Aizwal, Mizoram…tribal theologies and gratitude for the gospel

The stunning city of Aizwal
The stunning city of Aizwal

There’s a South Asian theologian named Thomas Thangaraj who taught at Emory and Candler for a number of years before retiring back to Tamil Nadu (southernmost state in India) a few years ago.

I met him in 2001, and he told a story to a group of us about white-guilt-interfaith work versus interfaith work that honors our own and others’ traditions. He was a PhD student at Harvard Divinity School (many years ago; I’m sure things are different now), and he went to the student mixer on the first night. You may already know that Harvard has a reputation as an open-minded, liberal school that embraces other faith traditions. (Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project is a phenomenal example of this commitment.) He walked into the mixer of predominantly Anglo people, and several of them rushed up to introduce themselves. “Are you Hindu?” one of them asked enthusiastically. “No, I’m Christian.” As Dr. Thangaraj tells the story, they looked at him with pity and embarrassment, as if to convey the message, “What did our horrible and oppressive colonialism do to you that forced you to embrace our dominant faith tradition?” He had to explain that he LIKED being Christian, that the message of Jesus Christ was empowering and comforting and that he was not a victim in this equation. (Be it noted that Thomas Thangaraj’s writings are respectful of other faith traditions, including his most famous book, The Crucified Guru. His students also say he challenges dominant frameworks of Jesus in the classroom in ways that shape their ministry for the good.)

This story springs to mind because I am currently spending the week in Aizwal, Mizoram, at the Aizwal Theological College. I am here sharing some reflections about liberation theology (we’ve had some great conversation about the challenges of postmodernity to the models of liberation theology that currently exist, and we’ve even stretched liberation theology to include some internal community ethics questions). I am more importantly learning about tribal theologies, the theologies of indigenous communities in India (particularly in the northeast). Tribal theologies are a little newer than Dalit theology, which is a little newer than western liberation theologies. (I’ve also just learned about a Korean liberation theology called something like Minjung that I need to look into.)

As a result of these theologies being slightly more in formation, opinions on what they should look like and what their role should be differ. But one problem here strikes me differently than other liberation theologies I work with:

Jesus was brought to the state of Mizoram by Welsh Presbyterian (and Baptist) missionaries. Mizoram is a 90% or so Christian state. Worship is vibrant and the city closes down on Sundays because most everyone is in church most of the day. (This is changing, thanks to cable TV and youth not feeling that they have a role in the church, but attendance is still remarkably high.) And being a culture of respect, few want a theology that says there is something wrong with the missionaries.

Mission in Mizoram goes back a little over 100 years. Latin American liberation theology didn’t have to worry about offending people because their beef was with political leadership that perpetuated bourgeious capitalism at the expense of most of the population. African American liberation theology didn’t care about offending anyone because the people who brought them the gospel also bound them in chains. Native American liberation theology didn’t care about offending anyone because the people who brought them the gospel took away their homes, wrapped them in disease-infested blankets and practiced genocide. And while the missionaries in Mizoram worked in partnership with the British colonial government, their primary impact on the community was a rejection of their cultural expressions. (Interestingly, in one particular instance even this was unsuccessful: at the first revival, the missionaries told the Mizos that their indigenous drumming was of the devil, and they were not allowed to use drums with the music of the revival. At the second revival, the Mizos were chastised again. By the third revival, the missionaries’ efforts to stop the devil drum from entering into worship was permanently foiled. Indigenous drums and dancing during the hymns remain a central part of Mizo worship today.)

Dancing and drums in a Mizo worship service
Dancing and drums in a Mizo worship service

I visited the Baptist seminary in Aizwal yesterday and had the pleasure of meeting their students and faculty and stirring up a very fun, very heated conversation about liberation theology and tribal theologies. In the process, however, I inadvertently offended a visiting faculty member from the UK who, after the lecture, introduced himself by giving his name and saying, “My parents were the colonial missionary oppressors you were talking about.” (For the record, I didn’t say that phrase, although I probably said something about liberation theology responding to white oppression. Which it did, so I’m not sure I should apologize.) The rest of us in the room (the faculty had tea with me after the large group session) tried to articulate how tribal theology didn’t mean to belittle the great contributions of the missionaries who gave so much to share the gospel. (Well, one faculty member said Mizoram isn’t oppressed or marginalized, so it doesn’t need a liberation theology, but that’s another story.)

I am so inspired by the courage and force of conviction of the faculty and students at both institutions. (I particularly admire the women, with whom I’ve tried to spend some extra time, who continue to serve and challenge and nurture a church that won’t ordain them or even let them serve as elders. That’s another post,

Me, larger than life, surrounded by the elders and pastor of a Mizo Church.
Me, larger than life, surrounded by the elders and pastor of a Mizo Church.

though.) And I believe a “self-theologizing” culture will emerge. (That was the term we all finally agreed would be acceptable to Mizos and missionaries alike.)  But I do not envy the task of Mizo theologians and pastors who are trying to invite their churches into self-theologizing while making sure not to disrespect the missionaries who brought them the gospel that liberated them from superstition and fear of evil spirits (as the missionaries’ son explained to me was the liberating work of his parents and their colleagues). Perhaps the movement’s theme song will be “We shall overcome…but not overcome their oppression because they were actually very good to us.”


2 thoughts on “Aizwal, Mizoram…tribal theologies and gratitude for the gospel

  1. My mother met Thomas Thangaraj while she was doing a masters in divinity (MD? Surely not) at Emory. She spoke very highly of him, and liked both _The Crucified Guru_ and another book called _Relating to People of Other Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know_.


  2. I recall a very random meeting of a woman who had previously worked at (and been born in) the hospital built by my great-grandparents in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where they had served as missionaries for 50+ years. At the time I met her, I was just beginning to understand the concepts of colonialism and imperialism (and just what a racist a-hole Cecil John Rhodes was). I, in all my liberal whiteness, felt guilty for the oppressive sins of my ancestors. But the woman expressed that she felt it was a great honor to meet a descendent of those missionaries who had done such good work for her community. She had grown up hearing the stories of my family who had “converted” her family to their vibrant, empowering Christian faith.


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