Thursday, September 24, 2009

Faith, Conversion and Practice: On how to convert and not annoy your neighbour

Some time earlier this month, on the 10th of this month to be precise, a rather small news item appeared, that has subsequently not got the attention that it perhaps ought to have. Extracting the news item from The Hindu from where I obtained this report, ‘Churches across Karnataka have come together to form the Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights with the objective of promoting unity among churches, protecting human rights and promoting peace in the community.’ The churches that seem to have become a part of this Forum include a rather venerable list of established churches, and (forgive the expression) strange bed-fellows. The list of member churches extends from ‘The Roman Catholic Church, The CSI Church, The Methodist Church, The Mar Thoma Church, The Jacobite Church, The Believers Church, The Karnataka Baptist Church, The Assemblies of God, The Federation of Christian Churches Organisation, and small historical churches like Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Salvation Army and others’.

The formation of the Forum is one that is very clearly responding to the vicious attacks mounted by Hindutva forces. However the churches have also realized that perhaps not all of the attacks have been without some sort of aggravation. Some inkling of this is provided from the report when it indicates that the ‘the CME resolves not to condemn or denigrate gods and deities of other religions, or elements of tradition held sacred by other communities, both in preaching and publications. “The beauty of our faith is tarnished and not enhanced when we denigrate someone else’s faith,” it said, and added that churches should respect their beliefs and practices, and work together for the common cause of salvation and integrity of human community.’

It is true that among some of the churches, especially the evangelical Christian groups, there is a tendency to denigrate the practice and belief of other faiths, especially in the Indian context, that of Hinduism. Having lived in Bangalore city myself, I can vouch for the kind of embarrassment that ensues when one hears the operation of these Christian groups, denigrating, both in English and Tamil/Kannada, Hindu faith practices. It is true that from time to time this kind of denigration happens within the fold of the Catholic Church as well, but this sort of preaching is however more often than not the exception rather than the norm.

Among the Christian family in India however it must definitely be admitted that the evangelical churches do display a militancy in their quest to harvest souls, that borders on the intolerant and the obscene. The kind of militancy that they show seems to echo that of the Christian fanatics in Islamicate Spain. Needless and annoying, as the Forum has reportedly stated, “our faith is tarnished not enhanced when we denigrate someone else’s faith”.

Regardless of what doctrine may teach us about the singularity of the teachings of the Church, it is not impossible to reconcile our actions towards propagation of the faith with a respect for the faith and faith practices of non-Christians. Reading the works of an Indian social-scientist, who is also Christian, made me realise that the kind of emphasis that the evangelical groups seem to place on conversion is in fact a continuation of a Western-style colonial practice. For those convinced of the uniqueness of Christianity, it would perhaps be worthwhile the exercise to demonstrate through daily practice this uniqueness, rather than denigrate the operation of the faiths of this (or any other) country. To be sure, the presence of other faiths and their practices, inform our mystical encounters with the divine, and to that extent only enhance the practice of our own spiritual traditions.

The central issue that remains however is that of the right to convert. I do not believe that a self-restriction on the manner in which one propagates one’s faith, or even converts people hampers the exercise of one’s right to convert. The question is whether right-leaning Hindu groups and individuals are willing to concede to other religions the right to proselytize at all? Regardless of internal Christian debate on how to exercise one’s right to convert, one often gets the impression that what a number of individuals and groups in India want, is a total freeze on conversion from Hinduism (such as it is) to other denominations. Indeed, it must also be said, that no matter what the statements by these Christian groups, they do not under any circumstances provide an excuse for the kind of violent behaviour that we in the country have been at the receiving end of in the past months.

In Goa the situation with regard to conversions and boisterous Christian groups seems to be rather different. Here, it is the Catholic Church that seems to bear the brunt of pilferage as members of her flock are being picked up, left, right and centre (forgive the apparent political pun, it is entirely unintended!). This sort of pilferage seems to have allowed for individual parish priests to stand mute spectator to the harassment of some of these Christian groups. In addition, it also appears that some of these Christian groups same the same plight as the Muslims of Salcette, who are being denied a right to a burial ground.

Regardless of how odious the operation, practices and beliefs of these Christian groups might be it would make sense for the Catholic hierarchy in the State to come out with an official statement as regards the ideal response at the parish level vis-à-vis these Christian groups. It would make sense not only because one expects a higher standard of right-practice from the Catholic Church but also because it would build a solid foundation for rights practice within the State. In the case where the Catholic Church in Goa is still dominant, it would be shameful to maintain a silence in the face of the many goings-on in the State.

In the Goan situation, it appears that in the face of the Chrisitian in-fighting, a forum like that in Bangalore is not soon going to appear on the horizon and indeed there may, God-willing, no need for such a formal organization. And yet it would be wonderful if the spirit of this group animated all religious groups in their interactions with each other and among themselves.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 23 Sept 2009)

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