Convergence not Conversion




By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho

first published in

Moscow-Pullman Daily News
, October
29, 1999


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It appears
that most of India’s 24 million Christians do not want American Baptists to
pray for the conversion of their Hindu compatriots.  Christian leaders here in
India are dismayed about the publication of a pamphlet by the Southern Baptist
Convention calling on their members to pray that Hindus "realize the darkness
of their souls."


Christian, head of India’s Methodists, declared that "the pamphlet’s language
is objectionable and unfair.  One cannot preach by annoying others." Valson
Thampu, chairman of the Christian Theological Institute, said: "I particularly
object to the insensitive language of the pamphlet."


The Southern
Baptists have chosen the upcoming Indian festival of Diwali as the focus of
their prayer campaign. Doubtless they were unaware of the fact that Indians of
all faiths celebrate this "festival of lights," yet another symbol of the
cultural unity of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains
speaking 14 different major languages.


have lived in India at least since the third century, with some claiming that
their ancestors were converted by a wandering St. Thomas in A.D. 54. India’s
Jews came even earlier but probably not as early as the traditional date of
587 B.C. Hindus welcomed Jews and Christians with open arms, gave them trading
rights, land to settle on, and recognized their kings.


The first
major religious persecutions came with the Muslim invasions beginning in the
11th Century. When the Portuguese came to India 400 years later they brought
the Inquisition with them.  Indian Christian priests were forced to perform
the Roman liturgy and had to divorce their wives. Those who resisted were put
to the sword.  Hindus and Jews fared much worse: their prosperous cities were
burned and thousands were killed. 


Most Hindus
and Indian Christians have put all of this dark history far behind them, but
some Hindu fundamentalists have used the Baptist pamphlet as yet another
reason to stir up anti-Christian sentiment. Although no Hindu group has taken
responsibility for it, the recent murder of the Australian missionary Graham
Straines is a grisly reminder of the religious fanaticism on the other side of
this religious equation.


The fact that
Hindu fundamentalist parties are partners in Prime Minister Vajpayee’s new
center-right coalition government [soundly defeated in 2004] has put Vajpayee
in a tight spot with regard to the Pope’s visit in early November.  His own
Religious Right wants him to tell the Pope to stop the conversion of Hindus
and also apologize for the atrocities of the Inquisition.  Vajpayee has
decided to ignore his right wing on this issue.


The fact is
that very little conversion is taking place.  The only really successful
mission has been in the Northeast, where non-Hindu tribes have flocked to the
Christian faith. On my 1992 sabbatical I met a young charismatic priest in
Bangalore who claimed to have baptized over 10,000 in those distant
provinces.  His main complaint was about the American Pentecostals who came in
behind him preaching that his baptisms were not valid.


In terms of
numbers converted the Christian mission to Asia has been great failure.  Only
Korea and the Philippines have substantial Christian populations.  My own
experience in India, however, has led me to believe that the Christian mission
here has been a great blessing. Millions of Hindu children get first-class
educations in Catholic schools.  (Hindu parents trust these Christian teachers
because they never talk about "dark souls.")  Many Hindus are also healed and
cared for in Christian hospitals and orphanages.  Graham Straines’ widow is
now raising funds to finish the 40-bed leprosy hospital that had been his


The very idea
of conversion is alien to most Hindus. Followers of Shiva or Vishnu do not
convert to their "denominations." Their families have been Shaivites and
Vaishnavas for centuries and they would not think of changing such a
time-honored and meaningful tradition.  Family, caste, and religion are
inextricably linked in Hindu India.


both the Buddha and Christ are recognized as incarnations of Vishnu and millions
of Hindus celebrate Christmas and Easter.  In the Punjab in 1995 I had the
privilege of joining thousands of Hindus and Sikhs at a birthday celebration of
a great Sikh saint.  Indian children are taught to respect all holy men and


It is
convergence, not conversion, that we should learn from the Asians.  Hindus,
Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Confucians, and Daoists have never had
very few religious wars
because most of them believe that their faiths meet in the same divine unity, and
that all souls have sparks of the divine light in them–not Baptist darkness.


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