2019, Windows to a Wider Sisterhood

Finding Our Voices: Speaking Truth in a Context of Fear in Viet Nam

By Quynh-Hoa Nguyen, UMC Missionary in Viet Nam

As a woman working in a predominantly patriarchal and fundamentally communist society in Viet Nam, I see fear dominate both those with power and those without it.[1] People who wield power fear losing it, and those who are subject to power fear for their safety and well-being. I have struggled with teaching theology, as a woman, to address this issue and find a way forward through fear, to do right and be an authentic Christian social witness. I first present the sociohistorical context of this fear and then engage with the Exodus story, in which God acts in solidarity with the oppressed when they find the courage to give voice to their pain.

In the system that represses basic human rights, fear becomes a tool to control the populace and reinforce status and power. As popular Vietnamese journalist Huy Đức remarks, “The largest legacy that human beings receive from communism is fear. People fear from street security guards, policemen, to judges. Government officers fear one another and fear people.”[2] I see this fear in the systematic suppression of freedom of speech, opinion, press, and religion. I notice it in the increasing promotion of internet censorship and in crackdowns on peaceful dissenting voices and demonstrations. To an insecure government, “hostile and reactionary forces” seem to be present everywhere.

I see fear in the enduring silence of the people in the face of injustice. When I visit a government office, I see a young officer yelling at an old man who is as old as his father, a breach of basic Vietnamese respect for elders. In public hospitals, I see doctors, nurses, and staff blaming, scaring, intimidating, and ignoring patients. All of this is common. And it is all met with silence and endurance. Fearful people choose to give up their rights to dignity and justice.

It is unfortunate that this fear is also pervasive in church, particularly the evangelical churches that I have been familiar with. Characterized by male domination and power, churches are still deeply embedded in patriarchal thinking and structure. Among feminist circles, patriarchy has been understood as a complex pyramid of “interlocking structures of domination” rather than a merely sex-gender system.[3] The situation in Viet Nam is aptly described by a quote from John Bradshaw, used by bell hooks: patriarchy stands on “blind obedience . . . the repression of all emotions except fear; the destruction of individual willpower; and the repression of thinking whenever it departs from the authority figure’s way of thinking.”[4] These rules of patriarchy permeate the church where I have been working. To reinforce these rules, power has been centralized in one powerful man as the patriarch of the church, to maintain the patriarchal values and practices of subordination, submission, exclusion, and silence. Within this patriarchal structure, the authority figure operates as ruler rather than leader. Power, accordingly, becomes an end that he aims to protect rather than a means to serve. Fear of losing power is no doubt inherent in this system. I see this fear again and again in the suppression and exclusion of voices that challenge the unjust structure and the abuse of power.

Painfully, I see fear in the silence of Christians to social injustice. I saw it in the silence of Christians in response to the mass fish deaths in early April 2016. Tons of dead fish were washed up along the shores of northern-central Viet Nam, damaging marine life, hurting the lives of coastal residents, badly affecting fish markets and tourism, raising industrial pollution fears, and increasing the already present concerns about food safety throughout the country. It was caused by discharge of toxic chemicals from a foreign multibillion-dollar steel firm nearby. Many Vietnamese people, for the very first time, overcame their fear, and publicly challenged the government for its failure to respond and its previous support of the steel firm. The state-run media also picked up on the disaster. Protests with thousands of people, including Catholics, erupted in large cities, even though protests are very rare in Viet Nam.

Evangelical churches, however, were silent in the midst of the anxiety and anger over the massive fish kill-off. Not until mid-May did I hear a sermon relating to the disaster and calling for healing prayers for the environment and the affected people from a young local pastor. Other leaders in the church, however, tried to silence the preacher immediately after service.

More recently, June 2018 was marked with mass protests in Viet Nam, which have not seen for decades. Protests erupted across the country, over the weekend of June 9-10, against two prominent draft laws on the special economic zones and cyber security. The first law proposes to lease three new special economic zones to foreign investors, potentially Chinese investors, for up to ninety-nine years, which raises deep concern over China’s long-standing violation of Viet Nam’s sovereignty. The second law, which has been passed by the National Assembly, tightens the already present control of the people’s freedom of speech online, and their right to privacy. June protests are a sign of the people overcoming their fear and silence to protect their rights and their territorial sovereignty in the face of rising repression. Evangelical Christians, again, remained silent and invisible in one of the most historic days in Viet Nam’s history.

It is true that fear corrupts. As Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”[5] In my context, fear corrupts the leaders’ ability and power to love and serve. It also corrupts “the sense of right and wrong” (to borrow the words of Aung San Suu Kyi) among evangelical Christians, and keeps them silent about the things that matter.

Evangelical Christians’ silence on current social injustice can be read as a way of maintaining peace and remaining safe in the context where giving voice could be perceived as a potential source of troubles. Christianity is generally regarded as a threat to the national security, due to its association with the West and its political influence. Given the past, severe persecution and the vulnerability of Christians in Viet Nam, it is understandable that they are afraid of exposing themselves to a potentially dangerous situation. As a religious minority, making up approximately 2 percent of the country’s population, it could be self-destructive to risk outright confrontations. They choose to be silent in order to keep intact in the face of repressing power.

Evangelical Christians’ silence has also been informed by an otherworldly orientation, which signifies the early Christian worldview that was in tension with “the world.” Otherworldliness is often represented in the biblical concept of being “in the world but not of it” (see John 17:14-16). It has its roots in dispensational premillennialism that holds a negative worldview developed in the mid-nineteenth century in the U.S.[6] This orientation was adopted by Alliance missionaries, who first came and established churches in Viet Nam, with a strong stance on a sociopolitical non-participation in the world. Otherworldliness then made its way into the identity construction of evangelical Vietnamese Christians as it was incorporated into their first Constitution in 1928.[7] Deeply imbued with otherworldliness, Vietnamese Christians emphatically and overwhelmingly refuse to participate in the world.

Equally importantly, the dominant theology that everything happens by God’s will helps perpetuate and reinforce the silence. The theology implies Vietnamese Christians’ conviction of God’s sovereignty and trust in God and God’s plan for every aspect of life. At the same time, it discourages Christians from active engagement in social transformation. Embedded in this theology, Vietnamese Christians feel justified in accepting reality as it is. The concept of partnership of God and human beings in bringing about changes is unfamiliar to many.

Patriarchal hierarchy, sociopolitical vulnerability, and an otherworldly, deterministic theology have reinforced fear and silence among the evangelical Christians in Viet Nam.[8] This stance may work as a self-defense strategy to manage peace and safety in the presence of dominating power, particularly during the time of severe repression. But in the more open contemporary political environment, the same stance prevents them from speaking for their interests in the public sphere and from practicing and sharing their values outside their small communities. This presents a challenge to Vietnamese Christians to construct a theology that liberates them from their real fear to be able to speak truth and articulate their presence in the community.

Significant to this context is the need to break the silence to find the voice of the people. Who is God in this context of fear? Where is God in the midst of a long-standing psychology of fear, which has dominated both inside and outside of the church? How does God invite people to face their fear to “speak truth to power”? How can the Bible be read and engaged so that it becomes powerful for God’s liberating action in the world of fear? What I have seen and experienced in my years in Viet Nam convinces me of God’s response to human initiative. God invites people to take an initiative to interrupt silence and speak truth. God’s liberating power comes as a response to people’s courageous efforts to give voice to their pain.

The Bible offers powerful stories of people who overcome fear to break the silence. Given the ultimate authority of the Bible to Vietnamese Christians, finding a voice begins with informing Christians of biblical stories that provide them with resources to deal with their fear. Biblical stories, according to Wesley A. Kort, a scholar of religion, “undercut the distances between languages and cultures” and “provide a person or a people with identity and orientation.”[9] Biblical stories carry with them timeless and universal challenges, problems, and hopes of human beings. And they function as occasions for people to identify with human experiences that are consonant with their situations. This way, biblical stories grant people a world, a way of being that is workable in the world.

I see the silent slaves finding voice in the Exodus story most appealing to engage with the social experiences of Vietnamese Christians. The Exodus account shows that the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt lasted for generations, until they eventually cried out. Exodus 2:23 records, “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.” It was not until they broke the silence that the struggle for freedom from bondage began to be empowered. Their crying out was an eruption of their repressed rage and pain in the face of long injustice and ruthless power. Theologian Walter Brueggemann describes their cry as a “public outburst of unbearable pain on the part of the peasants who have been reduced to slavery” and “the grievance of every abused person who finally will assert, ‘I am not going to take it anymore.’”[10] Their cry of pain is the voice of truth coming from their actual daily experience of slavery. It is the voice of truth that speaks against exploitation and seeks liberation. This truth is spoken “from below,” from the powerless. This version of truth is subversive to the truth officially announced by the established power.[11]

Important to this initiative of breaking of the silence is that it evokes God’s liberating history with the enslaved and suffering people. The Exodus story begins with the people who are struggling for freedom and justice, who are daring to take a risk, who are ready to take the initiative to find voice to express their painful experience. The Bible says: “[T]heir cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exod 2:23-25). The story thus reveals that God hears and responds to the righteous cry of the oppressed when they voice their suffering. God takes human initiative and acts with them in their struggle against injustice. Human initiative is needed to evoke divine power in the struggle for justice.

I find in the Exodus story an alternative theology that challenges Vietnamese Christians to not only problematize their present context of fear but also embrace courage and freedom, to find voice, and to speak truth that has been silenced in the presence of power. To speak truth in this context is to address injustice, corruption, control, and domination created by patriarchy and communism. It also, necessarily, challenges the otherworldly deterministic theology that justifies fear and silence and reinforces status quo power. This truth, which is inseparable from the lived experience of evangelical Vietnamese Christians, has been kept hidden from public discourse.[12] It can be communicated in the public sphere only when Christians are ready to break the culture of silence with their liberative voice. I am hopeful that this very first step of women doing theology will begin a theological process of finding and empowering voices of truth hidden in the patriarchal churches in Viet Nam.

——-

 

[1] Quynh-Hoa Nguyen (PhD, Religion, Claremont Graduate University; MDiv, Claremont School of Theology) is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministry of The United Methodist Church, serving as director of leadership development in Vietnam. She is interested in scriptures and peoples, Christian identities, Vietnamese Christianity and society, and ethnography. 

[2] Huy Đức, “Đỉnh Cao của sự Sợ Hãi,” [The Peak of Fear] Blog Osin (blog), April 16, 2015, https://newosin.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/dinh-cao-cua-su-so-hai/

[3] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992), 8.

[4] bell hooks, “Understanding Patriarchy,” 2, Imagine No Borders,http://imaginenoborders.org/pdf/zines/UnderstandingPatriarchy.pdf, accessed November 2, 2018.

[5]Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear,” Third World Traveler, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Burma/FreedomFromFearSpeech.html, accessed June 10, 2016.

[6] Premillennialists considered the world a “wrecked vessel,” impossible to be socially reformed before Jesus’ return to establish his millennial kingdom. They urged a focus on “saving souls,” preaching the gospel to all nations, instead of concern with sociopolitical issues, before the imminent second coming of Jesus. See George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 85.

[7] Lê Phước Nguyên and Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Truyền Giáo, tập 1 [A History of Evangelism, vol. 1] (Garden Grove: Thần Học Phúc Âm, 1995), 124.

[8] Younger generations of Vietnamese Christians are, however, aware of the cost of silence and non-participation in the world. Growing up in the current, relatively open political climate, they have begun to challenge the traditional values of the church and articulate the need for incorporation.

[9] Wesley A. Kort, Story, Text, and Scripture: Literary Interests in Biblical Narrative (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 12, 19.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 28.

[11] Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power, 3.

[12] In his theory of public and hidden transcript, James C. Scott argues that to avoid jeopardizing their livelihood in power-laden situations, the powerless conceal truth that represents a critique of the dominating power. He calls this a “hidden transcript,” in contrast with the “public transcript,” which is safely declared openly. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

THEMES

2019 – Unity in the Church

2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ

2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel

2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church

2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations

2014 – Empowerment for All

2013 – What Next?

2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?

2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing

2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace

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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Editor: HiRho Y. Park

Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick

Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer