When John Chau, a twenty-six-year-old American missionary, was killed in November 2018 by the Sentinelese people with whom he tried to share the gospel, many were quick to criticize the kind of Christianity that motivated an action carrying such obvious risks—for Chau and his intended audience alike. Several Burmese evangelicals I know saw his death differently. Some, who had studied alongside Chau in Oklahoma, turned to Facebook to express their awe of the young missionary’s selflessness. It was reported that Chau had been reading a biography of the wives of Adoniram Judson, the nineteenth-century American Baptist missionary to Burma, in the weeks before he set out on his final journey.
Contributors to The Immanent Frame have shown how a single public can be subject to multiple and conflicting religious appeals. But here was the reverse scenario: a single religious appeal seen and heard differently by different publics—the Sentinelese, international journalists, and a transnational evangelical community increasingly connected online. In his introduction to this forum, Matthew Engelke pushes those thinking about “public religion” to pay greater attention to the questions of how and when religion becomes “public.” To these I add another: How is publicness—the realization of publicity—itself mediated, circulated, and received?
Publicness occupied the local evangelists with whom I did fieldwork in Myanmar in 2015 and 2016. Taking advantage of new freedoms offered by an albeit fraught democratic opening, they were pursuing increasingly visible methods for sharing the gospel with Buddhist audiences. In doing so, these Christians—members of a minority making up about 6 percent of the population—were entering into a public sphere said to be emerging from decades of censorship and other restrictions on speech and assembly. This meant grappling with the question of how one’s faith, in this shifting and uncertain context, ought to be made visible, as what kind of thing, to whom, and with what consequences?
One of the evangelists I got to know in Myanmar was Mungpi, who I met one morning in June 2015, when I saw him preaching on Yangon’s circle-line train. A gifted orator, Mungpi, sometimes with the aid of small megaphone, preached each week to carriages of commuters, monks, and a small but growing number of foreign tourists. Rarely going above 15 kmh as it completes its 46 km loop of thirty-nine stations, the train provided him with a fairly captive audience.
The most striking feature of this encounter, however, was the general indifference with which Mungpi’s preaching was greeted. Most people continued to scroll through Facebook on their phones, or to look out at the passing landscape, which grows more green as the train skirts the city’s peri-urban fringe. Many accepted the gospel tracts Mungpi distributed, but gave them at best a cursory glance before discarding them when getting off at their stop. He and other evangelists usually put this lack of outright refusal down to people’s anade: a desire, on the part of many of their Buddhist listeners, to avoid offending or embarrassing another person.
In any event, Mungpi was mostly indifferent to the indifference he received. “Conventional mission,” writes Simon Coleman in his study of Swedish Pentecostals, “must not be seen as only about turning others to the faith: it also provides opportunities to delve into realms of positive risk. The very act of reaching out therefore provides its own kind of success.” What Coleman writes about evangelists in Sweden is perhaps even truer of their Burmese counterparts. Evangelism—preaching, distributing tracts, holding outdoor tent revivals—offers them opportunities to enter into realms of risk in still novel ways afforded by Myanmar’s transition. Indeed, to speak the gospel in public, evangelists would say, is to participate in the country’s democratization.
But when Mungpi speaks, to whom exactly is he speaking? What public is being hailed by his address? The carriage full of inattentive commuters is the most proximate audience—just as the Sentinelese were for John Chau. But in order for this “act of reaching out” to be “its own kind of success,” this public speech is also recorded and represented for others in a broader social field—even if it remains mostly ignored by those present at the moment of initial broadcast.
Evangelists like Mungpi are thus concerned not only with the question of how to more actively participate in a public sphere marked by an increasing degree of openness—even as it is also shot through with heightened tensions around religious difference. They are also concerned with the performance of publicness: the way their evangelism is seen and recognized—not necessarily by Buddhist audiences—but by fellow believers, and also, of course, by God. The question, then, is not just how and why religion goes public, or how certain media are central to that process, but how that publicness is itself publicized and its visibility observed. Mungpi’s preaching, as the train rattles along on its three-hour circumnavigation of Yangon, needs to be situated in relation to a second circulation of images, sounds, and texts that document and register his public speech and actions.
Much of this latter circulation takes place on Facebook, which has experienced some of its fastest growth in recent years in Myanmar. As part of a broader transformation of the country’s media landscape, the percentage of the population with access to the internet went from around 1 percent to 25 percent from 2012 to 2015. In a rehearsal of narratives surrounding the Arab Spring, the growth of social media in Myanmar was figured as key to the democratization process, at least in its early years. Today, however, Myanmar features prominently in the reworking of the story about Facebook’s relationship to democracy, alongside Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 US election. The Rohingya crisis made plain how the site was being used to spread hate and incite violence against Muslims in Myanmar.
For evangelists like Mungpi, however, Facebook has also afforded new channels for circulating the publicness performed on the train and elsewhere. Few gospel trips are complete without their being documented and uploaded. Consider, for example, a Facebook post made by Kim, an evangelist who often accompanies Mungpi on the train. It featured a montage of images from a day evangelizing, including photos of Mungpi preaching and handing out tracts. A translation of its Burmese caption reads:
Participating in the harvest during the last days isn’t just about preaching in front of thousands of people. It’s also about faithfully participating in a seemingly insignificant place, even if your work goes unrecognized.
The post may be read as repudiating the desire for the recognition it simultaneously seeks to acquire—a statement whose veracity is thrown into doubt in the act of publically making it. But another reading acknowledges the real-time navigation, across different publics, of different registers of visibility. When Kim posts that it doesn’t matter whether her and Mungpi’s efforts are recognized, we might ask: recognized by whom and in what way? Here is one public presentation couched inside another, a kind of fractal publicness in which an encounter with one public is framed—and its representation put to work—in the terms and service of a Christian counterpublic, a move made possible by developments both online and off.
This move can entail risks, as became clear one evening in June 2016 when I attended a small baptism ceremony in downtown Yangon organized by a Pentecostal pastor loosely affiliated with Mungpi’s ministry. After performing the baptisms, which included two women from Buddhist backgrounds, the pastor announced that he was happy for everyone to be taking photos but asked people not to post any on Facebook. “Please keep them just on your phone,” he said. “It could create unnecessary problems.”
By giving this warning, the pastor was guiding people across the fraught ground of religious publicness in Myanmar—a terrain in which social media and a more open public sphere have provided new avenues for its performance, as well as new risks that these performances might circulate too far or in the wrong way. His appeal came after a video featuring a famous Burmese fashion model who had converted from Buddhism to Christianity had been circulating on Facebook. The video, in which the model shares her testimony on stage at a Christian event, had drawn angry comments from Buddhists, and caused some of my Christian friends to reflect on the dangers of the wrong kind of publicity—something the pastor was eager to avoid.
“There is no site riper with danger and embarrassment than the presence of another person,” writes John Durham Peters. “So-called social media do not resolve these troubles, though one of their main appeals . . . lies in providing a form of social relations that reduces many of the dangers of face-to-face interaction—only for others to pop up instead.” Performances of publicness are both enabled and imperiled by circulations difficult to fully manage and contain.
All images courtesy of the author.