Keeping the spirits at bay

“There are spirits everywhere”
(Shan Prayer Guide)

Shan-Tai prayer month 2011, day 7

Shan festival dancers as mythical spirits and monsters.

Why was the rice harvest this year better than last year? Is it because we are now using a genetically modified strain of rice, or is it due to the new fertilizer applied to the fields?

Or could it be that the Rice Mother is pleased with the village offering this year?

In the west we are more responsive the the first type of explanation, a worldview based on empirical science, this is the construct within which we view all that happens in our lives.

The word ’empirical’ is core to our scientific method and means information gained by observation and experiment. Around it has grown an entire methodology of observation, putting forward a proposed explanation, designing a way to test that idea, conducting the experiment to test it and then re-working the explanation in the light of the experimental observations.

Amulet hanging in a doorway to keep bad spirits away

If I observe that my family is plagued by illness whenever I fail to offer food to the spirits and not when I do, this is also empirical knowledge. It is based upon an explanation which is fundamentally different to those used in a science lab but this makes it no less ‘intelligent’ an explanation. Finding cause-and-effect explanations within one’s cultural worldview is what we expect any thinking person to do.

I make this point because it is too easy to dismiss the spirit beliefs of a different culture as not making sense and being a silly way to view the world. Yet we all have a cultural construct within which we function and cannot easily break out of. Learning how the Shan and other Burmese people understand the spirit world provides insight into the social and political situation of Burma.

It is well known that many of the ruling Generals in Burma strongly believe in spirits and their power. They have done things which appear quite peculiar (such as wearing women’s clothing in public) based upon advice from astrologers or to consolidate spiritual power.

As Christians this is cause for hope because we know some realities about the spiritual world that the generals do not – we know the King of Kings who has absolute authority over all of creation.  So at the same time as we ask God to open the eyes of the Shan to see who Jesus Christ is and that He alone should be worshipped, we can also plead for the Holy One to be sovereign over all of Burma and put in place human authorities who will rule according to His precepts.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,

(Ephesians 1:15-20 ESV)

Pray for

  • Freedom for the Shan from having to appease the spirits; that they would instead live lives of courage and peace through God’s Spirit (2 Timothy 1:7).
  • The Shan to know Jesus, who alone has power over spirits (Colossians 1:15–16).

External Resources:

Download the Shan Prayer Guide:

30 Days of Prayer for the Shan
Image of amulet in doorway: