THE ROLE OF CHRISTIANITY IN CHIN SOCIETY

By Salai Za Uk Ling
Lakehead University

Culture and religion together form an important part of Chin society. As such, historically these two elements are closely and inseparably intertwined with one another. In modern times, Christian religion is deeply rooted in Chin society. Since the first Chin conversion in the late 1800s following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries to the Chin Hills, Christianity gradually became accepted by a large majority of Chin populations who had practiced traditional animism for centuries. A century later, Christianity has evolved into almost a second culture of the Chin people. Because many Chin traditional and cultural practices prior to Christianity were thought to be inconsistent with Christian beliefs, these practices were abandoned with acceptance of the new faith. The “Christian way of life” gradually replaced the “old life”. [1]

Because the Chin traditional religion was inseparably linked with the Chin way of life, transition to a new religion also meant changing some of cultural practices to make them consistent with the new Chin religion. In other word, they adopted Christianity not only as their new religion but also as part of their new culture. For example, the newly Christian converts would stage what is called “cleansing of the house,”[2] which involved removing of altars and “skulls of animals [they hung above their doors] that have been sacrificed in days past to appease evil spirits”.[3] At the same time, Chin Christians  abandoned many of their traditional feasts and sacrificial ceremonies which were associated with their past religion. These were “the key social and ritual activities through which the transformation of identities and communities are accomplished.”[4] Over the last century, the new “identity” or Christianity has become deeply entrenched in the Chin society.

The impact of Christianity was not only confined within the spiritual and cultural contexts of the Chin people. It manifested itself as a uniting force for different Chin communities who had been deeply divided and antagonistic to one another due to differences in traditional clan systems and isolated from one another by geographical barriers.  With their conversion to Christianity, the notion of acceptance replaced their traditional mindset of exclusionism, and Christian Chins embraced one another as members of a community of faith in Christ.  At the same time, there developed a new self-consciousness and political awareness of Chin cultural homogeneity, thus providing a new framework for Chin nationalism. Moreover, early missionaries introduced modern education and written communication to the Chin people.  

When Chin leaders signed the Panglong Agreement on February 12, 1947 to join the newly independent Union of Burma as an equal constituent state, from a religious point of view, it was more than merely becoming a political unit of a new modern state: it also meant having to live together with other religious groups within a greater political collective. As there is a correlation between ethnicity and religion in Burma, “political identification with Christianity, with the Church, gave the Chin a basis for treating the Burman on more or less equal footing.”[5]  According to Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, a prominent Chin scholar and an authority on the study of Chin religion and politics, the movements of Chin Christian institutions in pre-independence period have “inspired the new Chin [political] self-consciousness within the Union of Burma.”[6]   

In the post-independence era, through Christian religious associations such as Chin Hills Baptist Association (CHBA), also known inter-changeably with All Chin Baptist Association,[7] and now reformed as Zomi (Chin)[8] Baptist Association, Christianity continues to provide a venue for the Chin to develop their bonds and strengthen their relationships with one another.

Although some of their old cultural practices were discontinued, many Chin traditions were preserved by slightly modifying them to conform to Christianity. For example, because “there was no worship without feasts”[9] in old Chin culture, this tradition is carried on to the “new faith.” “Christmas (Khrismas), New Year (Kumthar) and Easter (Tho) became the most important social feasts and festivals for the new Chin Christian community.”[10]  Accordingly, as a cultural and religious practice, gathering and sharing with members of the community are important activities for the Chin people, functions that, in many parts of Chin State and in areas populated by Chin Christians, are now either restricted or disallowed under the present military regime.

In the late1970s, the Zomi Baptist Convention (ZBC), the highest religious institution of the Chin, launched an indigenous missionary program, Chin for Christ in One Century (CCOC), aimed at making the entire Chin people become Christians by the end of the twentieth century. Under the program, the ZBC recruited volunteer missionaries and evangelists from various parts of Chin State to carry out its mission in certain parts of Chin State, especially the northern part, and other adjoining areas inhabited by many non-Christian Chins. By the end of the program in late 1990s, the CCOC converted a large proportion of non-Christians, despite several restrictions and persecution suffered by the missionaries from the Burmese authorities, including coercion, intimidation and physical attacks by the army.

Christian pastors and ministers secure high reverence and respect among the Chin people. They are highly respected as intermediaries between God and the congregations. Even outside of the Church, they play significant leadership role on occasions such as death, birth or marriage in the community. Also, because there are no Chin people represented in the local or state administration under the Burmese military regime, even in a secular setting, they receive high degrees of respect as leaders of the community. Today, their dignitary position has attracted the attention and jealousy of the ruling military regime, making them the first targets in the regime’s campaign against Christianity and Chin people.

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[1]  Lian H. Sakhong, Religion and Politics among the Chin People in Burma. Uppsala University: 2000, p 340

[2]  Ibid

[3]  Ibid., 342

[4]  Ibid., 344

[5]  Lehman, F.K, The Structure of Chin Society. Urbana: Illinois University Press, p 5

[6]  Lian Hmung Sakhong’s Ph.D. dissertation: Religion and Politics among the Chin People in Burma, 1986-1949, was published by Uppsala University, Sweden in May 2000.

[7]  Ibid., 337

[8]  Zomi is synonymous name for Chin

[9]  Ibid., 348

[10]  Ibid.,349

[Salai Za Uk Ling is Associate Editor of CHRO publication Rhododendron Human Rights News. He is also co-author of CHRO's publication "RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christian in Burma"]

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