“The Church claims the right to freedom of religion, by which it means its own right to convert others, and never the other way round (recall its strong condemnation of Ghar Wapsi). Christian evangelical efforts in the world today constitute nothing less than an open declaration of war on other religions. What it forgets is that if missionaries have a right to preach the Gospel, ancient societies professing pacifist non-proselytising religions have a right to defend themselves.” – Virendra Parekh
Thanks, but no thanks. That would be the reaction of discerning missionaries to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much awaited intervention in the ongoing discourse on tolerance and religious freedom. He has obliged them at last, but with a twist which negates much of the favour.
On the face of it, it would be a matter of immense satisfaction to the Church that the political head of a non-Christian secular country attended a purely religious function (organised by the Church to celebrate the sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia) and spoke of ‘tolerance’, ‘freedom of faith’ and ‘the individual’s right to adopt the religion of his choice’.
The satisfaction was heightened by the context. Having availed of India’s hospitality for two days, the US President Barack Obama thought it fit and necessary to harangue us heathens on virtues of tolerance and religious freedom. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines,” he intoned in Delhi.
The hypocrisy of this moral grandstanding was astounding. Obama’s remarks were made shortly before he flew to Saudi Arabia, a country which openly denies religious freedom in theory and practice. Pakistan routinely and systematically persecutes its Hindu and Christian minorities, but remains Obama’s frontline ally in the so-called war on terror and receives guns and dollars in large quantities. Yet “Nowhere is it more important to uphold religious freedom than in India.” Back home in Washington he bemoaned the “acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji.”
The hand of the missionary network behind the remark was too obvious to be ignored. It was no coincidence that the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, which was instrumental in the blacklisting of Mr. Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat violence and believes that religious freedom in India is comparable to that in Afghanistan and Turkey, welcomed the President’s remarks. As pointed out by Vamadeva Shastri [see comment below], Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, is connected to Southern Baptist groups who have global missionary networks, but would not mention this in public or condemn the bigotry of Southern Baptists, who would not accept the Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh paths as valid.
An editorial in The New York Times asked the prime minister to break his ‘deafening’ silence on religious intolerance.
And now Narendra Modi has spoken what was expected of him, but with important improvisation. For the missionaries, it is bad enough that he wants every Indian (and not just Hindus) to have equal respect for all religions. He appealed to ‘ALL’ religious groups (and not just Hindus) to act with restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation.
He went on to say “My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.” This reference to the right to adopt a religion of one’s choice is no doubt a big (and reckless) concession to the Abrahamic creeds. But there is a double qualification here. The right to retain one’s ancestral faith precedes the one to choose another; secondly, the change of religion has to be made ‘without coercion or undue influence’, if at all. The standard Hindu position is that we should stick to the tradition we are born into, while respecting and learning from other traditions. Modi went as close to that as possible under the Constitution.
But Hindu intellectuals and organisations need to go further.
They should ask bishops and maulavis whether they are prepared to extend the same tolerance to Hinduism and Hindus that they routinely expect from others as a matter of right. If they are, they should stop conversions and jihadi terrorism. If they are not, how can they expect tolerance from the Hindus?
For Abrahamic religions, religious tolerance and freedom of religion is a one-way street. According to World Christian Encyclopedia tolerance means that Christians should “show genuine religious tolerance to at other expressions of faith in Christ.” But so far as other, non-Christian religions are concerned, religious toleration “does not deny their convictions about Christ and his church or abandon proclamation, evangelism or conversion”. The Christians retain their right to “believe other religions false and inadequate” and to “attempt to win (adherents) to faith and Jesus Christ.” (The World Christian Encyclopaedia by David B Barrett OUP 1982 reviewed by Ram Swarup in The Times of India, July 14, 1985)
This view of religious tolerance and freedom of religion is implicitly accepted by the modern West in its dealings with other, especially eastern traditions. But they run into a big problem: How to sound liberal without ceasing to be. You scratch them a little and the old theology of Christian superiority shines forth undiminished.
In the last hundred years, western scholars have developed a new intellectual apparatus to attack non-Christian religions and gods. The language of this attack is not theological but psychological. Brazen attempts to subvert and destroy other traditions are paraded as right of the individual to practice a religion of his choice.
This touching concern for individual rights is a cloak for theological arrogance. In Christian theology, a pagan is more than just a nasty physical fact; essentially, he is a lost soul needing to be saved by Jesus and his Church missionaries. Thanks to the powerful missionary lobby in the UN, its Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that every individual has a right to embrace the religion or belief of his choice. This has been interpreted as the right of the Church to seek converts among the world’s peoples without hindrance by whatever means and regardless of the consequences to the man and society. It has opened the doors for questionable proselytisation and conversion tactics with lethal consequences to native traditions across the world. The missionary apparatus is a real threat to the genuine freedom of faith.
The Church claims the right to freedom of religion, by which it means its own right to convert others, and never the other way round (recall its strong condemnation of Ghar Wapasi). Christian evangelical efforts in the world today constitute nothing less than an open declaration of war on other religions. What it forgets is that if missionaries have a right to preach the Gospel, ancient societies professing pacifist non-proselytising religions have a right to defend themselves.
Hindu organizations should work for a new and equitable definition of freedom of religion to end this theological warfare and bring peace among religions. The UN must recognize explicitly that countries, cultures and peoples of tolerant philosophies and religions who believe in live and let live too have a right of protection against aggressive, systematic proselytizing. The new charter will assert that an individual’s right to religious freedom includes the right to practice his faith in peace free from uninvited attacks upon his faith and family, and not to be forced to compromise his faith as price of accepting help in times of societal or personal upheaval.
This is the view that Narendra Modi should articulate next time when he holds forth on freedom of religion. Most of the non-Christian world, targeted by the Church, will endorse this view. He could also share with his buddy Barack a few things Gandhiji said about the missionary activity and conversions.
In a note to a missionary, Dr. Thornton, Gandhiji wrote, “if the missionary friends will forget their mission viz. of proselytising Indians and of bringing Christ to them, they will do wonderfully good work. Your duty is done with the ulterior motive of proselytising. When I go to your institutions, I do not feel I am going to an Indian institution. This is what worries me.”
Gandhiji’s advice to the missionaries was five-fold. First, stop conversions altogether as “it is the deadliest poison that ever sapped the fountain of truth.” Second, if you must convert, direct your efforts to those who are in a position to assess these matters properly. Do not target the poor, the illiterate or the destitute. Third, even for that effort, it would be better for non-Indian missionaries to return to their countries and attend to problems there. Those problems are large enough to engage all the missionaries that can be made available there. Fourth, in doing any kind of work among people, compliment the faith of the people, do not undermine it. Do not denationalise them. Finally, instead of living the life of the Church, live the life of Jesus, of piety, of the Sermon on the Mount. Let that life, that example, persuade people to embrace Christianity if they will, not this salesmanship.
Like the Mahatma, many modern Hindus have wondered why the Church cannot emulate the example of the Ramakrishna Mission and make the tribal understand his own religion better. What is the need for introducing him to Christ, the Bible and Christianity when his own objects of devotion, veneration and spirituality can serve him equally well?
Like communists, the Church too has contributed a lot to the corruption of language, loading innocuous phrases with self-serving but sinister meanings and connotations. It is time to undo the damage not just to the language but also to the thought. That will be the beginning of real tolerance and freedom.
» Virendra Parekh and is a Senior Journalist in Mumbai, writing in English and Gujarati on nationalist, economic and political themes and issues. He is the Executive Editor of Corporate India.