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, April 06, 2006

Missionaries in Bali: Why they failed

By Nick
May 23, 2005

The Miguel Covarrubias book Island Of Bali talks about how Christian missionaries have tried over the last 200 years to convert the Balinese. Balinese culture, family life, daily life and social organization are all inter-linked with the Agama Hindu religion and its is hard to imagine anyone converting. Last year I talked to a young Mormon from Salt Lake City USA who was on a RTW trip. He said coming across the Pacific he had some success in talking to people about converting, but that he could not figure out what was going on here in Bali and that he felt slightly uncomfortable with the elaborate ceremonies.

Covarrubias elaborates on the history of missionary activity in Bali:

During the past century all efforts to Christianize the Balinese have failed, and the story of Nicodemus, the first Balinese convert, is already well known. Nicodemus was the servant and pupil of the first missionary who came to Bali. He allowed himself to be baptized after some years in his service of the missionary, but time went by and no other converts could be made, so the missionary began to put pressure upon Nicodemus to baptize others. The poor boy, already mentally tortured because his community has expelled him, declaring him morally dead, unable to stand the situation any longer, killed his master, renounced his faith, and delivered himself to be executed according to Balinese law. The scandal aroused in Holland brought about a regulation discouraging missionary activities in Bali.

This, however, did not stop the missionaries, permits were granted to them in 1891, again in 1920, and in 1924, when Roman Catholics requested special concessions, but waves of opposition from the Balinese thwarted these attempts. Meetings were held among the Balinese leaders to stop the catastrophe, and the permits were revoked. But towards the end of 1930 the American missionaries again succeeded in securing an entrée, supposedly only to care for souls already saved and not seek new converts. But quietly and ostentatiously they began to work among the lowest classes of the Balinese. The more sincere of the early missionaries had aimed at obtaining converts of conviction and consequently had failed, but these later missionaries wanted quicker results and followed more effective methods. Taking advantage of the economic crisis that was already making itself felt in Bali, they managed to give their practically destitute candidates for Christianity the idea that a change of faith would release then from all financial obligations to the community-all they had to do was pronounce the formula: Saja pertjaja Jesoes Kristos-I believe in Jesus Christ. If the man who was induced to pronounce the magic words was the head of the household, the missionaries claimed every member of the family as Christians and soon they could boast about 300 converts.

Soon enough the new Christian discovered they had been misled; they had to pay taxes just the same, had become undesirable to their communities, and were being boycotted. In Mengwi, where the missionaries had their greatest success, the authorities refused to release converts from their duties, bringing endless conflict with the village and water distribution boards. In many villages regulations were written into local laws to the effect that those who were unfaithful to the Balinese religion were to be declared dead; meetings were held to discuss the possibility of banishing the converts to remote parts like Jembrana, together with other criminals. The Christians had also become deeply concerned when they found out they could not dispose of their dead, because they were not permitted to bury them in the village cemeteries and all the other available lands were either rice fields or wild places. At times the situation became intense and near riot took place. The alarmed village heads reasoned with some converts and succeeded in bringing back a number of them to the old faith.

Covarrubias gives further examples of Balinese converting to Christianity not really understanding the meaning and converting back to Agama Hindu. He then goes on:

In the meantime, while the controversy rages on, the shrewd missionaries are steadily gaining ground. At present a Catholic priest and a Protestant missionary are stationed in Denpasar, and another missionary, a Catholic, is stationed in Buleleng, all three undoubtedly discreet but tireless in their efforts to save the Balinese.

But Bali is certainly not the place where missionaries could improve in any way the moral and physical standards of the people and it is hard to believe, knowing the Balinese character, that they will succeed. Religion is to the Balinese more than spectacular ceremonies with music, dancing, and a touch of drama for virility; it is their law, the force that holds the community together. It is the greatest stimulus of their lives because it has given them their ethics, culture, wisdom, and joy of living by providing the exuberant festivity they love. More than a religion, it is a moral philosophy of high spiritual value, gay and free of fanaticism, which explains to them the mysterious forces of nature. It is difficult to imagine that it will ever be supplanted by a bleak escapist faith devoid of beautiful and dramatic ritual.

This was written in 1937 and to this day most Balinese are Agama Hindu. Obviously Covarrubias is totally against missionaries and in love with the Balinese culture, but what he says about the religion being the center piece of Balinese life is totally true, everything from the banjar, to the ceremonies, to the control of water, to life and death is structured around their religious beliefs. Take away that central system and much of the social fabric is gone.


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