Hmong Christianity Without Borders?

A Critique of Long Khang's Book "Hmong Animism: A Christian Perspective"

By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.

Keynote address given at the 4th Hmong Studies Consortium International Conference on “Memories, Networks and Identities of Transnational Hmong”, January 4 - 5, 2017

Contents

 

  1. Abstract

  2. Introduction

  3. Brief Summary of the Book

  4. Some High-Handed Claims

  5. General Critique

  6. All Religions Are Relative: They Are By Necessity Made of Myths

  7. The Voice of Terrorism and Ignorance

  8. Conclusion

  9. References

  10. Footnotes

Abstract

Although Western missionaries began to work in Laos soon after the country became a French protectorate in 1893, the Hmong there only converted in the early 1950’s. With their resettlement in the USA as refugees since 1975, the number of Hmong Christians has greatly increased. Today, there are about 50,000 of them world-wide. This conversion has produced many Hmong pastors and evangelists who have mounted an active transnational campaign to attract converts through such means as radio broadcasts, Christian literature and Bible distribution, and the posting of missionaries to countries with significant Hmong populations such as Thailand, Vietnam and China.

 

This paper looks at a recent attempt to contribute to this growing Hmong Christian propagation literature by Long Khang, a Christian pastor, in his book “Hmong Animism: A Christian Perspective” (2015). It is not a review, but a response to claims made by him from an anthropological point of view. After a brief summary of the book, I will make more in-depth comments on selected claims by the author such as: the worship of devils and Satan by animist Hmong; the inconsequence of traditional Hmong rituals to Hmong social organisation; the deceptive use of alien Christian concepts (God, Heaven and Hell) to discuss Hmong religious beliefs; the dismissal of observations made by Hmong anthropologists; and the bold proposal that the future of the Hmong lies in Christianity.

 

Since very few of these claims and pronouncements are based on empirical knowledge of the Hmong and their traditional religion, the paper concludes that much of Long Khang’s book misrepresents animism as “false teaching” and puts his fundamentalist Christianity as the only “truth” in order to attract more converts without much concern for the negative impact this will make to Hmong culture and identity. There is no true or false religion, only what works or does not work for a believer.

Introduction

This presentation is not a book review. It is more a critical examination of claims made against Hmong animism and its practitioners by Long Khang in his book. It is my reactions to his preaching that Christianity is all light (“deliverance”) and animism is all darkness (“oppression”). I will begin with a summary of the book, followed by a listing of claims made by him against Hmong animism. I will then comment on some of these claims and conclude with that there is no true or false religion as all religions serve the same purpose and has equal right to exist without being treated with disrespect by fundamentalist evangelists.

 

Before proceeding further, a definition of religion and a statement on my position are in order. A clear definition will help broaden our boundaries and avoid restricting discussion to only institutionalised practices that involve only beliefs in a God. As pointed out by Taves (2005: 7), scholars have a role specific obligation to define the discipline in which they are engaged in order to know the constituent components of their subject matter, and religion should be defined as an aspect of culture and studied under cultural studies. There are many definitions of religion (Connolly, 1999: 4-6), because religion is a “contested concept… [such that] there is not, and never will be, a universally agreed definition….” (Aldridge, 2007: 30).

 

Geertz (1973: 91), an American anthropologist, defines religion as

 

 “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

 

Any religion has three core elements: (1) it is part of a group’s culture, (2) it carries beliefs that are manifested through rituals; and (3) it provides meanings and purpose in life for its followers (Giddens and Sutton, 2013, ch. 17). As stated by Clack and Clack (1998: 188), religion is a “phenomenon predominantly of the emotions” and arises out of the turbulence and anguish of human life, the apparent hollowness of the human condition.”

 

Regarding the position of the scholar or researcher, Prothero (2004) argues that when we discuss religion, we need to “unbracket” our own religious beliefs, letting them out and making it clear where we stand. Orsi (2004:198), on the other hand, suggests that as scholars, we should only put ourselves “in-between” the beliefs we study and our own, not taking side. For myself, I am coming from a critical anthropology perspective. I speak as a Hmong anthropologist who has researched Hmong traditional religion and published four papers (one in Chinese) on the topic [1]. I have lived and practised in both the Christian and the animist worlds. In this presentation, my position is not based on faith but scholarship, even if I am an animist. From a social science perspective, I do not look at religion as “true or false”. I discuss animism here as a “lived practice”. In line with Khang’s aim, I also want to “expose” his book for what it is: a blatant attempt to use of Hmong animism to spread Christianity.

 

Brief Summary of the Book

 

Who is Long Khang and why does he say terrible things about Hmong animists? His full name is Shue Long Khang (Swm Looj Khaab). Born in 1965 in Xieng Khouang Province, Laos, he was in high school when Laos changed regime in 1975, the year he and his family also converted to Christianity. He escaped Laos in April 1979 and eventually arrived in Minnesota, USA , at the age of 15. He graduated in political science and criminology from the University of Minnesota in 1990 and obtained a master’s degree in public administration from Hamline University in 1996. In 2007, he decided to go into Christian ministry and enrolled at Trinity College of the Bible. In 2015, Khang received his Ph.D. in pastoral ministry. During the same year, he self-published the book “Hmong Animism: a Christian Perspective”. He is now a pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA [2].

 

The book has a Preface and 11 chapters. Chapter 1 provides a “Short History of the Hmong”. Chapter 2 introduces readers to Hmong animism, followed by an examination of the “Qhuab Ke” or Showing the Way funeral chant in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 focuses on Hmong belief in Satan (Ntxwg Nyoog), ‘the Evil Deity”. Chapter 5 covers Hmong belief in the reincarnation of the soul after death. Shamanism is discussed in Chapter 6. Household spirits (called “demons” throughout the book is visited in Chapter 7. Chapters 8 and 9 cover ancestral worship while Chapter 10 under the intriguing title “Is God a Strange God?” touches on the benevolent “truth” of the Christian God, compared to the “false” demons of Hmong animism. The book ends with Chapter 11 on a discussion of “the oppression and persecution” of Hmong Christians by non-Christians.

 

In the Acknowledgments (p.v), the author thanks the Lord for giving him “the courage, knowledge and opportunity to write this most sensitive subject to advance your Kingdom.” We are thus given to understand that the book aims to preach Christianity, and not just to bring understanding about Hmong animism as a neutral academic undertaking. Khang asserts that the existing literature on Hmong animism only looks at how things are done. His book will be different: he wants “to expose Hmong animism” (p.xi). In his view, “the world deserves to know the whole truth about Hmong animism and the consequences of worshipping demons, ancestors and Satan.” The “undeniable” truth is “that instead of receiving blessings, protection and good fortunes”, the rewards for Hmong animists “are spiritual and physical tortures, demon-possessed and tragic deaths.” (p. 31), although he does not elaborate on why and how animism brings these terrible calamities.

 

 He goes on to state that “it is important to know that those household demons [of Hmong animism] are not true protectors: only God is”, and “for anyone who decides to accept God (Yawmsaub) as their God and Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, God will deliver them from all their tyrannical household demons and they will forever be free…” (p.208). His “purpose” for the book is, therefore, to “systematically analyse the contradictions” of animistic beliefs and practices, and “to challenge Hmong animists to seriously search for the truth in their beliefs because in Hmong animism there is no truth but only myths.” (p.32). Hmong animists should turn to Christianity “to be delivered from the oppression of the household demons and ancestors”, for the Hmong are “the most demonic-oppressed people” in the world (p. xi).

 

Some High-Handed Claims

 

Khang makes very many claims against Hmong animism, but it would take a book to list and respond to all of them. In this short paper, I will choose only a few that stand out for discussion in no particular order:

 

Animism is described as “the religion of Hmong animists. It is Satanism, ancestral worship and demonolatry” (p. 40). This description is repeated all through the book. For instance, everything a “Hmong animist does” relates to “demonic worship” and Hmong are involved in “slavery to demons and Satan” (p.276) through “a wholly Satanic religion and demonolatry” (p.244).

 

Comments: Khang does not define “animism” – “the belief that all things, organic and inorganic, contain a soul or spirit which gives them their particular nature and characteristics” (Hamilton, 1995:12). The positive aspects of animism are never mentioned. Readers are only privy to the negative side as alleged by the author.

 

Worship of Satan (Ntxwgnyoog): Hmong animism is Satanism. Hmong worship Satan, the “evil Deity” and Lord of the world of darkness. Christianity will “empower” Hmong animists “to break free from the bondage of Satan who binds them and blinds them from seeing the true God.” (p. 36). This is stated as a fact, without preliminary or explanations.

 

Comments: Khang equates Ntxwgnyoog with Satan. We are not informed how the Hmong Ntxwgnyoog correspond to the Satan of Christianity, and whether they share any functions and features. Satan is the “fallen angel” God made to be the guardian of Hell, but the Hmong have no concept/word for Hell, let alone Satan. The Hmong do not “worship” Ntwgnyoog who is just a mythical figure - nothing like Lucifer, the Satan in the Bible (Bakkes, 2004). The Christians have Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, but the Hmong only divides their cosmology into the world of the living (yajceeb) and the world of the dead (yeebceeb) in a ying/yang configuration. They do not have a place called Hell where the souls of dead people are sent to be punished, nor do they traditionally have words for God and Heaven. What are used today are borrowed from Lao and Thai (“Phajao” and “Sawan”) or are recent inventions such as Tswv Ntuj and Huab Tais Ntuj.

 

Worship of demons: Khang claims that animists “worship” ancestors and demons. All spirits (dab or dlaab) in Hmong religion are classed under the single derogatory term “demons”. The more neutral term “spirit” used by scholars of religion is reserved only for the Holy Spirit in the Bible. Khang sees “demons” is the “more correct translation” in English, so he changes Vincent Her’s use of “spirits” to “demons” when quoting from Vincent’s Ph.D. thesis (p. 65), and only uses this derisive term in the book.

 

Comments: Khang gives no definition of the term “worship”. Hmong do not “worship” (in the sense of “revering” at an altar or in a place of worship with regular offerings, prayers, guided service, and gifts). They only “propitiate” or appease an offended spirit with a one-off offering of food and paper money through a specified ritual. In shamanic performances, for instance, they exchange the soul of an animal (chicken or pig) for the soul of a sick person when they believe the soul has wandered off and got lost or is taken by an evil spirit, thus making the person sick. Merely dealing with spirits (such as believing in its malevolent power, exorcising, or chasing one out a house or body), does not mean “worship”.

 

 Worship of natural objects, famous dead people and manufactured objects: as proof of this claim, Khang has the late Gen. Vang Pao in a photo fixed atop an altar in a Hmong shop in St Paul, MN, with incense sticks and fruits in a bowl (p. 230). He also states that Hmong worship the late messianic Mother of Writing, Shong Lue Yang (p. 224-228).

 

Comments: in all my visits to different countries, I have not seen any Hmong “worshipping” any photo of the dead, any man-made idols, tree, rock, or “cast metal statues” as alleged in the book (p. 36). Hmong may use dolls in shamanic ceremonies but that is not worshipping. As for images of “prominent” Hmong figures, this may happen in the USA, due probably to borrowing from the Thai or Lao who revere photos of well-known Buddhist monks. But this is no different from Christians who use the Cross as protection and worship statues or paintings of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and of Jesus himself in their churches and houses, especially Catholics.

 

Yawmsaub: Khang claims that Hmong animists know of the existence of a good God called Yawmsaub or Grand-father God. He is “virtuous, benevolent and everything that is good comes from him” (p. 43), but animist Hmong refuse to worship and glorify him. Instead, they only use the term to “mock and ridicule God” (p.43-50).

 

Comments: While some scholars say that we all worship the same God, others argue that each religion has its own God or gods (Armstrong, 1999; Naik, 2007; Prothero, 2010; and Schmidt, 2000). Still others assert that God does not exist (Dawkins, 2006). It is doubtful whether Yawmsaub is the God of the Christians, known as Jehovah in the Old Testament. The Hmong do not see Yawmsaub as very important and close to them. He is found in the Qhuab Ke funeral chant, but no one knows where the name originated from as he is not in the Hmong’s stories on Creation. Along with Yawmsaub, we also find “Pujsaub” or Grand-mother God (p.43), a name which is again remote in Hmong cosmology. These two personages are rarely evoked by Hmong people for any occasion, except when doing the Showing the Way ceremony. Saub means prophet, sage, or soothsayer. In the Qhuab Ke, people always seek advice from Yawm Saub and Pujsaub, so they can just be grand sages, not God unless God has a wife or is also a woman. Khang mentions other Hmong terms for God (p. 50). One of them is “Ntuj” (Sky), an entity which is more often called upon for help in time of crisis, but again Hmong do not worship the Sky in any way.

 

Creation and God: since stories on Creation are not the same for Hmong and Christians, Khang says that only the Christian ones are true, and the Hmong ones are only myths. He refuses to accept that a frog in the “Showing the Way” funeral chant could have created heaven and earth or could talk. He sees this as “nothing but false teaching of faith” (p. 71). For him, only God could create the universe, and that this is supported by “scientific discoveries” (p. 71), and “science has already proved it to be true” (p.77).

 

Comments: Khang does not specify when and which scientists made the extraordinary “scientific discoveries” that God created the universe. He merely quotes Strobel (2014: 124), a Christian journalist who claims, “to have investigated the latest scientific discoveries from physics to biology and discovers they point convincingly toward a creator God”. In the Showing the Way chant by Ya Jong Cher (n.d.; 26-7), used by Khang for his book, the creation of the world is attributed to Pujsaub or Grand-mother God but was overlooked by Khang in his discussion: he only mentions the frog story.

 

Shamanism: Khang states that Hmong shamanism “teaches that spiritual cause underlies every illness”; shamanism “is that part of the religion that deals with healing” (p. 138 and 139); and furthermore, Hmong “cannot live as a community without having at least one or two shamans, as they totally depend on shamans for healing their illnesses.” (p. 142) – my emphasis. Khang recounts at length the legend of the first Hmong shaman Sivyig only to say that it is not true, only a myth: “there is no evidence anywhere to prove that Sivyig even really existed. But Jesus is real… the incarnated God coming down from Heaven.” (p.182). Khang agrees that shamans can heal even sick non-Hmong people like Lemoine (2011) and Conquergood (1989), but he still dismisses shamans as having “no authority over demons” (p. 178), but Lord Jesus Christ has “the amazing power and authority … over Satan and demons.” (p. 183). “Jesus is the Greatest Healer” and is “superior to Sivyig” (p.175). Only he could bring dead people back to life “because He is the supreme God, the Creator of the universe…from whom every form of life originated” (p.189). Here, we are told that Jesus is now God, too.

 

Comments: Note the use of superlatives such as “every” and “totally” in the first two quotes above. The Hmong are more resilient and smarter than Khang gives them credit: they have many ways of explaining the causes of ill-health, and many means of healing sickness, including herbal medicine. In his attempt to discredit Hmong animists, Khang even speculates that their story of Sivyig “could have been borrowed from the Bible, specifically the life story of Jesus Christ” (p.191). In the remote villages of the Hmong in Asia and China in the distant past, how would they get to know Jesus and the Bible? Khang has no doubts about the omnipotence of Jesus, whose immaculate conception, miracles, unusual existence and divinity have been called into question by many people (Copan, 1998; Crossan, Johnson and Kelber, 1999; Ehrman, 2012; Fitzgerald, 2010; Price, 2003; Scott, 2008; and Wells, 1986).

 

Myths and religion: Khang’s book is full of claims against myths, such as “the substances fundamental to Hmong animism are only myths” (p. xi), “in Hmong animism there is no truth but only myths” (p.32), a frog cannot create the universe and is only “myth” and “false teaching” (p. 76), the story of Sivyig is only myth because “no one has ever seen Sivyig” (p. 182). Has anyone ever seen Jesus? Khang often quotes from the Bible to support his rejection of animism. He sees the Bible and Jesus as “true” based on the fact that Bible stories are written down as texts that physically exist, proof that they are “real” (not myths), whereas Hmong animist stories are only oral accounts that have no physical written form, so they are not “real” (only myths) [3].

 

Comments: a myth is “something that is simply not true” (Armstrong, 2005: 7), but myths and mythmaking are a necessary part of life. Myths, whether oral or written, give meaning and confirmation to human existence, history, and culture. They form “the most fundamental stratum of religious life” (Eliade, 1959: 95), and are one of the seven dimensions of any religion (Herling, 2007: 91). According to Harrison (1963: xi), “each and every religion contains two elements, ritual and mythology.” Ritual is what a man does to enact his beliefs, and mythology is what he “thinks, believes and imagines about his hero or his god” (Longsdorf, 2004: 44). Animism has myths and so do other religions. Greenberg (2002) even identifies 101 myths from the Christian Bible. Contrary to what Khang claims, there are no true or false myths. A myth works if it gives us “insight into the deeper meaning of life” and helps us “to live more richly” (Armstrong, op.cit: 10).

 

Hmong Christians and food offerings to the dead: Khang claims that Hmong Christians never have to worry about making food offerings to (what he refers to as “feeding”) the spirits of their dead, because they are with God and never get hungry. He states categorically as if he has been there and back: “God takes care of them and provides everything they will ever need in heaven” (p. 223) – my emphasis. He further claims that “Hmong Christians do not sacrifice animals and burn paper money to the dead, but they, unlike Hmong animists, never experience any incident or sign to indicate that their deceased parents or any deceased family members are hungry and in need of feeding” (p. 223).

 

Comments: Khang has been lucky, but maybe he is not in good communication with his flock. Other Hmong Christians have had different experiences. After a Hmong family in Australia became Christian, the father was plagued by a chronic illness that could not be explained and cured by modern medicine. Without letting his local pastor know, he asked relatives in Laos to do a “shaman” session which diagnosed that his dead father needed an ox offering ceremony (nyuj dab). He sent them money to have it done, and he was well again. Religion works in mysterious ways.

 

In the case of my own younger brother, he loved drinking and was sick for a number of years with one thing wrong after another. He and his family decided to convert to Christianity in the hope that he might regain his good health, but unfortunately, he passed away a few months later. We had a Christian funeral for him, just a lot of hymn signing and keeping wake for three days. Two years after the funeral, his wife became sick and on and off. My brother visited my older sister in Minnesota, USA, in a dream and told her that he had no money to spend (no paper money was burnt at his funeral), and he could not find his way to God or the ancestors (Hmong funeral was not held to help him do this). The family reverted to animism, and we organised a traditional Hmong “soul release” (tso plig) ceremony - a mini-funeral - where his soul was guided to the land of the ancestors and a lot of paper money burnt to put his wandering soul to rest.

 

The Hmong firmly believe that if you are born as a Hmong it is better to stay Hmong and follow Hmong traditions. You should not sell yourself and your people short by adopting the ways and means of “strangers” (outsiders) as you will find out one day that they do not really welcome you. The two cases above illustrate this belief, and clearly contradict Khang’s claim that Hmong Christians never have need to “feed” a dead family member, or are all received in Heaven to live happily with God, never to have any need.

 

Religious Oppression: Khang sees the costly animist animal sacrifices as demonic oppression that is one of the reasons why people convert to Christianity. He further alleges that if a poor Hmong cannot afford animal sacrifice to his needy parents in the Afterworld, he will be chained to a post like a sacrificial animal until he agrees to do it (p. 259). Hmong animists are, thus, victims of “slavery to demonic rituals” (p. 277).

 

Comments: this is very strong stuff that loudly calls for evidential support. It is true that animists in the USA sometimes have funerals to their parents that cost $40,000 or more because they make 10 to 20 animal sacrifices. However, this is not compulsory. It depends on what a family can afford. As for “feeding the dead” (laig dab), this is often part of a bigger function such as New Year celebration, wedding and tasting new rice harvest. This usually only involves the offer of a chicken. Sometimes, the soul of a dead parent may manifest his or her need for a sacrificial cow (nyuj dab) through a sickness in the family of the living, but this may occur only on 2-3 occasions in the adult life of a male descendant. For many, there is no such demand at all. As regards someone who cannot make an animal offering will be chained to a post, this is a most preposterous story. Whether a Hmong can “feed” his dead parents or not is all up to him. It is his business and nobody else’s. “Feeding” is only to heal an illness or to get protection from the spirit of a dead parent. You “feed” when you can afford to do it, in your own time and at your own leisure. You do not have to do it if you cannot or do not want to.

 

These animist offerings of food are nothing when compared to the demands of being a Christian. What animists see as most oppressive is that Christians have to thank God for each meal they take 3 times a day 365 days of the year, even though they have to work for each meal themselves as it just does not drop from Heaven. Apart from this ludicrous undertaking (thanking someone else for your own hard work), a devout Christian has to pray to God daily before going to bed, attend church service every weekend, stay active in church activities and make financial contribution at services, or agree for his church to deduct 10% from his salary on a regular basis, leading people to see the church as exploitative and getting rich on the back of its parishioners. The Hmong’s occasional animist sacrificial demands pale, when compared to these daily and weekly Christian occurrences and obligations.

 

According to some scholars, Christianity liberates pagans only to confine them in the prison of its own stringent beliefs and forbidding boundaries. Some denominations oppress women through “patriarchal domination” by not allowing them to serve in church ministry. Christianity generates “oppression, domination and human misery on a vast scale” through restrictions, wars, and slavery (Hewitt, 1995: 215). These untenable situations are often the reasons why people stop being Christian or going to church. They do not want to be at the mercy of a priest or pastor. Like Western believers, many wisened Hmong would have left Christianity, if not for the fact they are often intimidated to stay by their exploitative church.

 

The above list of allegations shows that Khang does not discuss Hmong animism for what it is, an all-encompassing system of religious practices with its own beliefs, moral values, organisation structure and well-defined rituals. Having converted to Christianity when he was 15, he has little appreciation of Hmong traditional religion and the important role it plays in sustaining the Hmong way of life. Whatever information used for his book was gleaned from a list of very selective materials available in English or Hmong. He did not interview any Hmong shamans or ritual performers who could have provided him with a broader and deeper understanding of the positive benefits of Hmong animism. He is not concerned about being correct or finding the meanings and reasons for particular Hmong beliefs or rituals.

 

The refusal to acknowledge that there is also “truth” in other religions and the fact that they may also be equally valid, can be explained in terms of what Schelling (the German philosopher) calls “non-identarian model of life”. This is a way of thinking which sees one’s own position as based on true (or truthful) knowledge through acts of positive interpretation at the expense of rational thinking (“Karl Jaspers” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011).

 

A good example of this line of thinking is Khang’s transposition of Satan for Ntxwgnyoog. Khang alleges that Hmong call on Ntxwg Nyoog for help and offer animal sacrifices in “propitiation” to him (p. 48). Although Ntxwgnyoog is mentioned in the “Qhuab Ke” and in folk stories, he is not included in any religious rituals or acts of Hmong worship. Had Khang used “thick description” by asking animists for their lived experiences and using them to go into more details in his discussion, he would realise that the Hmong may appease spirits with food offerings during sickness, but they never worship demons or wild spirits (in the sense of Buja in Thai, revere or idolise) on any altar or in any ritual. However, this fact is irrelevant to Khang. He merely resorts to superficial “thin description” and makes claims without offering any solid empirical evidence.

General Critique

 

I once asked a Hmong Christian minister in Australia what he thought of Long Khang’s book, given that they knew each other. He replied that he wondered why it was even written. Having studied the book closely, now I understand his assessment. The book caused much resentment among the Hmong in the USA where it was published [4]. It is very unnerving, focusing mostly on aspects he can easily dissects for attacks, despite claiming that he would tell us “the whole truth” and “the undeniable truth” (p.31). Because he does not bother to refer to the scholarly literature on religion, he only sees Hmong animism as consisting of bits and pieces of “oral practices” that are not “organised” and “are not connected” together, with shamanism having only “a poor structure” (p. 139). He never explains how he comes to these assertions or what they mean. Writing with malicious intent may be a daring act, but it is not in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching such as: “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself”, “Do Onto Others what you wish to be done to you”, or “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Mack, 1993: 73).

Jung (1938) defines religion as a spiritual experience of deep emotional significance that “seizes and controls the human subject”, making him or her the “victim” rather than “creator” of the experience (Morris, 1987: 167). Religion helps believers to face life contingencies, leading them to think in terms of archetypes or “forms and images of a collective nature which occur… as constituents of myths and at the same time as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin” (Jung, 1938: 64). It is this mythical mode of thinking of the collective unconscious that makes followers of a religion blind to other ways of life, accepting only their own as pure and true. This is probably what happens to Khang: he has been “seized” by his own fundamentalist religion and becomes its subservient “victim”.

Khang tries to convince Hmong animists to accept the Christian God as the only true Saviour that will bring them eternal life (p. xi). He is very keen for people to live forever. He even finishes the book by appealing to non-Christians to end their discrimination against Hmong Christians, to cease “blaspheming their God”, and to stop sowing the “poisonous seeds of hatred, divisiveness and intolerance…” (p. 286). Yet in his book, he does the very thing he asks his opponents not to do preaching God’s love while speaking in disdain towards those who are religiously different from him. He asks Hmong animists to get “out of the box” of their “false teachings”, but he will equally benefit from getting out of his box of “pathological Christianity” that makes him believe the Bible as the only truth everyone should accept. You do not build bridges of acceptance by denigrating people. You will only antagonise, alienate, and build walls. As stated by Pope Francis on his visit to Mexico in February 2016, after hearing that Donald Trump wanted to build a wall between the US and Mexico to stop illegal migrants: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” [5]

Khang takes Hmong animism out of its original geographical and historical contexts – that of a rural farming people living with nature and in the grip of environmental forces, seen and unseen, which gave rise to animist beliefs similar to those of other animist groups they live with, such as the Lao, Thai, Chinese, Akha, I-mien and Karen – all of whom have impacted on the Hmong (Lee, 2005). Any objective study of a religion must look at “its distinctive ideology (the beliefs, the feelings and values it engenders), the special behaviours that it motivates (particularly in rituals), and the way it is organized socially” (Crapo, 2003: 22). Khang fails to deal with any of these elements of Hmong animism. He totally ignores how its social organisation uses the clan system as the basis of its structure in an interlocking and mutually influencing grid. Animism, especially through its rituals and feast offerings, acts as the glue that holds everything together and makes the social bonding strong between clan and sub-clan believers. There is no Hmong animism without this kinship organisation, and there is no kinship without its closely connected religious base. If one changes one’s religion, one alters one’s kin relations that are structured by animist rituals specific to one’s clan (Cha, 2003; Lee, 1994-95; and Moua, 1995). Khang conveniently overlooks this fact and simply entices Hmong to convert with little thought on the negative social impact of such action.

All Religions Are Relative: They Are By Necessity Made of Myths

Khang deeply believes the Christian Scriptures to be sacred, almost as if they fall directly from Heaven as a gift of God. The truth is that the Bible was put together and made “holy” by many unknown authors (Collins, 2015: 42-50; Helms, 1997; and Friedman, 1987). The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek [6]. Mack (1989: 7) states that “most of the writings… were either written anonymously and later assigned to a person of the past or written later as a pseudonym for some person thought to have been important for the earliest period.” The Bible contains Jewish religious teachings, history, and myths, and was not basically aimed at non-Jewish Gentiles. The Old Testament was not “closed” to changes and additions “until the tenth century CE, long after Jesus lived on the earth…. The New Testament likewise was not canonized early on but only at the Council of Rome in 382 CE…by the Catholic Church… who determined truth for the Christian world “ (Collins, 2015: 42). Having been translated into many languages, the Bible has also lost much of its original meanings during the translation process.

None of the attributed authors of the four Gospels of the New Testament had met Jesus (Greenberg, 2011). The first Gospel to be written in 66-70 CE (36 years after Jesus’ death) was accredited to Mark who was St Peter’s interpreter. The Gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke were composed between 75-90 CE, followed by John’s Gospel around 85-100 CE (Isbouts, 2015). Mark and Luke identified themselves as Gentile, but Matthew and John were Jew (Casey, 1991: 154-156). The original disciples who were with Jesus were illiterate and did not write anything down. Thus, the New Testament Gospels were only second, or third hand accounts based on what people imagined or heard from others, so their authenticity has often been questioned (The Jesus Seminar, 1993; and Ehrman, 2005 and 2016). Like other religions, the Bible contains many contradictions, inventions and myths, for it is only written by humans/men to facilitate conversion, to reinforce faith in God (Arndt,1987; Carpenter, 1996; Ehrman, 2009; Lane, 2006; and Wilson, 2008).

According to Lapides (2012), Jesus was originally called Yeshua. He was born in 4 BCE and died around 30 CE after only three years of ministry (Ehrman, 2009b: xxvi) [7]. He was a charismatic man who preached to his fellow Jews to make them feel less oppressed under the explosive rule of the Romans and the Jewish elite at the time (Chilton, 2000; Funk and the Jesus Seminar, 1998; Meier, 1991; and Vermes, 1993). He was “condemned for illegal activities and crimes against the state. Yet not long after his death, his followers were claiming that he was a divine being. Eventually, they went further, declaring that he was none other than God, Lord of heaven and earth” (Ehrman, 2014: 1). None of the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew “portrays him as fully divine”, but only as “a person of the highest status” (Casey, 1991: 156). Only John claims “deity and incarnation” for Jesus, elevating him so high “that observant Jews… and the first apostles could not believe in him” (op.cit.: 159). Some scholars merely refer to Jesus as a “Jewish rabbi”, “Jesus the Jew”, or a “Marginal Jew”, for he grew up in a Jewish context in rural Galilee and was not very sympathetic towards Gentiles (Hagenston, 2014: 1-3).

It is St Paul, believed to be the real founder of Christianity, who was converted after Jesus’ death and spent his life evangelizing in various cities around the Mediterranean (Isbouts, 2012: 282-296; Fredriksen, 2000; Maccoby, 1986; and Wenham, 1995). Known also by his Jewish name of Saul, he was not one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus. He aimed his preaching at Gentiles, because the Gospel “was not accepted by the Jews” during this early period (Casey, op.cit.: 156). It was not until 34 CE that followers of Jesus became known as Christian - from the Greek word Christo or messiah (Cameron and Miller, 2004). They were originally seen only as a religious movement within Judaism, the religion of the Jews from which Jesus derived much of his teachings (Chilton, 2000). Christianity became a separate entity in the years 85-95 CE when leaders of the two faiths “began to clearly differentiate” between themselves (Chilton and Neusner, 1996: viii and 9-14).

If Long Khang gets out of his confining box of seeing the Bible as the only “truth”, he will know that there are many competing varieties of Christianity, and many fascinating facets to it outside of the canonical Scriptures. Jesus was only an ordinary Jewish preacher but the Christian Church made him divine, full of doctrines and dogma, with only those writings that agree with this position being included in the Bible, so it would be easier to get and control believers (Ehrman, 2003; Hoover2002; Meyers, 2009; and Nolan, 1999). Those that disagreed were branded as “heresy” and were excluded (Ehrman, 2003). As a result, “Jesus, the social rebel and iconoclast” was changed to “Jesus the religious icon” and Christianity became transformed as the only “true” religion of God (Bird and Crossley, 2008; Crossan, 1989; Funk, 1996; and Jenkins, 2010). If Khang opens his eyes and heart more, he will discover these fascinating historical facts. He will also appreciate the many other religions in the world which have equal rights to practise, many faiths to enjoy and to not feel oppressed by, including animism. If he keeps believing that the Christian Bible and Jesus are the only truth in the world, he will continue to “pathologize” other faiths [8].

The Voice of Terrorism and Ignorance

 

Khang’s voice is not the voice of loving kindness, not the voice of magnanimity of the real Jesus. It is the voice of deep prejudice, conceit, terrorism and character assassination, enmity, and aggression. He preaches Christianity by disparaging Hmong animists without shame, by spreading terror in their ranks, and threatening them with Hell if they continue with their “backward” religion. Displaying much ignorance of their faith, he makes false claims about their beliefs in the most negative way. He is a predator on a search and destroy mission – unearthing prime titbits of Hmong animism to smear and to blow to smithereens. He targets all Hmong animists standing in his path, linking them to demonolatry while glowingly applaud Christianity. Like all terrorists, he is deadly with force, spitting verbal violence on his unarmed victims who cannot defend themselves and are muted in their inability to read his utterances. He converts by silencing his opponents, and by dominating them using his “modern” Christian fundamentalism as weapon to deny them their freedom of worship. Trying hard to fulfil his duty as a pastor, Khang is answering the call for “The Necessity of Christian Imperialism” advocated by Nabors (2014: 2) who urges that “the world remains a poor and hard place as long as Jesus is not in control of our hearts, our minds, our culture and our behaviour…[because] biblical Christianity is the best thing for the world, for everybody…” [9].

 

In the pursuit of this world domination plan, Khang’s book follows the same worn path taken by Timothy Vang, his “pastor and friend” whom he offers “special thanks” (p.v) for permission to use Vang’s 1998 dissertation Coming a Full Circle: Historical Analysis of the Hmong Church Growth 1950-1998. Xiong and Xiong (2008: 1) make a critical review of this thesis and state that it is “an attempt to define and subjugate certain Hmong cultural and religious beliefs and practices as backward and inferior to Christianity…[and]…it is these kinds of problematic arguments, often couched in academic language, that further perpetuate misinterpretations and misrepresentations about “culture” and “religion” in Hmong American communities.” Like Vang, Khang aims “to offer those believers and practitioners of Hmong animism the light to see the true God. It will be enlightenment for them to see the true eternity of the spirit and will empower them to break free from the bondage of Satan who binds them and blinds them from seeing the true God.” (p. 36).

 

Notice that everything about Christianity is described as “true”, while the animist system is seen “false” and “blinding”. Thus, only God gives “True Deliverance” from demonic oppression (p. 205). Animist “household demons” are not true protectors, only God is (p.208). This denial of the “truth” of animism probably derives from what is called “reason transfigured”, the impairment of one’s capacity for rational and objective reasoning, due to excessive focus on an idolised object, person, or ideology. Sometimes, we can embed so much of our own beliefs and biases into a religion we are studying that it ends up being marginalised and pathologized. Although we cannot abandon our deeply held beliefs and values, we have to concur that “something awful and intolerable” makes good “sense in someone else’s world” (Orsi, 2004: 202). Hmong people have as much right as anyone to follow their traditional religion, without being derogatorily labelled as “Satan and demon worshippers”. If you want to push your own religion, just show people the good it does to you – like Catholics do all over the world. It is immoral to talk down another religion by claiming that only yours is superior, the only light shining in a world of darkness.

 

It is ironical that an educated person like Khang relentlessly puts down his own people as Satan and demon worshippers, given his Christian convictions that emphasize peace and compassion. He uses appalling language such as: “it is embarrassing for the Hmong animist intellectuals to continue to believe in such false teaching” (p.76), and “the Showing the Way chants can only tell Hmong animists how to go to hell. That is what the Showing the Way chants are all about” (p. 77). Khang is angry and arrogant, disregarding other people’s religious rights and freedom. There is nothing Christian and educated about his high-and-mighty attitudes. Yet, here is a preacher who wants to spread the kind words of Jesus, who wants to bring “civilisation” to Hmong animists.

 

As pointed out by Armstrong (2007: 5):

 

“charity must be the guiding principle of exegesis: any interpretation (of the Scriptures) that spread hatred or disdain was illegitimate. All the world faiths claim that compassion is not only the prime virtue and the test of true religiosity but that it actually introduces us to Nirvana, God, or the Dao. But sadly, the biography of the Bible represents failures as well as triumphs of the religious quest. The biblical authors and their interpreters have all too often succumbed to the violence, unkindness and exclusivity that is rife in their societies.”

Long Khang’s disdain for animism only reaffirms Hmong animists’ complaints against Christians that Christianity is a religion of fear, hatred, arrogance, enslavement and segregation for the gullible and the indolent who want to take the easy out by adopting vicarious Christianity rather than learning to actively perform their own animist rituals. As soon as a person converts to Christianity, he becomes subservient to the Church and its leaders, closing his heart and mind to everything else. Conversion to Christianity always starts with an act of violence that eventually sows the seeds of discord in the group [10]. Community disharmony begins when the convert and his Church treat the non-converts with condescension as demon-worshippers, not to go near – “tsis txhob mus ti”. He cuts himself off from his animist birth group and refuses to visit or join in any social activities, for fear of being contaminated by “demons” [11]. This divisive impact of Christianity on Hmong social relations has been well documented (Lee and Tapp, 2010; Leepreecha, 2001; Moua, 1995; and Tapp, 1989). According to Leepreecha (op.cit.: 180), “conflicts derive from the strict rules and dominant Western ideology that do not accommodate to Hmong cultural contexts” when missionaries and their converts “set themselves apart… and preach against local beliefs.” However, Khang chooses to ignore these real issues and simply criticises anthropologists who raise concerns as showing “a biased and completely one-sided perspective” (p. 278). Showing the very same “one-sided perspective”, he dismisses off-hand any objective discussion on the destructive effects of Christian conversion by writers such as Dia Cha, Nick Tapp and Gary Lee (see pp. 259, 271, 275-276, 285 of Khang’s book). To him, such discussion “not only widens the gap between the two groups (Christian and non-Christian Hmong) but is also seen as poisonous seeds of hatred, divisiveness and intolerance towards Hmong Christians” (p. 286).

 

The famous British writer H.G.Wells (1971: 451) sums it all up nicely when he says that although they may contain some basic differences, all religions “display, as a reasonable and demonstrable fact, that men form one universal brotherhood, that they spring from one common origin, that their individual lives, their nations and races, interbreed and blend and go on to merge again at last in one common human destiny.” If we recognise this universal brotherhood and common destiny, accept each other for what we are and treat each other with respect, it does not matter whether we follow the same religion or not. Emphasis should be on fostering good relationships that flow between various religious beliefs and practices, not just a specific faith and set of Scriptures (Chadwick, 1910). Such relationships should be enhanced through more contacts and better communications across religions so that there is more mutual acceptance and less assertion that one religion is "good" or "real" while another is "bad" or "false", as this will only make us marginalise each other.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Conclusion

Long Khang’s book misrepresents animism. It is purely “reverse ethnocentrism” - blindly using Christian arguments and myths to knock Hmong animism on its head. It is biased to the extreme, describing animism as the world of darkness ruled by Satan, and Christianity as the only way to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven ruled by God. There is very little attempt at scholarship and neutrality. He shows “no grace” with his words: the pages of his book are filled with fire and condemnation. Rather than bringing the good news at the heart of Christianity, he is the bearer of bad news, to paraphrase Yancey (2014) when he writes about the aggressive behaviour of modern Christians. Like them, Khang puts his extremist views of Christianity in the best light to proselytize with such urging as “It is time Hmong animists accept God as Creator” (p. 71). The language used aims to strike at the heart strings of Hmong animists and to convince them that conversion to Christianity is the best and only option.

 

Like most evangelists, Khang does not see religion as having anything to do with culture and social relationships. He never defines culture or religion. He foresees that “as the older generation passes away, so does Hmong animism and it will gradually become a thing of the past, but Christianity is the future of the Hmong” (p.286). The reality, however, is that Hmong traditional religion is intimately bound to the Hmong culture. So long as parts of the culture survive, so will aspects of the animist religion. Like other cultural elements of a group, religion is passed down from generation to generation, and provides the core values, the rules of behaviour that govern the lives of its believers. It sets the group apart from others, giving it a distinctive identity. Khang fails to appreciate this fact. However, there is real danger for the Hmong culture with a change of religion that will make the Hmong assimilate culturally into the mass of those who follow the new religion. Without the old animist beliefs and rituals acting as food and water for nourishment, there will be no foundational Hmong social structure and identity, no Hmong New Year, no new harvest ceremonies, no iconic reed pipe, no Hmong clan taboos and kinship rules. Without shamanic healing, what will the Hmong living in remote villages without modern health care do when they become sick? The Hmong will become a people without a soul, empty shells with nothing unique and original to represent them, except perhaps their ethnic costumes. Through his book, Long Khang seems happy to help contribute to this process of cultural degeneration and ethnic extinction.

 

In the field of social sciences, there are no “true” or “false” religions. On whose criteria, would such judgement be based when your God is not necessarily my God, your measures of faith are not my measures. How can a person claim that someone’s religion is “false” and only his one is “true”, if he has not lived the former and known its direct or indirect benefits? If a group of people choose to adopt a particular belief system and are happy, comfortable with it because it makes their life fulfilling and meaningful, then it is the “right” and “true” religion for them. We should just let them be and try to live with them in the most peaceful way possible. We should not try to destroy their beliefs by treating them as second class to us. All religions have much the same purpose: to give security, hopes, direction, comfort and meaning to life. We should build bridges to reach each other. For the Hmong, this goes with both animists and Christians. We should be tolerant and be proud of our differences and diversity. It is the only way to keep our brotherhood alive, to ensure our survival, to bring pride to the hearts of our people, and to reach our common destiny together.

 

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​Footnotes​

  1. See G. Y. Lee (1994-95, 2005 and 2011) in References section of this paper.

  2. This biographical sketch is taken from pages 295-298 of his book.

  3. Khang does not seem to know that Christianity is also full of myths, inventions and contradictions (see Ehrman, 2009; and Greenberg 2000).

  4. See group discussion generated by Leo Lee on Facebook.

  5. at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/popefranci738043.html

  6. Greek was the language used by literate people in the ancient Greco-Roman world around the time of Jesus.

  7. Some authors say Jesus was born 7 B.C. E. and died 36 CE.

  8. See Vogt (1995) for an explanation of this concept.

  9. For a discussion of Christian imperialism, see Ojibwa (2015) and Vltchek (2014).

  10. For a very good overview of the conflicts caused by Hmong conversion to Christianity and the refusal of the converts to mix with their non-convert relatives, see Moua (1995). I have not seen one of my nephews for more than 10 years now after he became Christian, and no Christian relatives would join me in any ritual feasts because they see themselves as “clean” and I am “stained” by demons and Satan. Khang, of course, claims that “Hmong Christians do participate in all aspects of communal functions that do not involve animistic ritual” (p. 276).

  11. When an animist Hmong family converts to Christianity – as in a recent case in Brisbane, Australia – the pastor’s first act is to “smash” (tsoo – their own term) the Xwm Kab alter of the family to symbolize Christianity’s triumph over “demon worship”. This family later found their new religion to be unfulfilling and wanted to return to animism but was ashamed to do it due to this brutal act. One of the families in Sydney, however, reconverted to animism successfully in 2015.

 
 
 

GARY YIA LEE

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