Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The violence of conversion


The violence of conversion


Aseem Shukla

Q: Is there a problem with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups? Isn't sharing one's faith part of religious freedom? When does it cross the line into manipulation and coercion?

It is impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of conversion after the style that goes on in India and elsewhere today. It is an error which is perhaps the greatest impediment to the world's progress toward peace. Why should a Christian want to convert a Hindu to Christianity? Why should he not be satisfied if the Hindu is a good or godly man? -- Mahatma Gandhi (Harijan: January 30, 1937)

If I had some good news--really good news that would help others--I would eagerly want to share that news. Spread the word, pass it on, share the joy. As Thomas Farr of the Berkely Center at Georgetown wrote, "For those who believe they have access to such a Truth, the desire to offer it to others is both natural and rational."

The problem, of course, is that we are dealing with matters of faith and the experiential, rather than the empirical and rational. And we are wrestling with not only the benign connotations of evangelism and charity, but also with the incendiary vocabulary of hegemony, religious imperialism, asymmetry and conversion.

The Georgetown meeting will only include Christians and Muslims--sadly, none of the millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and indigenous traditions that are the targets of proselytism globally are included--but it is also apropos. For only Christians and Muslims have a history of displaying an often violent urge to share good news. Whether you want to hear it or not never much mattered!

The Crusades or the Conquests, the Inquisition or the sword, the results were the same: millions were forced to turn their backs on their own faith and embrace another. Only the name of the God changed. 

Today, that same urge to persuade, convince and even coerce the good news upon others remains; the methodology insidiously different, but the result is the same. 

Groups ranging from the overtly evangelical World Vision to quasi-government entities such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and many others even within our government, firmly subscribe to the view that religious freedom protects--rather mandates--unhindered access globally to carry out the work of proselytism. Religious freedom is tantamount to freedom to proselytize and convert.

Article 18 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), is often held up as the rationale--the green light for proselytization. That every individual "has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

But adherents of the pluralist religions--Dharma religions, paganism and native religious traditions--have long argued that there is a very basic asymmetry at play rendering the Declaration deeply flawed. Abrahamic religions--the non-pluralist traditions--claim exclusivity in their belief system's legitimacy as the only religious and spiritual path and demand absolute adherence. In contrast, pluralist religious traditions subscribe to a more expansive ethos--that one's religion may not be the exclusive source of Truth and which acknowledge the potential of multiple legitimate religious and spiritual paths. Most pluralist religious traditions allow for the assimilation of beliefs and traditions of another religion without demanding repudiation of one's own religion or conversion to the other. 

This fundamental difference--that a pluralist accepts the injunction of the ancient Rig Veda that, "Truth is One, but sages call it by various names" while the non-pluralist demands that there is only One Truth and all others are false and dangerous--renders the pluralist vulnerable to the asymmetric force of the proselytizer. The pluralist would find seeking converts or evangelizing others anathema--the concept of conversion does not even exist--while the non-pluralist seeks converts as a God given mandate. 

Compound this asymmetry with the reality that the most prolific proselytizers today comprise a multi-billion dollar megachurch industry, and the previously colonized developing world is open ground for this latest avatar of colonization. Witnesses from the hot spots for global proselytism abound with testimony of access to education, medical care, employment and other necessities being traded--often subtle, and often not--on the marketplace of religious affiliation. Most sinister, of course, is the overt bargaining of disaster supplies or better hospital beds after tsunamis and earthquakes for those willing to convert.

The pluralists protest, also, against the tactics of the proselytizers. Christian missionaries in India appropriate Hindu modes of worship, reconfigure traditional prayer rituals into Holy Sacraments and sing hymns that are Hindu bhajans (prayer songs) with words replaced sung to identical tunes. 

The violence of conversion is very real. The religious conversion is too often a conversion to intolerance. A convert is asked to repudiate his sangha (community), reject the customs and traditions of his family passed down for generations, and refuse to attend religious ceremonies that are the very basis of daily life in much of the world. A person's conversion begins a cascade of upheaval that tears apart families, communities and societies creating a political and demographic tinderbox that too often explodes.

Spreading hate against native religions is perhaps the most vile tactic too often employed. And even the Catholic Church, with its centuries old presence in India, has blasted the tactics of the new proselytizers plying their trade today. In our own country, consumer protection laws ensure that advertisers and retailers abide by truth-in-marketing laws. There is no parallel protection in the rabid sales in religious identity that the proselytizer markets overseas, and the consumers are the victims.

And finally, there is the fact that the evangelical community can only "pick on" the pluralist societies. India, Nepal, Cambodia, Taiwan and much of Africa where indigenous traditions still hold sway, are among the targets today for the next "harvest." The "Muslim world" rewards conversion away from Islam with death, and in China, Russia Burma and others, autocracy, the Orthodox Church or military junta proscribe missionary work. 

And so, the very democracy and openness of pluralistic societies becomes their vulnerability--a poison pill as they face the onslaught of the proselytizers. Today, the Native Americans of the U.S. and Canada, the indigenous progeny of Latin America and Mexico, the Aborigines in Australia are silent witness to lost religions and decimated traditions that fell historically to earlier iterations of these onslaughts. 

It is in this spirit that many human rights activists and academics today argue for an overdue amending of the UNDHR. The Hindu American Foundation proposed in a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that Article 18 be amended as follows (emphasis added):

§1 Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have, retain or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

§2 No one shall be subject to force, fraud and/or coercion, including but not limited to harassment, intimidation or exploitation, including but not limited to the conditioning of humanitarian aid or economic, educational, medical or social assistance upon conversion and/or overt denigration of other religions to intentionally promote religious hatred and bigotry (hate speech) and violence, which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

The right to have and retain one's path to salvation is and must be as important as the right to find or adopt a new way. It is time to change the vocabulary in our engagement with religious freedom. Religious freedom must mean a commitment to the true spirit of pluralism, and not a license to those "bearing witness" and forcing judgment.

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