Last year I posted on the topic of Are Christian Missionaries in Thailand a Good Thing? . This article generated some interesting comments at the time and people continue to join in the debate a year later. The most recent comment to the thread was by an actual Christian missionary. I found his side of the story so interesting that I’ve decided to turn it into a new post on the topic. Tim’s comments are in italics.
Importance of Honesty and Effective Communications
Thanks Tim, I agree that many of the problems that we have with other people could be resolved with clearer communication. It is just so easy to get caught up by the ‘in-group’ mentality where we demonize anyone who is in the ‘out-group’ . It is a personal battle for me to keep reminding myself that just because people have a different worldview it does not mean that they are against me. I can hold my opinions and be a good person and so can they.
Rice Bowl Christians
I do feel that trying to coerce anyone into joining a religion is a bad thing, and I’m glad that you appear to share my view. I realize that the believers who use such tactics are in the minority, but they can do a great deal of harm all the same. They are using a cynical ploy which I think is ultimately self-defeating anyway. People should not be asked to change their beliefs in exchange for food, gifts or free education. The history of ‘rice bowl Christians’ does suggest that many return to their former beliefs once they are more secure in life, but it still feels wrong to me. It is my experience with this type of tactic that has led to an almost kneejerk distrust of missionaries. I can easily fall into the trap of tarring everyone with the same brush, and this is why it is so good for me to hear from people like you.
The Problem with Beliefs
I sometimes look upon beliefs and opinions as a necessary evil. I don’t know how we can survive without them, but they come with a heavy price. Every time I take on a belief it is like I’ve closed a door in my mind, and if I close enough of these doors it will lead to complete closed mindedness. So yes, I fully agree with you that anything we believe could be considered closed-minded.
I do not think it is possible for any human to have access to ultimate truth – that is one of my beliefs. How could we possibly know if anything is ultimately true? Even if I woke up in heaven tomorrow I could still question if any of it was real. This is why I’m not only skeptical about strong religious beliefs but of any beliefs (including scientific). I look upon the world as one huge mystery. I don’t know the answers, and I’m not convinced that other people know much more than me, but I have to allow for the possibility that I’m wrong.
I can’t say with 100% certainty that your claims for Jesus are wrong, and it would mean closing my mind if I were to believe that. On the other hand, it would be equally closed minded for me to accept the opposite conclusion. This leaves me in a position where I have to think, ‘Tim could be right about Jesus’, but of course the same would apply to every other religious belief. This is why I struggle with the Christian idea that they have access to the ultimate truth.
The Truth About Thai Culture
Many of the things I admire about Thailand do have Buddhist roots, but they are under far more threat from modernity than Christianity. I don’t believe that culture should be a static thing anyway – so you do have a valid point here. It is the Thai people who shape their own culture, and if they want to embrace Christianity then that will become part of their identity. It is a bit patronizing of us foreigners to feel that we have to save Thailand from a foreign religion.
I come from a country that is predominately Christian, but I was allowed to explore other religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. It would be hypocritical for me to say that Thai people shouldn’t have the same opportunity. I don’t see Christianity ever becoming a dominant religion in Thailand so the threat is exaggerated anyway.
The Right to Spread Beliefs
One of the things that attracted me to Buddhism was that nobody tried to convert me. I had to seek out information and teachers. This way of spreading beliefs feels more legitimate to me – if something requires a ‘hard sell’ it automatically makes me suspicious. I understand that some Christian groups feel it is their duty to spread the word, and that is their motivation for coming to places like Thailand. As far as I can tell they aren’t doing anything illegal and in all likelihood are doing at least some good.
I think the problem with comparing Jesus with a cure for cancer is that there would be no need to send missionaries to spread the word about such a cure. The fact that it was so obviously beneficial would mean that the news would spread like wildfire. The problem with religious beliefs is that they involve things that are not easily proved or accepted. So I don’t think it is a fair comparison unless the cancer cure was a faith based treatment. The question of whether people are justified in spreading their strongly held opinions isn’t so clear cut. I can think of plenty of examples where people should not be allowed to spread their beliefs – even if they do think it is beneficial to do so.
Christian Missionaries versus Sex Tourists
You do make a valid criticism here, but I think it would be unfair to make black and white judgments. The problem is that the word ‘sex tourist’ has been used so much that it has become a bit meaningless. I would say that a significant number of those labeled as sex tourist come to Thailand looking for companionship more than anything else. Many of them are older guys who probably didn’t have much luck with relationships back in their home countries. They come to Thailand to meet girls in a bar and will typically fall in love. In exchange for companionship (which would probably include at least occasional sex) they will then take care of this girl and her family. Some people might object to such relationships as morally wrong, but I’m not so certain. I think you are justified in pointing out a double standard here, but I don’t think either missionaries or sex tourism are black and white issues.
People are Flawed
Tim I really appreciate that you have shared your side of the story here. You do make some valid points, and I feel that my understanding of what compels missionaries to come to Thailand has increased. I agree that all humans are flawed, and the best we can do is give life our best shot. I hope other people with add their own comments in reply to your well written side of the story.