A Sagaw Karen boy up in the hills of Mae Hong Sorn Province, Thailand, on the border with Burma is carrying a Bible he cannot even begin to read, on his way to the first of three church services the Sunday after Christmas. Thanks to Dr. Prasit Pongudom for taking this picture and providing it. I was looking for a picture to commemorate Children’s Day (second Saturday of January) here in Thailand.
The picture drew my attention not only because the kid is cute, but because of what it suggests about why the Karen Baptist Church is arguably the largest Church in South East Asia (aside from the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines). In this era of secular erosion of all faith traditions, the Karen Baptist Church is stable and in its indigenous regions it is growing despite being in the vortex of nearly 50 years of war and internal displacement in Burma.
In that boy’s village everyone carries their Bibles to church. The boy is doing what he sees everyone doing. Bibles aren’t left at the church as if there’s no need of them anywhere else. So he is taking his role as part of the community. There is no hint in that village that faith is separated from life. Faith and life are twisted and braided.
Most significantly, Karen Baptist life is social. When a pig is killed everyone eats.
When the church gong sounds, everyone gathers. Things are expected to happen because it is the right time for them. According to Baptist tradition “believers” are baptized, but the boy will be baptized with a whole bunch of others when the time is right. “When bananas are ripe the whole stalk is brought home.” Karen life is not one banana or one bean at a time.
Theoretically, at some point they will have to explain to that little boy that confession of faith is an individual matter. The idea will not have occurred to him. Nor will it have occurred to him that there could be any doubt about faith. In fact, the concept of religious choice, doubt and agnosticism may never make much sense to him unless he is cast into the milieu of pluralism in the valley down below (as he may well be), where confusion about everything reigns until it has become the new normal.
Down in the valley there are towns with big markets and bigger towns with shopping malls. Choice abounds. Hardly any of the boys down below have red shirts hand-woven by their mothers with the unique threads of their home village running down the front. Not everybody down below eats much the same thing because it is in season. Not everybody hears the gong calling them to assemble on a Sunday morning.
Let me be clear: I am suggesting that social coherence is a key to understanding
religious bonding. Societies that are fragmenting will have trouble holding onto their children. Religious communities cannot survive that. Religion itself is another matter. For the most part religions evolve and renew themselves.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.