I remember coming across those incessant “pray for Bhutan” calls in the early 2010s. The Bhutanese Christians are being persecuted! screamed the requests.
But I didn’t pay much attention then. Only when I started writing for Daily Bhutan recently that I’ve taken a real interest in the country.
Nestled in the eastern Himalayas between China and India is a small landlocked country frozen in time. Steep in folklore, they quantified happiness, play a unique form of archery, and have breathtaking terrains. They are also the only carbon-negative country in the world!
I’ve never been there myself. But writing about Bhutan and editing a book on the country has enticed me — I admit I’m in love with a place I’ve never been.
While combing the Internet for various info on Bhutan, I landed on a topic that entertains, annoys, and piques me at the same time — Christianity.
More accurately, the ‘persecution’ of Christians.
Sigh. Naturally, with ‘persecution’ comes prayer.
Pray for Bhutan! Pray for the persecuted Christians in Bhutan! Pray! Pray!
Naturally, Bhutan made it onto the World Watch List and is currently at number 43.
The Joshua Project published a Bhutan 30-Day Prayer Guide.
According to Open Doors,
Buddhism is engrained in daily life in Bhutan, and anyone who leaves Buddhism to follow Jesus is viewed with suspicion by neighbours, friends and even immediate family. Conversion brings shame upon the family, who will often go to great lengths to bring the convert back to their original faith. If everything fails, converts’ families will disown them. Because life in Bhutan is still very communal and the proximity and protection of the family are important, being disowned is a significant form of persecution against converts from Buddhism to Christianity.
Government officials will do whatever is necessary to preserve the country’s Buddhist heritage. Many officials are heavily influenced by Buddhist monks, and there is a longstanding practice of monks working in and for the government.
I found this puzzling
Although the country is predominantly Buddhist, I get the impression that the Bhutanese are not bigots when it comes to religion.
25% of the Bhutanese population are Hindus, especially the Lhotshampas, a group of settlers that originated from Nepal.
Shivalaya Mandir, a Hindu temple in Samtse, was even rebuilt by the fifth King as a gift to the people of Samtse to commemorate the Royal Wedding in 2011.
The temple spots carved sandstone, marble statues of Lord Shiva, and other Hindu deities. It is a national treasure and a popular tourist attraction.
Other than the Hindus, practitioners of Bon (animism) populate the Zhemgang district of southern Bhutan. The Bonpo (Bon priests) are considered respected religious leaders.
Furthermore, some sources profess that although the general Bhutanese population are Buddhist in faith, they are Bon in daily rituals. This is a beautiful example of syncretism that we should all aspire towards.
As far as I can tell, neither the Hindus nor the Bons have complaint about getting persecuted for their faith.
The current King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, hits me as a well-read erudite. He even attended Wheaton College and eventually graduated from Magdalen College, University of Oxford.
Adrian Chan from Singapore was considered for a role as a leadership resource personnel in Bhutan. When he first received an invitation to meet with the King, he was surprised but decided to take it up anyway.
During the interview, the first question was about his religious beliefs. To this, Adrian responded that he was a Christian. The King replied that “it’s okay”. (Somehow, Adrian saw this as an “affirmation from God” and moved his family to Bhutan for 3 years while he served the King.)
So far, I am of the persuasion that the Bhutanese embrace different cultures.
Therefore, I have trouble believing that the Bhutanese government will silence one segment of society for their religious beliefs.
So what exactly is this persecution they speak of?
According to a blog post by Peanut Gallery in 2013, the ‘local administrators… deny meetings and put obstacles in the way of believers.’
Apparently, the Bhutanese media ‘portrays Christians negatively’.
‘Christianity is viewed as a religion that brings the sort of chaos and division in society that Bhutan shuns.’
Division? Chaos? Hmmm…
Here’s a thought. Maybe they don’t have a problem with Christians per se. Perhaps their issue is with one certain sub-culture of the Christian tradition that has given all Christians a bad name.
Perhaps it is this tiny segment that is perceived as divisive and chaotic by the Bhutanese who value unity and community?
The evangelical Christians.
Consider this story
A nice guy named Kencho Kinle (not real name) had his family cursed by ‘the most powerful sorcerer in Bhutan’. As a result, he watched helplessly as death ensnared his wife, their 3 children, his sister-in-law and her children.
But before his fourth child succumbed to the spell, someone told Kencho that if he ‘put his faith in Christ,’ his son ‘will be saved’. He did — and his son survived. So he became a Christian.
More than twenty years later, Kencho has returned to his village many times to ‘share the gospel’ with his extended family — which is evangelical talk for converting others into Christianity.
This is a man who has made a habit of trying to convert anybody he can get his claws on. He said, “Whether they listen or not, whether they respond or not, I believe that my job is to share the Gospel.”
Is it Christianity? Or is it white American evangelicalism?
The reason some people feel compelled to go around converting people to Christianity is because of a narrow interpretation of the bible. Chances are, they are evangelical Christians. And not just any evangelical Christian, but a particular brand of white American evangelicalism.
I argued in my essay The Reading Lens of the Malaysian Chinese Christians, published by In God’s Image: Feminism, Faith and Theology Reflections, Vol 39, that the Malaysian Chinese Christians (as with many other evangelical Christian communities all over the world) have imported a carbon copy of white American evangelicalism.
Instead of integrating the Christian faith into the local culture, they have somehow downloaded a replica of white-people Christianity. ‘Renewed in the spirit’ has somehow come to mean discarding the bits of our heritage that the white people decided are ‘occult’.
This is why ‘accepting Christ’ in Malaysia has become synonymous with smashing Taoist idols and refusing ancestral worship (at least there’s conversation about the latter. Fun fact: the Jesuits initially okayed for the Christians in China to venerate their ancestors until the Dominicans decided to be assholes about it).
Furthermore, people are not given a real choice in converting — not with evangelical Christian doctrine. Because “accept Jesus or forever burn in hell” is not a real choice in the way that “give me your wallet or I’ll stab you with this kitchen knife” is not a real choice.
Some profound Brian McLaren wisdom
In Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, a (partially fictional) character met with a group of Native American pastors. He asked the pastors if they practiced Native culture in their worship of the Christian God.
Finally one of them said, ‘No, we don’t.’ And then, all around the room, they started to admit that they didn’t use any Native culture in their services, that the missionaries had told them it was all of the devil, that sort of thing. Then one of the men made a confession. I could tell that it took some courage for him to say this.
He said, ‘Actually, I do still go to “the sweats,” and for me it is part of my worship.’ He then explained the ritual of the sweat lodge: ‘I take off my clothes—which is like getting honest before God. Then I go down into the sweat, which is like going down deep into my heart. I am there, naked, with all my brothers, which is a reminder that I am part of a community and I can have no pride or pretense in front of them. Then we pour water on hot rocks over a fire, and the rocks make steam. This is like prayer, and as I pour the water, I confess my sins to God. The more I confess, the hotter it gets, and the hotter it gets, the more I sweat. The sweat is like purification. So for me this is a meaningful part of my worship now that I’m a Christian. I’ve never told anyone this—you might think that this is terrible.’
One of the other pastors spoke up and said it really did concern him. It sounded to him like syncretism, like adulterating pure Christianity with pagan elements. He said that we shouldn’t mix worship of the One True God with elements from other religions. The silence became uncomfortable until this same fellow started to speak again, with tears now streaming down his face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘That wasn’t me speaking. That was my seminary speaking through me. Please forgive me. I really think what you just said about the sweats was beautiful.’
It took him a couple of minutes to finish speaking, he was so choked up—it was really quite moving to see how emotional this was, not just for the two men who had spoken but for all of them. Then this man continued, ‘I am Hopi, and one of the most meaningful memories in my life is being a boy, before our family became Christians, and being at the powwow. We would dance and dance for hours each day. You see, in
Hopi culture, dance isn’t just symbolic. Dance is actually a form of prayer. Every time my foot stamps on the ground, I’m saying something to the Great Spirit that I could never put into words. My whole body is praying as I move around the circle.’
By this time, he was standing and demonstrating the movements. Then he sat down again and put his head in his hands. ‘One of my greatest dreams,’ he said, ‘would be someday to lead my congregation in a Hopi dance of worship to my Savior.’ Then he really started to weep, and the other men went around him and put their hands on his shoulders, and one of them prayed for him. What a moment that was. I’ll never forget it.
But it made me wonder, wouldn’t it flow the other way too? I mean, Christ would influence the culture, but wouldn’t the culture influence Christianity too? I guess that concern about syncretism that the Hopi pastor expressed was also a concern of mine.
Neo’s voice sounded a little sharp as he responded, “Well, syncretism is usually what Christians who are thoroughly immersed in one culture talk about when Christianity is being influenced by other cultures. So, for example, modern Western Christians are very sensitive to a potential syncretism with postmodernity, but they are for the most part pretty oblivious to how enmeshed their version of the faith is with modernity.”
“To some degree I think syncretism is unavoidable. For example, when the gospel came to the Greco-Roman world, the Greeks and Romans got the gospel, but Christianity got Plato and Aristotle and Socrates too, for better or for worse. Or take democracy—we certainly didn’t get that from the Bible alone; the Athenians had something to do with it. But most of us
hold it pretty dear—just as medieval folks held to the idea of monarchy as being God’s sanctioned form of government. So syncretism is pretty hard to avoid.”
He goes on to suggest a few frameworks in which to read scripture.
I am right now in a season of my life where I’m minimising scripture because it’s getting in the way of authenticity. So I prefer not to delve into that for now. However, if it interest you, I encourage you to read the book.
I have a sneaky suspicion about the brand of Christianity that has perversed Bhutan
According to an article by Charisma News in 2011, Prime Minister Jigmi Yoser Thinley related that the government sought to deter conversions through a penal code that criminalises proselytisation. Likely, this is part of the reason the Christians in Bhutan feel so ‘persecuted’ since they are not allowed to ‘share the gospel’.
During an interview in his office, the Prime Minster said that “inducing a poor person by manipulating the social and economic disadvantages and circumstances of that person, to accept your religion, on the ground that it is superior to mine,” divides society.
“And I have seen families being divided in the country. I have seen communities being divided.”
He went on to say, “Having read most of the books [of the Bible], having attended church in my young days every Sunday, and then again every weekday when I was in school except for Saturday, I know that it is a good moral and ethical framework for the functioning of a good society.”
“But just as I would not encourage and not think well of a Buddhist trying to convert a Christian, I think I feel the same way [about a Christian trying to convert a Buddhist].”
“When a dying patient is being whispered into the ear, [to the effect that ] the only way to survive is to disown your religion and to accept this new faith, and when this whisper is being done by a doctor or by an attending nurse, I think it is the greatest sin one can commit,” he said.
“When a poor parent is being told that, ‘Look, your child cannot go to school; you change your faith and we will provide you the possibility to ensure that your child can attend school,’ that is corruption. And when a poor family is being told that, ‘Why don’t you embrace our faith because then you don’t have to bear any cost for the burial of this person who is about to die in your family—it will be free,’ that’s corruption; that’s bribery.”
Of course, the Christian leaders denied all of these. I’ve not seen the evidence so I cannot confirm that they indeed used these methods of coercion in Bhutan.
But as somebody who was deeply immersed in the evangelical Christian culture from age 0 until a few years ago, I can swear that those claims sound exactly like evangelical Christian behaviour.
Because of toxic faux-theology, evangelicals are so set on converting everybody to that specific brand of evangelicalism. They are unintentionally disrespectful of other religions.
Inadvertently, they erase existing culture, all the more for a country like Bhutan where Buddhism and culture are one.
And because their central doctrine is to either subscribe to the faith or risk hell, of course they will forge a deep chasm between family members, and in sectors of society.
This has happened in Malaysia. No doubt it’ll happen in Bhutan if the evangelical Christians get their way.
Then, bye-bye, peace.
Bhutan has recognised Christianity as an official religion
I’m happy that the Bhutanese Christians can now worship openly. Freedom of religion is a basic human right.
Nonetheless, this is not a passport to go around destroying culture. It is not permission to divide society.
And it is, sure as hell, not an invitation to ‘preach the gospel’ to everyone.
Bhutan sounds like a paradise of culture and heritage, rich in legends and devoutly spiritual. I can’t wait to visit. Please don’t ruin it before I do.