KARAI KASANG: Rebirthing the Non-Patriarchal Image of God in Kachin Culture by Zau Sam


This  post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Zau Sam is a first year MA student in Feminist Studies with interests in process theology, ecotheology, feminist and ecofeminist theologies.  He is ethnically Kachin (Jinghpaw) and from Myanmar (Burma). Zau is a minister at Yangon Kachin Baptist Church (in Myanmar) and Academic Dean of the Church-based Bible School there.  

Throughout our Feminist Ethics class, I have been thinking about Mary Daly’s concept of “Goddess” in her Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.  I don’t believe that there is any sound theological argument that the term “God” itself represents patriarchy. Theologically speaking, if we study the Bible systematically, particularly Genesis 1:27, it is unquestionable that God is associated with both feminine and masculine imagery.  God is imaged as both mother and father. In contrast to this nature, Mary Daly does not merely seek to erase masculine imagery from the term “God,” but the word “God” itself.  However, “Goddess” without the masculine imagery can no longer be the Perfect Goddess, just as “God” without the image of the feminine also remains imperfect.

As I see it, the problem lies not with using the term “God” itself, but how we understand and interpret God with our knowledge and languages. In short, we need not eliminate the word “God”—we need only change our traditional understanding of God.

It is also very important to see God through the lens of our own culture. Lee Miena Skye is right when she claims that third-wave womanism is always contextual. Skye contends that they cannot write for the wholeness of others whose context is different from their own in cultural, spiritual, social, political, sexual, economic, or gendered ways (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, No.1, 121). Here I would like to share the concept of God in my own Kachin culture, which is one of the minority ethnic groups in Myanmar (Burma).

The word for God in Kachin is “Karai Kasang.” The Kachin people believed that there is Karai Kasang, someone beyond this creation, since in the time of Nat worship (Spirit worship) before they became Christians. Karai Kasang did not demand anything from human beings. The Kachins did not give any offering or sacrifice to Karai Kasang. However, Karai Kasang is the merciful one who is always ready to help the people in need; to do justice if one does injustice to others; to stand on the side of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the weakest.  No one can see Karai Kasang. Karai Kasang is, thus, a spirit–the Great Spirit. The Kachin people do not call Karai Kasang father or mother because Karai Kasang is neither female nor male: Karai Kasang is beyond gender. Karai Kasang is not just transcendent but also immanent. So, for Kachin people, Karai Kasang is neither hierarchal nor patriarchal.

The Kachin tribes

But, the missionaries, particularly American Baptist missionaries, taught Kachin people to call Karai Kasang as Wa Karai Kasang, meaning “Father God.” They taught Kachin people to see God in patriarchal ways such as Male, Father, Emperor, Supreme King, and Lord. Thus, in this way, all the Kachin Christians have been indoctrinated for centuries by this misconception of God. The missionaries threw away the original concept of Karai Kasang and replaced it with a more Western concept of a patriarchal God.

Thus, in our quest for a non-patriarchal, non-hierarchal, and non-dualistic God, the Kachin people need to reformulate or rebirth their primal concept of God, Karai Kasang. Let me share my rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer in the light of God-language in my own Kachin context. In this prayer, I deliberately avoid the terms which have been influenced by patriarchy/hierarchy such as Father, Lord. I also intentionally avoid conceptualizing the “Kingdom” because of its patriarchal, authoritative, and hierarchal structure in favor of the “Kin-dom” with its emphasis on the kinship, interrelatedness, interconnectedness, belongingness, and othe oneness of all beings within the web of inter-being.

Our Prayer:

Re-writing the Lord’s Prayer in the light of God-Language

Karai Kasang, our mother and father,

Who lives among and in us.

For you gave birth and love both female and male equally,

You are worthy to be praised and honored.

Karai Kasang, your Kin-dom of love, peace, and justice is come,

Your will be done between women and men, girls and boys as it is in you.

Give us and fill us with foods of equal human rights,

Empower us to bear the fruits of the dignity of fully humanity.

Karai Kasang, do forgive our sin of discrimination against women and girls,

As we forgive to those who ignore the women’s human rights.

Do not let us bring into the temptation of oppression and exploitation of women and girls,

And save us and liberate us from such evil of social injustice.

Karai Kasang, for you are the ground and the fruitful vision,

You are the One who works and co-operates with us in the ongoing process of the universe,

And the truth, goodness, and beauty of yours are with us forever.

Amen!

Manau pillars: the symbol of Kachin identity



Categories: Christianity, Feminism, Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Feminist Theology, General, God-talk, Goddess Movement, Mary Daly, Race and Ethnicity, Scripture, Textual Interpretation, Theology, Womanist Theology

30 replies

  1. Very good post, Sam! I have a good friend (and former roommate) who is Burmese and is Buddhist, but in addition to temple also attends a Christian church with her husband and sees little problem for her worldview in doing so. Their two sons go to day care there, and also go to temple with her aunt and uncle. I have never asked her about her experience with Christianity in Burma, though she mentioned that her mother (who she has always been in contact with, but did not live with as a child) was Christian. I wonder if the missionaries similarly translated words for God in exclusively male terms. Nice photo of you, too, by the way! I look forward to reading more of your writing!

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    • Dear Jonathan,

      Thank you for your comments. It’s great to know you about your Burmese friend. The word for God in Burmese is “Pha-ya Tha-khin.” Burmese people call “Buddha” as “Pha-ya” meaning “enlightened one.” “Tha-khin” means “Master/Lord” which always refer to male. Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist missionary to Myanmar (then Burma), translated the Bible into Burmese. He could not find the word similar to the term “God” in Burmese because there is no concept of God (Creator) in Burmese. So, he finally tried to use the word “Pha-ya” which the Burmese people use for their Buddha. But he added “Tha-kin”, and since then we use “Pha-ya Tha-khin” for God in Burmese. Undoubtedly, the word “Pha-ya Tha-Khin” itself is patriarchal, hierarchical. In the concept of traditional Burmese Theravada Buddhists, “Only man can become Buddha (Pha-ya). Woman must reborn as a man if she wants to attain Buddhahood.” I hope I will have a chance to share with you more about the concept of “Pha-ya Tha-khin” in the future. Thank you.

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  2. This is an excellent piece that touches on many strains of non-Western theology (feminist, womanist, Kachin/Burmese) and invites the reader to explore further. Would it be possible for us to re-post this piece at our collaborative blogsite, GlobalTheology.org? Our aim is to create a common ground for different perspectives within the global church. Please contact us at submissions.globaltheology@gmail.com

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  3. What a lovely prayer!

    I am inspired by your description of Karai Kasang, the merciful one who does not demand anything!

    I don’t think you can let the Biblical God off the patriarchal hook so easily. Yes there are images of God in female or feminine terms, but Hebrew is a gendered language and in it “he” means “he” not “she.” Also, King which is more commonly applied to God than Father in the Hebrew Bible is not only a male image, but an image of domination. This is why Daly called women to leave that God behind, and she wasn’t simply mis-reading the text.

    Still I am inspired by what I would call your reading against the text out of your less or non-patriarchal con-text!

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    • Dear Professor Christ,

      I am really grateful for having your comments. Thank you very much for your thoughtful insights for doing non-patriarchal God in my own context. I am also reading your “Rebirth of the Goddess” which is one of the required text books in Dr. Reuther’s Feminist Theologies class for this semester.Your writings really awakened or enlightened me so far. Since I am a baby in Feminist theological studies, I still need to learn a lot from many feminist scholars/professors like you. Thank you!

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  4. Lovely you are so open, Sam, i feel a sweetness in your writing that is a stark contrast to the image of masculinity as domination created by football, et. al. in the good old U S of A.

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  5. That prayer is just delightful… original…. has lots of possibilities. Although I have never heard Burma mentioned as a paradise for women to live in, with or without western missionaries disrupting the language of god.

    I’m imagining football teams across America reciting this prayer before the televised games…hmmm :-)

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  6. Hello Hkau Sam,
    Nice to read your writing! I also hope that you will come up with more interesting writings!

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  7. So sweet the Lord’s prayer..

    Karai Kasang gaw, Karai=heavenly rai nna, Kasang= earthly rai, lahkawng kalang ta gum pyawn da ai langai re ai hku ngu? duality or trinity kun? relational being hku mung ngai mu ai le, Nang Kin-concern shalawm da ai majaw le?

    grau asan sha kri krai rai mayu nna le.. grai hkrak sai yaw..

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    • Dear Sayama,

      Thank you for your comments and big questions. I don’t see Karai Kasang as duality and to combine Karai (heavenly) and Kasang (earthly) do not mean “duality” because we cannot separate “Karai (heavenly or transcendent) from Kasang (earthly or immanent). It’s One and I agree with you that it is therefore relational being. Only then we can have the concept of the Kin-dom of Karai Kasang. Seeing Karai (heavenly or transcendent) separately from Kasang (earthly or immanent) will become “dualism.” Right? Thank you.

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  8. Dear Saya Zau Sam,
    I am very glad reading your new God-concept. It is a very insightful thought and Myanmar’s post-colonial view. We need to liberate Myanmar Christians from colonial concept of God. I feel very uncomfortable while all most of christians and churches in Myanmar exclusively use “father” for God. I think we worship “musculinity” not God. I appreicate Mary Daly and all feminists for their wisdom-way concept God that helps us to think “God” beyond “father” and liberate us from colonial ideology. For Myanmar context it is a radical change. You are a distinctive male among the Kachin who is able and daring to disclose feminist insights. As you know to be a feminist in Myanmar is a great challenge for us as patriarchy is so dominant and hierachal. I am glad to see a Myanmar man as a feminist theologian.

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    • Dear Sayama,

      Thank you so much for your comments and compliments. Yes, I believe that it is my “calling” to be a feminist for the liberation of both men and women from the colonization of patriarchy/hierarchy in our country. I know this “way” is risky, tough, and challenge but we have no choice. I believe that there will be HOPE for our FUTURE of Myanmar women, not too soon.

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  9. Hope where there was no hope.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2011/11/18/world/asia/myanmar-suu-kyi-profile/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

    Aung San Suu Kyi free and running for election.

    Maybe former government officials would like to try your prayer on for size too!

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    • Dear Professor Christ,

      I am very happy that you attached the recent CNN news about my hero Aung San Suu Kyi. Thank you for that. I totally agree with you that “HOPE where there was no hope” in Myanmar. The visit of Hillary Clinton to Myanmar will not just for the transformation of Democracy but also for the reformation of women’s rights in our country. I also hope that, probably, after the meeting of Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi, the feminist figure for all the people of Myanmar, something will be CHANGED for women’s human rights in Myanmar.

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  10. Sam – here I am, responding to your post at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, which is to say that I’m surrounded by thousands of scholars of religion as we speak. And all yesterday, all I could think of was the fact that your blog remains the most insightful, original, beautiful, and inspiring piece of prose I’ve heard all weekend! I love your hermeneutics of retrieval and critique, your blend of indigenous and feminist theology, and your very moving retelling of the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father. The world needs more men like you!

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    • Dear Professor Kao,

      Thank you very much for your comments and encouragements. I will try to nourish my indigenous feminist studies more in-depth. I still need to go far. It’s a tough and long way. But I will try to reach to the “final (goal).” Thank you!

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  11. Sam, this is a really great post. It is a good reminder that there is no need to remain attached to any particular interpretation or tradition. While it would make little sense to simply ignore all tradition or common interpretations, you do nothing of the sort. It appears that you are able to hold onto your cultural integrity while still implementing a rather critical (and much needed/appreciated) edge that can do much good work. I hope the rest of your time in Claremont leads to similar projects. It looks like you’re off to a great start!

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  12. Very good gender theology. How about Gay and Lesbian point of view?????

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    • God is not just the God of male and female but also the God of gay and lesbian, right? So, seeing God as “mother or father” does not exclude gay and lesbian. I think it is the best way for them to look at God through and in their feelings whether male or female or beyond gender. Thanks for your great question!

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  13. Great post, Sam. You raise some good points. Whether or not the term “God” is genedered is no small matter of scholarly debate. Although you address male God imagery and try to transcend it, do you see any problem with maintaining the Lord’s Prayer where the term “Lord” is inherently gendered?

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    • Thank you for your comments, Ben.
      When we trace back to the time of Jesus Christ, no doubt there was a system of dualistic structure of Lord or master and slave. Lord or master is the term used for the high class or ruling class. In other words, it is inherently hierarchical and only transcendent. So, in order to transform the dualistic idea of the term “Lord,” it is the best way to see Jesus Christ as best friend, loving brother/sibling (who is among and in us), instead of “Lord/Master.”

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  14. Hkau Sam,

    I think western missionary looks God through the original Greek and Hebrew view of point.I don’t really know How do they see God as Male? I think this might come from Trinity concept of Christian religion.
    I agree with you pretty much,and there are so many things to question in Western Christian religion which came into Asia e.g Christmas, Hollawon, Good Friday(Jesus didn’t die on Friday according to Jew calender in two thousand years ago), Esther day. Where are these worship come from? There is no single word that describe about these things in Original version (Both Greek and Hebrew), but transator twisted the usage of language.
    When Christian religion started to spread from Asia to West the practises was so different. The original Christians–Paul, Peter, disciples practised both Old testament and New testament. For example Feast of tabernacle, the day of atonement, and taking the Lord supper and Footwashing (the bread was without yeast which represented Jesus had no sin in Him). But today western Christain and Eastern Christian practises are so different from original.
    If you can give explaination about it that would be really great.

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  15. Your prayer is so lovely and harmonized that I would love to share yours with my visitors. I wholeheartedly agree with your saying that God is not only transcendent but also surely immanent. With the image that God is only transcendent and God only lives above, the relationship between God and humans seems to be no more than top-and-bottom vertical relationship: God orders something to humans and humans only serve God. For me, that relationship looks like straight arrows, ↑and↓, between God and humans. However, with the image that God is also immanent, the arrows become softly bended,like the above refresh icon, so that it can depict the more relational and communicational image between God and human. The fact/belief that God is immanent in every person, I think, can be the most powerful resource that humans can respect one another.

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  16. Very interesting post Sam. With my limited knowledge of Biblical text, I have always understood the term “God” to refer to “the Father,” “He,” “Son of God the Father,” etc…I always wondered why the holy trinity (father, son, holy spirit) seemed so gendered. The idea of the holy spirit was the only aspect that didn’t seem overtly masculine or feminine. Do you think, with so many years of references to God the Father, He the Creator, etc…that the term God has any chance of being perceived (on a large scale) as gender-neutral?

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  17. Thank you Sam for opening a window into your world into my world. (I have learned that I may speak only for myself from our feminist authors and bloggers.) I am thankful for your pictures and gifts of insight from your culture into this western culture and into the religious context we are beginning to recognise together as we build relationships through our class lectures and discussions..There is so much to learn about oppression, about religion, about how to participate in change within our contexts, how to teach and preach a clearer vision of best self as child of God. Great post, great prayer, great prose.

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  18. kachin ni christian n tai shi yang wundwoi mat ai wenyi ni hpe kara de wa mat ai ngu na hkamla ma ai rai sr chyeju hte naw tsundan rit

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