The Other, Forgotten Apocalypse of 2011

Oakland minister Harold Camping is betting that the world will end at the close of the work week—although he does seem quite a bit less certain this time around. 

Earlier this year, Camping captured the intrigue of North American cynics, believers, and the generally curious alike with his end-of-days prediction and the rapture of all repentant Christians on May 21, 2011. Those he managed to convince donated tens of millions of dollars from their emptied bank accounts, dropped out of school, and left their jobs in order to warn others of the impending destruction. On the morning of May 22, the credulity of Camping’s followers left them to be derided or pitied, and Camping himself allowed that he was “flabbergasted.” The apocalypse didn’t come. In the minds of many, they simply had been duped.

But this is only part of the story; specifically, the Western part of the story. On the other side of the world, there were some for whom the Apocalypse not only came, it arrived early.

A Land of Their Own

In late April and early May 2011 thousands of Christians gathered to await a cataclysmic event. They had journeyed to a hilltop in the rural north-western highlands of Dien Bien, Vietnam. Translated short wave radio broadcasts sponsored by Camping’s Family Radio told them that the land of the sinful would be destroyed. The righteous, those who had accepted God’s forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ, would be saved in this radical reordering. That would give the Hmong what they have been waiting for—a land of their own. The promised apocalyptic reordering was good news.

They did not have to look far to set their sights on who stood in the way of their promised land. Vietnamese government troops, ordered to put down the Hmong “uprising,” arrived in early May. What followed was a rare, violent confrontation between the Hmong and the Vietnamese government.

The few reports available on the confrontation are incomplete due to a government ban on journalists in the region. The reports tell of severe repression and violence. They also reflect the concerns of those reporting. Human Rights Watch sent out a petition for the fair and humane treatment of the persons detained in the “crackdown.” The BBC implied there was a religious aspect to the gathering, but seemed to conclude that it was mostly a political confrontation. Worldnetdaily.com’s report (seemingly based upon the single testimony of a Western missionary) told of “mass graves” filled with piles of dead Hmong Christians mowed down by government guns. The report also warned of the danger of erroneous teachings on the end times (in presumed contrast with the missionary’s slightly different premillenialist predilections). Curiously absent from this list is the conservative Christian persecution watch dog, Voice of the Martyrs, who has remained silent on the incident, despite the fact that it involved violence from a communist government directed at a large group of Christians (a common theme of many of their stories).

And then there was the conclusion of the Vietnamese government itself. Sounding a similar note to the American media response to Camping, the Vietnamese government stated that the uprising was the result of a group of people who were “duped by ‘bad elements’” into thinking that they would supernaturally receive land rights. But were they duped?

Why did the Hmong respond in this way to the translated teachings of an idiosyncratic American preacher?

A Promise Betrayed

Having migrated some centuries ago into the highlands of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, the Hmong have had a contentious relationship with these governments and their respective larger ethnic populations throughout the twentieth century. The outright hostility that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century is due in no small part to the U.S. which promised—and failed to deliver—land rights for the wartime services of the Hmong. Instead, the Hmong were neglected and politically isolated in the aftermath of the war. As a result, the Hmong’s Vietnam War-era guerilla jungle units have permutated into small bands of fighters waging a sporadic civil war with Laotian troops that continues today.

Viewed as potential enemies of the state, Laotian Hmong have sought refuge (and refugee status) in neighboring countries and the United States (as depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film, Gran Torino). Even still, reports from international aid and advocacy groups have in recent years highlighted the precariousness of the Hmong’s livelihood in Southeast Asia. They are frequently faced with mass deportation by the Thai government and the imminent possibility of becoming political prisoners upon their reentry to Laos. Given this history, their contemporary struggle to secure rights should hardly come as a surprise. But this is only part of the story.

The Hmong (both inside and outside of Southeast Asia) are among the most Christianized ethnic groups in Southeast Asia. In rather stark contrast to other ethnicities in Vietnam or Thailand, the Hmong have shown a comparatively high receptivity to both Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity, with the highest growth rate of Hmong Christianity coming in the late twentieth century, both within Southeast Asia and in the Hmong diaspora.

Why, then, when many other ethnic groups in Southeast Asia proved resistant to Christianity, were the Hmong receptive to it?

The Roots of Hmong Christianity

Hmong converts do not merely explain their faith as resistance to foreign overlordship. Many speak of their Christian history with reference to their own culture and history. Like, say, the Karen of Myanmar/Burma, Hmong converts have recorded a tradition of ancient lost books — something which early Christian missionaries and converts highlighted as they taught from the Bible. They also converted for reasons of their own dissatisfaction with their traditional religious practices, such as expensive sacrifices and social obligations. Their conversion to Christianity—and continued adherence to Christianity—were not merely destructive either. For many Hmong in the diaspora, for example, Christianity has proved a vehicle through which they could preserve their culture while adjusting to a new society.

Hmong Christianity itself has become a distinctly Hmong faith, and apocalypticism (of varying forms) is nothing new to them. There has been a series of prophetic and messianic movements among Hmong in twentieth century. The most intriguing of which, for example, is perhaps an instance in the mid-twentieth century in which three men (the “Meo Trinity”) proclaimed themselves to be God incarnate in the form, respectively, of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The man reputed to be the Holy Spirit allegedly died when he flung himself off a cliff, believing he would have the ability to fly. Later, in the early years of the Vietnam War, another movement spread which proclaimed that Christ would return, perhaps wearing American clothes and distributing firearms.

These rather cursory comments indicate that over the course of the twentieth century the Hmong developed a unique Christian identity that reflected their own cultural heritage as well as their sociopolitical context. It is enough, I hope, to refute such a crass interpretation of at least one Western commentator, Jacob James Prasch, of Moriel Ministries, who was quoted as writing of the Dien Bien gathering:

Due to a combination of poverty, ignorance and persecution these poor Christians don’t understand much so they believed Camping’s shortwave broadcast which is how most get their teaching.

Prasch’s explanation is terribly close to that of the Vietnamese government.

A New Earth

The Hmong were not duped by Camping. Camping is not that clever. In the end, the confrontation at Dien Bien is not the result of just another group of people who blindly bought an American export; rather, it can only be understood in relation to Hmong religious and cultural history and Southeast Asian sociopolitical history.

Nearly any missionary could attest to an important dynamic at work in Dien Bien: that which is preached is not that which is heard or, much less, appropriated by the hearers. The Hmong’s appropriation of a translated message resulted in a remarkable expression of their religious and political heritage. Such an expression should not be taken lightly, or chalked up to impoverished ignorance. It would also be inaccurate to assert that apocalyptic religion was some sort of distraction or escape from their “real” struggle for religious freedom and land rights.

The consequences of their massive gathering, which included violence allegedly perpetrated (lopsidedly) by both Hmong and Vietnamese, attest to the implicit power and danger that such a basic action as gathering on a hilltop can have. Within Vietnam, the Hmong’s apocalyptic inspiration did not lead to a quiet escapism. Instead, it led to a large and rare public confrontation with a government which they find terribly repressive. The quotidian and eternal dimensions of this moment in Hmong Christianity are not easily parsed—if they can be at all.

In Dien Bien, a unique appropriation of a Christian teaching was radically manifest, but went largely unnoticed by many Americans, or has since been forgotten. To forget why it came and when it came and to whom it came would be to spurn a people for whom a “new earth” has a distinct meaning and is inherently good news.

I think I can safely assume that for most Americans, Camping and his miscalculated (and then recalculated) doomsday predictions are of more curiosity than true salvific concern. Camping has been buried by subsequent news cycles and is the latest member of a cadre of religious leaders whom the Apocalypse passed by. But while May’s Apocalypse seems to have skipped over most of the world, it did land squarely on a hilltop in north-western Vietnam. It would behoove us to take notice of the complex and unexpected ways in which this spring’s apocalypticism rippled across the world—in short radio waves, to be precise.

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