Accepted paper:

'Even if we are Christian, we have to keep our culture, our identity': Baptist Protestantism and the practice of cultural revival in the Indo-Burma borderlands (the case study of the Sumi Naga)


Iliyana Angelova (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

The paper will present some of the most important ways in which a Sumi Naga community is trying to revive and preserve aspects of its traditional pre-Christian culture while maintaining Baptist Protestantism as their primary identity marker.

Paper long abstract:

The paper will explore the ways in which a Sumi community is engaged in a creative re-construction of their collective identity by drawing both on their contemporary religion (Baptist Protestantism) and their traditional pre-Christian culture. A sense of perceived loss of roots and cultural identity has motivated the revival of some elements of the traditional Sumi culture (especially the Sumi language, some pieces of traditional clothing, handicrafts and festivals) which are viewed by the Sumi as representative of who they were and should continue to be. The paper will present the ways in which the cultural revival is negotiated within the community, the power dynamics which determine its scope and manifestations and the Baptist church's perceptions of and responds to it. Significantly, as the paper will argue, the cultural revival has not diminished the centrality of Baptist Christianity to Sumi self-ascriptions and perceptions of identity, but is rather thought to have enriched them and given Christianity a stronger cultural foundation. In asserting that not all pre-Christian cultural and social custom was 'bad', as devout foreign and local missionaries used to preach throughout 20th-century Sumi conversions, and some of it is worth preserving (or reviving) by 'true' Christians nowadays, the Sumi seem to be re-claiming their agency in redefining their collective identity while re-situating it firmly within God's divine purpose and will.

panel P46
Global Christianity: remaking social worlds in South and Southeast Asia