CHRISTIAN POSSIBILITIES &
An ISAC Panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association
10 Nov. 2022 (Seattle)
Over the past decade, many exciting developments have transpired in the Anthropology of Christianity that have since spanned innovations in scholarship on gender, place-placemaking, and the politics of secularism (Robbins 2014; Engelke 2014; Hovland 2016; Bielo 2020). Since then, scholars of Christianity have highlighted the transforming, transnational, and even trans-human aspects of Christian life globally (Norget, Napolitano, and Mayblin 2017; Bialecki 2022; Mesaritou, Coleman, and Eade 2020). This panel seeks to channel similar attention to the anthropology of Christianity in Asia—where religious identity and engagement is often overshadowed by state regulation, corporate governance, ethnic conflict, and social minority status (Bautista 2021; Chambon 2020; Wong 2014; Brown and Yeoh 2018). Concurrently following pathways of anthropologists and historians that have analyzed the processes and politics that create “Asia” as a recognizable, but flexible space of cultural production, this panel brings together scholars who consider how Asian Christians are often positioned in a unique kind of global futurism (Tagliacozzo, Siu, and Perdue 2015; Bryant and Knight 2019; Fischer 2009; Salazar et al. 2017). On the one hand, Christianity often means being situated as part of a global community of believers in a world of Christian ends. On the other hand, Asian-ness often indexes connections to both rapidly changing economic environments, dynamic non-Abrahamic religions, lasting politico-historical traditions, and a sliding racial signification that depends on complex relations to colonial categories.
In a world where religion is not simply a set of organized beliefs, but also distributer of affective labor, material resource, and political power, Asian Christians are working toward building visions of the future that span the scales of the immediate to the longue durée, the interpersonally intimate to the internationally networked. Given these affordances: How might the intersection of these identities produce unique approaches to envisioning future possibilities as Asian Christians attempt to carve out spaces for the deployment of the Christian Gospel? How might Christian commitments serve as both an opportunity to enclose and disclose opportunities for social advancement? How do Christians in Asia code-switch or appropriate chameleon identities to thrive in home communities that might have mixed levels of respect or support for religious believers? And how are social contexts in Asia contributing to the active conceptualization of what Christianity means in a global environment? Through the perspectives and positionalities of Asian Christians, this panel offers insights into how communities of believers envision the world today and imagine tomorrow.
Coordinated by: George Wu Bayuga, University of Colorado
Paper 1: George Bayuga: “Queer Affect Abroad: Chinese Nuns and Remaking Catholic Worlds”
This paper is a consideration of the role of queer affect and sexuality in the spiritual education of Chinese Catholic nuns who travel to Manila for religious training. Beginning in the late 1990s, Chinese clergy started arriving in Manila for education to minister to the growing Catholic communities in the Mainland. For many Chinese nuns, this exposure was filled with hybrid encounters—they were at once immersed in a Catholic dominant society and surrounded by visions of life outside the bounds of their ascetic expectations. A major point of religious reckoning was their encounter with sexualities both inside and outside the classroom. Thinking through two cases—the discussion of sexuality beyond physical intimacy in a seminary and the recognition of queer Catholics in Filipino Church settings—this paper highlights how queer affect served the Church’s mission to form cosmopolitan Catholic nuns ready to address China’s changing religious landscape.
Paper 2: Bernardo Brown: “Intra-Christian Political Competition in Sri Lanka: in Search of a privileged minority status”
After the 2009 defeat of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, proponents of a nationalist Sinhala Buddhist ideology turned to religious minorities in search of new ways to unify the country's majority behind a common political goal. These sectors have alternatively targeted Muslims and Evangelical Christians who are recurrently described as non-Sri Lankan cultural influences that contaminate the traditions of the nation. Catholics have largely avoided these accusations, yet this has implied that mainstream Catholic sectors have adopted a subordinate position within the hierarchical structure of the Sri Lankan state. Catholic communities of Sri Lanka thus find themselves in an ambiguous position: incorporated into the national citizenry, yet a visible minority anxious not to become marginalized like other religious minorities. This paper examines the efforts of Catholic actors to position themselves as representative of Sri
Lankan cultural diversity while taking distance from other minority communities in the country.
Paper 3: Kristina Nielsen: “Convent English goes Global: Christian Identities in the Indian Call Center Industry”
This paper delves into the different ways that religion, and more specifically Christian identity, inserts itself into the secular space of the Call Center in India. Drawing from three years of field work based in New Delhi, I compare two Christian identities, those of the Anglo-
Indian and the born-again convert, to show how Ethno-racial categorizations of Christian communities impact perceptions of their ability to speak to international clients. Though both groups are often categorized as “less than Indian” due to their status as religious minorities,
Anglican Indians inhabit the persona of “global” whereas North Eastern converts inhabit the persona of “foreign”. Anglo-Indians and the convent educated fill the role of language trainers, whereas Dalit and North Eastern converts struggle to gain access to call center jobs and rely on members of their communities to get their careers started. The religious nature of the personae associated with the categorizations of these Christians is couched in talk about language which is bleached of its religious connotations. In fact, “Convent English,” a register of communication often associated with Anglican convent schools, nearly shares a range of linguistic features with “Global” or “Neutral” English which are the current labels ascribed to prescriptive models of English in call centers. However, it was rare to hear the word “convent” used unprovoked in professional settings. The non-Indian identities of Anglo Indians are construed as elite and global by gate keepers to call center jobs. On the other hand, North Eastern Indians are ethno- racially othered and their accents deemed too regional for the Industry.
Paper 4: Michel Chambon: “Local autonomy and global sovereignty: the political entanglements of Chinese Catholics”
The People’s Republic of China and the Holy See have long engaged in diplomatic conversations to frame the status of Catholicism in China and establish formal diplomatic relationships. But the two sovereign entities have quite different and changing views on state sovereignty and religious autonomy. Furthermore, the question of Taiwan adds another layer of complexity in their dialogue. While the White House has recently increased its interference in their dialogue, the ups and downs of the Sino-Vatican negotiations have attracted large media coverage reflecting the significance of the geopolitical issues that are at stake. Elaborating from fieldwork material collected in northern Fujian where local Catholic communities have long been deeply impacted by the Sino-Vatican negotiations, I present how their search for autonomy is reshaped by broader national and international interests. Thus, I argue that the lived realities of Chinese Catholics, as well as Chinese Catholicism in general, cannot be reduced to a local reality nor a distinct religious question. Rather, it unveils the deeply political nature of the global network of interdependence and accountability that Catholicism enacts not only in- principle and in-good-faith but by international and canon law.
Paper 5: Toru Yamada: “Negotiating the transnational: Japan’s World Heritage nomination and the Catholics”
In this paper, I examine how the Catholic residents of Nagasaki’s Goto archipelago conceptualize transnational connections by looking into the process of UNESCO's World Heritage inscriptions of their religious heritage sites in 2018. Over approximately the last 20 years, the local Catholic history in Nagasaki has been one of the central focuses of the regional development projects of both regional and national governments. Each group (the Catholic Church, the parishioners, non-Catholic residents, and the governments – local and national) has appraised the cultural value of properties and formed different discourses of transnational networks. When the heritage officials started preparing the nomination project to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee back in early 2000s, they perceived that the presence of “the Catholics” in Nagasaki in general could represent the region’s transnational connections, so their initial proposal focused on the historic value of the church buildings. However, in contrast, the parish members viewed their religious practices and materials, such as the globally standardized liturgy and chapel veil, as evidence of transnational connections. While it took years for Nagasaki’s Catholic Heritage to gain UNESCO’s inscription, the government officials and the local Catholic church negotiated numerous times to find the overlapping points of the “transnational.”
Responding: Elayne Oliphant, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York University.
Photo caption: Religious wares for sale near Tayuman Station, Manila, 2017. Photo by George Bayuga.