Proselytisation as it is Practised1

I did not realise I was stirring a hornet's nest in reviewing the Mission Handbook (March 13, 14). It invoked many rejoinders, most of them harsh. It helps inter-faith dialogue which the church has recently invited.

Many points have been made but, quite understandably I can only deal with a few more salient ones, and that too briefly. Mr Kuruvilla Chandy presents a justification for Christian proselytizing which is novel in its being so openly avowed. He compares it with proselytizing in politics where "fraud is proverbial", and with "aggressive advertising" of the commercial world. It is interesting that he finds nothing odious in the comparison. He argues that "proselytizing is normal to fife."

One-Way Traffic

But this 'normal-to-life' theory of proselytizing is not supported by Christian theory or practice. The Church always regarded proselytizing as a one-way traffic. One could join it freely but one risked excommunication and later on even death in leaving it.

Perhaps a creed is best known by what it does when it holds political sway. As soon as Christianity came into power, heathen temples were defaced and closed and their revenues transferred to the Church. "We command that all their (heathens') fanes, temples, shrines, if even now any remain entire shall be destroyed by the command of the magistrates" was the order of the day (Theodosius Code, 380 A.D.).

The same methods were employed when Christianity moved to the north of Europe. In Great Britain and Germany, priests and monks moved about destroying the groves and shrines of the people. The last regions to lose their religions in Europe were Prussia and the Baltic states. In the beginning of the thirteenth century, they were conquered and forcibly converted with the help of two religious-military Orders of Litvonian and Teutonic Knights.

During Medieval times, the Church taught that the Pope was "almost God on earth"; therefore the earth's sovereignty also belonged to him. In the capacity of a overlord, he gave away the newly-discovered Americas to the Spanish king and the Eastern part of the world to King Alfonso of Portugal, "the right total and absolute, to invade, conquer and subjugate all the countries which are under the enemies of Christ, Saracene and pagan."

Space does not permit us to narrate what Christianity did in these parts. Juan de Zumarrage, first Bishop of Mexico, writing in 1531, claimed that he personally destroyed over 500 temples and 20,000 idols of the heathens. From another part of the globe, St. Xavier was writing from Cochin to the King of Portugal: "To your servants you must declare as plainly as possible … that the only way of escaping your wrath is to make as many Christians as possible in the countries over which you rule."

Thus the Christian history is itself the best contradiction of Mr Chandy's theory that proselytizing is "normal to life" and that it "is a freedom". Moreover, there is a more comprehensive approach beyond this one. Considered from a deeper angle, Christian proselytizing is a bigoted idea, a denial of God and his working in others. Mahatma Gandhi who studied Christian proselytizing closely says that it is the "deadliest poison that ever sapped the foundation of truth," that it is "arrogant", that it embodies a double falsehood: he sees "no spiritual hunger" in nominal converts and "no spiritual merit" in professional missionaries. He says that a missionary is "like any vendor of goods", and that if he had "power to legislate", he "should certainly stop all proselytizing."

"Social work" has been mentioned by several Christian writers as a clincher. Mr Ishtiyaque Danish however also gave us an inside view of it and showed us how it works in Indonesia. In India it works no differently and the Neogy Report is full of similar facts but the report was neglected and things have continued in the same old happy fashion.

The advantage of "social work" as a great support to proselytizing has been long noticed by missionaries themselves. India and Its Missions, an official Catholic publication, issued by its American Capuchin Mission Monks (1923), discusses the "Spiritual Advantages of Famine and Cholera" under that very heading! It quotes the report of the Archdiocese of Pondicherry to his superiors in Europe: "The famine has wrought miracles. The catechumenates are filling, baptismal water flows in streams, and starving little tots fly in masses to heaven."

About Christian schools, the same source says that "conversion may often be traced to the schools."
Regarding their medical ministry, it says that a "hospital is a readymade congregation; there is no need to go into the highways and hedges and compel them 'to come in'. They send each other."

Certain subterfuges are described with perfect satisfaction. For example, in an operation case, prayers are offered for the patient in the presence of his relatives, the pagan servants or pagan pupil nurses "in language they understand". When the cure is effected, it appears "marvelous" to them and they "very naturally attribute the one to the other".

Who pays for these services? It is Indians themselves though the money is spent by the missionaries. For example, take education. In 1859, the British government decided to help them by the backdoor. It offered grant-in-aid to those "private" agencies who did work in the educational field. The Missions flocked. In his Colonialism And Christian Missions, Bishop Stephen Neil tells us that a "century of experience suggests that the missions were right in their decision… In thousands of villages where there was a Christian nucleus, the village teacher served also as a catechist, carrying out many of the duties which in older churches rest on ordinary ministry. About a third of the cost of educational work was borne by the private agencies, two thirds by the Government."

Old Order

He further adds that "even in independent India… the old order has continued in being without radical modification." It seems the Indians are paying not only for missionary "social service", but also for their apparatus and for their own conversion by them.

Some writers have spoken of the "sacrifice" of the missionaries, their love of Jesus and the natives in choosing their career. This image-building may be good for enhancing the acceptability of missionaries but it is seldom supported by facts. For most people, missions have offered a lucrative career and they have joined it in order to improve their social and financial status. Bishop Stephen Neil tells us that the "missionaries of the last century were overdressed and by the standard of the time lived in luxury, their stipend being £ 200 a year." It will help clarity if we remember in contrast that Benjamin Jowett, the great classical scholar, was appointed as Regius professor of Greek language at Oxford in 1855-56 at £ 54 a year.

The suggestion that Europe and America are the paymasters has been resented. One local missionary protested that he and his wife are "supported by Christians from many parts of India". There is no intention of hurting anybody's feelings and what he says may be true. But it is more likely that people like him are supported by local communities and Bishops who themselves are supported by foreign sources.

There is much financial interlocking at the top and who gives and who receives and why can remain a mystery even after much investigation as recent events prove. However, we have the testimony of Rev. James Cogswell, head of the American National Council of Churches, that they have "consciously" decided to send more cash and fewer people. "American missionaries overseas cost a lot of, money," he explains, and it is "far better to send support to workers in indigenous churches."

New Policy

The new policy is dictated by new political climate and new economic factors. The local recruit costs less and his compulsion to prove his missionary zeal is greater. Politically he causes less complications and, rightly trained, he is no less earnest in his cause himself. A few months ago, Rev. Abel Govender, an "Indian" Christian Minister in South Africa, wrote to its president, P.W. Botha, that the country would lose God's divine protection if Hinduism were allowed to flourish. "K. P. Yohannan, a native of India", as he is introduced by the editors of American Gospel for Asia, says the "enemy (Satan) has used Hinduism to enslave India in a system that dooms her people to misery in this world, as well as to an eternity in hell." Not many white missionaries could outdo their brown counterparts.

Several rejoinders invoked Mother Teresa's name to show that I did not even "spare her" and, therefore, what I said deserved no credibility. One could admire Mother Teresa and her work without admiring the ecclesiastical framework to which she belongs. British Imperialism had many conscientious officers but it did not take away from the fact that they served an iniquitous system.

Mother Teresa is a true daughter of the Church in having her mind and heart closed to the religions of the countries of her labour, even adoption. Sometime back, some European Vedantists learning that she was at the Vatican went there to pay their respects. She rebuked them for "betraying Christ".

Let me clarify the point a little further by bringing in Sister Nivedita. She is a lady Hindus are proud of. She helped India by helping it to rediscover itself. No higher service could be rendered to a nation in the grip of self-forgetfulness. She stood for national justice for India and she helped us by giving us national pride. This explains why Sister Nivedita is Hindu India's hero. This also explains why Western nations shower praise and money on Mother Teresa while Sister Nivedita remained unsung in the West and there were no contributions from that quarter even for her purely humanitarian work, like education and child care and relief work which she did with no less dedication, sympathy and loving care.

I had said that the missionary passage in Mark (earliest Gospel), 'Go and preach the Gospel to all creatures', is an interpolation. They questioned this statement. Well, my best defence is the Bible (RSV) itself which does not even give these verses in the running text but reproduces them only in a footnote. Similarly, the Good News Bible, while reproducing the verses, explains in a foot-note that "some manuscripts and ancient translations do not have this ending in Gospel," a euphemism for saying that the passage is a later-stage interpolation.

Anna Sujata Mathai expresses a wish that I too may "like St. Paul, who also hated Christians, one day be forced to face.... dazzling truth of Christ's compassionate love." A similar wish was conveyed in other letters which I received from some readers.

However, while thanking Anna Mathai, I must add that anybody who has a social conscience will make no such wish even for an enemy. Conversion made Paul a greater persecutor, on a larger scale, and a menace for centuries to come for other religions of the world.

Mr T.C. Joseph advises me to avoid an "endless number of books available with an anti-Christian view", but "read up books of a different kind which too abound." I assure him that I read no "anti-Christian" books and I am hardly aware of them. On the other hand, I read the Bibles, early Christian Fathers, Christian Catechisms, Christian Encyclopaedias, Christian directories, orthodox accounts of Christian missionary activities, histories of Protestantism and the Catholic Church held in high esteem by them. I find this literature consistently anti-pagan and I do not know what to think of a religion which teaches in and through its scriptures and its other literature written by its most devout, scholarly and pious sections such systematic hatred of all other religions and believes in a divine injunction to supplant them.

I must also add that Mr Joseph's division of books on Christianity into anti and pro lacks intellectual orientation. Besides these two, there is also a third category: the critical and historical studies of the Bible and Christianity. These are the most durable and solid and they have proved the most damaging to Christianity. It is works of top-notch scholars and theologians like Strauss, Renan, Buchner, Abbe Loisy, works of highest credibility which have proved most "anti-christian".

Scientists' Works

Similarly, it is the works of scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Linnaeus, Buffon, Laplace, Lyell, Darwin and others which undermined the structure of Christian thought. Astronomy, geology, natural history added immense time and space to Europe's hitherto limited conception of the universe; it proved most subversive of Christianity.

The work of -subversion was complete with the West's discovery of the East. Science brought into discredit virgin birth, resurrection, and miracles; Eastern spirituality did the same to sole sonship, single revelation, special Covenants, proxy atonement, exclusive salvation, chosen fraternity, single life, authorised saviours and mediators, etc, In the religions of the East, the deeper Western thinker and seeker found inferiority, transcendence and universality unknown to him before; he found in them not commandments of some arbitrary deity but truths of his own innermost being; similarly he found in them a principle of tolerance, coexistence, benevolence and reverence which was new to him.



1 Article written by Ram Swarup in reply to a debate in The Times of India following his review-article 'Christianity Mainly for Export', and published in two installments in The Times of India on May 23-24, 1988.


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