What?s Genuine Conversion?
Posted October 12, 2004P.N. BenjaminCoordinator of the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD)MAINSTREAM, Aug. 2, 2003
The reproduction of the thoughtprovoking article, ?Mass Conversion?, by Reverend C.F. Andrews (Mainstream, June 28, 2003) is timely. Permit me to express my views on this issue through your esteemed journal.?If the churches were engaged in conversion spree, the whole of India would have been Christianised,? claimed one Richard Howell of Evangelical Fellowship of India, writing in Deccan Herlad on October 29, 2000. I reacted swiftly and sharply in the same paper three days later, wondering whether the guy wasn?t living in the proverbial fool?s paradise. Wasn?t he touchingly naive and provocative? And I prayed: ?Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he is talking.?No one can deny that genuine conversions do take place through the influence of one individual on another. In the mid 1970s, a lovely Canadian girl came to India on a Government of India scholarship to learn Bharata Natyam. (She was staying with the late Dr Fredrick Mulyil and Mrs Gladys Mulyil. Dr Mulyil was a Professor at the United Theological College and Mrs Mulyil, Professor of English Language and Literature at the Central College, Bangalore. I was their neighbour.) Like most of her generation in the West, she was an agnostic. She was U.S. Krishna Rao?s star pupil and made her debut in six months. One day she met Mother Teresa. She fell under her spell. She abandoned dance and donned the robes of a nun. ?You are a born artist. How dare you become a nun???Krishna Rao raged in vain. She went to Calcutta and later to Mexico where she was working in a slum when I last heard about her. Not even K. Sudarshan, the RSS chief, could quarrel with such a conversion. But when a well-organised body financed by foreign money begins to shift a whole herd of people from one caste to another one begins to suspect their motives.?Crusading? SpiritSome thirtyfive years ago, a brilliant Danish Professor, Dr Kaaj Baggo, in the United Theological College, Bangalore, made history when he said: ?Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists should never give up their religion for the Christian Church.? On the other hand the Church should humble itself and find ways of identifying with other groups, taking Christ with them Christ, he said, was not the chairman of the Christian party. If God is the Lord of the universe he will work through every culture and religion. We must give up the crusading spirit of the colonial era and stop singing weird hymns like ?Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war?. This will lead to Hindu Christianity or Buddhist Christianity.It may involve the disappearance of the Indian Christian community, but he reminded us ?a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls to the ground and dies?. Needless to say, the Indian Christians were furious. He left the College, the Church and the mission and took refuge with the Danish Foreign Service! He later returned to India as his country?s Ambassador and died in harness in 1988.Pomp and SplendourAbout a hundred and fifty years ago England was sending out a very important Anglican Church dignitary as Metropolitan of Calcutta. The Brahmin priests got wind of it. They were perturbed. This foreign religion might become a threat to their own traditions. They must investigate. So, they sent one of their men to assess the situation. He wandered around the city till he came to the Bishop?s residence. It was a vast sprawling opulent mansion. As he stood at the gate, the great man walked down the steps, dressed in his magnificent robes. He stepped into the waiting carriage drawn by two horses with a postillion sitting at the rear. The Brahmin returned to his friends. ?Have no fears,? he said. ?This is not a religion we need to fear.? The priests were relieved for the pomp and splendour of organised Christianity holds no appeal for any genuine seeker after truth.The ?Onlyness?The most precious freedom that Indian Christians enjoy is to hold Jesus Christ as their saviour, as the Son of God, as the ?only true divinity?. It is their absolute right to cherish that belief?and if any Hindu outfit or government tries to impeach upon that liberty, then definitely Indian Christians should fight tooth and nail for their religious privileges. They would be justified to speak about Hindu fundamentalism, saffron brigade or Hindutva. But the moment Christianity tries to impose this belief of only one true God?Jesus Christ?on the world, then it is itself impeaching upon the freedom of others. For this belief of onlyness of our God as the real one and all others are false is at the root of many misunderstan-dings, wars and terrorism.Dalit ChristiansIf ?all religions are ultimately for the welfare and salvation of humankind?, then conversion is absurd. The Church leaders have miserably failed to take care of the 16 million Dalits converted to Christianity. Besides, indiscriminate conversion has ruined the spirit of Christianity into savagery. Christianity is a path of life paved with suffering and service. Christ said: ?If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up the cross and follow me.? The Indian Christian leaders want the government to carry the Cross of Dalit Christians!Goodwill of MajorityChristians form just about 2.5 per cent of the Indian population. ?Very often they have to depend not so much on their rights as on the goodwill and generosity of the powerful majority Hindu community. Christians in India are dependent in a double sense, on the goodwill of the Hindus and on the Churches in the West whose fellowship sustains them and whose affluence often supports them. Judging from numbers there is hardly any equality in relationship. But Christians in India can play a creative and critical role in the life of our nation. What matters most is the quality of their life as Christians and the courage of their faith.? (Dr Stanley Samartha, Courage for Dialogue) On the question of conversion, Stanley Samartha affirmed: ?If it is recognised that real conversion is not from one religion to another but from unbelief to God, and that ?mission? is not the Church?s work but God?s, then the implications of this in the context of religious pluralism must be more openly acknowledged.? On another occasion he made the point still more explicit: ?In a religiously plural world the mission of the Church is not to make other people Christian but to invite people to enter the Kingdom of God.? He explained that ?the Kingdom is present wherever people are being transformed by Jesus Christ?, showing ?the marks of love and self-sacrifice in their commitment of human liberation?, even if for many in countries such as India, such transformation does not lead to baptised membership of the institutional Church. According to Samartha, ?Christ?s call to conversion as a turning towards God stands; what it need not imply is conversion to Christianity?.Reverend Dr Stanley Samartha was an ordained priest of the Church of South India for over fifty years. He was the Principal of the Karnataka Theological College, Mangalore and later of the Serampore College, West Bengal. He was also a Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore. Dr Samartha was the first Director of the Inter-Faith Dialogue Programme of the World Council of Churches in Geneva from 1970 to 1981. He died two years ago, on July 22, 2001. Unprecedented CrisisChristianity in today?s India with a renascent Hinduism faces an unprecedented crisis. If it is alive to the situation and sensitive to the signs of time, it has to rethink itself, reorient itself, and rediscover its basic substance and interpret that in terms acceptable to the Indian mind and genius. We must remember: ?Kindle not the coals of sinners by rebuking them, lest thou be burnt with the flame of the fire of their sins.? (Ecclesiastics, viii. 13)