukidnon in the Philippines, whose book The Stones Will Cry Out (Orbis, 1978) consists of a series of poignant meditations addressed to the “Little People,” who must develop a strategy for action which he calls “the violence of the meek.” A fourth is Raymund Fung of Hong Kong, who reminds us in an article titled “Evangelism Today” (Living Theology in Asia) that we should singleout not so much the sinner but rather the one who is “sinned against,” the one who is exploited and oppressed. Compassion and liberation become possible only when we truly perceive the oppressed as the “sinned against.”

Finally, Stanley I. Samartha of India, who is director of the WCC’s program on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, sums up the new attitude toward other religions by asserting:

There is no reason to claim that the religion developed in the desert around Mount Sinai is superior to the religion developed on the banks of the river Ganga [Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism, edited by Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas Stransky (Orbis, 1981)].

We who live in the West should not, of course, adopt Asian theology wholesale; that would be the begging approach. The Asians’ imagery speaks to their situations; we couldn’t do much with waterbuffaloes and sticky-rice. But that does not mean that we have nothing to learn from them. Indeed, we should forswear forever the imperialistic “ugly monster” of the one-way teacher approach which has so deeply infected the Western attitude toward the Third World. We should formulate a “rice-roots” approach for the poverty and oppression within our own context (megatrend theology? computer theology? multinational theology?); we should develop our own Chuang-tzu sensitivity, our own concern for the “sinned against,” our own Bodhisattvas and Lady Mengs, our own yin-and-yang diversity, our own sensitivity to the mystery of the Other(s).

Perhaps in this way we can become full-fledged participants in an ongoing worldwide struggle for a full humanity -- an effort which will not only mean good news for the “underside of humanity” but will lead to our own liberation as well. And that, after all, is what Christianity is all about.