Vietnam’s Christians

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.

5 comments on “Vietnam’s Christians

  1. saigonist says:

    At the same time, Vietnamese people are overwhelmingly religious. There are churches everywhere. And I don’t hear about the Muslim minority having these problems. The problems may come from heavy proselytizing by outsiders, or the perception of that.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Well, since I don’t know your background, it will be a little difficult to respond, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Obviously Reimer’s study, focusing on Christianity, won’t include information about Musilm religious trends in Vietnam, but in other communist nations (i.e., China) the historic religious purges covered all religion and not just Christianity. I suspect there are more stories to tell. In general, those religions which are amenable to the communist state are tolerated, if not encouraged, and those which challenge the state are seen as a threat. Since Christianity is, in some very real ways, a religion of world-overthrow (not earthly and political, mind you, but definitely subversive) it is a natural enemy to a kind of government that sees the state as religion.

      Part of Reimer’s study points out that the Church has grown exponentially in the absence of Western missionaries (i.e., with their departure in 1976)–this growth has all been internal, and therefore laying it at the feet of foreign proselytizers is probably an error.

      • saigonist says:

        I’m an American living in Vietnam.

        Good point about post-war growth of Christianity in Vietnam. Is it still seen as an outsider’s religion? Does the local church receive support from Western missionaries today, who are disproportionately outspoken and critical of the current Vietnamese government? Part of this is a human rights and democratic process issue in Vietnam. Like you said, anyone who challenges this strictly one-party system will be seen as a threat, especially large Western organizations. But I don’t think it’s because the government is against the idea of people having religion.

        Despite descriptions like “impossible” and “crippled”, Christianity is clearly thriving here.

        • jmichaelrios says:

          This is a good conversation.

          1. From what I see, specifically in the Vietnamese Christian leaders here in Canada, there is a strong sense of the Vietnamese ownership of the Church. This is noticeable particularly in the celebration of the “100 year anniversary.” They are proud of their tradition, and see it as a reason to do more for the faith in Vietnam.

          2. I can’t say for certain, but there would naturally be some denominational support for churches in Vietnam. Again, however, that support would be recent. Reimer makes a point about how the mission agencies actively weaned off the churches.

          3. Also, I think part of Reimer’s point (which isn’t clear in my review) is that there is a conflict of interest between Vietnam’s public policy on religion (which it needs to get aid and support from the West) and it’s internal, private policies. He seems to say that the Vietnamese Christians he knows are tenuous and unsure of their ‘freedom’ of religion in Vietnam.

          From my friends who have visited the church in China, the Three Self Church is the active, open, government approved church organization–it is also distrusted by Chinese believers. Once again, it is in the house church movement that Christianity is thriving.

        • saigonist says:

          As I haven’t read the book, I can only make general comments to what has been mentioned in this thread.

          Regarding public policy: Nominally, Vietnam allows for freedom to choose one’s religion (or no specific religion at all, unlike Indonesia). Nominally, there is the freedom to have demonstrations (in the constitution, but only recently has there been talk of codifying it in law). Nominally, there is freedom to access Facebook (nobody is saying it is actually banned).

          I think that generally, people are allowed to believe whatever they want and worship anywhere they want without feeling pressure against it, are allowed to complain about the government with their friends and strangers, and can even easily complain online. However, there are cases where such activities attract the attention of somebody in the government, and something happens – like a blogger being arrested for breaking a law.

          I’ve seen a few exposE-style documentaries from foreigners coming to Vietnam. From how they portray things, the government follows your every move and prevents you from meeting and talking to anybody you want. From my experience in Saigon, this must be extremely exaggerated. Comparisons are made to China (or North Korea on the extreme end). I think Vietnam either doesn’t have the same amount of dedicated resources, or the will, to clamp down on potentially subversive activities in the same way as China.

          Now, all that may apply for most individuals. But when individuals start organizing and doing those things together, trying to assert power and themselves, that’s when people in the government start getting concerned. I think one can reasonably say there is freedom of religion here, but not so much freedom to create large and powerful organizations.

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