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The Hmong Religious Experience
Hmong Christianity: Conversion, Consequence, and Conflict
By Vayong Moua
Nothing in this world can rip people apart... like religion. Nothing in this world can unite people... like religion. People have poured out their most intense animosities... for their religion. People have found extraordinary strength to forgive and care... in their religion. Religion releases our most extreme and deepest emotions (for those who are religious). It is the most powerful force on this earth because it penetrates all aspects of culture.
The Hmong are perhaps undergoing their most drastic cultural and religious change ever. In the inquiry about the Hmong, most scholars have focused only on the cultural or economic aspects of the Hmong. With the myriad of issues facing the Hmong, it's understandable to see a focus on our economic, youth, and political issues. Yet while enthusiastic research and study are being done in those areas, I believe that we are overlooking the impact and direction of Christianity in our culture. Culture and religion are deeply meshed together and it is a hazard to concentrate only on one and not the other. Especially in the Hmong culture, the two are interwoven to the point that distinction is not clear. Religion and culture are interdependent and greatly influence each other. This is exactly why it's extremely important to address how Christianity has affected the Hmong culture.
Some people say Christianity has scarred the Hmong forever and others say it has saved us forever. Whether we acknowledge it or not, conflict has arisen in the culture with the introduction and growth of Christianity. Tensions run and continue to build between the animists and the Christians on practicing and viewing traditional animist rituals. Regardless of the different opinions, I think all sides can agree that Christianity has revolutionized who we are and consequently affects what we will become as people. Christianity has contributed to sweeping changes in many spheres of the Hmong culture. It has altered, compromised, and even eliminated some rituals. Christianity has brought about a shift in hierarchy and has affected the leadership, gender, and age roles. Such changes have caused disagreement and division among the Hmong. This has resulted in tearing some families, friends, and clans apart. We are seeing a dichotomy that branches out and away from each other, rather than branching up and together. Due to the emergence of this cultural crisis, it is my hope and intention to identify the reasons for conversion, expose the cultural changes, and address the conflict. To me, the Hmong are people who cherish the values of peace, unity, and harmony. These values seem to have dissipated in the relationships between some Hmong Christians and Hmong animists. We should once again strive to preserve these core values.
This paper is more than an academic exploration about change in our culture! This is a call among our people to re-evaluate our values. This is a plea to reconcile and respect differences to halt the manifestation of further conflict. This is an order to expand our paradigms (without surrendering who we are) and listen to one another. Change is imminent...peace is not!
In 1899, Protestant work began in the area of Zhaotong in Northeastern Yunnan with the Tua Hua(greater flowered) Hmong (Tapp, 1989). This initial contact was lead by the Englishman named Samuel Pollard of the London Missionary Society (Tapp,1989). Pollard came to the Hmong in China at a time of severe economic and social deprivation. He interceded the Hmong in the aftermath of two rebellions (1797 and 1856) "which resulted in the mass migration of Hmong throughout China and into Yunnan and Tongkin" (Tapp,1989). Everywhere, tensions between the Hmong and the Majority Han and Li landlords erupted because of heavy taxes and high rents. Economically and politically crippled, the Hmong were desperate and eager for recovery.
Christianity and Pollard offered resources that were beneficial to the Hmong (considering the circumstances). Pollard "campaigned for the land rights of dispossessed Hmong tenants and initiated mass smallpox vaccinations" (Tapp,1989). Pollard also took it upon his duty to "enlighten" the Hmong by reforming traditional Hmong culture. Pollard burned to the ground enticing places for courting couples, integrated Western games, competitions, and athletics to Hmong festivals (Tapp,1989). He conducted mass conversions that were " the rule rather than the exception," and " above all he invented the first script for any Hmong language, a romanization in which the Bible was eventually printed" (Tapp,1989).
This leads us to the first motivation for conversion to Christianity. To convert to a different religion, the Hmong must be driven by more than material needs alone. Granted, the social and economic situations were key factors, but the focal point in conversion lies in "the desire for literacy"(Tapp,1989). Since the Hmong have always been the minority in terms of political status and population, literacy was an avenue to gain power. I think it can be expressed in this equation: Christianity = literacy = communication = power! Their minority status would be lessened with the ability to read and write. Christianity offered a way out of poverty through education and literacy.
A startling awareness about the lack of a written history hits us when we face Christianity. Christianity has a text reference (Bible) to preserve and uphold Christian morals and beliefs. It is a source of history, folklore, and spirituality. The Hmong too yearned for their own Bible. In the Christian context and Bible, Hmong people could find people and circumstances that they could relate and identify with. I believe that the Hmong people paralleled themselves with the people of Israel. Like the Israelites, the Hmong were poor nomadic people who were constantly under the political and social oppression of the dominant society. The Israelites were the "chosen people" who lived under the wing and protection of God. With the similar circumstances as the Israelites, the belief that an omnipotent God would save them is especially appealing to the Hmong. Some Hmong could see themselves as "true" Christians and have further included themselves in the people of God. This phenomenon leads us into the second motivation for conversion to Christianity.
Theirs a unique and striking relationship between Christianity and Hmong Animism. In Hmong folklore, theirs is a legend of lost writings and books. This is the story:
Long ago the Hmong lived on the north side of the Yellow River, but the conquering Chinese came and drove them from their lands and homes. Coming to the river and possessing no boats they debated what should be done with the books, and in the end they strapped them to their shoulders and swam across, but the waters ran so swiftly and the river was so wide, that the books were washed away and fishes swallowed them.
This is the story. When the British and Foreign Bible Society sent the first Gospels and these were distributed the legend grew --- the once upon a time lost books had been found, found in the white man's country, and they told the incomparable story that Jesus loved the Hmong. Only the imagination can conceive what this meant to these hillmen, some of whom traveled for days to view the books (Tapp,1989; W.Hudspeth,1937).
In the minds of many Hmong, the Bible was the "lost writings." This is extremely vital in understanding how Christianity manifests itself from this point on in the Animist context. With the belief that the Bible pertained specifically to them, the Hmong centralized Christianity around themselves. The second motivation for conversion lies in the belief that Christianity parallels with the Hmong legend of Hua Tais and 'Lost books.'
What is created is a messianic animist religion! Its animation is exemplified in the Paj Cai revolt. The Paj Cai revolt of 1918-21 is the earliest recorded Hmong rebellion, which the Hmong fought against the ruling regime of French Colonial Laos (Tapp,1989). This revolt was inspired by tax levied on opium products by the Tai officials and French. Paj Cai was a Vwj orphan who claimed to receive direct orders from "Huab Tais or legendary messianic hero who resisted the Chinese a number of times but finally was tricked into defeat and slain, and is said to be born from a mystical union between a human virgin and a boar (Tapp,1989). The blending of Christianity and Animism is obviously apparent with this legend. Paj Cai lead his Hmong soldiers into battle believing that the bullets of the French would not leave the barrels of their riffles; a young woman accompanied them with a "magical" apron that would catch the bullets that were released (Tapp,1989;Savina,1924). This revolt relied on the belief of physical protection from a spiritual force...a messiah.
In 1949, Hmong Messianic movements sprouted up again in Laos with the activation of Protestant missionary work (Tapp,1989). In a month of missionary contact, approximately a thousand Hmong converted to Christianity," and these mass conversions followed the announcement by a female shaman named Po Si about the imminent return of the Hmong Huab Tais or 'Emperor' "(Barney,1957). At this time, many Hmong prophets claimed to be Jesus himself (Smalley,1956). A Hmong movement known as the 'Meo Trinity' cult arose, which was focused on three Hmong men claiming to be the father, son, and Holy Spirit. They went from village to village imitating missionaries, burning animist alters, and even performing exorcisms. The 'Meo Trinity' was finally fragmented when the 'Holy Spirit' jumped off a mountain ledge believing he would turn into a dove (Barney,1957). Also, with the Vietnam War at hand, messianic myths flourished with vigor. A story circulated that Christ was about to return wearing American cloths in a jeep and distributing riffles(Tapp, 1989;Garret,1974). One can not help wondering how this 'prophecy' influenced the power of General Vang Pao? Another prophecy was made by the prophet Yaj Soob Lwj, who announced the imminent arrival the Hmong Messiah for September 15, 1967 (Tapp,1989; Lemoine,1972). Yaj Soob Lwj claimed to be revealed this revelation through a dream. Again in Thailand during the early 1960's, a mass movement was caused by the rumor of the birth of the Hmong 'King.' However, this Hmong 'King' was "told to eliminate all foreigners" and lead to anti-missionary attitudes (Tapp,1989). Therefore, it resulted in Hmong burning missionary homes, threatening missionaries, and threatening even converts (Tapp,1989; Heimbach,1979). Ironically, Christianity internalized into the Hmong culture (in this situation) caused the rejection of itself. Hmong messianism took on a life of its own and represents a complex reaction against missionary influence. The merging of Christianity and Hmong Animism was "an attempt to control an alien belief system by internalizing it and making it one's own" (Tapp,1989). In the words of Pollard,"Poor, simple, misguided people, one can't even smile at their mislead enthusiasm" (Tapp,1989). My question to Pollard is who is responsible for this "misguided enthusiasm?" The accusation that Hmong were solely "rice bowl" Christians is not a not an in depth view because "it ignores the complexity and the dynamic nature of Hmong spiritual beliefs, practices, and culture (Winland,1992)."
Why was Christianity so effective in producing Hmong converts(in Laos)? I've mentioned the desire for literacy and the parallel to Hmong legend, but there are more factors that account for conversion. Despite the rejection of missionaries by some religious radicals, missionaries still had a profound affect on conversion. Christianity did so well because of its aggressiveness in advertisement and endorsement (Lee,7-17-95). French missionaries used many tactics to attract and recruit Christians. They showed films, gave out Bibles, visited village homes, and gave out flyers about Christ (Y.T.Moua,7-12-95). Missionaries exposed their beliefs to the masses and converted in masses. Generally, Hmong converted in groups, such as families, villages, and clans (Tapp,1989). If the head of the household converted, then usually the rest of the family converted. If the village head converted, then usually the village converted. If the clan leader(s) converted, then usually the clan converted. The respect and following of authority and leaders in the Hmong culture is greatly responsible for mass conversion.
Missionaries brought with them western technology in medicine and tools, which were favorable and partly responsible for many conversions . Many Hmong fell ill to the harsh environment and lack of vaccinations. The sicknesses were blamed on bad and evil spirits (Y.K.Moua,7-13-95). Since missionaries provided the medicine, they were credited for spiritually and physically healing the sick. Because of the high success that western medicine brought, many Hmong believed that Christianity destroyed and protected them from evil spirits. They associated the healing power with the missionaries and not the medicine itself.
The disagreement among some Hmong families with Animist practices and fear of animist beliefs also influenced conversion. In Hmong Animism, if a person is sick or has had a recent health problem it is believed that it was caused by evil spirits. Therefore, those who are sick are not allowed to enter the house of others. For example, an animist family visited my home and the husband would not allow his wife to enter my home even though she is whole heartily welcomed. The wife just recently had a miscarriage, so the husband feared spreading and polluting my house with evil spirits. Some Hmong families felt this practice was discourteous and not hospitable to sick friends and relatives (Y.K.Moua,7-13-95). Yet they were animists and felt obligated to practice the religion. Christianity offered the belief in one god and eliminated 'natural' spirits of the world. Without 'natural' and evil spirits, then sick families and friends could always enter homes. In Hmong Animism theirs a complex realm of spirits in the environment, animals, ancestors, and present living people. Hmong Animism is dependent on a stable relationship with spirits that could harm you. It requires appeasement of spirits through rituals and sacrifices. Christianity is a religion that has a belief in supreme protection from an almighty god; This aspect of Christianity appealed to the Hmong, because then the spiritual world was simplified to two major powers...God and Satan only. Thus, those who opposed these aspects of Hmong Animism and felt secure from Christianity converted.
When we focus on America we find differences for conversion with the different waves of Hmong arriving. The majority of the first wave of Hmong came to the United States through Christian church sponsorships. Many Hmong families felt obligated to convert to show appreciation and respect for helping them come over. Church sponsors aided in providing housing, allowance, clothing, furniture, and many other material goods. Many Hmong saw the church as a social service and economic aide. However, it's also important to note that most churches indiscriminately contributed help to Hmong Christians and non-Christians.
The first wave of Hmong was composed mostly of those who were young and connected to the CIA. In America, when this wave needed spiritual rituals, they had few shamans around to conduct them since they were still back in Thailand and Laos (Lee,7-17-95). They also lacked the knowledge themselves to practice the rituals, and therefore sought out western medicine and Christianity (Y.K.Moua,7-13-95). If people were sick, they turned to a doctor (not a shaman). If they were worried, they prayed instead of sacrificing an animal. Lack of traditional knowledge and shamans directed many Hmong to Christianity.
For those who did practice Hmong Animism, they found difficulties in conducting animal sacrifices because of legal issues and the high cost of animals. Still, animal sacrifices are conducted underground and are still practiced at large by the animist community. In Laos, many families had their own animals to sacrifice, but here they had to find farmers willing to sell animals. This creates a new expense for the Hmong. For those who perceived this as an inconvenience, Christianity lingered as an option.
The more recent waves of Hmong faced different circumstances when they came to America. More and more sponsorships became the responsibility of relatives already here in America and not the church. Hmong families sponsored their own extended families over. Incoming Hmong were less affected by Church sponsorships. However, the church had become Hmong operated and took on a strong role in conversion. The Hmong Church provides social activities, a sense of solidarity, and networking. The Hmong church has expanded and grown into many denominations including Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and the largest group Hmong Alliance (approx. 2,500 in Twin Cities) (Tai,2-8-93). Hmong Christianity is no longer only a religious entity, it has become a social institution. As an organized group of Hmong Christians, Christianity gained recognition and influence within the mainstream and Hmong community. Structure and organization lead to more conversions.
Many of these later wave Hmong found themselves completely surrounded in a Christian context. They found that some relatives who came earlier have converted, Hmong churches have been established, peer groups at school and work were mostly Christian, and the country was seen as a Christian nation. Being Christian was perceived as being more American, which in turn would ease the adaptation process to the new culture. Christianity is also seen as a tool to integrate into the mainstream society (Y.K.Moua,7-13-95). Keep in mind that Hmong tend to convert in masses and that definitely affected the decisions of Hmong non-Christians enveloped in Christian surroundings. When your family, clan, and/or country changes...what do you do? Conversion was a social "advancement."
I believe that the prime factor for converting to Christianity in Laos and America lies in the economic, time, and energy efficiency in conducting Hmong traditional ceremonies. Christianity eliminated the payment of a bride price and animal sacrifice. The editing of these rituals greatly reduced the time, money, and labor. There is no "hassle" in negotiating a bride price. Fewer people are necessary to help conduct, cook, and aide with practicalities. At funerals, the reciting of long intricate songs paying attribute to ancestors and natural spirits is eliminated. For a traditional marriage, the parents and extended families play a magnificent role in the ceremony, whereas in Christianity mostly the pastor(priest) conducts the ceremony (Vue-Benson, 7-10-95). Christianity cut the time consumed to less than half of what Hmong Animism required. Weddings that took more than a day could be cut to less than a day, and funerals that lasted for several days could be cut to two days. These reformed rituals would reduce the economic cost substantially. Conversion becomes extremely attractive when considering this kind of "benefits" and makes life's events considerably more convenient. Conversion equals simplicity and convenience (Lee,7-17-95; Y.K.Moua,7-13-95; Vue-Benson,7-10-95; Y.T.Moua,7-12-95). When considering mass conversions with the notion of following the leader, sincerity of faith is brought to question. Bea Vue-Benson, a Hmong pastor, is concerned about this issue and exclaims," It scares me that people are converted in such massive groups. I think some of those people are converted because of peer pressure" (Vue-Benson,7-10-95)! How much did pressure affect the rates of conversion? This leads us into a philosophical inquiry about whether Christianity was imposed or willed upon the Hmong.
To better understand this issue, we need to examine the nature of missionary work with the Hmong. Why did missionaries come to the Hmong? It is not merely exposure of Christianity that are the intention and hope of missionaries. Theirs a "higher" goal which is to bring forth more Christians into the world. Missionaries preach about Christ, his ways, and his coming (Lo,7-10-95). More so, Missionaries preached about Judgment Day (Apocalypse) and the consequence of not believing in the Christian God...which is Hell! Missionaries used "rationality" in their recruiting methods by saying such things as " your friends and relatives converted why don't you?" Missionaries also had material goods (food, clothing, and medicine) on their side to find acceptance. Mr. Muaj Lo, a Hmong Christian and former missionary, says that "people can say no if they don't want anything to do with Christianity" and that it's "really the choice of the individual to embrace God" (7-10-95). Indeed, it is a choice, but we also have to consider what kind of options did missionaries offer. If you believe in what the missionaries believe, then you can go to Heaven. Likewise, if you don't believe in what they say, then you get to go to Hell. The point I'm trying to make is where do we draw the line between exposure and pressure? There is absolutely nothing imposing about trying to expose one's religion so others can learn and understand that particular religion. There is nothing wrong with trying to help people see your point of view. However, it does become detrimental and imposing when one uses scare tactics and aggressive persuasion. I'm not arguing that the Hmong were imposed upon by Christianity...only the Hmong people can answer that for themselves. What I'm saying is that some missionaries created little space for Hmong to move. Above all though, the Hmong made the final decision to convert or not.
In addressing the reasons for conversions, we also have to consider that some Hmong did convert because they accepted Christ as their savior. Some Hmong believe sincerely and are drawn to Christianity for purely spiritual reasons. Faith and genuine belief are also reasons for conversion. I would not be serving justice to Christians if I did not acknowledge a theological motivation for conversion.
Consequences and Change
So far, we've explored the reasons and circumstances surrounding the conversion of Hmong to Christianity. No doubt, Christianity has left deep impressions and has molded the Hmong culture into a form it has never had before. What has resulted because of conversion? What type of cultural, social, and religious changes have occurred?
When the Hmong initially converted, they were mostly either Catholic or Protestant. Most of the first converts were Catholic instead of Protestants. This is because " Hmong who become Protestants are compelled to renounce all of their old religious practices: instead of being an additive element like Catholicism, Protestantism completely replaces animism"(Chan, 55). Being Catholic or Protestant determined the flexibility and practice of ceremonies. Catholicism allowed the practice of traditional rituals as long as it was "in the name of God." For example, Catholicism allows Hmong to do the khi tes ritual which is a blessing ceremony. In this ceremony, friends and relatives tie white strings to the one(s) being blessed. Usually to be blessed with many children, money, success, or health. Hmong Catholics do this blessing in the name of God. Protestantism allowed no compromise or room for traditional practices. It depends on which denomination of Christianity the Hmong belongs to that determine their practice of traditional rituals. When some Hmong converted to Christianity the culture underwent sweeping changes. In particular, Christianity has affected two extremely important ceremonies of an individual's life...marriage and funeral. " The payment by a groom's family of a bride price to the bride's parents, arranged marriage, bride kidnapping," polygamy, " and the tradition of girls marrying within a year or two of reaching puberty are frowned upon" and deemed uncivilized by the Church (Chan,55). The traditional ways of courting, eloping, and negotiating has been denounced. In addition, some Hmong Christians also either substituted the consumption of alcohol to pay respect to relatives/ ancestors with non-alcoholic beverages or eliminated the whole ritual at weddings. As mentioned before, the time needed to conduct weddings were reduced. The wedding becomes more couple-oriented than family oriented (Vue-Benson,7-10-95). Thus, marriage has become more westernized.
For funerals, any notion or involvement of an ancestral or natural spirit has been eliminated and deemed sinful by Hmong Christians. Traditionally at funerals, a shaman will summon the dead's spirit and guide it back to all the places it has been as a living person. Following this, someone will tshuab qeej (play Hmong instrument) to repeat the ritual but instead the spirit is lead with music. They will tshuab qeej to notify the spirit that their friends and relatives have arrived to visit and invite the spirit to eat (Y.K.Moua,7-10-95). Christians do not practice "calling" spirits and ancestors to guide the dead into the underworld. Apart but similar to funerals, Hmong Christians do not ua neeb or hu plig because of the non-Christian spirits involved. Ua neeb is generally a ritual to spiritually and physically heal someone who is sick and to spiritual protect a person or home through a shaman's appeasement with spirits. This animist ritual is also used for psychic purposes to help find lost people. Hu plig is generally a ritual to consult the spiritual realm through a shaman to call a missing spirit back to an individual. The shaman will enter the spiritual realm to debate, bargain, and seek answers from the spirits. Hmong Christianity has rejected ua neeb, hu plig, spirit calling (at funerals), and tshuab qeej (at funerals) on the basis on being unholy.
Christianity has shuffled the hierarchy of power and the leadership structure of the Hmong. Traditionally, the elderly males have the dominant role in conducting rituals because of their experience, seniority, and knowledge of procedure. In Hmong Christianity, the power and leadership has shifted to the younger, skilled, educated, and Biblically versed male (mostly). Community decisions traditionally are made by the clan leaders, but within Christianity influential decisions are made by the heads of the church (pastors and committees). Hmong Animism never had a structured or organized system of leaders. It has no text of reference, committees, boards, non-profit organizations, charity funds, or communicate to the masses. It focuses mostly on a Shaman who is a healer and mediator between the spiritual realm and earth. Christianity has created a religious institution that operates politically, depends on funds, and addresses itself to the community at large. In Hmong Christianity, religion has become organized and leadership is no longer kinship or elderly based.
The roles of Hmong women have changed within the Christian context. In Christianity, women find a more active and critical role through participation. Women have more liberty and contribution to the community because they can participate in prayer, singing, and committees (Vue-Benson,7-10-95). Pastor Vue-Benson supports this statement and exclaims," I can read the Bible just as good as any man. I have access to the word of God. We(men and women) can all go to church. Worship space is ours...all ours! We are there together"(7-10-95). Hmong women have the power to even be a pastor (not a priest) to lead a congregation. They can also have women's choirs and organizations. Given they are literate in either Hmong or English, Christianity's beliefs and scriptures are accessible by women and men alike. Christianity is a religion that all who believe can create an intimate and personal relationship with a god. Unlike Hmong Animism, only the Shaman has access to the spirits and spiritual world. This aspect of Hmong Animism limits direct participation with the spiritual world to only the Shaman. Thus, limiting the role of women and men. However, woman can be shamans as well in Hmong Animism. In comparison to Hmong Animism, Christianity has given women more opportunities for participation, leadership, and expression. Christianity is still by no means a liberal belief system for women, but does offer more potential than Hmong Animism for women to empower themselves.
Perhaps no one's role has been more transformed and affected than the shaman's. Traditionally, the shaman has the role of a physician, psychiatrist, and religious person. They were upheld with profound respect and status. Christianity brought in the role of a pastor/priest who fulfilled the spiritual and psychological needs of people. More so, Western medicine fulfilled the medical and healing needs of the Hmong. In the conversion to Christianity, it is the shaman who is most marginalized. Shaman's services are in the greatest competition with Christianity. They have been the target of conservative Christians and accused of "devil" worshiping, witchcraft, and savagery. I asked a shaman how she felt and she replied," I'm not hurt by what they say. I'm not discouraged (Lee,7-17-95). Mrs. Lee went on to share a personal experience of lost respect. Her and a friend, both of who are shamans, were in the company of Christians when an "incident" erupted; "Those whom ua neeb can go home and starve," said the Christians. Mrs. Lee replied," If you go to heaven, then you go your own way. Why did you say that to me? Did you come directly from the womb of God? Why did you say that now? Let us go our own way! We are of only one kind and world; Let us all take care of it together," and then all was silent (Lee,7-17-95). I was curious as to how Christians view Shamans and realized that answers vary depending on denomination and personalities. As a Christian, Mr. Muaj Lo believes that a shaman has no place in his life at all (7-10-95). Furthermore, he says that a "shaman has a place in another religion. Christianity doesn't give shamans any status of any kind. Yet, they have their own place in their own right" (Lo, 7-10-95). In a sense, the Hmong shaman has been distanced from his/her own people because of Christian beliefs. The opinions of Christians about shamans range from respect and no belief to no respect and belief. In my eyes, the shaman remains as a precious and beautiful aspect of our culture.
The social activities and participation dynamics have been affected as well by Christianity. Who people gather with for social and recreation have become more determined by their religious affiliation. Christians tend to bond to Christians, and Animists tend to bond with Animists in all aspects of their lives. With few exceptions, the social activities have been based on congregation and religious beliefs. This focuses in on a living and growing conflict.
The cultural changes that have been brought forth have been drastic enough to cause conflict between Hmong Christians and Hmong Animists. All the new changes also brought division and difference between Christians and animists. In marriage, the "majority of conflict concerned the refusal to pay bride wealth at weddings, resulting in a tendency towards endogamy along lines of religious beliefs, and a consequent division of sub-clans, by faith, along kinship lines (Tapp,1989)." Today, most Hmong Christians tend to marry other Hmong Christian. It has become a "qualification" in a mate for the more conservative Christians. For funerals, some Christians will not attend the loss of a friend or relative because of the traditional rituals performed. Those who do attend select carefully not to come during a ritual. If they do intercede during a traditional ritual, they will not enter but will usually contribute financially to the family. Tension arises because debates often occur at such ceremonies about which religion is "true." Even if offense is unintended, the Christians may be interpreted as being arrogant and disrespectful to the dead and the dead's family because of their distant behavior. Conflicts over funerals also arise when the dead's family is already split between religions. The conflict is over how to conduct the funeral...Christian or animist? For example, when my aunt died their was debate over what kind of funeral should be conducted. My father is Lutheran, one uncle is a shaman, one uncle is a Hmong Alliance Christian, and one is an atheist. In a disagreement of this magnitude nobody walks away without getting wounded. As a result, the decision was made totally irrelevant to religion. My aunt had a Christian funeral that was decided by seniority...my dad is the oldest. The conflicts over funeral procedures continue today as an extremely sensitive and reactionary issue in the Hmong culture.
The conflict in the leadership sphere is focused on the break down of seniority status, elderly respect, and kinship solidarity. For Christians, the old and traditional Hmong are no longer the point of reference, consultation, or dialogue in the occasion of difficult decisions. Age no longer is a key attribute of leadership or respect. Respect belongs to the "proven" leaders who are qualified through speech, vision, and motivation. In essence... a skilled preacher. Hmong are beginning to identify themselves primarily with their congregation instead of with their clan. Denominations are becoming what the clan use to be; that is identification of ideology, history, and reputation. Traditionally, family is the number one value of life. For Christians, their allegiance to the family(extended) is diminishing as duty to the church calls. Naturally, conflict will arise since the traditionalists feel devalued and the Christians feel traditionalists don't understand the relationship between God and humans. As a result, theirs further distance and less family association within families with split religions.
As we look at the conflict psychologically, we see that both sides feel legitimate in their beliefs and disrespected from the other religious group. The Christians feel that they have been liberated from the old and sinful ways of religious worship. They feel that their god is the one and only "true" god, which is the most important value in all of life. God is above friends, family, and even the self. If a decision has to be made between family and God, then God will always win the decision of Christians. They feel connected to a higher source of love and life. Christians feel that Hmong Animists are sinful and therefore choose not to participate in "sinful" traditional rituals. Christians feel that Hmong Animists do not respect that they have chosen a new way of life and religion. They feel wrongly accused of not being Hmong. They defend themselves as Hmong...just not traditional. Christians believe that being Hmong doesn't mean being an animist. Bea Vue-Benson feels that when she is in a Hmong non-Christian setting, she doesn't receive reciprocity of respect and tolerance for her Christian beliefs. She also feels that their is more pressure for Christians to accept Hmong Animists than the animists to accept Christians (7-10-95). In general, Hmong Christians feel disrespected, misunderstood, and not tolerated by animists.
Interestingly, the Hmong Animists also feel disrespected because of holding onto the traditional ways and not converting. They feel that Christians look down upon them with arrogance and "holiness." Mrs. Pa Ger Lee definitely feels that there are demeaning gestures and words by Christians, but only by the ones who are ignorant and inconsiderate. For the most part, she feels that tension is there, but no one likes to address it unless the issue is forced (7-17-95). Some Hmong Animists feel that Christians have lost and forgotten the ways of being Hmong and have accused Christians as no longer being Hmong. Animism has been the religion of our ancestors for centuries and the logic is if a Christian rejects animism, they also reject our past. Traditional rituals are important to the animists not only for the spiritual aspect, but also for the family unity it creates. These are events to solidify the family as a group that grows and heals together. So when Christians do not attend the rituals, relatives are offended and the sense of togetherness is lost. The animists are especially hurt when told that their practices are evil and will lead them to eternal suffering in Hell. This represents a superior attitude that some Christians have in regards of being the only "righteous" religion. The conflict intensifies because it is more than a social clash; It becomes a theological battle over the "correctness" of beliefs and values. Hmong animists express that Christianity condemns who they are and what they believe even though their religion does not condemn Christianity. They feel that Christians are at fault for disregarding their past, criticizing their present, and condemning their future. In general, Hmong animists feel disrespected, misunderstood, and not tolerated.
Sadly, the conflict is escalating and has been powerful enough to break the bonds between friends and families. One incident recorded in the Twin Cities tells that the Christian son of a shaman would not allow his father to enter his home and bring in his "paper money, incense, drums and other ceremonial instruments--tools of his father's calling(Tai,2-8-93)." This is what the son told his parents:
Christians are better. If you become Christians, you go to heaven. You'll live with God. You'll live in paradise. Now, it's close to the end of the world, and God only wants Christians...If you don't become Christian, when the time comes, you'll burn and go to hell...I worry that if you and my brothers don't become Christians, we won't see each other forever (Tai,2-8-93).
He is the only son who never attends family gatherings even with the assurance of no animism. He has not eaten a meal in his parent's home since converting to Christianity(Tai,2-8-93). The mother is pessimistic about her relationship with her son and says," If you hold onto your old beliefs and worship your ancestors, if you die, you expect your sons to show up to mourn your death... I feel very, very sad. When I die, my son may not show up (Tai,2-8-93)." Family situations like this is scattered around the Hmong community. Granted, most families have not segregated in terms like this family, but many are feeling the tensions and attitudes among friends and family. It is estimated that 40% of the 18,000 Hmong in the Twin Cities are Christian (Tai,2-8-93). That is a fairly even ratio and Christians are continuing to grow. With a Hmong population nearly split down the middle in religion, I see a need to magnify this issue before it fragments the Hmong even more.
Both sides feel the friction between them and some are trying to reconcile their differences. Others continue to look the other way and let it be. How and can this conflict among our people be resolved? Religion relies on faith and devotion in one's spiritual source, which leaves little room for compromise. Yet, Pastor Vue-Benson believes that the Hmong can integrate aspects of Hmong animism into Christianity. She believes that "Hmong confuse Christianity with culture" and people believe that "if you become Christians, everything has to be new. Why contain any past cultural practices? At funerals, why burn paper money. That represents everything that is Hmong and the old way (Tai; Vue-Benson, 2-8-93)." Pastor Vue-Benson believes practicing traditional culture is acceptable and you don't have to disregard all of the traditional ways (7-10-95). For example, "if a church would be empty of pews, Hmong members could sit on the floor. Or a church could incorporate a Hmong New Year tradition of receiving blessings (Tai; Vue-Benson, 2-8-93)." As long as there is no spiritual connotation, she believes practicing traditional culture can be enriching. In her view, the Native Americans are capable of merging animism with Christianity, then so can the Hmong (7-10-95)!
Some Christians feel that the conflict can not really be resolved and the best we can do is respect differences. Christian theologically can not condone or practice any spiritual ritual that is non-Christian. The whole belief system in Christianity centralizes around serving and believing in only their god. That principle can not be altered or compromised. Some Christians interpret that principle as including observation and presence at non-Christian events. That is why Hmong Christians choose not to attend and be present at traditional events, which is the cause of major tensions. Yet, I believe that if you are a truly "faithful" person and confident in your own beliefs, then you should be able to enter any place on this earth and not be feel "faithless." I have a friend who would not attend a ua neeb ritual because he felt that his presence alone was "sinful" and could have "sinful" consequences. He did not want to be responsible for any "sinful" outcome that may result from his actions. I asked him," What if you were a student studying abroad in a traditional society in Africa. During your stay there, the natives welcomed you by thanking the spirits in the trees. They performed animal sacrifices to their gods to show their gratitude for your opportunity to come. Furthermore, a child in the village was sick with malaria and a shaman was summoned to heal the child with a spiritual dance. All this time, you were present. Are you being "sinful" by being there?" In the same sense, is it really sinful to observe and learn from a different religion. Can't you be a student of your own traditional religion? For example, a Christian can be present at a hu plig ritual that a relative has invited her. That particular Christian can attend to glean the richness of diversity in this world. She can take with her a better understanding of how her ancestors spiritually dealt with their problems. She doesn't have to give up any beliefs or part of herself in a non-Christian setting. She has only the opportunity to incorporate and add knowledge of a different religion into her perception the world. The same goes with the animist who goes to a church. The animist can go to a church as an anthropologist studying the ways of Christianity without betraying her own religious beliefs. What I'm expressing is that "true faith" allows an individual to be anywhere, if the individual is secure in her own value system and beliefs. This message pertains to all people and not only Christians and animists. If the Hmong can acquire an integrative and additive frame of mind, then resentment, tension, and conflict would be at our mercy.
What lies ahead in the future of the Hmong? Some believe that the Hmong will eventually become wholly Christian as the elderly traditionalists die off with their knowledge. This could be true because fewer shamans are rising or "called," their is a lack of recorded traditional knowledge, and high rates of conversion continue today. Yet, some feel that their will always be a constant struggle between Hmong Christians and Hmong Animists because some of the youth are revitalizing and preserving traditional Hmong culture; At the same time as Hmong converting to Christianity and organizing themselves institutionally. Will the dichotomy diverge further apart? Regardless of what happens, whenever a culture adopts and tries to replace a religion...volcanic emotions will arise. The conflict is still developing and we should not wait until it peaks to call attention to the conflict. The urgency is now and today, not in the aftermath.
The Hmong is dividing like an impregnated ovum! Lines of division are being drawn and walls are being built to highlight our differences. Their is a culture gap between the Hmong and mainstream America. Their is a culture gap between generations of the Hmong. Their is a culture gap among the different refugee waves arriving in America. Their is a culture gap between gangs and the whole society. Their is a religious and culture gap between Hmong Christians and themselves. Not surprisingly, their is a culture and religious gap between Hmong Christians and Hmong Animists. No doubt, the differences among our people are growing and we are changing as a whole. We must not fear change or try to fight unavoidable conflict. Yet, I believe that the religious conflict between Hmong Christians and Hmong animists is unnecessary and resolvable if we can all affirm our beliefs without limiting our vision of the world.
Lack of respect on both sides seems to be the cause of conflict (Lo,7-10-95). But...can restoration of mutual respect alone resolve this conflict? Very possible...but we must desire and demand more than reconciliation. That only leads to stability and not progress. Peace is necessary, but not the ultimate goal. This is my hope, that we do more than acknowledge and respect differences among ourselves! I hope that we can go beyond that level and appreciate the different religions for what they express about humanity and life. Their is a beauty waiting to be revealed about the diversity of how creation, life, and death are viewed to those willing to reach over and pull in.
In researching and writing this paper, I've learned a tremendous amount about the transformation of the Hmong. I was motivated to write this because of the lack of address and recognition of Christianity's impact on our people. It grows within the Hmong and infiltrates many components of our culture. The effects of Christianity are profound, yet often disguised and dormant in the minds of people. The conflict in religion has been overshadowed by our social and adaptive conflicts. I realize that a paper like this is only touching the surface of the water. Yet, I hope that this can serve as a trampoline to create further dialogue and discussion for addressing the religious conflicts in the Hmong community. This paper is a blend of my ethnographic research and my personal philosophy. It refuses to be distant and objective to the readers. I hope my opinions have been stated and heard. Anthropology is not effective without passion.
Where are the bridges in this community of islands? Our connection is being Hmong! Before we are Christians or animists(whether we acknowledged it or not)...we are Hmong! So...what does being Hmong mean? To me, Hmong means strength, vigor, peace, and perseverance through unity. I say, embrace and recapture our essence.
1) G.L. Barney, "The Meo--an Incipient Church," Readings in Missionary Anthropology 4,2 (1957), pp. 31-50.
2) Bea Vue-Benson, Lutheran Pastor, Graduate of St. Olaf College and Northwestern Seminary, Major: Women's Studies/ Religion, resides in Minneapolis,MN (7-10-95).
3) Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America, S.Chan, Temple Univ. Press, Philadelphia, (1994).
4)Pa Ger Lee, Shaman, resides in Eau Claire, Wi (7-17-95).
5) Muaj Lo, Supervising Court Interpreter, Graduate of Dartmouth College, Major: Asian Studies/Chinese Lit. and Culture(Pre-Med), resides in St. Paul, MN (7-10-95).
6) Yong Kay Moua, City Intern Coordinator, resides in Eau Claire, Wi (7-13-95).
7) Yong Thao Moua, Shaman/student, former P.O.W., resides in Eau Claire, Wi (7-12-95).
8) W.A. Smalley, "The Gospel and Churches of Laos," Practicing Anthropology Vol.III, (1956), pp.45-57.
9) W.S. Tai,"Hmong families torn by collision of old and new," Star Tribune, (2-8-93).
10) N. Tapp,"The Impact of Missionary Christianity Upon Marginalized Ethnic Minorities: The Case of the Hmong," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20,1 (National University of Singapore 1989),pp.70-95.
11) D.N. Winland, "The Role of Religious Affiliation in Refugee Resettlement: The Case of the Hmong," Canadian Cultural Studies 24,2 (1992).
1) Hmong: Cultural Conflict and Adaptation, Trueba, T. Henry, The Falmer Press, Bristol, PA (1990).
2) J.J. Lucke,"Hmong Identity and Religion: Maintaining While Changing," (1992).
3) Rev. D. Taillez, "A New Heart: Hmong Christians in America," Migration World 21,2/3 (1993).
4) K. Thao, "Letter to Dr. Hendricks Requesting Funding for Research on the Development of the Hmong Church," (1989).
5) C. Williams, "Culture and Religion: Areas of Conflict and Protection," Reasons for Living and Hoping, (1988) pp. 65-8.
6) D.N. Winland, "Christianity and Community: Conversion and Adaptation among Hmong Refugee Women," Canadian Journal of Sociology (1994).
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