New Strategies for Ecumenism

by Dr. Peter K.H. Lee


Preliminary Remarks

Let me begin by saying that even though I am not a URM man as such, I am not an activist by training, by profession or by temperament and I am not a frontline organizer, but I have been very impressed by the importance of URM work. Through Ahn and through your publications I follow your mission with great interest.

When Ahn asked me to speak to you, I did not know how I could be useful. I thought for a moment and decided that I would sit with you and say, "Alright, you are all engaged in a very important mission, now let us stand back a little and look at our work in perspective." Let us think a little bit deeper, in the midst of our service and busy activities, to examine and see the under girding assumptions of our actions. Let us look at our relation ships. And then let us see how we might plan our actions, step by step.

Let me say further that I am not a strategist nor an administrator. But if we think together, we can perhaps consider our priorities and the processes we need to go through. Perhaps, I thought, in this way I can be of some help.

I have chosen several headings to outline my presentation and they all begin with the letter P -- Perspectives, People, Power, Priorities and Processes. This should make it easier for us to remember. These subjects, as you can see, are fairly comprehensive. I doubt that I can cover all these. I will probably skip some lines in my outline and emphasize others and you may come back to these categories during the workshop. Not that I have any necessarily bright ideas, but my promptings might be useful in your discussions.

The title of my presentation is: "New Strategies for Ecumenism". I said a while ago that I am not a strategist. But perhaps we can all look at things in strategic terms.

When it comes to the word "ecumenism", I speak with a bit more confidence because I am an ecumenical-minded person and ecumenical theology is one of my fields of specialty.

I do not know about the word "new". Perhaps if we think together we can discover "new" things and if we do discover something new it will not only be my discovery but it will be the result of our joint efforts.


As I listened to this morning’s presentation, I kept thinking "Perspectives" is rightly plural. There can not be only one perspective in URM, but many perspectives. Hence, the need for us to dialogue with each other and with others whom we work with, to continue to delineate perspectives.

I would like to pick out an illustration about this plurality. Take the idea of ‘development’. I place the word in quotation marks knowing that this word is not acceptable to many people in this room. In Latin America, in the ‘liberationist’ context, this is an ‘out’ word. It was so in the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t know how acceptable the word is now, there or here.

The ‘liberationists’ rejected the word because it was a word imposed by North America and Europe -- imposing standards that deceived the Third World. Talk about growth and domestic product can be deceiving. Countries are growing in GNP but in reality, people are getting poorer as the rich get richer. Because of social and political structures, development did not trickle down to the poor, and so the liberation theologians rejected the notion of development and instead found radical change imperative. Some of them opted for revolution.

What about Asia? Is development an acceptable word? I think that it is a word that can be used in Asia. Some of you have to deal with this concept in any case. In parts of Asia, there is less of a stigma in the word, there is less of a colored perception because the Latin American neocolonial experience is not the same. In other parts like Sri Lanka and India, of course ‘development’ is a very touchy issue. Be that as it may, let us talk about ‘development’, divorcing ourselves temporarily from its emotional overtones.

I begin with the capitalist model of ‘development’ and take the case of the Four Little Dragons -- Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. These countries are supposed to have pulled off economic ‘miracles.’ I make the observation that these countries are somewhat under the influence of Confucianism. The designation is quite apt. ‘Dragons’ are a symbol of Chinese culture and so they link the economic miracle to the Confucian background to characterize these countries. The Four Little Dragons are capitalist models where private interest comes first and last. Of course within this model there are those who do some good, but society’s main orientation is private interest which is expressed in terms of ‘my interest’, ‘my family’s interest’, ‘my company’s interest’. People seldom think of ‘public interest.’ This model of development is quite successful, in fact phenomenally successful, in terms of gross national product, growth rate, etc.

But when it comes to the distribution of economic benefits, that is a different matter. When it comes to quality of life, that is something else. When it comes to equity, that is something else again.

This is the predominant model in the Four Little Dragons. It is being copied in Thailand and Malaysia and other countries. Alright, we don’t like this model. What are the alternatives? We who are concerned about justice and equality do not like this economic model very much. It is imperfect. Certainly, it has many, many problems. But what are our alternatives? What are our choices? Are there major options?

So let us move on to alternative models. What are the possible alternative models? Socialism? Socialism is failing. The socialist ideal is fading out in the light of the failure of socialism in practice. Some people still cling to the hope that China could be that socialist model. I know of friends in Sri Lanka who keep hoping that the Chinese experiment should not be ruled out. But China is going the capitalist route. I have been to China with my Sri Lankan friends and showed them around. They refused to believe their eyes, China is becoming capitalist.

If you want to know something about China, I don’t know a great deal, but I know something – socialism in China is socialism in name only. It is in fact capitalism, ‘with Chinese characteristics.’ It is the state capitalist and bureaucratic capitalist varieties. A very strange mixture, hybrid of many things. Certainly more people are seeking private interest. Government officials working hand in hand with local businessmen and foreign investors. All are interested with private profit. There are big and small entrepreneurs in China oriented towards capitalism.

If you look hard enough, as I did try once, you will find some possibly good partnerships between the state and foreign investors. There are partnerships between Chinese farmers and workers with technological and management partners. It is still very experimental and very highly volatile.

At this time, Chinese socialism is not a viable alternative to the capitalist model.

The other option is where Christians use opportunities that arise. ‘Liberationists’ seek radical transformation of society, that is one option. But very few people in the countries in the Four Little Dragons are serious anymore with this option. South Korea may be a little different with Minjung theologians still there, but I find many of them no longer seeking radical transformation. At least they are not as vocally radical as before. The structures are becoming more pliable. They are not as intolerable as they once were.

I suggest that the alternative is to make the most of the circumstances. The situations in the Four Little Dragons are not all that intolerable, not entirely unchangeable, as they once were. There is room for change. This is the way I would move. I am not suggesting that all of you move in this direction as well. I am just illustrating that changing situations demand changes in our perspectives and in our actions.

Ahn in his report said that we should help people make ideological choices. I do not think we are being asked to make choices between capitalism and socialism. These ideologies are not so clear-cut anymore. Socialism is fading. (And capitalism is not what it was.) I submit that we must look for other options. There is some room for making adjustments, for making changes. How large the room is, varies from country to country, and a lot depends on many factors. So I think URM is faced with this kind of need to chose.

Seizing opportunities is one option I offer. For example, housing is a very serious problem in Hong Kong. Most people are deprived of decent living conditions. Housing in Hong Kong reflects many social contradictions, discrepancy in income, discomfort and anguish of many. All these are wrapped up in the issue of urban housing. What can URM do about it? Can government do something about it? Can Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) do something about it?

To illustrate about these possibilities I will tell you about one of our activist ministers in Hong Kong. He went to see the governor the other day to talk about various things, including housing. Someone suggested that the activist minister should be appointed to the housing authority. There you have it. Housing is a major problem in Hong Kong. Urban living is a major concern of URM. Here is the opportunity for us to do something. Here we can do something.

In Singapore, they do a lot better. The government, the Social Welfare Department, the business sectors and others work together to provide better housing for people.

Another area would be medical insurance. I understand that both Taiwan and South Korea have recently adopted nationwide medical insurance systems. Is that right? I do not know how adequate the system is, but this is a great step toward improving people’s lives, through non-radical actions. So within capitalist models of development there are ways we can make ameliorations, and significant ones. We can move towards certain directions that do not entail overthrowing existing structures. We need not choose between revolution or submission to the status quo. There is room for making significant changes.

Another dimension I want to bring out is the cultural dimension. This is something that we often overlook. I have mentioned that the Four Little Dragons happen to be under the influence of Confucianism. Some sociologists argue that Confucianism has contributed to economic development in these cases. Some of course tend to over-simplify this issue but I think there is something to it. Confucianism can be a contributing factor, not the only factor but one of the factors. Confucian "this-worldliness" and the customary way of doing things through the family -- these are factors that make negative as well as positive impacts on the economy and on society.

I am not arguing in favor of Confucianism. I am just referring to this issue to make the point that cultural factors do figure in economic development. Japan’s work ethic is another case in point. This ethic has produced the Japanese economic success story. But it also is producing the opposite: it is destroying health, family and society. These are cultural factors that make Japan tick -- family loyalty, company loyalty -- they have both positive and negative aspects.

When we talk about economic development, we need to bear in mind cultural factors. Another example I would like to bring out is the Taoist holistic thinking. This is still fresh in my mind. Not too long ago I was writing something about the Taoist ideal -- Tai Ping (Great Peace). And I discovered on my own the profound insight embedded in it. Tai Ping is a holistic view of peace that involves the concept of freedom from inequity, freedom from inequality, freedom from inadequacy. Moreover, there is a certain perception of a wholesome way of communal living that has to do with the quality of life and wealth and productivity. This is a religious text little known to most people. When I stumbled on it, I found a gem buried in Chinese culture which the Chinese people should recover.

I suppose that in your countries too, culture plays an important role in development. I remember three decades ago, I went to Sri Lanka and heard of the Sri Lankan model of development in the words ‘Small is Beautiful.’ This was an assertion that we need not follow the American way of doing everything in a big way and can still be beautiful and happy with the small things.

When we talk about development, we ask where can a more positive and holistic view of development happen? I do not know your countries well enough but I suppose somewhere you have villages where holistic concepts of development are achieved to some extent. Perhaps we can study these experiences and make a project to learn from them in order to gain some principles which we can in turn transpose to other countries.

We should by all means try to develop a holistic view of development. It is not enough to have just a piece-meal view or orientation to our work. We need a wider view which can give us clear choices, directions and goals.


Going to the second category -- People -- we understand people as the vital, living human beings, who are behind abstract models and ideologies. They are the subjects of history, projects and movements.

We understand people as those who suffer, who hope, who are in struggle and with whom we are in solidarity. I would like to speak of people under three subheadings.

First, People, as people who are in suffering. They are people who are under oppression, who live under unjust systems. We know people in this kind of situation.

Secondly, people who are in the midst of struggle. These are people who are in the midst of conflict. But so what?

This takes us to the third point. These are the ones who are seen by us from a Christian perspective. People are seen from a theological dimension. They are People of God. I may not be a frontline organizer like many of you, who work with the poor and deprived, but I am not entirely out of touch.

One incident that challenged my theological perception of people was the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. Before that the students had been protesting against various evils and for more reforms. We normally think of Hong Kong people as self- centered, materialistic, who could not care less about other people. But before June 4, one million Hong Kong people marched in the streets in support of the students in Tiananmen. This is solidarity. This is being with people for a cause they all believed in. For two Sundays, I myself was out marching with them. And at times the mood and atmosphere was jovial.

And then came June 4 morning. I was listening to the radio. I heard that tanks had come out, crushing students. I woke up then and followed the news. I was crying and kneeling in my bed. And my wife couldn’t understand it. "Why are you crying? I’ve never seen you cry like this before," she said.

That was really being with people in suffering. It was as though we were suffering too. And during the next two weeks, there were mourning services for the victims. I went out there and there were Christians and other people mourning for the young students who had been crushed to death.

It was a very spontaneous movement, very genuine. There was one particular slogan which is typically Chinese which says -- "Mercy from Heaven, Compassion for People." It was not Christians who were saying this very deeply theological words. They were saying, "Heaven shows mercy on humanity, and let human beings have compassion on one another." And it was here that I discovered the meaning of the cross. The cross is the mediator. Christ suffering on the cross. Christ is the mediator between heaven and humanity. Christ is the one who shows, who embodies divine mercy on human beings. He is the one who gathers up human suffering and offers it to God. It was a very crucial moment in my own theological thinking. And I realized that the Christ on the Cross is a key to suffering in the world.

I am not saying that only through Christ can we find consecration, but for Christian people, I know I realize not only in my heart, that in the midst of suffering, there is that mystery. What I am saying is that it is not enough to say that people are suffering. If we are Christian believers we probe deeply and hold this at the centre of our faith. I am not saying that other people should see people in the light of our faith. But if you are working as a Christian, there is that theological, spiritual dimension in our work with people who suffer.

Now I want to go to people as resources. It was Mao Tse-tung who once said, "People are the most precious resources." I think he meant it. He thought that he loved the Chinese people. But actually, he looked upon the sea of humanity in the abstract. Actually, he was the great father figure. He thought that he could speak for all people, but in some ways he manipulated people. He in some ways, knowingly or otherwise, suppressed people. But people are the most precious resources and this is our Christian faith too, certainly.

Lest I sermonize too much, we can think in common sense terms. Once I was working with a Filipino friend. One Sunday we went to the Square. And we saw probably 50,000 Filipina maids there. And the Filipino man said, "What a waste of human resources. If we had built our own economy in the Philippines, we would not have come to a place like this." This shows what resources have been lost due to the economy.

How are resources developed? In Taiwan and Korea, resources are being developed more consistently and faster. They are being trained for skills for higher technology. There is more research going on which are designed to improve human resources. Hong Kong on the other hand is a great service center for electronics and computers, but there is little resource development. I am saying that human resources must be treated with utmost respect and consideration. It involves human brain, research, skills, ingenuity, creativity. The development of these resources spell the success of a developed economy.

In your work you must be dealing with developing human resources. You think of developing the creativity of your artists, scholars, writers. These are the raw materials you work with that you try to improve. You inspire people by dedicating yourselves to their total development. This is because at the centre of our faith we view people as ‘most precious. Other religions probably regard people in the same way -- as important resources. There are others that demean the person. They are demeaned through ideas or through religious practices.

We must have a spiritual basis for our belief in people and why we regard people as an important resource.

Finally, to People Power. I will divide this topic into two -- people power resisting oppression and people power to do good to humanity.

In 1986, I saw on TV the People Power revolution unfold in the Philippines, which toppled the Marcos regime. This was a memorable event I am sure. But as to whether People Power has done good to community, that is something else. But we can not underestimate people power in resisting oppression and in doing good to humanity.

I have other points here but I would rather skip to Economic Power and come back to people power later, if we have more time.


Economic power is a boon to humanity. This is a positive value not to be underestimated. You may think that it is strange that I talk like this praising wealth as a positive value. You need not tell that to the people in Hong Kong who love money. It is a positive value to pursue wealth, but to pursue wealth as an end in itself, to make money as God, this is idolatry. I do not mean that. What I mean is wealth as a blessing to humanity. It is not simply acquisition for self or family. It is a gift, a boon to community, but it is to produced by all and shared by all.

I dare say that very few people can think of wealth in these terms, both ideologically and realistically. Some theologians also tend to romanticize Luke 4 and the Beatitudes -- "Blessed are the Poor." We cannot romanticize poverty. That is not the whole story of Luke’s interpretation of "Blessed are the Poor."

Why do we work with the poor? We want to help them? Do we end there? We help them to where? To what? We work with the poor so that they will have abundant life. So that they can have adequate means for living. Not only that -- but to lead them to the reign of God, where there is abundance and joy. We do not lead people positively enough in that direction, I feel. Some of you might think, such a direction is too far away. But I was encouraged by this little research I have been doing on Tai Ping, way back before Christ was born. In Tai Ping, life has to do with the quality of life, productivity and creativity. Life is a gift from God. And if we go back further in Chinese philosophical and religious writing, we find the wonderful passages that stress abundant life, like a stream of flowing waters. This is God’s gift to people, to be shared by all.

Having said that, I quickly add that economic power is a snare to human weakness. And this is a danger that is not to be underestimated. In Hong Kong we always talk about prosperity, prosperity, prosperity. They mean prosperity for those who are already well to do. But now they are talking about prosperity for the people too, for people who have less income. Of course the rich do not realize that wealth can be a snare to human weakness. For example, Hong Kong’s economic elite, the financial elites, who also enjoy political power, have supported the British colonial government in the past. They benefited from this regime. Now China wants to work hand in hand with these financial elites, and so they are turning around and are now on the side of China against the British government! Where are they when the Hong Kong colonial government seeks for greater democratization? They are with China as they protect their privilege and wealth and economic power.

From economic power we go to political power. And I say in no uncertain terms that concentration of power (economic, political and military) is demonic. We have to say this emphatically. But then how do we deal with dictatorial, oppressive governments? This we have to face. I don’t have the answer but we have to continue to struggle. And I ask the question, is this a role that URM wants to play? This is for you to answer.

I turn around to say that there is a positive side to political power too. There must be a constructive way of channeling political power. And we come to need for democraticization.

Democratization doesn’t simply mean ‘one person, one vote.’ It doesn’t mean elections and voting for my candidate. That is part of it but not all of it. In fact it is only a superficial part of it. Democraticization involves looking at the whole structure behind it. It means that we should have representative government, public debate, distribution of power among branches of the government, channels whereby decisions can be executed, and many other things. We need an educated electorate. Democraticization requires a lot of work, it is to be developed into a culture for democracy.

It is an imperative for Asian countries to have democracy despite what Lee Kuan Yew said. This is the direction we must go. This does not mean that we must go towards the Westminister model or the Washington model. There are various ways. In Singapore, it is not completely a dictatorship. There are certain channels through which you can build an institutional base for the reasonable exercise of power and power to change.

Now we ask the question: is this the role of URM? If we have time I would like to talk about the Hong Kong experience but tonight Dr. Tso Man King will talk about it so I will not. But I will say this: Hong Kong is at a crucial moment in its history. Hong Kong will not have complete democracy until well into the 21st century. But Hong Kong can open itself up more and more and more. We can start taking the first steps in the next few years. Governor Patten is trying to move in this direction.

But China wants to crush this movement. It is doing so ruthlessly. And as I said earlier, the business community is taking the side of China and against more liberalization of the democratic processes. To me this is tragic. I believe that the business community can do something. Democracy is not anathema to development. It is in fact conducive to development. It is not simply formal democracy we need but democracy where you have rule of law, accountability, and where you have clean government. This is conducive to development. And the business community, if they will only speak up a little more for democracy, Hong Kong’s future can be a little bit more secure. Hong Kong will move backwards if there is no democracy. Investors will leave and trade will suffer. Hong Kong can become the show-window of China in the future. Democracy is an imperative in Asia and certainly in Hong Kong. But we cannot be a Washington type of democracy overnight. We can only take a few steps at a time.

And what about people power? I had better not say too much about it at this time, you will have much to share in this respect, I am sure. Ahn mentions people’s empowerment several times in his report. We want to take this seriously, but how? This is for you to discuss later.


I will not say too much about priorities except to list some questions for our reflection. How are our priorities determined? Do we determine priorities because we feel things to be urgent? Because so many people are affected by a certain problem or issue? Do we look at what we do in a longer-term perspective? Do we have long-range projects and not simply prioritize from year to year? I would like to add that it would be good to prioritize issues which lead to innovation. And so we choose projects which are more innovative.


Finally, I would like to talk about processes. There are many directions we can move in developing linkages. I marvel sometimes at the way URM manages to keep all processes going. There are only two people in the Hong Kong office. How do you hold all linkages and concerns together? You have to maintain relations with all kinds of people in all countries. Can you do it without sacrificing some relationships?

I just wonder whether we can work with Catholic organizations more. The Catholic Church has a good document in Populorum Pro gressio. There was some kind of a movement in the past. I don’t know how it is now.

We also have to work with other religions and peoples of other faiths. Religions can also take sides with the status quo but they have resources to draw from, both human resources and spiritual resources. What about other constructive organizations? Is there space in which we can work with non-Christian religious organizations? I have heard of a Catholic organization working with Thai Buddhist people in the rural area. This is one example.

The last point I would like to raise is the point of working with government agencies. You may think that in some countries this is impossible. But in Hong Kong and Macau, this is not totally impossible. Government has been a partner of the churches in the fields of education and social welfare. I hope that in the years to come churches and other religious organizations and branches of the government -- Education Department and the Social Welfare Department -- can work together. I mentioned a while ago that the governor recently indicated he may appoint an activist minister to be in the housing authority. This is an opportunity to make government a partner. Government cannot simply be dismissed as a barrier, as an adversary we have to oppose all the time. There are channels which are open to us which can further church involvement.

There is also work with Non-Government Organizations. I know that sometimes it is complicated to work with NGOs. But in Hong Kong not all NGOs are manipulated by the establishment. Some NGOs spring up spontaneously. I would like to mention two NGO movements which to me look important. One is the Women’s Movement groups and the other is the Green Movement groups. They do make an impact and there are opportunities in which we can link up with them.

Of course, we are aware that working with other groups who have a different perspective from us is difficult. Even working with 2-3 people is not easy. I am sure in your national contexts you know that working with many groups provides difficult relationships. But I would nevertheless mention working with these as a need for URM groups.

Thank you.

[This paper was presented at the 24th CCA-URM Committee Meeting, February 1993, Hong Kong.]