Marketing. Brands. Giveaways. These are the sacred pathways to converting a person to a new religion. Thailand is largely a Buddhist country. The usual figure is 90% of Thais would tick the box labeled Buddhism if asked to choose their religion. You need to mix in animism, Brahmanism and capitalism to get a full understanding of the religious landscape.
Enter Jesus. Not exactly Jesus but those seeking believers in Jesus as a savior. The one who saves lost souls. But before I go there. Marketing largely depends on opportunity. You need a captive audience. That is why network TV has served a couple of generations of all kinds of businesses flogging all kinds of mainly useless objects, beliefs, and services.
The TV market in Thailand is large. But as far as I know none of the Christian sects have coughed up the money to run ads. They are however not without options.
Traffic jams. If you truly wish to experience the full rush of toxic fumes pouring out of the back of a city bus like an explored dome at Chernobyl, the place to go is the massive intersection at Lad Phrao and Rachadapisek around 6.00 p.m. Traffic stretches to the next time zone. The intersection looks like a parking lot. Locked inside in their vehicles, they are going nowhere soon. They’re stuck. Upset. Bored. Wondering who is going to win the battle between their full bladder and growling stomachs. Enter the missionaries with the standard speakers used by politicians of all stripes. They have their people carrying signs with a speaker above the stick and they are giving sermons to the people locked in their cars, crammed inside buses or sucking the foul air on idling motorbikes. The stick is a modified cross. You need to look hard to find the cross bow at the top just below the boom box speaker.
The Christians run this gambit like a military operation. They’ve covered all four corners. They have speakers spaced so that when by some miracle a car does move up twenty meters, the next positioned speaker prevents any drop out of the message. So far full points to the missionaries. It must have been all that early experience with lions that they learned a thing or two about positioning.
The problem is the message. There’s probably not a population anywhere in the world more open to a spiel about a spirit, a god, a demon, fairies—you name it, if it is supernatural, you have captured the attention of an overwhelming number of locals. So why in God’s name have 50 years of Christians preaching not made a dent in the 90% population who tick the Buddhism box.
It’s the message. They need to work on the message. What are the trapped motorists, who are miserable enough, hearing over those speakers? That man is an evil bugger, born in sin, and unless he or she repents then it’s an eternal appointment with some horned devil setting their hair on fire with a flamethrower. Thais like fun. They love ghost stories and offer cups of tea and plates of rice to the spirit of the land daily. But none of the daily local supernatural threatens such a heavy punishment for having a little fun. It’s not only fun. It’s getting a church official to give them winning lottery numbers and read their fortunes. Jesus saves. But he’s not good on lotto numbers or telling the faithful from reading the palm of her hand whether the man who works at the next desk will ask you to marry him.
As they hear the speakers blaring for their souls and urging them to confess their sins, the Thais realize another couple of minor points. Like making a confession. Isn’t that what the police beat out of you? It’s not a sellable concept given ever since Guantanamo figured large in the local news. Merit making, on the other hand, immediately creates the image of girl scout cookies, milk or making a fire without using matches. Given a choice between confession and merit making, I don’t know about you, but thinking you can beat the rap of all that fun by setting loose a bunch of sparrows or turtles is close to holding a Straight Flush. If you’re a poker player, you’d probably raise the table on that hand.
There’s one more thing about confessions that don’t wash in Thailand. You admit that you screwed up then you’ve likely lost face. Losing face can make the confessor do all kinds of violent things to the person extracting that confession. Like murder. The trail of mortal sin in these parts often starts with some tricked into making a confession. Basically you’d have to either trick or beat people to get them to confess. No one’s going to risk lost of face just on a promise to get to heaven. Needless to say, confession is a risky business.
So that’s the deal, repent all the fun you’ve ever had and plan to have in the future—throw away that winning poker hand—and commit to a life of basically hanging around without any hope of ever having a holy one whisper a winning lottery ticket as you wait for your ticket to heaven. Avoiding sin. That’s the problem a lot of those sins involve giving up fun. Of course in Buddhism you can have too much fun, too. But the worse thing that happens to a Buddhist is the prospect of being reborn a cockroach or frog, but sooner or later, one can work up enough karma to get back behind the wheel of a Benz, and sit out the change of lights at the intersection of Lad Phrao and Rachadapisek.
You can see the eyes of the motorists. No fun here; heaven. Too much fun; maybe a frog. Or a toad. Most of them are making the calculation that life in a swamp might be a whole better than that intersection from hell.