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By Swami Agnivesh



Rev. Valson Thampu

align="justify"> Religion is meant to make people more objective. Objectivity is the womb of truth; and truth, the essence of spirituality. The dictum found in all religions that we should treat others as we would like to be treated, is a mandate to practice objectivity in human interactions.

align="justify"> By nature human beings are subjective about themselves and fiercely objective towards others; whereas the spiritual goal is to be objective about oneself and subjective about others. That is to say, the spiritually enlightened are more unsparing on their own blemishes, and more tolerant of the faults of others. But when communalism gets the better of spirituality, it becomes meritorious to denounce in others the aberrations that one tolerates in oneself. Jesus, however, thought otherwise. He insisted that we should pull out the beams from our own eyes before focusing on the dust particles in the eyes of others. Today, however, everybody is busy reforming everybody else, but hardly anyone is open to correction. This turns religious reform into a theater of communal conflict.

align="justify"> Reforming other religions is a shortcut to profit and popularity; whereas speaking the truth about one's own religion makes one crash-land on Calvary. That is the truth that dawned on me in the wake of the violent and vituperative responses from various Christian quarters to the view I expressed recently in a press conference in Delhi that Christians should consider a "voluntary, interim moratorium on conversions" until we put our own house in order vis--vis caste practices and the confusion pertaining to conversion.

align="justify"> Ironically, those who assume that it is easy and natural for others to change their religions are rabidly allergic to re-thinking any of their own practices. As a matter of fact, it is those who are least willing to change themselves that are most eager to change others and make them conform to their own images. The communal goal is to change others by force or fraud. The spiritual goal is to change oneself. Spiritually, changing oneself is the key to transforming others. "The blind," said Jesus, "cannot lead the blind". He went on to insist, "Physicians should heal themselves". The result was that they crucified him!

align="justify"> There are some serious issues vis--vis conversion that Christians can no longer by-pass. First, Jesus was himself very critical of the proselytizing spirit. Addressing the preachers of his times Jesus said: "You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are." (St. Matthew 23:15). The two points Jesus makes in this passage are central to the conversion-debate. The religious establishment has an interest, overt and covert, in conversion. Jesus would have laughed at the casuistry of the present-day Christian spokesmen who maintain that the Church only evangelizes, but does not convert. Second, the establishment's interest in conversion is for its own sake, and not for the sake of the converts. Those who regard conversion as a profound spiritual experience need to ensure that converts are not dumped soon after conversion. The plight of dalit Christians is a good enough proof that this aspect of conversion deserves urgent consideration today.

align="justify"> Second, the spirit in which conversion is understood and practiced today is in disharmony with the spirit of the Bible. Due to accidents of history, the idea of conversion acquired the trappings of colonialism. Even long after the colonial apparatus has been dismantled, the rhetoric of conversion still continues to be dominated by the metaphors of colonization. As someone who was a vocal apologist for the recent papal visit, I felt disappointed that the Pope's vision for evangelizing Asia was still dominated by the metaphor of empire building and annexation. According to the Holy Father, and to the embarrassment of the Catholic thinkers known to me, Asia must be evangelized in the Third Millennium as Europe was in the first and Africa in the second! I am not convinced if the evangelization of Europe preceded the arrival of Christianity in India or if the conversion of Constantine was a gain for Christianity.

align="justify"> The theology and methodology of evangelization, leading to conversion, were perfected in the worldview of the nation-states. And both are becoming anachronistic with the advent of the global order. The Internet, besides, poses serious threats to the orthodox idea of religions and their inter-relationships. The custodians of religions will no longer be able to herd together and manipulate the loyalty of the faithful; especially because religions are becoming increasingly escapist and indifferent to the pressures and pains of life today. The entrepreneurs of the Net have been quick to see their opportunities in this vacuum. It is incredible how many sites offering spiritual help there already exist on the Net. It may take a little while more for the religious functionaries to wake up to their growing redundancy.

align="justify"> As of today, the rhetoric and counter-rhetoric on conversion serve mainly to escalate communal conflicts. The claims that converters make as to their evangelistic harvests as well as the allegations their detractors make as to the mass-conversions made so as to "wipe out Hinduism from the land of its birth" are both ridiculously dishonest. Ironically, conflicts serve the interests of both parties. The Christian community being a-political, peace-loving and service-oriented, the specter of "mass conversions" is the only bogey that its detractors can raise to improvise their own relevance. At the same time, the more conversion is criminalized and Christian workers are brutalized, the more professional proselytizers stand to gain, as it glorifies conversion in minds of Indian Christians and, especially, of overseas funding agencies. Barring glorious exceptions, the Christian entrepreneurs and Parivar storm troopers feed on each other vis--vis the issue of conversion. It is difficult to see how anyone with any spiritual sensitivity can remain indifferent to this sorry state of affairs.

align="justify"> From the point of view of the Bible, the spiritual deepening and renewal of the community is a greater priority than swelling one's own ranks. Otherwise, even conversions facilitated by the purest of evangelistic motives could degenerate into frauds, post facto. It is well known that one of the major attractions of Christianity for the dalits is that it is an egalitarian faith that could liberate them from social degradation. It is not only for some ethereal considerations of "a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die" that tribals and low castes convert to Christianity. If after that they are subjected to any form of caste discrimination, can their conversion be said to be free from fraud? They may not have been converted by "force or fraud". But, if the religious community they embrace is spiritually bankrupt, it could turn their conversion, though genuine, into a fraud.

align="justify"> It is appalling that there is hardly any clarity or consensus on the issue of conversion among the various Christian denominations, even though people are expected to uphold the right to evangelize and covert, risking their life. And that in the name of a religion that maintains that the life of a human being is more important than the whole world put-together. The moral mendacity in this context is that those who urge others to suicidal heroism in the name of Christianity do so form the comfort and security of their own fortified positions. How long will it take us to see that the converters and the propagandists for conversion also stand in need of conversion? The sober truth is that in spiritual matters zeal is a poor substitute for love and truth.

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