Debating Morality and Religious Politics at the Abundant Life Festival

 | Thu 28 Nov 2013 11:08 ICT

Is there a place for Christianity in Thailand? This is a contentious question for many, and this past weekend, an event took place in Chiang Mai that highlighted a number of issues surrounding the subject.

The Abundant Life Festival in Chiang Mai meant an opportunity for many to learn more about Christ from the son of “America’s Pastor” Billy Graham. Reverend Franklin Graham travelled to Thailand to bring “evangelical partnership” to the Far East. In a country so focused on Buddhism, many outsiders to the Christian community understandably approach the subject with a level of doubt as to the validity of Christian practice in Thailand. Something along the lines of “what is he doing here?” seems like an appropriate question. And as Citylife’s newest intern, it was my duty to take the plunge and find out.

Billy Graham, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, became a famed Christian evangelist in the States during the 1940s, reaching celebrity status preaching at rallies he coined “crusades” which broadcast on radio and television, and becoming a spiritual advisor to several presidents. He has many media outlets including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which his son Franklin is both CEO and President. Franklin also operates as the president of Samaritan’s Purse, a group that aims to help people in need (such as victims of the Bangkok flooding a few years ago) as part of its missionary work.    

Prepared with an abundant (ha) list of questions, and some topics of controversy I was keen to flex my knowledge on (Franklin Graham included), I set out ready to face the masses – until I didn’t. Sure, thousands of people attended, but having experienced the crowds of Loy Krathong at Mae Jo University as well as those at Central Festival on opening day, my expectancy to be stuck in a compromising position (e.g. between two armpits with only armpit hair to inhale) was pleasantly met with a stadium that was more abundant with space than anything else, with plenty of air to breathe and room to sprawl out on either the field or several of the sporadically-filled stadium chairs.

There wasn’t a roar of noise as you entered; in fact there was nearly no change. Quietness and maybe some dim music met me. People sat either in the stadium or the field and stared; some averted their eyes and stared down, others up at the stage and mirroring screens.  They remained well-behaved, it was as though they didn’t dare get into any kind of celebratory, festive or joyous mood. This was not the kind of Thai celebration or festival I had felt pulse through me before. This was…calm. But why?

Like many other parts of the world, Thailand was introduced to Christianity by European missionaries, but remains one of few places where the religion hasn’t yet sunk its claws in deep enough to gain much influence. Representing just 0.7% of Thailand’s religious population, there exist an estimated 467,000 Christians in the Land of Smiles, a far cry from the estimated four million in neighboring Burma, for example, a country where Christianity rapidly took off.

As a non-Christian not looking to convert, I decided to approach the festival with an open mind and a sense of academic interest. This was a community I felt no yearning to make my own, but I wanted to understand it, or at least try and make sense of why it existed. Why, I wondered, is there such a drive to share Christianity? What is so urgent about making people believe your foreign ideas?

A brief history lesson for you: 200 years ago, it is estimated that 20% of the world was Christian, of which an estimated 90% were European. Today, it is estimated that 33% of the world is Christian, only 25% of which are European. So how does one account for such a rapid change in followers? One theory of how religion (and the gospel specifically) spreads, is that of “indigenous agency.” Could this explain the phenomena I saw at the festival? Let’s examine.

Indigenous agency is best described as the method of religious growth in which a person of the indigenous population is converted and then effectively spreads said religion throughout his/her own community so they themselves are responsible for mass growth, rather than the missionaries that set out to introduce Christ to native peoples in the first place.  This trend was seen a lot in neighboring Burma, when in some cases native peoples were seen coming to the missionaries, and not the other way around.

Did this translate to the Abundant Life Festival? Absolutely. Though plenty of Christian websites campaigned to “Get 180,000 Thai People Invited to Franklin Graham’s Festival,” only an estimated 25,000 showed up Saturday. Should 25,000 have also shown up Friday and Sunday, that’s still 75,000 people. 180,000 people showing up would have meant a good 38% of the Christian population of Thailand, a far reach, so 16% in reality isn’t too shabby. But was the phenomenon of indigenous agency in affect? By my own observations, I would say yes, and that’s where things get interesting, because I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I couldn’t sort my feelings out on the morality of what my eyes were seeing.

First off, I questioned the motivation for people to come here. Could it have been the food? No, I didn’t see any food (what’s up with that?). The music? Perhaps a bit, especially considering I was almost trampled by a gaggle of girls running to see Boy Peacemaker, a Thai Christian musical act that clearly has developed a strong teenage following. One of them even came up behind me and used my shoulders as a vault to push off of and into the air, smiling and running to join the crowd.

But as I walked through those seated on wooden platforms, sprawled on the grass and singing along to a Christian song I’d never heard before, I felt their joy radiate out of them as they motioned for me to join along. This was not really surprising, since shiny official badges hung from the necks of nearly each and every Westerner I saw, but still it took me aback that these people were truly Christian. Now, don’t quote me as saying all you need to do to be Christian is sing a song, but in a country so dominated by Buddhism, it was almost a startling experience. A prayer circle started next to me: ten or fifteen voices all reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Thai. And then I started talking to people, and nearly everyone I spoke to considered themselves Christian. They went to Christian churches, hospitals, and schools (from a missionary perspective, what better things to make Christian?) and their whole families were Christian.

One boy, a 14-year-old volunteer by the name of Panut, told me that one of his parents converted and then the whole family followed, which is why he ended up being raised Christian. The family came to know friends of that parent whose families had also converted, and so he witnessed a spread of Christianity and was a part of it, too. And there it was: indigenous agency in effect in Thailand; Thai converts being the ones to convert other Thai people.

For some reason, this comforted me. The idea of this white, old, American pastor getting up on a stage telling Thai people, “There’s a vacuum and emptiness [inside of you] that can only by fulfilled by God himself!” disturbed me. I understood their intentions; I understood Franklin Graham and all the Western volunteers were trying to do something good, but in my eyes it was a foreign person trying to enforce a foreign belief on people who’d done fine without it for thousands of years. This bothered me, but if it was the Thais themselves that chose to get to know Christ versus him being shoved down their throat, I felt that was more morally ethical, more “okay.”

But was it? I asked Panut what he thought about something I myself had found especially bothersome: the inclusion of Loy Krathong photos alongside many articles about the event (including the same ones on and He told me he also thought it was weird. I got the same answer from everyone I asked; all Christian and all confused why Loy Krathong photos would be posted with an article on the Abundant Life Festival. We chalked it up to either the naivety of the author or an attempt to lure unconverted Thai people.

As I watched a series of strange scenes were acted out upon the stage, another question entered my mind. What exactly was the goal here? Conversion? Everyone here seemed Christian already. Teaching how to be more Christian? How effective could that really be? A lot of what I was seeing seemed a bit lost in translation.

For example, the parabolic scene of a young person rejecting the pressure to use intoxicating substances was narrated by English subtitles on the screen, flashing the words “alcohol,” “rejection,” and “drugs” to describe what the actors were portraying. There was little to no applause, though the whole thing was clearly supposed to be quite dramatic and evocative. Acts in Thai had no subtitles. Dennis Agajanian, an American Christian musician, had a few, but when a member of the Tommy Coomes Band from the U.S. broke out into Thai mid-song, the audience erupted in a small cheer. Franklin Graham himself spoke with help of a translator after every line or so, and for the most part everyone agreed they did a decent job in utilizing the “translation principle,” a theory that supports religion taking off once the scriptures are translated into the native language.

What still struck me most was the presence of theoretical speech. Words like “if,” “can” and “could” overflowed, oozing out a message that one has the opportunity to change their life now. The word “could” rang over and over like a tower striking noon, “you could come home [to heaven] tonight through the power of faith,” and “if you’re willing to do this tonight, you could have a new life…” Here, it dawned on me that my initial reaction, at least in that moment, was more accurate than the one I received from the volunteers I talked to.  There were two sides, sure. But the longer I stayed, the more I began to return to my doubts.This “crusade” was not just a gathering of Christians but an attempt to convert people. I’d had enough theoretical speech and preaching, too; this whole thing was starting to feel downright wrong. 

Before I left, I talked to another volunteer, Josh, an American from just a few miles away from where I grew up in the States. This was somebody eager to answer the tough questions I really wanted to ask. He was Christian and on a mission trip, originally to Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot, but had ended up volunteering at the Abundant Life Festival since organizers at the refugee camp decided to come down and volunteer. Like the Thai people I’d spoken to, he too had gone to a Christian school. His hobbies included Operation Christmas Child, something Franklin Graham was involved in through Samaritan’s Purse, and that was the extent of Josh’s previous knowledge about Franklin Graham.

I quizzed Josh about what he thought of the promotional video for the event, featuring Thai people portrayed more like targets than anything else, complete with ID numbers, in black and white with suspenseful music.  I was relieved that he was as disturbed as I was. And he too thought the Loy Krathong photos didn’t have any place alongside this event.

But I must say I was disappointed he didn’t make a huge distinction between a religious leader’s ideologies and their political stance, and so I quizzed him on what he knew about the President of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Nothing.

Here’s what I know: in March 2009, Franklin Graham wrote an op-ed in the New York Times stating his belief that al-Bashir should not be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for serious crimes against humanity including murder, rape, and deportation, even though he had bombed hundreds of Christian hospitals, locked up political figures and journalists, and ended independent newspapers in Sudan. Meanwhile, his most prominent associate, Hassan al-Turabi, even invited Osama Bin Laden into the country of Sudan.

Surely it didn’t make much sense for Franklin Graham to write such an op-ed, asking the ICC not to indict al-Bashir while genocide, as well as the conflict in Darfur, was going on under him. Many people would say Franklin Graham’s op-ed was supportive of al-Bashir, and maybe terrorism indirectly. But to Josh, Graham’s position made sense. To him, it was clear. Though he didn’t like the idea of genocide being an equal sin to a lie, he still believed it. “Sin is sin,” he told me, before reciting a story out of the bible which he said exemplified that “lesson.”

Just before the end of the day, Franklin Graham invited those ready to recommit themselves to Christ to the front of the stage. Those who came received a Gospel of John booklet which included lessons such as How to Memorize Scripture, How to Receive Christ, and A Guide for Daily Bible Reading, as well as a letter from Franklin Graham. I stood up to leave and was apparently mistaken for someone looking for the Gospel, so I got one, too.

Inside was a little pamphlet titled “My Commitment” which asked me, “Have you come forward to personally accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” There were instructions and guidelines for each possible answer (eg. “I am not sure I have eternal life, and I need assurance” and “I want to know more about what it means to receive Christ”). The only possible answer not listed was “No, not interested.” The fact that this little “gift” was made possible by online donations given for the purpose of converting Thai people remained unnerving, but I suppose it could be a comfort to some, with a clear purpose of kindness embedded into its text.

So, is Graham just a man offering mercy to a criminal and salvation to people he sees could have better lives? Or is he someone unreasonably supporting a person of terror and inflicting religion on people with no respect for their original culture and beliefs? I can’t say. I left the Abundant Life Festival feeling torn.

From the people who wanted to be there to the preacher standing on stage to the hundreds of girls rushing to see Boy Peacemaker to the westerners from halfway around the world trying to “make a difference,” many variables were at play here. I suppose the best thing is just to observe and state the facts. For now, all I can be sure of is this: while the Christian community may not be large in Thailand, they certainly are present.

Photos Kyle Getz