The Hmong Religious Experience
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.