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.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Western Christian Evangelicals in India: A Call for a Ban

Yoginder Sikand

The heated controversy over the visit to Bangalore of the American Christian evangelist fraud Benny Hinn had hardly abated when posters came up on the city’s walls announcing the impending arrival of another team of foreign evangelists in the city. Displayed on the posters inviting the denizens of Bangalore for yet another Gospel revival meeting were faces of two white men dressed neatly in suits, identified as pastors from Germany, and their local host, a south Indian Pentecostal priest.

I had missed Benny Hinn’s hugely controversial show, having been out of Bangalore when he arrived in town along with his large retinue, and I decided that I just had to attend this one. And so I found myself one hot evening two weeks ago in a football stadium in a Tamil-dominated locality in Bangalore.

A large stage had been set up at one end of the stadium, below which plastic chairs were placed in rows. Stalls had come up displaying evangelical literature in Tamil and Kannada, CDs and tapes of visiting American evangelists (including the notorious Benny Hinn) and stickers with such curious slogans as ‘Christ is THE ONLY way to salvation’ and ‘Christ is THE Lord’. Nearby, street vendors did brisk business selling chips and popcorn as the crowd filtered in.

The programme started with a Tamil devotional hymn sung by a group of women neatly attired in white saris. Then, a Tamil pastor, the host of the evening’s event, stood up and spoke into a mike. Barring ‘Yesu’ (Jesus) and ‘Bible’ I could not understand a word of what he said, I must confess. As his sermon progressed he raised his tempo to a furious pitch, thundering away, till at last he announced the arrival of the evangelists from Germany.

Two fancy cars then drove into the stadium, and out stepped the four white German evangelists—two men and two women. They strode up to the stage, and the men on the dais stood up to shake hands with them. The Tamil pastor introduced them to the crowd, and invited one of the German men to deliver a speech. The man—rather plain looking—lumbered over to the microphone, and announced how very pleased indeed he was to be in Bangalore and how grateful to the Lord he truly was for having given him the opportunity of coming all the way from Germany to fulfill his evangelical obligations. As he went on, he, like the Tamil pastor before him, grew increasingly loud and aggressive till at last he was in a frenzy, screaming at the top of his voce. The only path to salvation, he thundered, was through Jesus. Jesus alone, he insisted, angrily contorting his face and hollering as if possessed by some strange spirit, was the way to eternal bliss. Meanwhile, he had worked the crowd into a frenzy, with men and women shrieking their Hallelujahs aloud and lifting their hands in prayer to invisible heavenly beings.

I do not know if their prayers were met, but mine—that the man be forced to retire to his seat at once—certainly were, as the Tamil pastor announced that his German guests were now going to sing a song in praise of ‘Jesus, the King of Kings’. I must admit the tune was catchy and quite enjoyable, although I cannot say the same for the lyrics, which, extolling Jesus as the only way to heaven, were, of course, entirely predictable. As the song proceeded, a member of the German team, a scrawny woman wearing a sleeveless blouse, broke into a hip-hop sort of dance, while the others swayed from side to side in passionate gyration. Then, explaining what this evangelical rock show was intended to be, the leader of the team, a particularly stern-looking man, announced: ‘Jesus loves music and so we are singing to please him!’. This was then dutifully translated into Tamil for the benefit of the audience.

The song-cum-jig soon gave over, after which the head of the team grabbed the mike and bellowed into it. ‘Praise be to the Lord Jesus, in whose name we have come all the way to your beautiful city of Bangalore’, he announced, while the audience responded with loud claps. Like his colleague who had spoken earlier, he went on to repeat the same hackneyed tale, of Jesus being the only path to God. Jesus had come to defeat Satan, he declared, and those who wanted to be saved had no way out but to accept Jesus as their Master. He hammered home the same point tirelessly, as his voice ascended into a crashing crescendo, being amplified many times over through massive loudspeakers. ‘Ours is a God of power, not a dead deity’, he screeched at the top of his voice, as the audience below threw up their arms in supplication.

‘Yes, our God has powers to drive away the demons and evil spirits and to cure the sick’, he declared. ‘That’s what is written here in the Bible’, he thundered, thumping away at a book placed on the podium. And, to ‘prove’ the point, he turned to the audience and announced that all sick, dumb, deaf or blind people present could come up to the stage and be miraculously cured, ‘in Jesus’ name’.

A dozen or so people straggled onto the stage. ‘Now close your eyes’, the man said, ‘and I shall pray in the name of our Lord’. He placed his hands on their heads in turn, muttering to himself, and shortly after asked them to open their eyes. He turned to the first person in the row, an old man, who, by the look of it, was an impoverished Tamil Dalit, and asked him what his problem was. The old man told him, through a translator, that he could hardly see. The evangelist asked him if he had been cured, but before the man could answer, he declared, much to the mirth of the audience below, ‘Hallelujah! This old man has been cured! And all in the name of Jesus, the God of power’. The other people on the stage stood there, presumably all as ailing as before, and they, along with the old man, were then escorted down from the stage. Meanwhile, the evangelist congratulated himself for supposedly curing the old man of his blindness through the power of his prayer, much to the amazement of the wonder-struck audience.

Having read about the ‘miraculous cures’ and other such hoax performances of Benny Hinn and his ilk, I decided to investigate matters for myself. I walked up to the old man as he settled in his seat and sat down next to him. He told me that he was a Hindu, not a Christian, and that he had come to the meeting on hearing that the visiting white evangelists apparently had the miraculous capacity of curing ailments. He was half-blind in his left eye, he said, and had no money to go to a hospital. He looked plainly worried. He did not know what to do now, he said, as the prayers of the evangelist had had no effect and his vision was as blurred as before.

Why, then, I asked him, did he not protest when the evangelist claimed that he had cured him on stage?

'No, sir, I didn’t know what the Sahib was saying, so how could I answer him’, he pathetically replied, his eyes filling with tears.

He handed me a card that he had been given while coming down the stage. It bore the name of a certain Pentecostal church, and, he told me, he had been instructed to come to the church later if he wanted to be cured.

Shortly after this display of miraculous hoaxes, the event gave over. The evangelist team walked down the stage, heartily welcomed by the crowd below. By their looks, almost all of them seemed to be impoverished Tamil Dalits. They related to the evangelists their various sicknesses and ailments, and begged them to pray for them to be cured. An old Dalit woman, tears rolling down her cheeks, explained to one of the German women that her left foot had been paralysed for many years. The evangelist fell at her feet and gently massaged it, and muttered a prayer in guttural German. She then clutched the old woman’s face in her arms, planted a kiss on her forehead and loudly announced for the benefit of the crowd that had gathered around her, ‘You will be cured, don’t worry, in the name of Jesus. Take Jesus’ name and you will be okay. Remember, the name is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’. The old woman appeared to understand nothing of what the white woman told her, except for the name of Jesus, which, as far as the evangelist was concerned, was probably good and adequate enough. The woman’s foot, of course, remained unhealed, but she was assured that if she reposed her faith in Jesus, all would be well one day.

The three other Germans, I noticed, were busying themselves in precisely the same way with the people who had gathered around them in the hope of being healed. Then, when their task was over—announcing the name of Jesus—and leaving the crowd without, of course, performing any miraculous cure, they packed themselves into their fancy air-conditioned vehicles and sped away, while the crowd made its way into the slum outside.

As I write these lines, I think of the enormous clout of Western Christian evangelicals, who, like these Germans I had encountered, worship what they call the ‘God of power’, a god that brooks no rivals. Their militaristic, indeed fascist, form of Christianity alone, they are convinced, is the only way to salvation. As they see it, all other religions are bad, if not Satanic, and their adherents are doomed to eternal perdition in hell. Today, Christian evangelicals are well ensconced in power in the United States, and, patronized by Bush, have a well-organised agenda of world conquest. They are among the fiercest backers of Bush’s imperialist wars, and, as numerous scholars have uncovered, have had a long history of serving Western imperialist designs and combating progressive movements that seek to challenge Western domination in the so-called ‘Third World’. They represent a dangerous form of contemporary white Western racism, carrying on in the colonial missionary tradition that brought together the Bible and the gun in an unholy pact to win the world for Christ and Empire.

Fundamentalist Christian evangelical organizations are now increasingly active in India, and, with their aggressive rhetoric and fierce intolerance of other religions, pose a grave danger to inter-communal relations. While freedom to propagate religion is a fundamental right of all Indian citizens, surely this right does not extend to foreign nationals, especially to those who have no regard at all for the religious sensitivities and beliefs of the vast majority of the people of this country. This calls for an immediate ban on foreign evangelists, no matter what their religious affiliations, who would probably better serve the cause of the religion they champion in their own countries, where churches are empty and religion is almost extinct.


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