The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Eastward, evangelical soldiers!

U.S. evangelicalism does not represent Christianity but does represent the Bush administration's agenda for global hegemony.
TWO days into United States President George W. Bush's second term, The New York Times ran a major article on its front page. Entitled "Mix of Quake Aid and Preaching Stir Concern" and with a photograph of a friendly American woman surrounded by Sri Lankan children at a relief camp, the article detailed the slippage between concern and coercion in the work of U.S. missionaries. As an example, the article followed the work of missionaries from the evangelical Antioch Community Church based in Waco, Texas, who are working to convince people to "come to Christ". A local Methodist minister, Reverend Sarangika Fernando observed their work and told The New York Times that he felt that the missionaries acted unethically: "They said, `In the name of Jesus, she must be cured!' As a priest, I was really upset." The main opposition to these U.S.-based missionaries, according to the Times, comes from the Sri Lankan Christian leaders. They see this intensified missionary activity as unnecessarily inflammatory in a country where there have already been attacks on their work by Buddhist chauvinists.

The Antioch Community Church is no stranger to controversy. In August 2001, the Taliban government in Afghanistan had arrested two of its members, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. Curry and Mercer came to Kabul with Shelter For Life, a Christian missionary and relief organisation that works in Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, India, Kosovo, Macedonia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Western Sahara. The Taliban accused Curry and Mercer of proselytising, a crime during its regime in Afghanistan. Their incarceration played a small role in the U.S. government's media campaign against the Taliban, and when they were released President Bush feted them on the White House lawn. Few denied that Curry and Mercer had gone to convert Afghans, for they had been part of a global movement of U.S. evangelicals whose goal is to harvest as many souls for their brand of Christianity. Neither Curry nor Mercer denied what they had done, and their pastor, Jeff Abshire, told the press that "they wanted to serve others and show God's love for people through practical ways", and "introduce people to God and see them `disciplined' as followers of Christ".

Revelations about the agenda of evangelical missionaries in periodicals like Tehelka and elsewhere have given fodder to anti-Christian forces in India. Hindutva is not new to this. After all, the legions provoked and carried out a violent anti-Christian campaign in Gujarat (in the Dangs district) in 1998 and the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines in 1999. As the Hindutva-led government flouted every nationalist aspiration and conducted a fire sale of domestic assets for transnational corporations, the anti-Christian crusade allowed its family organisations to claim to be "anti-foreign" or even "anti-imperialist". The hue and cry over Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin" is of a piece with this sort of duplicity, and so are the recent rumbles about U.S. evangelicals. The Indian Constitution allows people "freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion" (Article 25i). This is unambiguous. People have the right to proselytise and convert, as long as this is done without physical and monetary coercion.

When Reverend Fernando expressed his misgivings about the Antioch church, he raised an important point: that the work of U.S. evangelicals should not be taken to represent the work of all Christians, and U.S. evangelicalism must not obscure the diversity of opinion on conversion and other issues in the planet's Christian community. U.S. evangelicalism does not represent Christianity, but it does, however, represent the agenda of the Bush administration.

IN the 1980s, U.S. evangelicalism left its borders with ferocity. In Manila, U.S. evangelicals held an important conclave in 1989 that brought together church leaders from across the planet, and partnered them with U.S. churches. Luis Bush, head of the AD2000 & Beyond Movement, offered a concept for the new evangelism called 10/40: "The core of the unreached people of the world live in a rectangular-shaped window! Often called `The Resistant Belt', the window extends from West Africa to East Asia, from 10 north to 40 north of the equator. If we are serious about providing a valid opportunity for every person to experience the truth and saving power of Jesus Christ, we cannot ignore the compelling reality of the 10/40 Window regions and its billions of impoverished souls." The Manila meeting gave U.S. evangelicals the impetus to coordinate activity and to work in the10/40 Window among the poor. As the Manila manifesto put it, "the Gospel is Good News for the poor", and since "the poor are lost, and the lost are poor", with evangelicalism will come development and prosperity.

The exuberant missionary activity post-1989 is unusual for U.S. Christianity. Unlike the Spanish missionaries in South and Central America and the French missionaries in Canada, the English, German and Dutch missionaries in what would become the U.S. had a very limited career among the Amerindians. Fierce resistance by the Amerindians and underhand tactics by the settlers curtailed the success of missionaries. Only in the 1820s, during a period called the Great Awakening, did U.S. evangelicals begin to proselytise again. Once more their efforts with the Amerindians failed, but this did not stop the missionaries (many from elite liberal arts colleges such as Williams and Amherst) from going out to Hawaii and the Caribbean to spread their faith.

In the late 19th century, U.S. evangelicals once more burst forth through organisations such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance (1897), and sent their members to work in India and China as well as in the new U.S. colonies. As a historian of missions, and a missionary himself, Eugene Stock put it, "The older societies attributed to these new agencies more zeal than discretion, while the newer credited the older with a discretion that cripples zeal." But even these zealous evangelicals worked in circumscribed domains, either through the creation of student organisations (Student Volunteer Movement and J. R. Mott's network of Christian student organisations from India to Japan and Turkey to Australia), or else at the sufferance of the British imperial authorities. In India, for instance, the socially oppressed turned to the missions in large numbers. Fearful of the social revolution that the conversion might provoke, the District Commissioner of Delhi remarked: "The emancipation of the [oppressed] is inevitable, but it is not convenient and we should do nothing to expedite it." The work of the missions, in this context, did not grow.

Anti-colonial national movements further dampened the ability of the U.S. evangelicals to conduct their operations in Asia, Africa and South America. The history of missionary complicity with colonialism played badly in an epoch when people revelled in independence and shied away from organisations tainted by empire. In the throes of the Cold War, the U.S. government did not promote the missions for fear that this would only alienate them from the peoples of the Third World. Instead the John F. Kennedy administration produced a secular "mission", the Peace Corp, to send young Americans into the Third World to conduct development activities and to win over hearts and minds to America.

FOR U.S. evangelicals, the end of the Cold War provided an important opening. As the International Monetary Fund-induced rollback of state services proceeded in earnest, the U.S. government promoted "non-state" actors to do the work that the state used to do. Among these "non-state" actors, the U.S. administrations encouraged groups like U.S. "faith-based organisations" (including evangelicals) to conduct social service work around the world. It is no accident that the Manila meeting took place in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. That same year, U.S. evangelicals held the Global Consultation on World Evangelisation in Singapore and created the Joshua Project. The Global Consultation aimed to organise evangelicals to go forth into the 10/40 Window to convert the poor aggressively. To help groups like the Global Consultation, the Joshua Project maintains a database of peoples "that have the least exposure to the Gospel and the least Christian presence in their midst". The project encourages "pioneer church-planting movements" among these "unreached" people. As the U.S. government cut back on the Peace Corp and on its already modest foreign aid, it began to encourage private work, including that of missionaries. For the past few decades the evangelicals have been a faith-based Peace Corp.

In 2003, Reverend Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals told the press, "Evangelicals have substituted Islam for the Soviet Union. The Muslims have become the modern day equivalent of the Evil Empire." The 10/40 Window idea spawned a movement called Window International Network, while the Southern Baptist Convention moved their International Missions Board to concentrate on Muslim populations. In the past 15 years, the number of missionaries who work among Muslims has quadrupled. None of these movements stops at Muslims alone, for the Southern Baptist Convention released a guide to Hindus in 1999 with such offensive statements as the following, "Mumbai is a city of spiritual darkness. Eight out of every 10 people are Hindu, slaves bound by fear and tradition to false gods." The heathens in the 10/40 Window are all in the gun-sights of the U.S. evangelicals, not just Muslims.

In his second inaugural address, delivered on January 20, President Bush once more offered red meat to his evangelical flock. He repeated the word "freedom" several times, once in the phrase "untamed fire of freedom" (said in the same sentence as the phrase "hope kindles hope"). This, like many other statements in his speech, is a favourite Biblical echo of U.S. evangelicals. They often quote the lines from the book of Jeremiah in the Bible that say, "I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem" (Chapter 17: Verse 27) or else "I will kindle a fire in her towns that will consume all who are around her" (50: 32). In such ways, as Matt Rothschild, Editor of The Progressive put it, these "hidden passages" send a signal to Bush's mass base, the evangelicals. In one part of the speech, Bush says: "History also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." The line directly refers to the Biblical phrases, "You killed the author of life" (Acts 3:15) and, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). As Rothschild notes, "The Author of Liberty is The Author of Life, and that author is Jesus." Freedom, for Bush, is another way of saying Jesus, and the spread of freedom by the U.S. military is married then with the spread of U.S. evangelicalism by the missionaries.

Last year, I was sitting in a restaurant at Miami airport, waiting to catch a connecting flight. Beside my family sat a woman with her two children. They were from Kentucky and were excited about flying out to Jamaica along with members of their church. The church had raised money for a group of them to spend a few weeks in Jamaica doing some social and evangelical work. For this family of modest means, the opportunity allowed them to have a holiday and go to a place they would not otherwise visit. The evangelicalism seemed to be a goal, but not their motivation. I would hazard that most evangelicals who go overseas for a short period of time are Americans like this, families with little disposable income for whom the church is an important social institution, and an avenue for a free holiday. Many of those who came to Sri Lanka and elsewhere to do relief, and evangelism, also probably have complex motives. But, nonetheless, the structure within which U.S. evangelism operates is not innocent. It is an adjutant to U.S. expansion, and not the provider of the soul for soulless conditions. This is why Methodist Reverend Duleep Fernando of Colombo said of the Antioch people that they are "unnecessarily explosive", and that they have created a "dangerous situation".


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