Mission Impossible?

September 1, 2013

Scene 1: Forty feet high up on the trunk of a monster tree on the side of a beautiful Thai jungle road is a yellow sign written in Thai. The sign reads “พระเยซูจะมาพิพากษาโลก” – “Jesus is coming to judge the world.” You find these signs all over Thailand, usually 50’ or more way up in the trees. Who in the world could climb up that far? It’s high enough so that few if any are going to risk their lives to go up and restore the forest to its natural state, sans yellow billboard.  What’s the story?

Scene 2: In the supermarket a youngish American man, speaking fairly good Thai, with his Farang wife, and usually a number of tow-haired Farang-letts, are shopping for groceries. And you thought that only old-fart-beer-drinking-men-Expats with granddaughter aged paramours were living here in Thailand. What’s the story?

These scenes may be of contemporary Thailand but the story isn’t new. These are simply the signs that missionaries are alive and well and still doing their thing here in Thailand.

Thailand, unlike some other places I have lived, does not jail or sometimes even execute people who come into their country proselytizing their religion. They don’t even persecute the proselytizers here. In fact, even though missionaries have come to tell the Thais that their whole world view is wrong, they have almost always been welcomed in Thailand with open arms.

Along with this warm welcome the missionaries enjoy some nice amenities too; like large houses, late model automobiles, international schools, maids and servants; all in all a pretty comfortable lifestyle. Of course that might have something to do with Thailand being a country whose tolerant Buddhist religion is so accepting of people’s different belief systems, and the open wallets of their supporters back home.

Missionary: I have come to tell you that I have found the truth.

Buddhist: That’s really great. I am so happy for you.

Note: In Buddhism, each person finds the answers to what is true for him/her.

Thailand has been accepting of missionaries for a long while. In 1518 when the Portuguese arrived for the first time, these first Europeans to visit Thailand were not burned at the stake or drawn and quartered, punishments widely practiced in the Europe of that time on anyone professing a religion other than the one you were supposed to believe in.

Instead, the Thai king gave a nice donation for the Europeans to build a mission, the first Christian church in the country. After that there were some ups and downs, a little xenophobia perhaps, but by the 1780s the French had now come and the new Thai king also helped them to build their church.

This practice of acceptance continues to this day. Missionaries are granted a special visa status to hang around for about as long as they want. Those old Expat men who are always looking for a way to extend their stays here might want to consider a new occupation.

From the beginning, this has usually been a really good place for a missionary to come to. And, on their part, they have contributed a great deal. They have established wonderful schools and hospitals, and of course churches. You’ll find missionaries all over the country, from families like the one mentioned above, to those teenaged-name-tagged-white-shirt-and-necktie-wearing bicycle riders, to women in long skirts and funny little white caps, to priests and nuns.

I have met missionaries from Taiwan and Korea, and spent Christmas Eve with an Italian priest in a Karin village in the mountains of Mae Hong Son. I was in a little Aka village where the children sang Amazing Grace to me, taught to them by missionaries.  I played basketball with some 19 year old Mormon “elders” on their “mission”.  I taught English alongside a nun who was dressed in her habit. My next door neighbors here in Chiang Mai are missionaries (with two Farang-letts). I’ve helped an elderly man go into hospice care in a mission’s elderly care facility, and buried a number of friends in missionary cemeteries.  My two children were born in a missionary hospital.

No question that missionaries have done lots of good things. And their way hasn’t always been smooth. In 1688 there was fear that westerners had a bit too much influence in Thailand and that the proselytizing might have become a little too rambunctious for some people’s liking. Foreigners faced a backlash and were eventually barred from the kingdom for about 100 years.

Later, one of the kings of Chiang Mai, fearing the same thing, had all the white people moved to the east side of the Ping River, away from the center of power. That is maybe the reason there are so missionary churches, schools, hospitals, and even a missionary university on that side of the river.

Although there are hundreds of groups of people whose main occupation is to tell the Thais that they need to discard their wrong world view, and with it their religion, and learn the “truth”, each group seems to have their own “truth”.

But have the Thais listened? The tribal peoples seem to be rather open to the missionary’s “truth”. The Chinese have always been pragmatic when religion is concerned (My father, born in China, became a Christian. He said that by doing so he ate lots better than the other kids did and was able to go to school. Funny but I never did see him ever go to church though.)

But how successful have they been with the Thais? I’m not really sure about that. I personally don’t know any Thai who has converted. I almost met one a few weeks ago. I started piano lessons. I asked my new piano teacher if he knew the songs of Elton John or Nora Jones. “No”, he said, “I only play church music.” “Are you a Christian?” I asked. “Yes I am” he answered.

So I thought I found one. But wouldn’t you know it; my piano teacher was a Karin hill tribesman and was born a Christian, his animist ancestors having converted in Burma generations ago.

One reason for the paucity of Buddhists converts could be the fact that western religions are “faith based”, whereas the Lord Buddha taught not to accept anything on faith alone but from only what is reasoned out – Rationalism about 2,000 years before Descartes.

After almost 500 years of trying to convert the Thais I guess the jury is still out on how successful they have been. But there still seems to be is a really good reason to keep trying.

Is the End at hand?

Some people teach that once everyone has heard the “truth”, then the end of the world will be upon us and the gates of heaven will open. Of course, each group seems to have their own “truths” about how to get through those gates. By one count there are more than 41,000 different Christian denominations in the world. That must be a bit confusing to the Thais. But then again the Thais believe that everyone finds his/her own “truth”, so 41,000 is maybe not that large a number.

We might still have some time left.

“The power of God is moving in Thailand, the darkness is lifting over Thailand it has never been so easy to lead a Thai person to Christ!” (Peter C. Wagner at a 1996 conference of 7000 Thai believers in Bangkok.)

I would guess 7,000 Thai believers in Bangkok would be a reason to celebrate. Oh! Except for the fact that there are about 15 million people living in Bangkok. So relax. Percentage-wise, we still have time. Although the missionaries keep trying, there is probably still a long way to go before the end-of-world prerequisites have been reached.

*****

P.S. Does anyone out there know who it is that climbs those tall jungle trees to put up those yellow signs? The signs are really ugly and quite unproductive. Like who would be attracted to the idea that someone was coming to judge you? Better if it said “Someone is coming with the winning lottery number.  And that number will get you a free pass into Paradise.”

I wonder how a sign on one of those majestic lodge pole pines in Yellowstone National Park saying that “Guru Baboo has the answer.” would go over back home. I am guessing that the Google searches for “Draw and Quartering” would go way up.

But I would still love to know how they climb those trees.

*****

Update on Safe at Home

In another one of my unscientific surveys I have noticed that the average number of Expats who drive motorcycles without wearing helmets is roughly equivalent to the number of Thais who ride helmetless. Our unscientific analysis indicates that the basic intelligence of these two groups, or lack thereof, is approximately equal. Hey, it’s your life.

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