Jesudas M Athyal

The Conversion Debate in India: Tambaram to Hans Ucko and to a Subaltern Perspective

Passion of the Christ of the Indian Road
From Permeation to Protest:
The Lost Tribes of Andaman
Conversion Debate in India
Metropolitan Chrysostom's Message
Ethical and Economic Challenges for Education in a Globalized Era
Identity And Mission: Towards A New Ecclesiology
Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue
Gospel And Cultures: A Subaltern reading of the history of Christian Mission in India
Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens
Gospel and Cultures: An Indian Perspective
New Challenges for Dalit Theology
Diaconal Ministry of the Church
Public Mission of the Church
Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society
The Return of the Sacred
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The Conversion Debate in India: Tambaram to Hans Ucko and to a Subaltern Perspective

By Jesudas M. Athyal

The significance and relevance of conversion, especially to Christianity, has been a part of the theological and political discourse in most pluralistic societies, particularly in India. This debate became more pronounced during the post-colonial era when the missionaries were on the retreat and the indigenous theological thinking veered more towards the building up of a nationalist church which would be sensitive to the cultural - religious ethos of the country. One of the characteristics of the current debate, however, is that while conversion, implying a shift in one's religious allegiance, has been frowned upon within the mainstream theological circles, several secular scholars (particularly historians) have taken a different view of the matter. The theologians agree that the right to conversion is justifiable in principle at the theological and political levels; however, they are convinced that in a pluralistic and communally surcharged atmosphere, especially like that of India, what needs to be affirmed is dialogue between religions; not conversion which threatens to jeopardize inter-religious relations. Dr. Hans Ucko, the Programme Executive of Inter-religious Relations and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches, in his Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture delivered last year in Bangalore develops an ecumenical position on conversion along these lines (Dr. Ucko's paper was published in the People's Reporter under the rather insightful caption, 'The Problem with Conversion is the Arrogance" (1). While Dr. Ucko affirms that everyone should have the right to change his/her religion, he is convinced that we should not be involved in making others change their religion. Quoting from a report of a Theravada Buddhist-Christian consultation organized by the WCC in 2004, he states at the outset of the paper itself his main argument: "Conversion has become a threat and tension for religious diversity and harmony."

Several secular scholars, on the other hand, have in recent times, gone beyond general discussions on conversion as a Constitutional right, and have focused sharply on the dynamics of conversion in the Indian context. A few historians of the Delhi University, in a booklet published under the caption, Christian Conversions, stated at the outset itself: "A sustained programme of violent attacks on Christian missionaries is a new element in the history and tradition of Indian life".(2) They agree that forced conversion or conversion through fraudulent means is illegal, but added that there is little evidence that Christians (or any other minorities in India) have been indulging in this kind of large scale conversion. On the other hand, they argue that by failing to act decisively against the Hindu chauvinist organizations which are targeting Christian priests and missionaries in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and elsewhere, the authorities are only increasing the likelihood of copy cat attacks in other places too. According to them, the recent plea for a 'national debate' on conversion is not an innocuous one, but one that is orchestrated by the Hindutva forces bent on fomenting communal tension in the society.

In the midst of such divergent positions at the theological and secular academic levels, this paper makes an attempt to review some key discussions on conversion, baptism and the church. The International Missionary Conference held in Tambaram (1938) - a key milestone in these discussions - is briefly discussed, followed by a summary of the debate of two leading theologians - M. M. Thomas and Lesslie Newbigin - in this area. The paper concludes with a discussion of the subaltern perspective on conversion, in the context of the paper of Hans Ucko. A review of the ecumenical discussions on mission in the post- Salvador Conference (1996) phase would indicate that Ucko's thoughts are fairly representative of the mainstream ecumenical thinking on conversion. Whatever that be, by reviewing a few dominant trends in Christian thinking on conversion, this paper argues that theological discussions on conversion that do not address seriously the sociological realities of specific contexts, are bound to be misleading.

Conversion & Community

Among all the topics associated with Christian mission in India, theologically and sociologically the most explosive ones are conversion and baptism; no discussion on mission can be silent on them. While trying to understand the phenomenon of conversion, scholars tend to distinguish between religions with a dominant 'mystic' spirituality and 'unitive' vision and religions with a dominant 'prophetic' spirituality and 'messianic' approach. Indian religions are generally considered as belonging to the former category and the Semitic religions to the latter, though there are traits of both in all religions. Religions which consider the mystic experience as the ultimate point of spiritual self-realization, take history with its plurality as of no ultimate significance, and the many religions in history with their emphasis on nama (name) and rupa (form) as ultimately so relative and insignificant, that they are tolerated as equally true or untrue. On the other hand, religions which believe that God has revealed Godself and God's purpose in a concrete historical event or a tradition of such unique events with fixed nama and rupa and as continually acting in history, see spiritual self-fulfillment as consisting in propagation of the news of the unique event and inviting others to a fellowship of those who acknowledge the revelatory event which will also be the sacramental sign and instrument for bringing God's kingdom on earth.(3) Discussions on the equality of all religions implying the non-necessity for conversion from one to the other on the one hand and the need for 'outreach mission' as the sharing with others one's faith while inviting them to a new fellowship on the other, become meaningful only when placed in the historical and spiritual context of the specific characteristics of each religion.

At the International Missionary Conference in Tambaram one of the crucial questions raised was about the meaning of Christian witness in a society of different religions and secular ideologies. The mood at the Conference, unlike at previous missionary conferences, was decisively in favor of the 'younger churches' situated in pluralistic contexts. Hendrick Kraemer was emphatic in his assertion that the divine revelation in Christ transcends western Christianity and that this transcendence makes Asian and African incarnations of Christianity not only legitimate but also imperative. As he put it: "The point that needs now to be made is that in principle and for reasons of history, new incarnations and adaptations of Christianity in the concrete Asian and African settings are natural and legitimate."(4) The argument for contextual 'incarnations' of Christ emerged from the understanding that the revelation in Christ transcends all religions and cultures including perhaps, Christianity as an institutionalized religion.

Kraemer came in for serious criticism from Asian theologians for his almost absolute separation of the ultimate truth from penultimate values and for giving syncretism a rather negative theological meaning. His focus on the need for Christian mission to be sensitive to multi-faith contexts, however, set the pace for the theological discussions in India on conversion, baptism, the church and koinonia over the next few decades. In tune with the nationalist awakening and independence movements in most parts of Asia and Africa, there was a strong plea at Tambaram for the unhindered development of indigenous churches. The central emphasis there reflected "the new search by Asian churches for their selfhood freed from the paternalism and domination of missions to be able to relate themselves to the emerging national selfhood of their peoples within the universality of the worldwide church."(5) The emphasis at Tambaram on the centrality of the church came in for criticism later - by the evangelicals who feared that the centrality of the gospel was forgotten, and by ecumenists who stressed the significance of the 'agenda of the world' for the mission of the church and the church understood as the sign of the coming unity of humankind.(6) The understanding of the mission of the church was varied, but Tambaram ensured that questions of missiology in Asia would be integrally related to ecclesiology in the future.

K. Baago raised, during the post-Tambaram period, the question of the relation between conversion and the church. His question was whether "membership in the visible fellowship" was integral to conversion. Lesslie Newbigin, missionary and bishop in India for a long period, argued that the adoption of the traditions and customs of the 'Christian community' is indeed required for one to 'belong to Christ.' A personal commitment to and belief in Christ need necessarily be nurtured within the fellowship of the church, he believed. "The New Testament knows nothing of a relationship with Christ which is purely mental and spiritual, unembodied in any of the structures of human relationship."(7) M. M. Thomas joined the discussion at this point and argued that in conversion, the issue is neither the participation of the convert in a visible Christian fellowship nor the outright denial of any form of church but, "the transcendence of the Church over religious communities, which makes possible the Church's taking form in all religious communities."(8) The key problem here is neither the affirmation nor the denial of church but the question: What form should the church take in India?

Thomas - Newbigin Debate

While in Christianity conversion is generally seen as the turning to God, and baptism symbolizes a radical break with one's past and participation in the new humanity offered in Christ Jesus, in India, these acts often lead to a radical break with one's own social and cultural past and identification with a new social community. In societies such as ours, therefore, conversion and baptism raise several questions. Is it possible to accept the lordship of Christ and remain culturally as Hindus? Can Christ-centered fellowships within other religions be a substitute for the organized church? Easy answers to these questions are not possible, but it is in wrestling with these questions alone that authentic patterns of Christian witness emerge in the Indian context. One of the landmarks in theological discussions on Christian mission and the church in India was the 'Thomas - Newbigin debate' in the 1970s.(9) Since these discussions primarily deal with the theological and missiological issues related to conversion and community in the Indian context, they have considerable relevance for us and it would be appropriate to briefly discuss them.

M. M. Thomas' starting point is the theological affirmation that, "the new humanity in Christ, that is, the humanity which responds in faith and receives the liberation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, transcends the church."(10) By church he means "the visible and recognizable groups of people whose names are on our various membership roles." For him, the visible and structured church can indeed be considered as the nucleus, the first fruit and the sign and sacrament of God's kingdom. The church itself, however, is not the new humanity and God's saving purpose is not confined to the church. There is the need to recognize and affirm the signs of new humanity outside the church too. As Thomas put it: "since Christ transcends not only cultures but also religions and ideologies, the fellowship of confessors of faith in Jesus as the messiah should not separate from their original religious or secular ideological community but should form fellowship of Christian faith in those communities themselves."(11) He is convinced that since the law of India treats baptism as transference from one religious community to another, baptism should not be made the condition of entry into the Christian fellowship but made a sacramental privilege for later use. In the Indian context, therefore, the challenge before the Christian fellowship is not to form another religious communal body separate from the mainline society but to stay within the existing socio-religious structures as Christ-centered fellowships while trying to transform them from within.

Thomas further points out that there are theological issues which are intertwined with legal and social questions on conversion and the church. Theologically, he maintains that the indispensability of baptism is an unsettled question. When baptism becomes the condition for entry into the fellowship of the church, "it fails to convey its full meaning and purpose as the expression of our solidarity with the new humanity in Christ, which transcends all communal and caste solidarities."(12) He quotes T. M. Philip and Joseph Balcastro and argues that the New Testament does not teach that baptism was a condition for salvation or for church membership, but baptism was available for the disciples of the coming church - that faith in and acceptance of Jesus as the Christ was the basis of membership in the church.(13) In this connection, Thomas' own reflections on baptism are worth considering:

I have no doubt that baptism in the New Testament sense is incorporation into Christ and his congregational life. But the meaning of baptism has been distorted for long in India as a mark of transference of sociological, cultural-judicial loyalties from one community to another. The real question, therefore, is how to regain the meaning of water-baptism. Probably it can be done by just dissociating in time from the Spirit-baptism conceptually (suggested by Krass and Duraisingh) and from legal condition of entry into the church structurally and by considering baptism as a privilege. A disciple, already in the Fellowship of the Church and participating in its other privileges, including the Lord's supper, may ask for it some time in the process of his growth in Christ (as suggested by Bernard Lucas). At least these proposals are worth pursuing further.(14)

Lesslie Newbigin goes along with Thomas to a certain extent. He accepts that, "Wherever (the Christian) sees men being set free for responsible sonship of God - there he will conclude that God is at work, and that he is summoned to be God's fellow worker, even when the Name of Christ is not acknowledged", but he wonders whether the church cannot be identified with the new humanity in Christ. George Hunsberger observes that in the Thomas - Newbigin debate as a whole, the extent of the difference of meaning the two attach to the phrase 'new humanity' is never clarified.(15) More than an obscurity in semantics, however, the lack of clarity apparently stems from basic theological differences on mission and ecclesiology that go back to the Tambaram days in which, in the words of William Paton, the central emphasis as a whole was, "the sense of the centrality of the Church to the purpose of God."(16) Newbigin strongly endorses this position when he says,

The Tambaram meeting marked the beginning of an exceedingly necessary and fruitful period during which missionary thinking was, to use the oft repeated phrase, church-centric. We must grant that the period of missionary history dominated by the 'church-centric' understanding of missions has been fruitful. It has brought us to our present consensus regarding the unity and mission of the Church.(17)

The centrality of the role of the church is at the core of Newbigin's understanding of mission. To a certain extent, the Asian leaders present at Tambaram too shared this view and stressed the significance of the corporate life and witness of the church in the spread of the gospel. But there were criticisms also, for emphasizing the church and forgetting the centrality of the gospel of the kingdom. Christian leaders such as Stanley Jones and Chakkarai Chattiar feared that, "it would lead to a preoccupation with ecclesiastical issues and to Christian communalism to the neglect of God's world outside the Church."(18) The global ecumenical movement later corrected this - at the Strasbourg WSCF Conference of the Life and Mission of the Church in 1960 - by affirming that the 'world' was more integral to the gospel than the church.

In the context of the meaning of Christian mission in pluralistic societies too, Newbigin seemed clear on the role of the church. On the question whether it is possible to have a Christian fellowship culturally within the Hindu milieu, he said:

A man who is religiously, culturally and socially part of the Hindu community is a Hindu. If at the same time, his allegiance to Christ is accepted as decisive, as - therefore over-riding his obligations as a Hindu, this allegiance must take visible - that is social - forms. He must have some way of expressing the fact that he shares this ultimate allegiance with others - and these ways will have to have religious, social and cultural elements.(19)

Newbigin seemingly rejects, as sociologically and theologically unrealistic, any form of Christian witness that does not involve a central role to the church.

Thomas endorsed Newbigin's affirmation of the key role of the church in mission but feared that the encounter of Newbigin - an ecclesiastical leader in India - with the liberal theology of non-Church Christianity, could make him suspicious of any form of criticism of the present church. Thomas stressed that the question is not so much whether the church is essential or non-essential as 'what form the Church should take in India.' For him, the liberating faith and grace which are the marks of the New Humanity in Christ, are not confined to the framework of the Church alone. In other words, while the new humanity in Christ is affirmed by the Church, it also transcends it and is present and can be discerned anywhere outside the Church. He fears that Newbigin seemingly treats the Church as a 'substitute' for the New Humanity of Christ. The New Humanity, Thomas said, is wider than and transcends the Church. "This is probably the crucial issue of difference between us in our understanding of the Church I have anticipated," he concluded.(20)

Thomas' position that the New Humanity in Christ transcends the Church is rooted in his interpretation of the dialectical theology of Karl Barth and Hendrick Kraemer. For Thomas, Barth's 'christcentric relativization of all religions' is "the most fruitful theological starting point to interpret religions." Thomas, however, gives it a significant interpretation: "Barth should have recognized that because Christ transcends the Christian religion while affirming it, he is free to do the same with other religions. Because Christ relativizes all religions, he cannot be confined to any religion."(21) For Thomas, one of the clearest signs of Christ's work in the contemporary world is the growing awareness of other religions, in India especially, neo-Hinduism. "Christ, not Christianity or western culture, has been the slogan of many Neo-Hindu movements in the 19th century, even as Christian missions insisted on the three as one packet."(22) It is in the context of the acknowledged Christ of the Hindu renaissance that questions of Christ-centered fellowship of faith in Hinduism or Christ-centered secular fellowship become relevant. While the New Humanity inaugurated in Christ affirms and transcends the Church, it also widens the horizons of the Church. And therefore, the question in India remains: What is the nature of the fellowship of those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as in some sense central and decisive, in mediating God to human persons. This question posed by Thomas, seems the central missiological and ecclesiological concern in India today.

Neo-Hinduism to Hindu Fundamentalism

In India, the relevance of Christ-centred fellowships in Hinduism and in secular movements is a question that has more than mere academic significance. The presence of Christ-centred fellowships that transcend the communal identity of the church is essentially part of the history of Christian witness in India. In a survey conducted by the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College some years ago, it came to light that about ten percent of the population in Chennai accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior but had chosen to continue in their own religious, cultural and caste communities without conversion to the Christian community. Among them there were those who maintained close spiritual fellowships with other Christians, and others, "who pursue their devotion to Christ without such support."(23) In his study, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance24, M. M. Thomas traces the cases of several such as Kesub Chandra Sen and P. C. Mazumdar who acknowledged that, Jesus Christ as the revelation of the Divine Humanity of Sonship, was decisive for their faith and ethics and they sought to redefine traditional Hinduism both as religion and community in the light of Jesus. "They even formed a Neo-Hindu church of Christ with its own sacraments of baptism and eucharist." There were also others, such as Kandasamy Chetty of the Madras Christian College who maintained a spiritual fellowship with other Christians without joining the church by baptism. Affirming that he believed in Christ as the one Saviour of humankind, he said:

Nothing would give me deeper satisfaction than to feel that I belong to his body. I am not altogether sure that I remain outside the Christian Church. It is true that I have never felt any inward call that I could recognize as divine in its inspiration to join the Christian Church in the narrow sense in which some evidently use the term… There is nothing essentially sinful in Hindu society any more than there is anything essentially pure in Christian society - for that is what the Christian church amounts to - so that one should hasten from the one to the other. So long as the believer's testimony for Christ is open and as long as his attitude towards Hindu society in general is critical, and towards social and religious practices inconsistent with the spirit of Christ is protestant and practically protestant, I would allow him to struggle his way to the light with failure here and failure there perhaps, but with progress and success on the whole.(25)

There have also been Hindu groups such as that of Subba Rao of Andhra Pradesh which were, "committed to spirituality and religious rites centred in the Crucified Christ as saviour and Healer" but which decided to stay outside the mainstream of the structured church of baptized believers. There were others like Manilal C. Parekh who took baptism which was considered, "a purely spiritual sacrament, signifying the dedication of the new disciple to Christ" conferring the privilege to make known the name of Christ. But Parekh felt strongly that, "the new disciple should remain within his community, witnessing from there." His complaint was that the Christian Church had become a civic community instead of a spiritual fellowship.(26)

In recent times, there is also the increasing popularity of house churches and para churches at which both formal church members, 'seekers' and others have fellowship together and which for most of them, is where they find the deepest spiritual experience and Christian fellowship. There is therefore a certain danger in dismissing all forms of unstructured Christian fellowships as 'theologically and sociologically unrealistic.' Newbigin seems a little hasty in concluding that, "a man who is religiously, culturally and socially part of the Hindu community is a Hindu." Theological issues and sociological realities are seldom present in clear cut terms, especially in intensely pluralistic societies such as those in India. There is the need for intimate contact between institutional churches and the fellowships outside and between baptized and unbaptised believers. The challenge for us is to be open to discern the mission of God in such contexts. As the report of a seminar on the relationship of the Church to non-baptized believers in Christ concluded, "the Spirit of God blows where it wills. We are called to try to keep up with him."(27)

The wave of religious fundamentalism and communalism that swept across India following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 has added a new dimension to discussions on conversion and Christian mission. Religion in modern India is invariably linked with secularism. Secularism in India is defined as freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion and also, the promotion of progressive and renascent movements in all religions, especially movements aimed at the liberation of the downtrodden sections of the society. Indian secularism is the product of modern Indian history, evolved mainly during the days of the struggle for independence and later, of nation building. The neo-Hindu movement of the 19th and 20th centuries was in essence the struggle of Hinduism to build up a religious humanism in active dialogue with the secular and socialist movements of the country. Islam was slower than Hinduism to respond to the modern impact and reform itself from within; however, Indian Islam too soon produced movements in line with Islamic modernism. The role of the Christian mission, especially Christian educational institutions, in facilitating the evolution of new religious movements in India has been well documented. What is important is that all these reform and liberative movements, in the context of the awakening of the marginalised people, contributed to the evolution of a common platform for dialogue between renascent religions and social reform movements, in the process building up the foundation of a secular and democratic India.

Several theologians and social scientists feel that one of the reasons for the rise of religious fundamentalism and communalism in recent times is that this vibrant movement - at the intra-religious and inter-religious levels and also, between secular / humanist forces on the one hand and faith communities on the other - has become dormant in recent decades. The forces of secularism and renascent religion, vibrant at the dawn of India's independence six decades ago, are seemingly on the retreat today. Over the years, renascent forces in religion were overtaken by more aggressive and shrill voices from within. Equally important, the secularist movement, caught up in the web of rigid academic confines and political compulsions, turned hostile to all expressions of religiosity in public life. Due to all these factors, the dialogue of the religious and secular, crucial for building up a secular ethos, became dormant. In the words of M. M. Thomas,

it is my conviction that it is the strengthening of the closed secularism with this total privatization of religion and the development of what may be called dogmatic secularism which rejects any relevance of religious values in the public realm, along with the slackening and marginalising of religious and social reform movements, that have created the spiritual vacuum which is now sought to be filled by religious fundamentalism and communalism.(28)

Thomas however goes on to say that the hope for a secular India lies not so much in the separation of religion and the secular realm but in the positive and healthy interaction of the renascent and liberative elements in both. In his own words: "if religion is part of the problem in India, religion must also be part of the solution."

Conversion: A Subaltern Perspective

In the larger context of the debate over the past several decades on conversion, let us briefly review the position of Hans Ucko, especially as he seems to reflect the current ecumenical and mainstream theological thinking on the topic. While Ucko agrees that everyone should have the right to change his/her religion, equally important for him is the question whether we should be involved in making others change their religion. Throughout the Samartha Lecture, he develops his main argument largely in response to the aggressive and often insensitive attempts at conversion by conservative evangelicals. As Ucko put it: "I want to claim that seeking the conversion of the other or targeting the other for conversion, is for me the same as proselytism. Many Christians will object and will claim that it is their obligation to follow the so-called Great Commission in Matthew 28, 18-20: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."

It needs to be clarified that there is considerable merit in Dr. Ucko's arguments against conversion. In India as well as in several Asian and African countries, insensitive evangelization has been carried out by several conservative Christian groups. Such aggressive campaigns needs to be condemned and countered. What Ucko overlooks in his paper, however, is the distinction between evangelization and conversion. Is it true that aggressive evangelization leads to large scale conversion? The Census of India, the official record on population statistics, clearly shows that the Christian community has stagnated and even registered a small decline in recent years. Statistics reveal that between 1981 and 1991, the number of Christians declined from 2.45% to 2.32% of the entire population. Government records are not always dependable, but social scientists who study demographic trends also seem to agree that the Christian population of India in recent years has either stagnated or declined.

If conversion is virtually a non-issue in India, how do we account for the religious conflicts that occur here on a regular basis? Gabriele Dietrich and Bastiaan Wielenga, in their life-long study of the Indian society, point towards a number of social and economic factors that contribute to religious tension. The rising economic strength of a section of Muslims and the growing number of Muslim proletariat in some towns are perceived as an economic and political threat by a section of the Hindus who traditionally held economic power. This situation provides fertile ground for communal tensions to flair up.29 In areas such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, the work of Christian social activists among the marginalized sections has resulted in the Dalits and Adivasis shaking off their yokes of oppression and marginalisation. While few conversions have been registered in such contexts, communal riots often occur there - not over "religious" questions - but precipitated by caste Hindus who are threatened with the loss of their traditional control over the power structures in society.

This brings us to a fundamental problem with Dr. Ucko's main argument: he tends to take religion and conversion as largely 'religious matters' without focusing sufficient attention on the 'non-religious' aspects of religion. Under a 'religious' framework, each religion is guided by its own dogmas and creeds. 'Religious freedom' in such a context would involve the freedom to not only preach and practise one's religion, but also to 'propagate' it. We have already seen that for religions with a prophetic (messianic) characteristic, propagation is indeed an essential mandate. Tensions usually emerge in the context of the efforts of such religions to win adherents from other faith communities. Dialogue aimed at a greater understanding among the various religions, non-aggressive means of conversion etc., have significant roles to play in such contexts. In Dr. Ucko's words, "inter-religious dialogue should enable us to share fully our beliefs but we must at the same time be mindful of sharing in a way that it will not offend others..." It may be within this context, that he proposes, 'a code of conduct on the issue of conversion' among the various religions.

What is often overlooked in such a framework for inter-religious relations, however, is the fact that every religion has not only a 'religious' dimension but also multiple dimensions. In this context, P. D. Devanandan spoke of the three expressions in every religion: creed, culture and cultus. Cultus, that is, rites of religious worship and sacraments, and culture - the pattern of relating human beings to nature, society and cosmos - have primacy in the religious life of any people. In every religious tradition there has been an integration of faith, religion (cultus and creed) and culture, forming a total complex.30 The pertinent question here is whether we can talk of any aspect of religion, including conversion, with reference to only the faith - doctrinal dimension; we also need to consider the way religion affects the social, cultural and economic lives of both those who believe in conversion and those who are opposed to it. In other words, matters such as conversion need to be discussed in a context where religion is considered in its totality.
Religions emerge in social contexts, grow in response to the social and economic factors around, and evolve structures and institutions which are also social. This is true of all contexts, all the more of the Indian context. Buddhism and Jainism arose in India as protest movements against the dehumanization and anti-social tendencies inherent in Brahminic Hinduism. In the 19th century, at mass movements, Dalits embraced Christianity, also in protest against their exclusion and their oppression in Hinduism. The marginalised people of India received the Christian Gospel as the fulfillment of their aspirations and as entry into the Promised Land. Conversion of the marginalized people in India, however, was not confined to the Christian faith. While B. R. Ambedkar, the great champion of the Dalits, became convinced that the people oppressed for several centuries would never get justice in Hinduism, he was equally certain that Christianity was not an option before them. While Ambedkar felt that Jesus' message of liberation proved a "perfect antidote to the poison Hinduism has injected into our souls and a dynamic strong enough to lift us out of our present degraded position", he felt that the Indian churches created a different feeling. He could see that Christians, especially of South India, observed the caste system in churches. He also felt that the Christian missions in India were 'instruments of de-socialisation' as conversion to Christianity was making Christians of outcaste origins 'selfish and self-centred.'(31) The mass conversion of the 'untouchable' Mahar community in 1956 to Neo-Buddhism, therefore, needs to be seen as much an assertion of Dalit power as a severe indictment of the Indian church.

In this long historical framework, how do we understand the present Indian context of communal tension and the call for a national debate on conversion? Our primary task should be to enlarge the scope of the discussion to include the larger socio-political dimensions also, along with religious ones in our discourse on conversion. The conflicts in India currently between Brahminic Hinduism on the one hand and most other religions on the other, over winning or losing adherents may have little to do with doctrinal or theological matters that can be resolved through 'sincere' dialogues across the table, but they need to be seen also as a follow-up of the earlier social movements. In the context of an ordinance brought by the Government of Tamil Nadu a few years ago imposing severe restrictions on religious conversions, social scientist M.S.S. Pandian noted: "The identity that Ms. Jayalalithaa's ordinance wants to freeze is that of the Dalits as untouchables within the Hindu social order."(32) Following prolonged struggles of the marginalized people and the minority religious groups, the ordinance was eventually revoked. Dr. Ucko in his paper fears that, "tensions regarding conversion are often related to proselytising activities…" It needs to be pointed out that if such tension results in the liberation of a section of people from age-old shackles, that is certainly a tension that needs to be welcomed.

The main focus of Dr. Ucko's paper is, conversion understood as proselytism ("seeking the conversion of the other - is for me the same as proselytism"). Quoting from a statement of the Third Joint Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, he clarifies what he means by proselytism: "Proselytism embraces whatever violates the right of the human person, Christian or non-Christian, to be free from external coercion in religious matters" The question to Ucko however is whether, 'conversion as proselytism' is a relevant theme in a society such as India where over 80% of Indian Christians are of Dalit, Adivasi or Tribal origin. He states: "the mass-conversions of Dalits were not necessarily the direct act of evangelism. Dalits were from the beginning not targeted objectives for conversion. Dalits came by themselves and understood conversion as Ambedkar understood it, a movement towards social acceptance. Their conversions rock the boat and challenge the community and the society." Ucko, however, does not elaborate this subjective element of conversion. The Madurai workshop of 1995 to which a reference is made in the paper, did consider the complexity of conversion in the Indian context. He unfortunately does not discuss those issues in detail; instead, he tends to go back to conversion understood as proselytism' as the central theme of his paper.

A fundamental problem in most of our ecumenical discussions on conversion is that the perspectives of the subjects of conversion are not taken seriously. While speaking on the theme, "Inter-religious conversion" at a CCA Consultation organized in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, M. M. Thomas stated that the individual's right of freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion and to convert to another faith has inherent in it the condition and guardian of all democratic freedoms and fundamental human rights in relation to state, the society and culture. Conversion to another faith or ideology is the fundamental right of a person. "Nobody can convert another. It is the hearer who has to convert. It is his/ her right."(33) In the communally surcharged atmosphere of India, however, there is the need to 'decommunalise' conversion, he affirmed. In response to the demand that the government imposes restrictions on conversion, the historians of the Delhi University noted recently that the argument is legally and morally untenable. Legally, any legislative ban by the State on conversions would restrict the fundamental freedom of belief and would represent an intolerable extension of State power into the most intimate areas of one's life. Morally, they noted that,

if a person believes that she has found the truth, it becomes necessary for that person to share that belief with others. The individual's ability to think, discern and choose her beliefs must be respected as a fundamental democratic right. To ban conversion therefore would amount to an attempt to smother our democracy. The right to conversions and democracy are inextricably interlinked. To have a debate on the banning of conversion is like inviting a national debate on doing away with democracy!(34)

In the context of Dr. Ucko's paper, therefore, one needs to repeatedly raise the question: Where are the voices of the subjects of conversion? What is their experience? For them was conversion a liberative or an enslaving experience? According to the Dalit theologian V. Devasahayam, discussions on conversion have often taken place from the perspective of the elite or the so-called upper castes who are opposed to conversion, rather than from the stand point or the perspective of the marginalized people. "We need to have a new perspective, and a new view point which should be the perspective of the oppressed Dalits and the backward class."(35) The Adivasi Christians of Jharkhand - another marginalized section who converted themselves to Christianity - too acknowledge that though the Christian faith has been indigenous to India for almost two thousand years, the gospel that came to them in the 19th century inaugurated not only a new faith but also a radical social transformation. Nirmal Minz in his study, notes that the work of the missionaries was not only confined to education and medical ministries, but also to vernacular renewal, translation and, most important, to joining the people in their struggle for land reform in Jharkhand.(36)

Hans Ucko's paper needs to be seen in the context of a growing disconnect in recent years between mainstream ecumenical thinking and the perspective of the marginalized people, particularly on topics such as Christian mission, inter-religious dialogue and conversion. The ecumenical movement often follows a historical/ theological approach which essentially argues how the process of Christianisation inaugurated in the colonies by the colonial/ missionary movement, continues even today in a significant way, in the process, undermining indigenous cultures, religions and economies. Such an argument may have great merit in several parts of the world, but is inadequate to explain the situation in contexts such as India where Christianity - introduced by various teams of missionaries over a period of two thousand years - had divergent and often conflicting impacts on various sections of the society - such as the Brahmins, feudal landlords, Dalits and Adivasis - owing to deep internal divisions and antagonisms. Unless this complexity is sufficiently appreciated and analyzed, all approaches to discussing religion, culture and conversion would be inadequate. Just as in economics, so also in the ecumenical reading of conversion: there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

(The writer is Associate Professor of Social Analysis and Dalit Theology at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai, India)


1 People's Reporter (Vol. 19, Issue 20), Oct. 25-Nov. 10 2006.

2 Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar & Pradip Datta, Christian Conversions (Kolkata: Alap, 2004), p. 38.

3 J. John & Jesudas Athyal (ed.), Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection (Hong Kong: Christian Conference of Asia, 1995), p. 98.

4 M. M. Thomas, "An Assessment of Tambaram's Contribution to the Search of the Asian churches for an Authentic selfhood", in International Review of Mission (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1988), p. 394.

5 An Assessment of Tambaram., p. 393

6 An Assessment of Tambaram, p. 393

7 George R. Hunsberger, Bearing the witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality (Michigan/ Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 178.

Bearing the witness of the Spirit, p. 179

9 M. M. Thomas' book, Salvation and Humanisation (Madras: CLS, 1971) trigged off these discussions. Bishop Newbigin, in a review of the book, raised several questions and asked for clarifications from the author. Subsequently Alfred C. Krass, Paul Loeffler and others too joined the debate. Thomas, in 1977, published these correspondence under the title, Some Theological Dialogues (Madras: CLS, 1977). These discussions are extensively reviewed in George R. Hunsberger's, Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality.

10 M. M. Thomas, Some Theological Dialogues, p. 112

11 Religion, State & Communalism, p. 105

12 Herbert E. Hoefer, Debate on Mission (Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1979), p. 321

13 Debate on Mission, pp. 321, 312.

14 Some Theological Dialogues, p. 135

15 Bearing the witness of the Spirit, p. 180

16 An Assessment of Tambaram (Quoted,), p. 393

17 Lesslie Newbigin, The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1963), pp. 23-24.

18 An Assessment of Tambaram, p. 393

19 Some Theological Dialogues, pp. 121-122

20 Some Theological Dialogues, p. 113

21 Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? (New York: Orbis Books, 1985), p. 111

22 Prasanna Kumari (ed.), Liberating Witness (Madras: Gurukul, 1995), p. 11.

23 See, Debate on Mission

24 M. M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (Madras: CLS, 1970).

25 Liberating Witness., p. 12

26 Liberating Witness, p. 13

27 Debate on Mission, p. 403

28 Religion, State and Communalism, p. 14

29 See, Towards Understanding Indian Society (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2003).

30 Risking Christ for Christ's Sake (Geneva: WCC, 1987), p. 9

31 See, Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist Movement (Madras: CLS, 1972)

32 The Hindu (Chennai), Oct. 26, 2002

33 Religion, State and Communalism, p. 95

34 Christian Conversions, p. 38

35 Religion, State and Communalism, p. 110

36 See, Mission Today: Subaltern Perspectives (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2001).

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(This paper was published in Dharma Deepika, Chennai (July - December 2007)

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