Friday, December 10, 2010

Notes On Faith

It is impossible to write about Nagaland without addressing religion.

I would have posted earlier except that I have not had the month of uninterrupted time that it would take to write a single paragraph of merit. I'll write something here, though, if you promise to keep in mind that the universe can't be explained through a set of styrofoam planets. I can only hope that this brief and scattered post will be better than nothing.

First, Nagaland is an overwhelmingly Baptist state surrounded by a continent of non-Christian people. Our introduction to modern Christianity in Nagaland went like this: Upon our arrival, Mele picked us up at the airport in Dimapur and drove us (straight up, back and forth) to Kohima. From the moment the car door shut, the Christian pop music started. The music continued for the entire two hours of the trip. Mele's cell phone ringer was also set to a Christian rock song. It is important to note that Mele is 23. Many articles that I have read suggest that Naga youth are at least, if not more, dedicated to the Church than previous generations.

We experienced several more examples of the role that Christianity plays in everyday life. One man said that, "Nagas love Americans because [we] were the ones who brought the good word." On several instances, highly-educated, professional people said, "We need you to open our eyes." I mistakenly assumed they were talking about economics or media culture. After reading more articles about the presence of the Baptist faith in Nagaland, I discovered that this was a phrase used by the missionaries and continues to be a phrase used by ministers today.

Over 90% of the Naga population is Christian, with the overwhelming majority being Baptist. Only a very small percentage practice Animism (the religion that was universal before the missionaries arrived), Hinduism, or Islam. Now, Nagaland is known as "the most Baptist state in the world". Throughout our travels, if we ever looked at a building and thought, "Wow!", it was safe to say that it was a church (the only exception being the police headquarters in Kohima which looks like the White House). Churches dominate the landscape in Nagaland. They seemed significantly out of place in the village environments, both in scale and architectural form. Most village gates held company with banners and signs announcing the name of the church in that village. The public/government trucks (delightfully covered with tinsel and colorful patterns that stretched from the wind-shield to the back bumper) were not shy in displaying religious slogans. In addition, Biblical scenes were often painted in enamel across the the passenger door.

The missionary movement was started when, in 1868, Dr. & Mrs. E.W. Clark sailed from Boston. There seems to be a widespread belief that, as the Nagas accepted Christ, they were "transformed into a peaceful and civil society". One of the arguments for the missionaries (by Nagas) is that the missionaries brought education, health care, public utility systems, and a plan for ensuring peace between the warring tribes.

While the missionaries were only met with minimal interest at first, the movement strengthened when the British withdrew from the Naga Hills in 1947. When India forcefully began to take control of Nagaland a few years later, the Christian movement gained further momentum. "Nagalim for Christ" became a popular rally call. India's decision to expel all foreign missionaries from the region again strengthened the alliance between Christianity and the hopes for a sovereign nation. The mission went into the 1960s and 1970s, with a significant revival happening in 1972, when Reverend Billy Graham made a 3-day visit to Kohima and over 500,000 people attended. Side note: Into the 1980s, many of the northeastern tribes had still not been converted from Animism. Several of the tribes in Burma are rumored to still be Animist to this day.

Nagaland is now training missionaries in record numbers. There are eight theological colleges that draw students from all over Asia, as compared to the University of Nagaland which draws primarily Naga students. Fr. Abraham Lotha, a world-renown anthropologist in native cultures, notes that the Naga Baptist Church Council (NBCC) currently has a goal of sending 10,000 missionaries throughout Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and China. While he supports their right to do so, he cautions about the potentially tragic scenario where Nagas, once stripped of their culture, participate in doing the same to others. "Nagas have to seriously examine the rationale of such a flawed argument. The villagers cannot be blamed for such misunderstandings after all they are only acting out their belief taught to them by their leaders." Whereas now it is common for Baptist churches to teach respect for the Naga culture, Dr. Lotha writes, "[It] sounds like an oxymoron. In reality, when the Baptist church began in the Naga areas, Naga culture was the first victim. Anything Naga was considered as that of the devil."

My own views on these issues continue to change directions as I read more and continue to reflect upon our small sampling of first-hand experiences. Initially, I assumed that the arrival of the missionaries was inherently bad and that their purposes were self-serving. Their actions [unarguably?] brought an end to a culture that will never regenerate to its original form. If, however, Naga people are truly happier in a Christian society than they believe they would be in an Animist society, who am I to say? Since this trip, I have started to play devil's advocate with my assumptions and wonder to what degree my skepticism of "spreading the good word" is tainted by my idealization of an indigenous culture (and isn't that self-serving?). Would I maintain the same desire to have a 19th century Nagaland if I had to live in it (and in saying this am I making the assumption that an Animist society would not have progressed in terms of public utilities, eduction, technology, etc)? Maybe it is because I am not connected to my own history that I feel invested in others who are. If I trace back far enough, my ancestors would be the colonizers and I am 100% sure that I don't want to embrace and/or protect that.

Mary Clark (Dr. E.W.'s wife) writes this about Naga culture in the late 19th century: "Every form of demon worship, open or suspected, was attacked--Sunday-breaking, rice-beer drinking, licentiousness, and all social vices...Instead of congregating promiscuously at different houses to sleep at night, singing objectionable songs, telling doubtful stories, and engaging in lewd conversation, these young [Naga] reformers separated themselves and built a dormitory for their own accomodation, in which purity and holiness should reign....The Nagas, once civilized and Christianized, will make a manly, worthy people." (Hello American Puritanism?) Her notes on Nagas being "savage", etc. are offensive on sooooo many levels. At the most tangible level, they fail to mention the deeply embedded, traditional Naga values that include respect for elders, forgiveness, care for each other, protection of the environment, patience, and (as we found out on a personal level) hospitality.

Perhaps with this very short introduction you can sympathize with my procrastination in blogging about the palpable presence of religion in present-day Nagaland. A Google search for "Nagaland Religion" brings up 323,000 hits alone, each with dramatically varied facts and perspectives. Before I sign off, I feel compelled to include two last tangents:

* I can imagine starting with a belief in one god and coming to the realization that there are many. I can also imagine switching philosophies on how the world works or how people should treat each other. I just can't imagine--on the most technical level--how one could believe in an infinite number of gods and then suddenly realize that this guy Jesus is the true savior. Doesn't that type of faith have to start at birth?

* The vast majority of thoughts that I have about Nagaland's past, present, and future are, in some way, linked to events that occurred in 1868 or 1947. Is that as bizarre as having a visitor come to the United States and then see it only through the lens of the Declaration of Independence? The clothes we wear? Declaration of Independence. The food we eat? Declaration of Independence. The subjects we teach? Declaration of Independence. Wait. That makes sense.

1 comment:

  1. Profound reflections. A small minority among Nagas are only beginning to realize what you have shared here.