The history of the Karen people,has been interwoven with the Gospel for centuries – even before the first missionaries reached the area. Although the majority of Karens are still either Buddhist or Animist, they are often considered a “Christian”tribe.Most of the leadership of the Karen resistance is Christian. Some people even suggest they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. This is largely due to the Karens’ own traditional legends.
For centuries, the Karen people, the largest ethnic nationality in Burma besides the majority Burmans, believed that they had once possessed a “Golden Book” which contained the truth about life. This book had been taken by a younger white brother across the seas. One day, the young white brother would return with the book.
In 1795 a British diplomat from the embassy in Rangoon visited a Karen village, accompanied by a Burman guide. Immediately the villagers surrounded him and greeted him with delight, believing he was the white man returning their book. But the Burman guide became anxious when the Karen villagers started telling the diplomat that they believed that the white man, having given them the lost book,would set them free from all their oppressors. The diplomat was there to arbitrate a dispute between Britain and Burma, which Burma feared might cause Britain to invade,and he sensed his guide’s discomfort. “Tell them they are mistaken,” he said to the guide. “I have no acquaintance with this god called Y’wa. Nor do I have the slightest idea who their ‘white brother’ could be.” He returned to Rangoon leaving the Karen disappointed.
He recounted his story to his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Symes, who referred to it in his book, An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava in the Year 1795, published in 1827 in Scotland.
The English diplomat was followed in 1816 by a Muslim traveller who entered a remote Karen village. Although not a “white” man, he carried a holy book and the Karen wondered if he could be the one that they had been waiting for. He left a book, saying that it contained writings about God, and the Karens began to develop rituals venerating it. But then the Christians missionaries came.
The Karens’ traditional teachings are almost direct replicas of Genesis. As Donald Mackenzie Smeaton, a British missionary to the Karen in the nineteenth century, argues: “Their belief in the character and attributes of God is absolutely identical with the teachings of Christianity, and requires no modifications to make it a fully developed Christianity save the teachings of Jesus Christ as the Revelation of God and the Saviour of Man. ”They believed in one God, named Y’wa –close to the Hebrew name Yawei – and this God was the creator of the universe. They believed that man had fallen away from Y’wa, by eating forbidden fruit. An ancient Karen poem claimed:
Y’wa formed the world originally.?He appointed food and drink. ?He appointed the “fruit of trial”. ?He gave detailed orders. ?Mu-kaw-lee deceived two persons.?He caused them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial. ?They obeyed not; they believed not Y’wa ...?When they ate the fruit of trial, ?They became subject to sickness, ?aging and death.
Karen poems also claimed that the “all powerful” Y’wa had “the knowledge of all things” and had created man and woman. Y’wa created heaven and earth, and specifically, woman had been formed “from the rib of man”. Y’wa faced opposition from an evil power known as “Naw k’paw”. This “Naw k’paw” had once been a servant of Y’wa but had been cast out for insulting the eternal God. Naw k’paw continues in the world, striving to deceive people and cause death and destruction. Harry Ignatius Marshall explains that in Karen legends, Naw k’paw “is the direct author of evil and of the curse that has fallen upon the earth”.
There has been much speculation and debate over how the Karens developed these poems and legends, so akin to the Old Testament. The Karens believe their people originated in Mongolia,in an area they refer to as Htee Hset Met Ywa, which means “Land of Flowing Sands”. From there,they migrated south and were among the first settlers to enter Burma, in 739 BC. The Independent Karen Historical Research Association claims that the Karens left Mongolia in 2017 BC, migrated to East Turkistan where they stayed for 147 years, then to Tibet where they lived for 476 years, before going to Yunnan Province in southern China, and ending up in Burma.
Some suggest that the Karens were one of the lost tribes of Israel. If that is true, then they had got very lost – Kawthoolei is 4,000 miles from Jerusalem. Some claim that the Karens must have been influenced by the Jews, but Richardson points out that while there are striking parallels with the Old Testament, nowhere in Karen poems and legends is there an equivalent to Abraham or Moses, two of the most important people in Judaism.
It has also been suggested that the Karen met the Nestorian Christians in the eighth century AD. But a leading expert, Don Richardson believes this is unlikely, because if it had been so, they would surely have a story of the incarnation or a Redeemer dying and rising from the dead for our sins.
Richardson believes the Karen poems and legends, with their extraordinary parallels with Genesis, are difficult to explain away in worldly terms. “Could it be that Karen beliefs about Y’wa predate both Judaism and Christianity? Did such beliefs spring from that ancient root of monotheism which characterised the age of the early patriarchs? The answer is almost certainly – yes!”he argues. In which case,perhaps God had truly planted these seeds to prepare the Karen people for a direct relationship with Him.
Whatever the explanation, the background certainly made the missionaries’ task easier. In the nineteenth century missionaries travelled to all parts of the world to win converts for Christ. In many places, missionaries encountered resistance. Tribes in Africa and Asia resented foreigners arriving to persuade them to join a new religion, and many associated the missionaries with the less attractive aspects of colonialism and empire building. In much of Burma, the missionaries had a tough time.
However,when the first missionaries reached the Karen, they were greeted with open arms. The Karen, following their ancient legend about the young white brother with the Golden Book, told the missionaries that they had been waiting for them for several hundred years. They were glad to get their book back.
The first missionary to the Karen was the American Adoniram Judson who with his wife Ann, set sail for India in 1812. In Calcutta, they met with the British Baptist missionary,William Carey. Despite Carey’s attempts to dissuade him the Judson’s left for Burma. Ann gave birth to her first baby, during the voyage, but tragically, the baby died and had to be buried at sea. When they finally reached the capital Rangoon, they were met by the sight of “a squalid, unspeakably filthy village, whose uncivilised life had been utterly untouched and unsoftened by western influence.”
The Judsons’ time in Burma was eventful. Judson obtained a printer and press and started publishing New Testaments and tracts in Burmese. He developed a zayat, a Buddhist style meditation room on a main street,where he could hold meetings and teach Burmese people the Gospel in a way which was not alien to them. This helped to break down barriers. After six years, they won their first convert, Maung Nau. Judson wrote in his diary on 27th June, 1819:
We proceeded to a large pond, the bank of which is graced with an enormous image of Buddha, and there administered baptism to Maung Nau, the first Burman convert.Oh may it prove the beginning of a series of baptisms in the Burman empire, which shall continue in uninterrupted succession to the end of time!
But their work was fraught with danger. Judson tried to appeal to the Emperor to allow religious freedom but the Burmese Emperor refused. This led to increased persecution of Christians. When war broke out between the British and the Burmese, as a result of Burmese raids on East India Company territory, Judson and other foreigners were imprisoned.
On one occasion Judson, pitifully weak and emaciated, was driven in chains across the burning tropical sands, until, his back lacerated beneath the lash and his feet covered with blisters, he fell to the ground and prayed that the mercy of God might grant him a speedy death.” For almost two years he was jailed in terrible conditions, chained and in stocks. From his rat-infested cell he watched as other prisoners were taken out to be executed and wondered what his own fate would be. Somehow Ann remained free, and gave birth to another child.
Before his imprisonment, Judson had been translating the Bible into Burmese. Ann was instrumental in preserving the manuscripts from being destroyed. She hid them in a pillow, and brought the pillow to Judson in prison.When disaster almost struck and a jailer took the pillow for himself, Ann made a prettier pillow and offered it to the jailer in exchange for the original one. “Many times,” writes Harrison, “smitten down with disease and at death’s door, he breathed out the prayer, ‘Lord let me finish my work. Spare me long enough to put thy saving Word into the hands of a perishing people.’
What a day of rejoicing it was when the Word of God came off the press with its stupendous invitation: ‘Whosoever will, let him take the Water of Life freely’.
Ann shared her husband’s gift and passion for Bible translation, and learned the Thai language, then known as Siamese. She became the first missionary to translate a portion of Scripture, the Gospel of Matthew, into Thai. In 1826 peace was restored, but Burma was more closed than ever before. However, the Judsons persisted with their missionary work. Although it was slow and challenging, they never gave up. When a member of the Mission Board in America wrote criticising their lack of conversions and enquiring about the opportunities ahead, Judson replied:“The prospects are as bright as the promise of God.”
Judson reached the Karens on his travels around Burma, and in 1828 the first Karen conversion took place. Ko Tha Byu had been sold as a slave in a market in Moulmein, to a Burman Christian. The Christian brought Ko Tha Byu to Judson and asked Judson to share the Gospel with his slave. Ko Tha Byu had been a bandit who had participated in about 30 murders and was a hardened criminal with an ungovernable temper. But then he discovered the Bible, and began to wonder if this was the lost Golden Book. Patiently and prayerfully, Judson shared the love of Christ with this former robber, and it began to make sense. Ko Tha Byu was transformed, and became not only the first Karen convert, but also their first missionary and evangelist, known as ‘the Karen Apostle’.
He was baptised in Tavoy by Reverend George Boardman. The conversion of Ko Tha Byu had a profound effect on the Karen people. Their hearts were already prepared as a result of their story of the Golden Book and the white brother and so when Ko Tha Byu told his people that the white brother had 50 a land without evil returned with the book that they had been expecting, hundreds of Karens converted. Within 25 years there were 11,878 baptised Karens.
By 1858, Karen Christians were starting missionary work themselves, to other hill tribes, such as the Kachin in northern Burma. They found the Kachin just as receptive as they themselves had been, for the Kachin also had a monotheistic tradition and a legend of lost sacred writings. The Kachin and the Chin are now 90 per cent Christian. For Judson, missionary work meant very simply an effort “to seek and to save the lost”.
He died in 1850, leaving 63 churches in Burma and 7,000 Christian converts. He was, as it is claimed in The Life and Work of Adoniram Judson, “indirectly responsible for the fulfilment of the Karen legends and provided for them their lost book, the Bible”.
Adapted from the first chapter of ‘A Land Without Evil’ by Benedict Rogers published by Monarch Books in conjunction with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, ISBN 08254 6059X £7.99 The rest of the book tells about the persecution and ethnic cleansing the brutal military regime in Burma is inflicting on the Karen people and gives testimonies of faith and courage of Karen Christians still suffering today .
Sources: • Don Richardson, Eternity in their Heart, • Donald Mackenzie Smeaton, The Loyal Karens of Burma • Harry Ignatius Marshall,The Karen People of Burma, • Eugene Myers Harrison, Apostle of the Love of Christ in Burma, originally published in Giants of the Missionary Trail • Robert Bradshaw, The Life and Work of Adoniram Judson, Missionary to Burma, published on his website.