ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Global Christianity: remaking social worlds in South and Southeast Asia

Location Quincentenary Building, Seminar Room
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Arkotong Longkumer (University of Edinburgh) email
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This panel will discuss issues surrounding enlightenment ideals of human agency and their relationship with Christianity. It will investigate how these ideas have travelled, examining some of the challenges that the cross-cultural investigation of Christianity presents.

Long Abstract

Anthropology as a 'secular' discipline has had a particularly fraught relationship with Christianity, associated with its implicit theological agenda and with Western Imperialism. But Christianity's concern for the human subject has refused to subside as it has deliberated more on notions of enlightenment, progress, individualism, and agency than any other modern movement. In today's world, Western values are entering into discourses and practices across the globe due to Christianity's reach into these regions (Keane 2006), raising vital questions about the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Zomia - highland communities in South and Southeast Asia - provides an opportunity to examine these ideas, with one of the largest concentration of Christians in Asia.

Although 19th century Christian missions among the valley Hindu and Buddhist populations largely failed, the expansion of British economic interests at the empire's mountainous periphery generated renewed interests to 'enlighten' and 'civilise'. As missionaries found these indigenous communities receptive to Christianity, it took on new forms, shaping new identities and vocabularies for human agency, particularly in the form of post-colonial nationalisms. We ask how Christianity unravelled these social worlds that brought about changes to (or ruptured) traditional livelihoods. What new ideas emerged from the interaction between Christianity, with its enlightenment influences, and these indigenous communities? How is Christianity shaping and refashioning these communities within existing nation-states? We invite contributions that address Christianity and questions of human agency with a particular focus on Zomia, while illuminating the value for broader theoretical comparison in the emerging field of the anthropology of Christianity.

Discussant: Alexander Chow (University of Edinburgh)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


"Along kingdom's highway": the proliferation of Christianity and the emergence of national identities in Northeast India

Author: Arkotong Longkumer (University of Edinburgh)  email


Christianity has become a powerful tool for articulating identity in Northeast India. This paper seeks to address its impact by examining its interaction with historical and geopolitical forces in the Northeast.

Long Abstract

The spread of Christianity in Northeast India has been unparalleled in comparison to other parts of India. Part of this is due to the fact it is on the periphery geographically in relation to 'mainland India', and partly because the mountainous topography of Northeast India means that, in an important sense, it is closer to Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. This geographic isolation and its geo-political reality has meant that Christianity is able to provide a crucial difference, a crucial and distinct identity, from the Indic and Buddhist civilisations that surround it. Why does Christianity offer a distinct regional identity in the Northeast? Understanding this question requires an in-depth examination of the missionary influences - coming via America and Britain. This paper will chart the particular influence of the introduction of print capitalism, education, and self-rule by these missions that above all privileged human agency to determine one's future. Christianity, therefore, created, what Scott calls, 'zones of resistance' that were increasingly suspicious of the Indian state and Indic civilisation. Christianity has provided a meaningful narrative for people's place in the world and given the tools to shape an identity that has significantly altered the region.

From millets to rice: missionary evangelism and the politics of the new faith in the Naga Hills

Author: Debojyoti Das  email


The paper looks at social change in Naga life worlds through the prism of syncretic religious adaptations that has transformed their belief system as well as their way of life.

Long Abstract

This paper contests the commonly held view that missionary influence "modernized" tribal life worlds, with reference to the specific case of Sema and Ao Naga missionary activity amongst the Yimchunger's of Tuensang district, Nagaland. It argues that in this particular case, social change was not propelled by modernization or technological changes brought about by the state or church actors, but by syncretic religious adaptations and control over local land and labour relations by faith based institutions. The government's counter insurgency operation in the 1950s worked hand in hand with the diffusion of wet rice cultivation technologies developed by the agriculture department staffs, known as Village Level Workers or Keku Babu in Yimchunger dialect. Incentives such as subsidies, new seed supplies and loans for building terraces and irrigation work led to the creation of a new elite middle class and land consolidation by people who worked as state agents and go betweens in the village. The emerging elites used customary laws to their advantage to define property rights and land use without any substantial shift to sedentary terrace farming. On the contrary, the diffusion of a new faith, by the Baptist missionaries, since the late 1950s produced a new chain of relationships in which rice was preferred as the crop of civilization by the church missionaries and their converts in predominantly millet and job tears based jhum economy. The church played an instrumental role in bringing about social change in frontier Naga villages by altering crop choices and Yimchunger dietary habits.

'Even if we are Christian, we have to keep our culture, our identity': Baptist Protestantism and the practice of cultural revival in the Indo-Burma borderlands (the case study of the Sumi Naga)

Author: Iliyana Angelova (University of Oxford)  email


The paper will present some of the most important ways in which a Sumi Naga community is trying to revive and preserve aspects of its traditional pre-Christian culture while maintaining Baptist Protestantism as their primary identity marker.

Long Abstract

The paper will explore the ways in which a Sumi community is engaged in a creative re-construction of their collective identity by drawing both on their contemporary religion (Baptist Protestantism) and their traditional pre-Christian culture. A sense of perceived loss of roots and cultural identity has motivated the revival of some elements of the traditional Sumi culture (especially the Sumi language, some pieces of traditional clothing, handicrafts and festivals) which are viewed by the Sumi as representative of who they were and should continue to be. The paper will present the ways in which the cultural revival is negotiated within the community, the power dynamics which determine its scope and manifestations and the Baptist church's perceptions of and responds to it. Significantly, as the paper will argue, the cultural revival has not diminished the centrality of Baptist Christianity to Sumi self-ascriptions and perceptions of identity, but is rather thought to have enriched them and given Christianity a stronger cultural foundation. In asserting that not all pre-Christian cultural and social custom was 'bad', as devout foreign and local missionaries used to preach throughout 20th-century Sumi conversions, and some of it is worth preserving (or reviving) by 'true' Christians nowadays, the Sumi seem to be re-claiming their agency in redefining their collective identity while re-situating it firmly within God's divine purpose and will.

Development of local ecclesiology of the Zomi (Chin) assemblies of god (AG) in Myanmar: a case study in contextualization

Author: Denise Ross (University of Birmingham)  email


This research investigates how Chin Pentecostalism has contextualised their theology to their socio-economic context, using a case-study of the ecclesiology of the Zomi AG.

Long Abstract

Researching Chin Pentecostal theology is significant because of the dearth of studies on Pentecostal contextualisation and the expulsion of foreign missionaries from Myanmar was opportune to develop local theology. Some scholars of Pentecostalism maintain that Pentecostals are insensitive to culture and are irrelevant to socio-economic concerns yet the Chin AG themselves claim that their church is well contextualised to their culture, but these claims have not been investigated comprehensively. This empirical research tests existing contextual models on the Chin to examine how they contextualised their ecclesiology and if Pentecostals have unique characteristics to contextualise.

Qualitative ethnographic research methods including participant observation and interviews are used, as well as theological analysis of documentary sources. The research sample includes AG leaders, pastors, theologians and theological educators as well as the congregation of Zomi AG churches in Yangon and Kalaymo in Myanmar. The findings from this research will provide evidence regarding how the Chin developed local theology and how contextualised it is, examining the influence of their own socio-economic context. The influence of the American Baptist missionaries who formerly established their theological foundations and introduced cultural changes will also be examined.

The main conclusions drawn from this research will be what criteria and process the Chin used in contextualising their theology to their socio-economic context and how this dynamic may be generalised to apply to other Pentecostal contexts. The thesis will then try to formulate principles of contextualisation specific for Pentecostals, based on the findings from the case-study and interaction with contextualisation theory.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.