In modern English the word “proselyte” means a convert, as a verb it means one who seeks conversion. It derives from a Greek word that means to approach, in the religious context one who approaches a faith other than his own. In New Testament times it commonly referred to Gentiles who converted to Judaism—a widespread phenomenon especially in the urban centers of the late Roman Empire, which were promising targets for Christian missionaries (just look at the itinerary of the Apostle Paul). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was intended to be used by these Gentile converts.In contemporary America conversion is not a big issue. It is sometimes an irritating annoyance, as when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses ring your doorbell to engage you in religious conversation or at least to have you accept their literature. Sometimes it becomes more than an irritation. Evangelicals are the major Christian group that lustily continues to approach outsiders with intent to convert. And especially Jews, with their historic memory of forced conversions in the past, are outraged when the conversion of Jews to Christianity is openly declared a major project, as was done a few years ago by the Southern Baptist Convention.The Mormons have the quaint habit of baptizing all sorts of dead people and thereby making them members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, even if they had nothing to do with this denomination while alive. The huge genealogical research in Salt Lake City, reputedly the biggest of its kind in the world, collects parish records, census data and other relevant documents in order to collect names for retroactive baptism. Jewish organizations were outraged when it was reported that dead Jews, including some Holocaust victims, were targeted as unwilling (and presumably unconscious) candidates for this baptism of the dead. The charge of course was anti-Semitism. Those who made the charge were not convinced by the argument that both Evangelicals and Mormons believe that their community alone possesses the fullness of salvation, and that, indeed, it would be the ultimate anti-Semitism if Jews were excluded from the invitation to be saved.Proselytization is not a salient issue on the American religious scene. It is very salient indeed in a good many other countries. Who engages in deliberate proselytization? And who wants to stop it? Historically, the major religious traditions varied greatly on proselytization. Three have been proselyting from the beginning—in chronological order, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. As soon as he attained Enlightenment, the Buddha preached so that others (indeed all “sentient beings”) could reach that goal. Subsequently Buddhist missionaries, typically monks, carried the message of the dharma across vast regions of Asia. I will get to Christianity at greater length momentarily: In the contemporary world aggressive missionary activity by Evangelical Protestants is a major phenomenon, which is mostly on the mind of those who see proselytization as a problem. Islam too began with a missionary impulse, as Mohammed started proclaiming his transformative message in Mecca. In the current encounter with radical Islamism it is often stated that the Quran prohibits coercion in matters of religion. That is quite correct, as is the assertion that, once established, Muslim states did not forcibly convert at least so-called People of the Book (originally Jews and Christians—later on Zoroastrians and Hindus were added, though it was not quite clear which “book” bestowed this tolerated status). This does not change the fact that Islam was mostly spread by the sword. It is revealing that in traditional Islamic political theory the world is divided into the House of Islam, where Muslim rule has been established, and the House of War, where such rule has not yet been established.Except for the Hellenistic period, Judaism has been leery of trying to convert outsiders. God’s covenant is with the People of Israel rather than with individuals. Even today, Orthodox rabbis don’t promote Judaism among Gentiles; when (often reluctantly) they do admit a Gentile into the Jewish community, the process is less a matter of conversion, than one of naturalization, as when someone becomes a citizen of another country. Hinduism too has not been a proselyting faith for most of its history; it spread through the attraction of Indian superior civilization (like French culture and language in the 18th and 19th centuries), sometimes by rulers inviting Brahmins to set up replicas of the Hindu caste system (deemed to create social stability). Only the Hindu revival of the 19th century stooped to proselyte through such organizations as the Ramakrishna Mission and the Vedanta Society.Jesus, like the Buddha and Muhammad, was essentially a preacher, proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul, a prototypical missionary, was central to the morphing of a Jewish sect into a universal faith. All major Christian churches, in principle at least, claim fealty to the so-called Great Commission given by Jesus to the Apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. [Modern historical scholarship would suggest skepticism about Jesus having used this Trinitarian formula.] Evangelicals have real fealty to the Commission, and act accordingly. They supply the largest number of Christian missionaries in the world today (Americans in first place, South Koreans in second). Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have largely reinterpreted “mission” to mean all sorts of things other than actively seeking to convert non-Christians—interfaith dialogue (a cottage industry today), schools and hospitals, projects to promote social justice, “Christian presence” (primarily a Roman Catholic concept—being visibly present as Christians, engaging in worship and the sacraments, with no direct preaching of the faith).Two very different experiences of mine may serve to illustrate this missionary reticence. I used to have a Pakistani colleague, Daud Rahbar, who converted to Christianity (a capital offence in Islamic law). He has written a memoir about this. What is very interesting is the fact that this conversion took place through his own thinking, without any contact with Christian missionaries. Rahbar had written a doctoral dissertation about the idea of God’s justice in the Quran. Through a line of thinking that he had difficulty explaining, he concluded that if God was to be the perfect judge, he would have to submit himself to judgment (perhaps he had some sort of theodicy in mind). It then occurred to Rahbar that Christians had some such idea. He then decided to become a Christian. He went to see Kenneth Cragg, then Anglican bishop in Jerusalem and active in Christian-Muslim dialogue. Rahbar asked Cragg to baptize him. Cragg refused. He advised Rahbar to remain a Muslim and from this position to promote better understanding between Christians and Muslims, Rahbar then found a Protestant military chaplain, who was willing to baptize him and his family.While I was a student I got a summer job doing research for the church extension office of what was then the United Lutheran Church in America. I was accompanied by another young man. We were assigned to very new suburbs in the Chicago and St. Louis areas. Our instructions were very simple: We were to go from house to house and ask two questions of whatever adult answered the door and lived there (usually it was young housewives): 1. Are you a member of a local church? 2. If a Lutheran church was established here, would you be interested? If the answer to question 1 was yes, we were to say thank you and leave—if the answer to question 2 was no, we would also leave; but if the answer was yes, we would get the particulars and send them to ULCA headquarters. I have no idea how many hidden Lutherans we discovered, and how many were willing to follow up. The weeks of that summer were excruciatingly boring and physically uncomfortable. I remember walking in 90% humidity and heat through endless streets (some still unpaved), pursued by barking dogs and the suspicious looks of peering neighbors. This exercise was part of what was then called “comity”, an agreement by Protestant denominations not to steal each other’s sheep (Evangelicals generally did not agree). In the meantime, “comity” has been extended to Catholics and, by now, to any group that does not engage in criminal activity: “Comity” has become ecumenical and interfaith etiquette.I have not thought much about proselytization. My attention was drawn to the topic by two news items—by Reuters online, on December 13, 2014, and by UCA News (a Catholic newsletter reporting on Asia), on December 14, 2014. It seems that Yogi Adityanath, a member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, announced that he would organize a conversion to Hinduism by hundreds of Muslims and Christians, on Christmas Day. The BJP is the party of Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, who has had close ties to Hindu nationalist groups and who, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, was accused of inaction when similar extremists massacred large numbers of Muslims. Since his election Modi has moderated his language and even sought to befriend Muslims (he campaigned in Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority). Even so, he is watched for relapses into his earlier rhetoric. Curiously, another BJP parliamentarian has proposed new anti-conversion laws, but I don’t think he had Hindu extremists in mind. The Indian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but five Indian states have anti-conversion laws, outlawing proselytism by coercion or bribery. The usual targets of such laws are Christian missionaries, especially Evangelical Protestants, who proselyte Hindus, not Hindu radicals who try to convert Christians or Muslims. Modi has since called on the Hindu extremists to focus on economic reform rather than pursuing divisive religious practices, and his call at least for now appears to have been heeded. But this is hardly the end of the phenomenon in India.Most countries have in their constitution some mention of religious freedom, even if a particular religion is accorded a privileged position. Under U.S. law the free exercise phrase in the First Amendment covers an individual’s right to change religions or to have no religion. This is true of most if not all Western democracies, and the same right is recognized in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This may or not cover a right to seek the conversion of another individual, which lies at the basis of anti-conversion laws. Or, more narrowly, conversion is prohibited if resulting from coercion or bribery. A key difference is whether religious freedom appertains to individuals or communities, as a comparison of Western and Islamic law makes clear. It is a duty of Muslims to bear witness of their faith to others, but seeking to convert Muslims to another faith is a criminal offence.Finally, which are the countries that are most involved in anti-proselytization (be it by laws or by extra-legal pressures. Certainly Muslim countries would head the list. In addition to India, I would also mention Russia and China. The 1997 law on religion already gave a privileged position to the Russian Orthodox Church, but this has been greatly enhanced by the Putin government, and has been accompanied by pressures against all non-Orthodox missionaries, especially against Evangelical Protestants and Uniats, also known as Greek Catholics, who follow Orthodox rites but recognize the authority of Rome. China has laws against the propaganda of “evil cults”, a flexible concept that, depending on shifting party policies, may or may not be used against Christian evangelism. As I mentioned earlier, Evangelical Protestants and their enthusiastic proselyting have been a major target of anti-missionary policies by governments. This has not stopped the explosive growth of this version of Protestantism in much of the world.
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Published on: December 24, 2014
An Ancient HabitProselytization
Proselytization is a practice as old (and sometimes as divisive) as religion itself. Most recently, it has reared its head in India.