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.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Conversion: A Buddhist Perspective

by Ven. Dhammika from Australia

As a fomer Christian, who has become a Buddhist, I have been observing the current 'conversion controversy' with some interest. I have read with dismay the reports of churches being burnt and of pastors being manhandled. Such behaviour is not just shameful, it probably does more harm to Buddhism than any missionary could ever do. Further, people who do such things are breaking the law and should be dealt with by the law without fear or favour.

Having said this though, there are two other aspects of these incidents which are also worth commenting on - firstly, they are new phenomena and secondly, they call for an explanation. Why is it that religious communities that have lived together in relative harmony for at least 200 years are now taking up cudgels against each other? True, there have been periods when they engaged in controversy with each other, sometimes quite vigorous controversy, but this has never led to places of worship being desecrated or people being beaten up. When the huge crowds who attended the Panadura Debate dispersed they did not march down the road and throw stones at the local church.

Is it simply that our society has become more violent? Is it that Buddhists are loosing their traditional tolerance? Is it all really part of some political plot? I would like to offer some thoughts on these questions.

But before doing so it might be helpful to be clear about the term 'Christian: Sinhalese are not always good at making subtle or even obvious distinctions and think that all Christians are the same. Today in Sri Lanka there are two main types of Christians. There are the traditional mainline ones (Catholics, Anglicans, Dutch Reformers, Methodists, etc) who have been in the country for a century or more and generally have a "live and let live" attitude towards Buddhists and Hindus. Then there are the evangelical, born again and fundamentalist Christians (Assemblies of God. Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Charismatics etc). These Christians are relative newcomers to the country and have an agenda to convert as many people as possible. It is this second group who are raising concern although Sinhalese Buddhists do not always distinguish between them and the first group. I will refer to this second group as evangelical Christians.

It is clear from the many letters in the papers by individual evangelicals and statements issued by evangelical organizations and churches that they are both worried about and bewildered by the growing verbal and physical attacks on them and by the prospect of legal restraints against them. But such things do not just fall randomly from the sky, they have definite cause, they take the form they do for very specific reasons. The main reason for these things is that Buddhists and indeed Hindus, Muslims and Catholics too, are deeply offended by the behaviour of many evangelicals.

Evangelicals defend themselves against criticism of their attempts to convert others by saying that Jesus instructed them to spread the Gospel and in doing this they are doing no more than practicing their religion. But Buddhists see a problem here. Yes, Jesus did say this but he also told his disciples to 'sell all you have, give it to the poor and follow me' (Mathew, 19, 21) although we do not hear of Christians lining up to do this. Jesus said that if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children he cannot be my disciple' (Luke, 14, 26) although most Christians would happily ignore such a command today.

So Buddhists detect an element of hypocrisy in the Christian insistence that they must convert others. They ask, 'Why are they so gung ho about practicing one aspect of their faith and so unenthusiastic about practicing others? There is another problem with this imperative to convert. In my own country less than 6% of people attend church regularly and only 40% of people say they believe in some sort of God. The situation is similar in most Western countries except perhaps the US. A few years ago an Anglican Bishop in the UK publicly admitted that he did not believe in the literal truth of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection and added that many of his colleagues didn't believe it either. With Christianity being at such a low ebb in its traditional domain Buddhists wonder why evangelists have such an interest in trying to convert Buddhists here when they could better spend their energy helping half-hearted Christians there become sincere Christians.

Another argument evangelicals use to justify conversion activities is to say that Buddhist monks go to the West to spread Buddhism so why shouldn't they come here and try to convert Buddhists. It is true that both Christianity and Buddhism are missionary religions but their concept of how to spread their respective teachings differ dramatically. Both now and in the past the Buddhist approach has been to establish a presence and then leave anything beyond that to the individual concerned. And even then, Buddhists only establish a presence in a community or a country when they are invited to do so. Without exception, all the Western Buddhists I know converted themselves, no one came knocking on their door, no one argued them into believing, no one approached them and told them that Buddhism is the only true religion. Buddhist conversion efforts are gentle, unobtrusive and always initiated by the person wanting to find out about the religion, not by the Buddhist missionary.

Christian conversion strategies have their origins in Jesus saying, 'Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in that my house may be filled' (Luke, 14,23). In my dictionary the word 'compel' is defined in part as "to force someone against his or her will.' Of course not all Christians would interpret this saying literally but most evangelicals would and indeed do.

Within any society there will always be a certain amount of religious switching. For whatever reasons some people will lose interest in the faith of their birth and change to another. In Sri Lanka until recently most religious switching took place because of marriage.

If two people of different religions married, one partner often changed their faith to that of the other. Each religion lost roughly as many of its members to other faiths as it gained. This process caused little demographic changes. It was a slow hardly noticeable process, it was part of the natural shifts and variations that always takes place in society and it caused little alarm. But with the advent of the evangelists the whole process of religious switching has changed. To some degree or another compulsion has become a major factor in this process. Buddhists and indeed many mainline Christians too consider any form of compulsion to be unethical. Most evangelical churches originate from the USA and in some ways they are more influenced by distinctly American values than they are by those of that gentleman of Nazareth.

In America being first is everything, size matters, success means being the biggest. No one cares about what you had to do to become successful - being a success is justification enough. Evangelical churches have enthusiastically adopted the outlook and strategies of the big corporations - marketing campaigns, high pressure sales techniques, blanket advertising, door to door canvassing etc.

As a result of this people who would have never changed their religion are now doing so. The process of religious switching has been transformed from being a personal and individual one to being one artificially induced by external forces. Whereas the village used to be a place of interdependence and mutual acceptance, it has now deteriorated into being a place competitiveness where one group is trying to 'win' converts and the other is trying to stop this from happening, It has become as one evangelical tract approvingly calls it, 'a battlefield for souls.' Quite understandably Buddhist leaders and others are concerned about this.

They worry that just as the ethnic conflict is beginning to wind down a religious one is appearing on the horizon. In the name of peace and harmony they are interested in preventing this from happening. But ordinary people are concerned too, including those who otherwise used to take little interest in religious issues. Where change used to take place gradually and through forces within the community itself, now it is happening abruptly and by forces from outside the community, forces that the people have no influence over and which seem so alien to everything they know. This is the sort of situatlon that causes anxiety and confusion and which can lead to conflict.

Another thing that upsets Buddhists is the attempts to 'buy' converts, i.e. offering material inducements to make Christians. Evangelicals vehemently deny that this happens and say that no 'genuine Christian' would do such a thing. May be they wouldn't. But perhaps not all who call themselves or are considered 'genuine Christians' actually are. The fact is that inducement is used.

I recently visited a certain golf club near Kandy and during a conversation with three of the European members was told that the manager of the club (a Sinhalese) had insinuated to his staff (all Tamils) that he expected them to attend the local chapel. Apparently he had not told them that they would loose their jobs if they did not attend but he didn't have to tell them. They got the message without the word being spoken.

This sort of thing may not happen as often as some claim but it only has to happen occasionally for it to cause disgust, resentment and anger both in those who are subjected to it and those who see it happening to their fellow religionists. When grilled on the matter evangelical leaders have admitted that 'unethical conversions' sometimes happen but it is due to only a few 'over-zealous' or 'immature' Christians. Be that as it may, it is in the interests of the evangelical churches to make every effort to restrain their over-zealous and immature members from doing such things because it does Christianity's reputation irreparable harm.

But even when evangelicals do not use material inducement their efforts to convert others are often characterised by insensitivity and overstepping the line of good taste and good manners. Just a few weeks ago it was reported in the paper and CNN that a pilot on a plane said to the passengers over the intercom. 'Put up your hands if you are a Christian'. Then he added, 'If the person next to you does not have their hands up he must be a fool'. Understandably the non-Christian passengers felt insulted by this, complained to the authorities and the pilot was later reprimanded.

Last year the new Archbishop of Sydney caused outrage when he said from the pulpit, 'If what Christ taught is true all other religions must come from Satan'. A few months ago I was taking an early morning walk along the beach at Wellawatta when a young man approached me and began evangelising me. I told him that I was not interested and kept walking.

He ignored my rebuff and continued walking besides me and yapping in my ear about Jesus. Finally he gave up and as a parting shot said: 'Remember, true peace can only come from Christ'! This sort of insensitivity to the feelings and wishes of others is quite typical of evangelicals. So obsessed are they with their beliefs, so ready to 'shout it from the roof-tops and so determined to make converts, that they often cause deep offence to others without even realizing it.

In the face of mounting criticism several evangelical organizations have recently issued statements saying that they have 'respect for other faiths.' This is certainly true of the Catholic and mainstream protestant churches but coming from the evangelicals it is unconvincing.

One only has to read evangelical tracts and books to see what they think of other faiths. According to them, all religions other than Christianity are wrong, they come from Satan and they lead to hell.

Of course they have a perfect right to believe such things and to proclaim their beliefs. But having the right to do something does not mean that people will like it when you do it. A right should be wrapped in fact in respect for others and a sense of propriety. If I go to an evangelical meeting and hear my religion being described as wrong or Satanic I have nothing to complain about. I chose to put myself in that situation.

But if someone knocks on my door, insinuates himself or herself into my house and then says such things I have every right to be offended.

If I am walking along the beach and uninvited and against my expressed wishes someone insists on telling me about their religion, again I have every right to get annoyed. He has exercised his right to free speech but only at the expense of my right to walk along the beach in peace.

The recent violent reaction against some evangelical churches is deplorable as it is explainable. No one likes his/her religion being referred to as Satanic. They resent seeing their fellow religionists turning against the faith of their fathers when this so done by means they disapprove of. They don't like having their beliefs challenged, especially by people with an aggressive and superior manner. Most people endure such things in silence or grumble about them under their breath but some will inevitably react more strongly.

There have been churches in the towns and cities of Sri Lanka for years and I can not recall hearing of them being attacked until recently. There are numerous statues of Christian saints at street corners and junctions and I have never yet read of one or them being smashed.

Evangelical Christians need to honestly consider what part they have played in creating the recent problem and what changes they must make to help ease it.


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