Chin Tribe: A Case Study of Contextualization

This post is based on the notes from a number of students of mine from the Chin tribe. I don’t have first hand experience with the group… just insights from  my students. I believe, however,  the items they mentioned provide some insight in healthy or critical contextualization.

When Christian missionaries arrived in the region of the Chin (in modern-day Myanmar) they found an animistic tribal society. It is possible that these missionaries first noticed the negatives. This would include belief in a world of evil spirits and spirits of departed ancestors that must be appeased through killing animals (and in some cases revenge). They may also have seen the practices of headhunting, mistreatment of women, and the ravages of alcoholism.

Today, the Chin tribe is mostly Christian. How did this happen? The nearby Burmese have had relatively few conversions to Christianity.

One obvious suggestion would be that Christian missionaries reaching out to the Chin people were especially good at their job, as compared to those reaching out to the Burmese. Another possibility was that the Chin people had a culture that was more conducive to respond to the Christian faith.

 A. Despite the obvious differences between Chin culture and Jewish/Christian culture, there were a number of major similarities. First, they believed in life, followed by death, followed by afterlife. This differs markedly with other groups in Southeast Asia that believe in reincarnation. Second, they believed in “heaven.” The place they believed in was called “Misi Khua” or Abode/village of the dead. They also believed in atonement. A cattle liver was needed by the departed to enter Misi Khua. The sacrifice of a pig or mythun (a local bovine) was also needed to make peace between enemies or quarreling families, and appease dead ancestors.

B. There are some obvious redemptive analogies. One of these is the atonement as listed above. The necessity of a liver to be allowed to enter Misi Khua (“heaven”), or the use of sacrifice (pig or mythun) to make peace and forgiveness where there is enmity, relates well with the sacrifice of Christ to achieve forgiveness and peace with God. A second one is Shah-Nu. Shah-Nu is the gatekeeper to Misi Khua. To enter “heaven” one half of cattle liver would be given to Shah-Nu (the other half given to one’s grandfather and grandmother). Christ describes himself as the Gate, in which no one can come to the Father except through Him. So Christ is both the gatekeeper and the sacrifice. The third redemptive analogy is the “Suutpi.” The suutpi is the centerpost in a traditional chin home. It supported the bulk of the weight of the structure. It also separated the “outer” portions of the house from the inner portions. Additionally, there is a curious older custom. If a person murders a member of a family, if he can get to the suutpi of that family house and embrace it, he will be accepted by the family and taken in. The suutpi also can remind one of Christ as the “chief cornerstone” (the most important support member for a house of a different construction). Additionally, embracing/accepting Christ will break down animosity and result in being part of a new family… a family that we have caused a member’s death.

C. Despite redemptive analogies and cultural similarities, there will always be places where creativity in missions is needed. Sometimes missionaries try to solve the problems, but often it is the local believers that are best suited to address the concerns. One example is in the area of greetings. Hospitality was often shown to visitors with alcohol. While alcohol in itself is not a problem, alcoholism became a problem for many of the people  So how does one hold onto the good of the tradition of hospitality without risking problems with alcohol abuse? Gradually, it became accepted that coffee and tea were acceptable substitutes for alcohol for showing hospitality. A second example, had to do with a dead relative. The dead had to be appeased for 7 days to ensure that no evil would come to the family or village. Within the Christian reinterpretation, the 7 days of vigil were maintained but not to appease the dead, but to provide an appropriate form of mourning for the departed and care for the family. A third example is in the area of theology. In the Chin language, there is a term for body (pumpi) and a term for spirit (kha), but no specific term for soul. In the end, the word for “life” (Nuntakna) was used for the soul. This proves quite useful. All animals and people (dead or alive) have a body (pumpi). Living animals and humans have life/soul (nuntakna). However, humans are unique from animals in have a spirit (kha). This not only works logically, it helps with Bible translation.

This is just a simple (and hopefully somewhat accurate) look at contextualization. But here is a key point. Much of the old belief system of the Chin people is gone… simply a matter of cultural history, so who cares about these issues? In my mind, there are at least two major reasons these are important. First, it helps the people recognize that Christianity is NOT a foreign religion. The Chin people had elements of divine truth in their culture (whether developed themselves or given as a preparation for the gospel by God, I will leave to others to speculate). Christianity did not destroy the belief system of the Chin people. Rather, it fulfilled it. It recognized the truth in their culture, and destroyed the fears and entrapments that their culture also had. Second, the better we see the power of God in cultures and the value of sensitive missions work within cultures in the past, the better we can gain insight as we share Christ’s message to fulfill other cultures and peoples.

Theology is a living bridge between God’s divine and unchanging revelation and the living changing culture of a people group. Critical Contextualization simply recognizes the necessity to connect, theologically, the Word of God with a people’s culture— flexibly, tentatively, and dynamically.

One thought on “Chin Tribe: A Case Study of Contextualization

  1. Pingback: Why We Don’t Contextualize Our Faith? « MMM — Munson Mission Musings

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