Some time ago I attended a conference of Vietnamese Christians. Surveying the book table my eye was drawn (perhaps because it was the only book in English!) to one volume in particular—Reg Reimer’s Vietnam’s Christians: A Century of Growth in Adversity (William Carey Library, 2011). As a pastor who works with a group of mostly ethnic Vietnamese, I felt that this study might be an important ministerial asset. But more than the glimpse I was given into the history of my congregation, I was also given a vision of the Church universal. And it is that vision which makes Reimer’s book worth reading.
The book opens with a remarkable statistic: “In the thirty-five years since a divided Vietnam was united under communism in 1975, the number of evangelical believers has grown from some 160,000 to 1.4 million—nearly 900%!” Reimer’s book seeks to account, in providing a short history of the Church in Vietnam, for this nine-fold growth. And while Reimer makes note of the Roman Catholic arrival in 1615, the primary focus of his study is the Protestant Church over the past 100 years. In fact, the publishing of his book coincides with the 100 year anniversary of the arrival of the first Protestant Missionary, Robert Jaffray, in 1911.
The Church has always struggled to gain traction in Vietnam for a variety of reasons, and the choice to become a follower of Jesus has often had radical consequences. For example, in Vietnam choosing Christianity meant a choice against double tradition—that of both the living and the dead. It is a choice against the living because to choose Christ could mean a break with a tightly knit family structure; against the dead because choosing Christianity meant a break with traditional ancestor worship. And these twin networks stack the odds against the Church—there are a host of native reasons to resist making a choice for Christ. Add to this the opposition of the government, and the growth of the Church in Vietnam appears even more remarkable.
Communist governments view loyalty to a religion as a threat to the state, and therefore work actively to inhibit the growth of the Church through a variety of means. In Vietnam the government actively encourages citizens to embrace their traditional animism as a way to reinforce both the traditional family and ancestor worship structures. More aggressively, the government will confiscate Church and personal property, as well as send ministry leaders to prison for what it views as opposition to the government. In the mountain regions, where Vietnam’s native people live, converts are chased out of their villages and left destitute. More subtly, bureaucracy is also used to cripple the Church—churches are allowed to operate freely if they are registered, but the policy on registration requires a congregation to have been in ten years of consistent operation to receive government recognition—in other words, ten years of illegal operation before they will be acknowledged. In all, the government actively works toward the progressive obsolescence of the Church. Reimer writes, “in practice communism helps make sure that churches are useless by making it impossible for them to minister to society” (58)—through a host of means they cripple the Church’s ability to be the Church.
A further problem that the Church faces is confusion. In many cases the officially recognized church bodies have been co-opted by the government, and believers must question whether their Church is in fact a tool of the state. In response to all these persecutions, and in the absence of reliable, visible church structures, the Church in Vietnam has gone underground. It is in this House Church movement that Vietnamese Christianity has swelled over the past 35 years.
Reimer’s book is not composed only of data, he also documents numerous stories of the actual believers in Vietnam, and these are the most rewarding parts of the book. We read about Phan Thi Kim Phuc, famous for her photograph as “the napalm girl,” who converted to Christianity. We read personal stories about the Hmong persecution and migration, about ministers who go to prison, and about and a host of other people. If I have one complaint about the book, it is that I’m confident there are many more stories to tell and I wanted to hear more of them.
Reimer’s book offers an important view into the cultural, traditional, historical, and religious history of Vietnam, and is worth reading whether or not you have a particular interest in Vietnamese Christianity. Because while Vietnam’s official policy is of religious freedom, Reimer’s book reminds us that our world is not free, and that the civil overtures of ‘religious freedom’ are often thin deceptions. When we read a book like this, we challenge ourselves—especially when we live in the free west—with the truth that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is a single organism. And therefore what happens in Vietnam impacts every believer in the world.