A dialogue ... of deeds
Given the ignorance that we entertain about each other's faith and the fast-degenerating communal situation, there is an urgent need to dispel the misunderstandings we have about one another, says Rev. VALSON THAMPU, as he points out that the issue of the Tamil Nadu anti-conversion Act was a lost opportunity to educate people on the meaning, scope and discipline of conversion.
TWO years ago Atal Behari Vajpayee called for a national debate on conversion. That exhortation was defeated by its context, thanks to the atrocities inflicted on Christians by the overzealous elements in his own Parivar. Predictably, the proffered national debate proved a non-starter. But that does not mean that such a debate is dangerous or dispensable. It is indefensible, in a multi- religious society, to assume that matters of faith are beyond rational scrutiny.
The Bible insists that believers must be ready "to give a reason for the hope" that they entertain. Religion is a sphere of transparency, and not of arbitrary assertions that drown the voice of reason.
The Tamil Nadu anti-conversion Act, if not Mr. Vajpayee's call, was an opportunity to educate people on the meaning, scope and discipline of conversion. Unfortunately, there were no takers for this opportunity, even among the most vociferous protesters. It is unnecessary to argue its need, given the appalling ignorance and mushrooming misconceptions that we entertain about each other's faith and the popular ignorance about one's own faith. Sadly, the eagerness to defend the right to propagate one's faith is seldom matched by the willingness to either understand or practise that faith. Not infrequently, the two are in a state of inverse proportion.
What is the biblical idea of conversion? How are we to come to terms with this crucial and controversial issue? We may reckon the biblical discourse on conversion through two significant and complementary references in the Gospels.
The first is in the context of the temptation of Jesus. Satan tempts him to convert stones to bread to assuage his hunger: a temptation that Jesus rejects outright. The principle on which Satan constructs this temptation is the primacy of the self over everything else. Changing stones to bread looks an innocuous and reasonable thing to do, given the fact that Jesus was extremely hungry at that time. By rejecting Satan's insinuation, Jesus reinforces the spiritual truth that for any act to be spiritually sound it must be free from selfish interests. Stones converted to bread only to assuage one's own hunger will remain, symbolically, stones of selfishness even after conversion. That is because this implies the tyranny of stomach over stones and, by extension, of self over the rest of the world, which is the very opposite of the logic of spirituality. Those who convert stones to bread in their own interest will not hesitate to convert other people's bread to stones, as dictated by their interests. That is why, for example, in a land of plenty, people die of starvation. Applied to the theme of religious conversion, this insight means that the mere re-location of a person from one faith into another does not amount to conversion. It becomes an authentic spiritual experience only if it is totally free from selfish and mercenary interests on the part of those who facilitate it. That being the case, ideally there is no need for any legislation to prevent conversions "by force, fraud or allurement". What is effected in this fashion is not conversion but an insult to human dignity. It is more in the interest of the community concerned to check such aberrations than it is the duty of the State to forestall it.
The second and complementary episode is that of Jesus calling his disciples: Simon and Andrew. If the insight from the temptation of Jesus we have considered is basic to the understanding of conversion, this instance is crucial to the practice of conversion. Jesus says to the two brothers, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Till then they were fishers of fish. Nothing that they do in this state, even the most strikingly religious acts, can have any spiritual value. They need to undergo a radical change, a total transformation. Conversion as radical transformation is, thus, biblically integral to one's spiritual vocation. But the crucial question is, "Who can be the agents appropriate to facilitating this radical change"? Jesus insists that only the converted can be agents of conversion. Fishers of fish must become fishers of people before they embark on their mission. Fishers of fish are driven only by profit motive. The detractors of conversion, not less than the purveyors of conversion, can be fishers of fish. It is doubtful if they would have been as strident and inspired as they are, without the funding that pours in from the U.S. and the U.K.. The irony in the sphere of conversion today is that the friends and enemies of conversion in India are alike inspired by the inflow of overseas funding. It is unlikely that conversions effected by the unconverted are free from "fraud or allurements". And this serious issue cannot be by-passed by arguing that it is God and not human beings who convert. It is dishonest to argue in a manner that separates the dancer from the dance.
Vested interests need not be confined only to deriving direct material advantage from conversions.
As long as the motive to convert remains coloured by confessional calculations, the spiritual authenticity of conversion will remain suspect. Should those who embrace Christianity through the influence of a particular denomination be necessarily members only of that denomination? How come there is such intense distrust and alienation between Christian denominations? How can a denomination prevent its members even from interacting with those of other denominations and, at the same time, also claim the right to convert people of other faiths into its own fold? As a rule, the Christian groups that are most eager to convert are those that zealously guard their own flock from any interaction with Christians of rival denominations. It was against this background that theologians raised the question some years ago as to whether or not a convert to the Way of Jesus should necessarily be baptised into denominational membership.
In Jesus' teachings on conversion, the spotlight is singularly on the liberation and empowerment of converts. Only this ensures that the practice of the right to propagate one's faith, resulting in religious conversions, is pure and spiritually defensible. It is in this respect that the history of conversions to Christianity in this country leaves much to be desired. Arguably, the plight of the converts improves after their conversion in comparative terms. But the Christian community is yet to measure itself up to the biblical mandate of the total integration and empowerment of the converts. The overtones of fraud overtake the eagerness to effect conversions without a matching commitment to the total rehabilitation and empowerment of converts. It is because these issues have been deemed beyond any debate that they have suffered neglect for so long.
There is a need to remove the taboo that is attached to debate and dialogue in respect of religious practices. Thanks to our religious conditioning, we have become incapable of objectivity in respect of the religions we espouse. But, at the same time, it is not sure if a culture of debate or dialogue is obtained at the present time.
Where diversity is despised and difference is criminalised, the morale of dialogue takes a severe beating. The primary task is, therefore, to create a culture and climate of dialogue. This has three cornerstones. The first is the willingness to listen to each other. No one can demand a dialogue and insist only on being heard, as is happening today. The unwillingness to listen is of the essence of the culture of aggression. The second pre-requisite for dialogue is intellectual humility. We must leave a broad-enough margin for the possibility that those who do not practise a faith cannot understand its true genius. The cocktail of superficiality and dogmatism is an incendiary mix. Unless dialogue is engaged as a pilgrimage from the surface to the depth, it degenerates quickly into a shouting game or a war of words. The third requirement is the willingness to change and grow. The willingness to accept the insights that emerge in the course of the dialogue must match the eagerness to share the truth known.
The destiny of India is crucial to the religious history of humankind. We are a significant model of enduring religious plurality. But religious plurality can be a liability rather than an asset, if an appropriate framework for inter-religious harmony and cooperation is not evolved. This calls for an earnest effort to understand each other in the best, rather than the worst, light as was envisaged in inter-faith dialogues. Sadly, these dialogues, to the extent that they were academic exercises isolated from the burning issues of our times, could not go beyond nice sentiments and intentions. Given our fast-degenerating communal scenario, there is a crying need to dispel the multiplying misunderstandings about each other.
It was only the other day, for example, that a well-meaning, but ill-informed, Sikh gentleman asked me if converts to Christianity were baptised in wine! But the scope of the task at hand exceeds the need to clear the cobwebs of mutual misunderstanding. The time has come for religions to form effective partnerships in reinforcing the moral and spiritual foundations of our society. The inter-faith imperative today is to move from the dialogue of words to a dialogue of deeds.
Nothing is more effective in promoting mutual understanding and harmony than the solidarity of a shared mission.
Rev. Valson Thampu is a writer and a peace activist. He is a faculty member of St. Stephen's College, Delhi, and an ordained minister of the Church of North India.
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