a r t i c l e s    o n    c o n v e r s i o n

In India, trouble between beliefs
The Philadelphia Inquirer - series on faith


Hinduism is a famously flexible tradition, accepting endless manifestations of the divine. That tolerance explains the relatively cordial relations that prevailed for years between India's Hindus and the Christian missionaries who came among them to evangelize, and often to minister to the lowliest.

In the last few years, however, India's mission fields have seemed more like a battlefield. Nationalist forces have risen up to brand Christianity a colonialist vestige and foment a backlash against "forced conversions." They were emboldened in 1998 by the election of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to leadership of India's coalition government. Last year, nationalist leader Ashok Singhal accused Christians of conspiring to "wipe out Hinduism from this country" and called for a drive to counter missionaries and "reconvert" Indian Christians to Hinduism.

This climate has led to a spate of "homecoming" purification rites for the reconverted - and to more than 100 documented attacks on Christians, including sackings of prayer halls, Bible-burnings and several high-profile rapes and killings.

Pope John Paul II added to the tensions when he visited India in November and issued a call for evangelization across Asia. A leading swami responded with an open letter to the Pope declaring that "conversion is violence . . . and incites violence."

Critics say the anti-Christian campaign is a cynical ploy by the BJP to widen political support. Nevertheless, it struck a chord among mainstream Hindus who have harbored quiet resentment of proselytism.

To air out these issues, FaithLife brought together two local scholars, a Baptist and a Hindu. Juan Samuel Escobar is a professor of missiology at Eastern Baptist Seminary in Wynnewood. His many writings and speeches have made him a world-renowned authority on mission work. Escobar, 65, is a Peruvian native and a member of the American Baptist denomination.

 Surendra Gambhir teaches linguistics and directs an India-related program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a prolific writer and conference speaker on India and the Indian diaspora. Gambhir, 61, a self-described "cultural Hindu," moved to Philadelphia from New Delhi in 1973.

 Their exchange with FaithLife editor Jim Remsen follows, edited for space. It begins with Gambhir's recounting his experience with evangelists in this country.

I remember one man saying if I convert it would lead to my salvation, otherwise I would be a condemned soul. You just wonder what this person thought of me. He thought I was a dumb person. He had no respect for the religion I was born into, utterly no respect for the religion I was practicing. That makes you mad internally but you have to keep the outside decorum, the decency and just tell the person, "Sorry, no thanks, but really I'm not interested."

Inquirer: Professor Escobar, what do you think of the notion that this shows utter disrespect for Hinduism?

Escobar: For Christians who take the faith seriously, sharing the faith is a part of the faith. Now, however, even in the New Testament the apostle Peter, in the first century, said that has to be done with respect. I think that what people resent from Christian missions sometimes is a kind of active proselytism that disrespects people, that makes assumptions about people's faith without knowing it. On the other hand, there are many people who are seeking, and many times missionaries find those people. The marginal are usually people whom missionaries attract because those are people who feel disenfranchised. . . .

 We who know mission history have to recognize that sometimes conversion was done by force. The person came with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other, like when the Spanish came to Latin America. "You convert or else you die." We have to acknowledge that in the last 200 years, which is the 200 years of most Protestant missionary history, many times mission has accompanied Western commercial, technological and political expansion. That's a fact. We are embarrassed by some of those things because they are a denial of that respect I was mentioning before.

Inquirer: The Southern Baptists got a lot of attention and criticism for what they did during Diwali [a November Hindu holiday], calling for prayers "aiming at dispelling the darkness that holds more than 900 million Hindus in spiritual bondage." Do you think Hindus are in spiritual bondage?

Escobar: Part of the self-image of the missionary is "I am a light." But what we have to understand is that neither in Isaiah nor in the way the New Testament uses this language is there an element of dehumanizing the other or of condemning the other.

Inquirer: But whether missionaries are gentle or forceful, don't they at heart feel salvation is at stake and that Hindus do not have salvation and it comes through Jesus alone?

Escobar: I think that for Christians, especially for Protestant Christians, scripture is the source of the faith to which you go when you ask these questions. Scripture is clear about Jesus saying "I am the way, the truth and the light," but it does not authorize me to decide who is saved and who is lost. It's God who knows the hearts of people.

Inquirer: So a Hindu could be saved without professing faith in Jesus?

Escobar: I am not God to tell who is to be saved or not. But I have a faith which is very personal, and I like to share my faith. Now, I don't want to impose my faith on others. . . . A central tenet of the Christian faith, which we can debate, is that Jesus Christ is the word made flesh. He said that He was the way and the truth and the life, and I cannot change that, even if it is not easy for me to explain it to people of other faiths. But the way Jesus accomplishes His mission is not by force, by power. We Christians follow the master who was crucified. He was condemned to death. He chose that way, not of conquest and military power. Some people do not remember that. They think more of the notion of conquest. That is a denial of what Christ would do.

Gambhir: If you invite me to accompany you to a church, I'll be very happy to go with you and just pray in a manner. Because to me it doesn't make any difference. There are hundreds and thousands of Hindu families here and in India who will go, and in the temple and in their home there is a picture of Christ with other gods and goddesses. Christ becomes a part of the pantheon. Hindus have no problem with that. If I could show you with the utmost honesty, if I could rip my heart and show you, you could find that Muhammad and Christ and Krishna are all standing there really, and sometimes their images are merging with each other and sometimes they are crystallizing. But there's no difference. They're all manifestations of the same divinity for me. So sharing is fine. You can also go to my temple sometimes and you can pray, that is how we can enhance appreciation. The problem arises when you say, "If you want to go to heaven you have to worship my way."

Escobar: I think what hurts in the words of the Southern Baptists that you were mentioning is this sense of arrogance, you know, "We know everything. We are going to tell them." Which is like saying, "We have God in this box and he's not there. We are going to take God there." Which is nonsense because the God in whom we believe is at work in the world. Long before the missionary goes, He has been there at work.

Gambhir: You might be an exception, really. Just three or four years ago, a bishop from Sri Lanka was excommunicated by the Pope because he said there are other, alternative ways of salvation outside Christianity. [The Rev. Tissa Balasuriya was excommunicated in January 1997.] This kind of intolerance is a Christian concept that has been handed down for centuries. . . . It is so inconsistent with the one principle that has emerged in modern civilization in all nations, the idea of pluralism and respect for diversity.

Inquirer: Do you think there is a proper role for missionaries in India?

Gambhir: If they just go and share their beliefs, that's fine. But any attempt at converting through allurement, through inducements, through power, is going to be totally unacceptable by India. . . . Most of the proselytization that has taken place has been in the weaker sections of society, economically and socially. On the one side we have the almighty state of the Vatican and the millions of dollars pouring in, and here are the people who are needy, who don't know where to turn. These are the people who are being exploited.

Escobar: In the story of Jesus, Jesus says "and the gospel shall be preached to the poor." He's quoting the Old Testament. The first followers of Jesus were poor people. One would say the disenfranchised, the marginal. The apostle Paul interprets that as showing God's preference for the poor. . . . Today the churches that are growing in Latin America are the Pentecostal churches, which grow among the urban poor. They are not the result of a kind of plot from the CIA or anything. It's happened in India, too. I have students who come from Uttar Pradesh and Nagaland and parts of India where the Christian faith has been embraced by people with enthusiasm. Sociologically we might explain it, but I also look at it theologically. It is because someone had the conviction, "These are important people in whom God is interested."

Gambhir: Yes, but also let me tell you these people in the northeastern states [of India] where Christianity has been embraced by large segments of the population, it's becoming a more intolerant attitude, as if this land is for Christians and others are secondary citizens. It doesn't happen in other areas where Christians are in the minority. . . . There is even noise of political freedom.

Escobar: Can we apply the principle that we invoked in this country of respect, of plurality? Can the Indian government apply it to Nagaland and say it is a section of the country that has become Christianity in the majority, they have a right to that, and then coexist with that?

Gambhir: The Indian constitution is committed to plurality. . . . Plurality and diversity is the rule of life and we have to respect that, including religion. If we belie that, if we disrespect that, we are not operating in tune with the natural laws.

Escobar: It's amazing the way in which, within each culture, in each language, Christianity has been able to contextualize itself. Also, the form of Christianity that you may have perceived may not be the form by 2050. Part of the difference will be this new pluralism. I feel we are going back to the situation in the first century when Christianity was not the established religion, when the force of Christianity was seen in the conviction of the people and in the joy in which they shared and in the spirit of service.

Gambhir: But what happened to the Sri Lankan bishop happened only five years ago, so some basic attitudes have not changed. To a person coming from the southern part of Asia like me, it really creates a lot of conflict in my mind. How a person could do that is unthinkable for me, that somebody can punish somebody simply because his or her beliefs are different from mine.



Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved.

a r t i c l e s    o n    c o n v e r s i o n