- 1 Initial Reactions
- 2 The Role of Missionaries
- 3 Women and Christianity
- 4 Conversion in the 1970s
- 5 The Question of Objectivity
- 6 Conversion and Material Benefits
- 7 American Money
- 8 Dialogue and Exclusivism
- 9 The Process of Conversion
- 10 Proselytism in Other Religions
- 11 Power and Conflict
- 12 Exclusivism and Politics
- 13 Works Cited
- 14 Further Reading
The conversation was sparked by an article in the Nepali Times, entitled ‘Preaching on high: A Christian evangelical group is converting Buddhists in holy Himalayan valleys’.
Deepak Shimkhada: Apparently, Evangelical Christians are having a field day with the rapid conversion which is taking place in the high Himalayas, which the Jesuits and Capuchins couldn’t accomplish, despite their many efforts. Below is a glimpse from Sylvain Levi’s Le Nepal which I am currently editing.
Father Athanase Kircher in 1665 wrote, “From Cuthi [Kuti], after five days’ of travel, one arrives at Nesti, of the kingdom of Necbal [Nepal], where all live enveloped in the gloom of idolatry, without any evidence of Christian faith. However, it abounds in all the things necessary to sustain life, to the degree that one regularly gets for an ecu (3 Francs) thirty or forty. From Nesti one comes, after six days of travel, to the capital of the Kingdom of Necbal [Nepal], which is called Cadmendu [Kathmandu], situated at 27°5’. The king who lives there is powerful. He is a pagan, but he is not opposed to Christ’s law [Christianity].”
However, several Jesuit and Capuchin fathers who visited Nepal from the 17th through the 19th centuries all returned to Europe disappointed because they were unsuccessful in converting the “pagans” of the Himalayas to Christianity. Now with the help of millions of U.S. dollars and the army of Evangelists that are roaming the high altitudes of Nepal, the tide has turned in their favor. What Father Grueber, Father Athanase Kircher, Father d’ Andrada and Father Dorville, among others, sowed in the 17th century is now bearing fruits because many Nepalis are following the “Christ’s Law.” These Fathers in the graves may be toasting a glass of red wine (symbolizing the blood of Christ) to celebrate their sweet victory.
Deepak Shimkhada, in reply to a comment about historic conflicts between Christians: Indeed, human history is full of conflicts–conflicts of all kinds from political, economic, religious to petty ethnic, in which people have lost their lives. There is always one group trying to assert its power over another by devious means. Because I don’t believe in forced conversion, I don’t like any religious group converting another group by any means. If the person willingly wants to convert, I have no problem. I welcome it because people should have the freedom of religion.
Stephen Mikesell: Interestingly, the first law of Genghis Khan was that all individuals had the right to practice their own religion and anybody involved in forced conversion could be punished with death. After Genghis’s death this was ignored by his descendants contributing to division and breakup of the Mongolian empire. This law in fact through the research of Thomas Jefferson was enshrined into the Virginia and US constitutions almost word for word. What is misunderstood by many today is that it was an individual right, but not institutional one. There is a very good book by an anthropologist about this topic. I’ve mentioned it in some of my other posts.
Thupten Lama: Just like the terrorists they go for the soft targets.
Stephen Mikesell: I find it indicative of how bad the modern education system is, not just Nepal but throughout the world, including and maybe particularly the United States, in that it fails to armor people against such ideology and the worldly interests that it represents and facilitates.
Stephen Mikesell, in reply to a comment saying that Hindus and Buddhists do not try to ‘convert’ people, and asserting that Hindus and Buddhists do not teach their ideas in Nepali schools: Instead of assuming a priori that there are essential differences, I would look for shared themes and then try to understand how they are expressed differently. For example, what about the right-wing Hindus, underwritten in large part by 60 million dollars or more a year coming from middle- and upper-class Deshis in the U.S., for example, with its similar alliance with expansion of global finance capital and corporate governance? Regarding Buddhism, Tibet and Nepal probably are not the best examples because they are not in control of the government in these countries. But how about the state violence against minorities experienced recently in countries in which the governments are Buddhist?
Krishna Belbase: So “money” is the real force behind all kinds of experiments, here, there, everywhere. Looks like money is the new GOD that runs and rules them all.
Stephen Mikesell: Money itself is representative of value, and in the form of debt a means to command control over things. It always is issued by states as debt. Reference Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Brooklyn: Melville House Printing, 2011). And I guess by “fetishism of money” Marx did mean to say that it had become a God that seemed to have a force of its own.
Stephen Mikesell: This is a very well financed, well organized effort, even if undertaken by diverse sects, with extremely well-developed techniques and intensive training of their agents which is tied closely to the expansion of corporate rule and penetration and control over the world. Christianity is one manifestation of a process working on many levels and in many forms. They feed upon poor education and the currently morally neutral, reductionist and overly specialized scientific worldview that presents a dead nature, morally* indifferent universe, and particularlistic society. They use all kinds of fundamentalist religiosity to advance their efforts, including Islam and Hinduism (and probably Buddhism too), since these have been useful to repress workers’ movements, and the high religions generally have always allied with and made themselves available to states and their ruling classes from their inception. They have no concern about the disruption, destruction and upheaval they bring since breaking apart societies and dissolving communities dispels the solitaries and resistance that these potentially pose to the spread of corporate capital. And as as we have seen they even co-opt and subsume groups, states and ideologies supposedly formulated against them, such as communism and socialism, including political and militant movements in Nepal, the most radical of which seems now to be one of the biggest collaborators in expansion of finance capital and enclosure (“privatization”) of community and public land, life and nature. In Eastern Europe and elsewhere they were financing the rise of ethnic consciousness from back in the Soviet era.
Some useful books, among others: David Stoll’s Fishers of men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America and Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth, as two examples. There is a good one I came across recently also describing their methodical capture of the Republican party and elimination of its moderate elements in the United States starting from the 1950s onwards.
*When I speak of morals I don’t mean dogma but the view that every action has a significance and impact within the wider context of communities, ecosystems and the ecosphere. Or as Alfred North Whitehead puts it, every action and interaction from the smallest particle to galaxies and bigger, relates to everything else in the universe — something demonstrated for example at the particle level in quantum mechanics.
Daniel Lak: Freedom of religion anyone?
David Seddon: Freedom is always qualified and contingent and contextual – why assume people are unable to make their own choices in this regard?
Stephen Mikesell, in reply to a comment criticizing missionaries for ‘targeting’ the poor: Isn’t this where these Christian groups tend to work though? If you look at how they operate here in the United States. Among the middle class groups that I’m married into, Hinduism and Buddhism seems to satisfy their needs, or more to the point, their needs are satisfied within these religions because as social class they command the means to satisfy their needs. I’m trying to think of any who have in fact converted to Christianity, and I can think of very few if any. A good number though follow or have been excited by various godmen: Rajneesh, Sai Baba, Ram Dev, Aama the Godwoman, and that fellow who was just found guilty of rape, to name a few. I would venture that scientific education in which knowledge is reduced into various disciplines each with their own separate jargon and presuppositions I would also say is a form of religion and perhaps much more insidious because it is wrenching apart cultures all over the world and collaborating in the mass depopulation of rural areas and what Eric Wolf called “draft urbanization.”
Ryan Conlon: It just so happens that I live in a monastery that is full of monks from Nubri (or Sama Village, as it’s known in Nepali). Upon reading the article, I could detect a strong bias that simply didn’t strike me as very credible. Of course the image of a helpless mountain community facing a near existential threat from overzealous American missionaries provoked many impassioned online responses, especially from other Westerners I know who are connected with Nepal (I assume the article would have provoked an even greater response had it been written in Nepali). But as I asked around with my many friends from the region, although they were certainly aware of the daycare and expressed feeling uncomfortable with outsiders and particularly Christians having entered the village, they were very ambivalent towards the Christians’ activities in general. Actually more than one monk told me that their families are quite happy with the services the daycare is providing and, because they know it is simply a temporary project, feel in no way threatened by its presence. They all criticised, however, their village leader for allowing Christians to settle in Nubri in the first place. In any case, the picture that has emerged for me is one in which, certainly compared to the Nepali Times article, the community has a lot more control over what’s happening, and the missionaries are a lot less dangerous.
It’s true that I don’t know who these Americans are, or if the article’s description of their intentions and organisational network is accurate or not. Certainly I find it strange that such basic services as health and education can so easily be taken over by outsiders throughout Nepal, and I do believe that this tends to cause various types of damage. But in this particular case, it seems that the author has made a mountain out of a molehill. Apparently there are a number of Christians ‘schools’ in the southern part of the Nubri valley, a place that already has a sizable Christian local population. It would have been much more interesting to look at the community dynamic in these villages as it exists between local Christians, foreign aid, and Buddhists. Otherwise, a story about some American Evangelical babysitters that are anyway going to be kicked out of Nubri after a few months is simply not where the meaningful story of the emergence of Christianity is to be found in Nepal.
The Role of Missionaries
Ian Gibson: I’m posting here my doctoral thesis on Nepali Christianity (this will be uploaded soon; please see also my book), which examines the process of conversion in depth, and deals with questions relating to missionary activity and material inducements.
With respect to the article what I would say is while it may well be true that this particular project is dominated by foreign missionaries who have a distorted understanding of local religions, and that some conversions in this case may be motivated by material factors, this is not representative of Nepali Christianity as a whole (and it is problematic examples such as this which are invariably highlighted in the Nepali media).
I spent a year and a half visiting numerous churches in the Kathmandu Valley, and only encountered foreign missionaries in these churches on a handful of occasions. There simply are not enough foreign missionaries in the country to explain the extremely rapid growth of Christianity there – it becomes clear after spending time in Nepali churches that this growth is locally led and pushed forward largely by local circumstances and social changes.
In my experience Western missionaries are sometimes rather uncomfortable with the extent to which local Christians insist on seeing other Nepali religions in ‘demonic’ terms – often, such ideas are rooted more in the negative experiences of converts within their former religious communities than in ideas imported from abroad. In any case, Pentecostal theology, which is the dominant form, is now more an Asian/African/Latin American phenomenon than a Western one.
It is frankly laughable to suggest, as is done repeatedly in the Nepali media and by western anthropologists, that the majority of conversions are influenced by a desire for material gain. Anyone who has taken the trouble to speak with converts or observe their lives will see that the vast majority of them have, in material terms, lost far more than they have gained by converting – they are typically ostracized from their families and communities, disinherited, and are often discriminated against in employment. These facts help to explain why Christian communities are so insular and are often hold hostile beliefs about the religions of their former communities.
It is true that there is foreign missionary money present in the Nepali church, but this money is most commonly spent on church buildings, and directly ‘bribing’ people to become Christian is essentially unheard of. Evangelical missionaries tend to have a highly voluntaristic understanding of religious life, and thus any conversion influenced by a desire for material gain would not involve ‘true’ belief and thus would not be ‘real’. If anyone is interested in the typical activities and mentalities of a foreign missionary in Nepal I would recommend Thomas Hale’s memoir Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees.
The final thing I would emphasize is that, as I show in my thesis, those who become Christian are typically vulnerable people who have experienced some significant trauma in their lives, such as illness, alcoholism, mental breakdown, widowhood, domestic violence, or the disability of a child. A significant majority of Nepali Christians are women, and fairly often these women have been abused in their marriages and have turned to churches for support. Many are people who became ill and were neglected by their families. Many are from excluded castes or have experienced poverty.
Christianity and Christian communities have helped many such people put their lives back together, in the context of a close-knit and supportive community, when they found themselves on the verge of despair or physical collapse. This is not to say that there are not problems in Christian communities or with their theologies and relations with non-Christians, but these have to be understood in context.
I realize that many secular scholars in the west, because of the politial activities and allegiances of evangelicals in the United States, have an instinctive hostility towards all forms of evangelical Christianity (with respect to evangelicals supporting Trump, for instance, I find this hostility entirely justified). However, please remember that the situation and power dynamics in Nepal are entirely different – American evangelicals only play a small role there, and Christians are one of most disempowered, persecuted groups in the country. Their theology is closer to South Korean Pentecostalism than American evangelicalism, and has many local elements. As scholars, our task is to understand and differentiate, rather than resorting to stereotypes.
When western or Nepali anthropologists and scholars, who would normally adhere to scholarly standards of evidence, repeat or circulate unfounded rumours or selective and distorting journalistic accounts of a vulnerable community, they are contributing to a climate in which the persecution of that community becomes more and more uninhibited, unchecked by any voices who would usually speak for human rights. There is a real danger that this could eventually result in large-scale violence or ‘cleansing’. There are already numerous cases of violence against Christians and churches, as documented in my thesis, and lower level persecution and exclusion is endemic. One has only to look at India to see the potential for violence against religious minorities when people’s feelings are inflamed against them by unfounded rumours and hearsay.
Discourses about Nepali Christians both within Nepal and among foreign scholars remind me rather of the sorts of discourses about Islam and Muslims that one might find on Fox News – highly selective and distorting, always with the motive of provoking hostility, and with an underlying subtext that violent or at least legally coercive measures against this ‘foreign’ and sinister group may well be justified.
David Seddon: This is fascinating – please share your thesis with me and my Nepali colleagues who are also writing about ‘the challenge of conversion in Nepal’ but were not aware of your work.
Pramod Mishra: A number of points needs to be taken into account that can avoid “either conversion in Nepal is based on free choice and is voluntary or “it is based on bribery, coercion, exploitation of the poor in Nepal” argument that many people on both sides make.
1. Unlike the mainstream Catholic missionaries, whose Vatican convention in the 1954/6? made service a priority over conversion by denigration of other faiths, the evangelicals do pester and persistently pursue their targets for conversion even if the target is educated and well off. They can get even upset when one provides counter argument about pluralism. If this is the case with the educated, how can the poor respond after having eaten their “salt”?
2. The second negative thing about it is that it teaches religious intolerance and preaches, like militant Islam, ethnocentrism and asks its followers to embrace it against others. While this may be a good counter to Caste Hindu (political, social, ideological and economic) oppression, ultimately it will create violence that history has seen between intra and inter faith in European Christianity for centuries and we see it in Islamic societies, whatever the other catalysts.
3. In the Nepali media and social media, I see mostly caste Hindus, whether lay person or scholars, from their religious, economic, etc., perch express horror at what is happening in Nepal. I have not seen any Dalit intellectual or poor do so. Where is a Nepali Dayanand Saraswati or Rajaram Mohan Roy to reform Hill Caste Hinduism? If you can’t give equal rights to various ethnicities and Dalits, they will be Christians or Muslims or whatever. They at least receive and economic, psychological and ideological alternative and support and equal status in theory at least to exploitative, discriminatory Hinduism. Start a campaign to put your house in order first, then go about criticizing conversion.
Of course, I find such pestering, coercive, bribing missionary zeal offensive and repugnant but I’m not a poor, helpless Dalit, looked down upon by my fellow faith community as subhuman for centuries. So, it is a complex phenomenon and we need to understand it likewise. There cannot be either this or that here.
Ian Gibson: Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Pramod Mishra. I would certainly agree with you that conversion is a very complex phenomenon and monocausal explanations are inadequate. You are also right that some evangelical missionaries preach an intolerant attitude towards other religions and associate social service projects with proselytization in a way that is innapropriate. I would make a number of other points though:
1) There is more diversity among evangelical missionary organizations than you think. For instance, foreign missionaries in Nepal supported the Church Mission Society (associated with the evangelical wing of the Church of England) focus strictly on social service without any pressure to convert, and are often sympathetic towards attempts at conciliation between Christians and other religious communities. The International Nepal Fellowship, the more evangelical of the two umbrella missionary organizations, also takes very seriously the need to separate material assistance from evangelization, to the extent that even Bibles are not given out for free for fear that this might have the appearance of an inducement.
2) As I mentioned above, the influence of missionaries on Nepali Christians is far less than is generally supposed – there are currently as many two million Christians in Nepal, and church growth now has an internal momentum whose sources lie mainly in indigenous leadership and disruptive social changes that encourage people to turn towards more egalitarian and ethically demanding forms of religiosity.
3) You are right that religious intolerance is closely connected with violence, but it’s also important to look at the theological attitides towards violence in Christian communities, which in Nepal are often rather pacifistic (I have a forthcoming article on this subject in the JRAI, which I can send you a draft of by private message). It is actually strongly emphasized in many churches that threats and hostility should be met with conciliation or silence. While violence against Christians in Nepal is very common, violence in the other direction is far less so. (It is of course true that many Christian groups both historically and in the present have been responsible for appalling violence, but it is important to differentiate between different cases and theological streams).
4) I would certainly agree that discrimination against exluded castes is a significant factor, but I would not say that it is the most important. Rather, social changes leading to a breakdown of norms and networks of familial assistance have left significant numbers feeling inadequately cared for when they meet some personal crisis – these people often find strong community support in churches, as well as theologies that emphasize their worth as human beings and the possibility of physical and spiritual healing. There are significant numbers of middle and upper caste Christians in Nepal.
Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful and nuanced reply.
David Seddon: This is clearly well worth a serious debate that goes beyond the simplisitic pros and cons of much commentary, even by serious social scientists.
Women and Christianity
Stephen Mikesell: Good discussion both Ian and David. I also have friendship with a woman in the central Hills whose father, and maybe grandfather as well, was an early protestant Christian missionary from the 1950s and she’s inherited their church built on the family’s land following her father’s death. I get no sense of proselytizing from her, but I find a very strong and commanding leader and organizer of her village among people of all faiths. For example, they had a water problem so she initiated and organized the construction of a 25 km conduit to bring water across the valley. She’s also engaged in arboreal culture learned from her father, and her house is surrounded by a large grove of fruit, nut and other trees which she continues building. She is a regional representative within the National Farmers Movement in struggle against the transformation and corporatization of agriculture being promoted by government, institutes, foundations and corporations, foreign and domestic (I originally met and was impressed by her at their national congress in Narayanghat several years ago). And she is very active in the organic movement, using “alley farming” and other techniques that cultivate the natural powers of the soil. She has tremendous command of respect among people and is a powerful speaker and careful listener. Christianity is one dimension of a multidimensional person, but is only one facet and possibly is origin of much of her confidence and leadership ability. From Kathmandu it takes me two days to get to her house by bicycle. People aren’t just object of categories, they have subjective presence as well. She also has a striking black cat.
Ian Gibson: That’s very interesting Stephen Mikesell – I also found that churches gave leadership opportunities to women that helped them develop a sense of self-confidence and ability to advocate on issues important to them. Although I did not come across any female pastors in the KTM valley (I understand these are more common in churches outside the valley), I found that women were almost always numerically predominant in churches, and drove forward much outreach and many church programmes. The more independent and Pentecostal (ie free-form in worship, emphasising exorcism, ‘prophesying’ etc) a church was, the greater were women’s roles – often during worship they would stand up and ‘witness’ or ‘prophesy’ at length about God’s activities in their life or his words to them, or speak movingly about the various sufferings they were enduring, appealing for prayer. Women often seemed less embarrassed than men about ‘sharing the good news’ with strangers, friends or acquaintances. Women’s fellowships are typically the most active groups in churches, and leaders of these fellowships can be as almost influential as pastors.
I cannot count the number of times I heard sermons condemning domestic violence, and I found this particularly affecting because I lived in a house in Bhaktapur facing a public square, and at night would often hear the screams and cries of women who were being beaten by their husbands. Many women I spoke to had come to church in order to find social support in the context of an abusive marriage, and hoping that they could convince their husbands to join the church and therefore giving up drinking, which was often a major factor in marital violence. I met couples where the abusive man had been convinced to come to church and change his ways. It is because of its connection with domestic violence that one finds such passionate opposition to the consumption of alcohol among many female Christians in Nepal, whereas men tend to be more reluctant compliers with this prohibition.
Elizabeth Brusco’s book The Reformation of Machism argues that evangelicalism in Latin America, through promoting norms of marital fidelity, non-violence, frugality, and self-control, has become a kind of ‘women’s movement’ in which the behaviour of men is curbed such as to improve the situation of women in the domestic sphere. I argue something analogous in my thesis – showing how Nepali churches are developing a model of ‘companionate marriage’ that both elevates the importance of the marital bond and strengthens the position of women within it.
I find your comments about the links between churches and political movements intriguing Stephen – I’ll have to look into this further myself!
Stephen Mikesell: That a Christian woman was prominent in the movements I spoke of may be incidental through the particular individual, I would think, at least without further investigation. I was told 60% of the people in both the national farmers movement and doing organic agriculture are women, and all of the ones I met at that congress could kick butt whatever their religion. They seemed much more powerful and outspoken than the men, who hit me as rather boring and procedural. But religion certainly has political dimensions, oftentimes with a vengeance. And now that you mention it, it would be interesting to explore the backgrounds of all the women, to say nothing of men, involved. Maybe there is a preponderance of Christians or maybe not. How was it they are selected as representatives from the different regions?
The person who brought me to the Congress is one of the founders of the organization, a naturalist thinker you could say, a farmer from Hindu background, an orphan at ten years, who has been doing and promoting organic farming for the last three decades as well as being actively involved with community and family on so many different levels and in so many ways. For both the Christian women and him, they see sustenance of strong community as basis of sound agriculture. It would be hard for me to locate the origin of his skills, commitment and abilities. Curiously, for scientists who might say they are atheists, the scientific conception of nature also, according to Alfred Whitehead in his Science and the Modern World, is derived from prophetic Judeo-Christianity’s conception of the separation of humans from God.
Ian Gibson: A small theological point – although Judeo-Christianity certainly sees humans as aliented from God and the natural world as a conqequence of the fall, at the time of creation it is said that God saw his work and ‘saw that it was good’, creating human beings in ordered harmony with the rest of nature. So the exploitation of nature is not necessarily an inevitable part of Christianity, though of course Christian societies have historically been the most guilty in this respect.
Conversion in the 1970s
Jan Sacherer: Nothing new. I found Kagate / Helambun Sherpas in south Solu in 1976 who got baptized in return for a free goat from Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL).
Ian Gibson: Is this something that was told to you directly by people with personal knowledge of what had happened, or was it just a local rumor? Rumors like this often arise in local communities after people convert, regardless of the real reasons for conversion. SIL missionaries I am sure have many faults, but their theology would preclude them from considering someone who converted for a goat a ‘real’ convert. (Also, a person baptized in Nepal in 1976 would face a very real risk of prison, so it seems unlikely that they would do this for personal gain.)
Jan Sacherer: I personally interviewed the people concerned (in their own language) who pointed to the goats they had acquired. This was a remote area and the majority were illiterate. I doubt they knew about any risks. There were also no Nepali officials within a day or two’s walk. Once one had converted, they received a goat. Once others saw the goats, they became interested in conversion. Not too long afterward, SIL was banned from the country for a number of years, the official reason being that they were secretly trying to convert people.
Ian Gibson: I am sure it is true that SIL was secretly trying to evangelize/convert people, what I am sceptical about it whether they would have offered bribes for people to convert. Had the people been told “if you convert you will be given this goat” or was it that the people converted then the missionaries, as an act of charity, later gave them a goat? If it is the latter, doing this was certainly unwise as it created an impresson that conversion would lead to material benefits, and it was also unfair because charity was being restricted to Christians, but it is not exactly the same thing as bribing people to convert.
David Seddon: There is little doubt that several of the organisations like SIL were committed to ‘spreading the Gospel’ and may have given local people ‘gifts’ to help persuade them to ‘convert’, but suspect locals generally too canny to be simply ‘taken in’ and may well have played along…its always a complex interaction… and few real converts are ‘victims’ of deception; if poor, why not make the most of what is on offer?
Jan Sacherer: Exactly! From what I could tell, they regarded their baptism as just another kind of puja to another Boddhisattva.
Ian Gibson: It’s definitely true that there’s a complex interaction/negotiation between converts and missionaries, and that, in the relatively limited number of cases where people convert through direct contact with foreign missionaries, there are often expectations/hopes of material help. Sometimes, it seems, missionaries have been unwise enough to give gifts in such a way as to encourage these expectations, though I doubt there is ever a direct ‘be baptized and I will give you this’ kind of transaction.
Thomas Hale (a UMN missionary doctor in western Nepal from the 1960s onwards) wrote several very readable memoirs – Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees and Living stones of the Himalayas are particularly enjoyable. In the latter, he describes how he dealt with people who came to him hoping that converting would lead him to give them material help – he would generally decline to involve them in his house fellowship if this was their motive, and certainly did not baptize people whose motives he believed to be such, nor did he give them special help that he would not give to non-Christians. He describes how he would charge people who asked him for a Bible, in order to avoid the appearance of bribery/inducements.
I think Hale’s attitude towards these matters is probably the more common one among missionaries, but it is also the case that there are some missionaries who are either unscrupulous or inexperienced and naïve enough not to realize what perceptions gift-giving allied with evangelization will create. Such missionaries are usually not affiliated with the main Protestant missionary bodies, UMN and INF, or with Catholic organizations, but rather are part of independent organizations that give their missionaries less training and have more hostile/superficial understandings of Nepali culture.
Stephen Mikessel: And isn’t this the way that “development” has been insidiously inserted into societies all over the world? From the top of the government down to local farmers. Would government officials subscribe to the intervention, demeaning treatment, etc. by foreign countries and aid organizations if they did not get personal benefits from it? I was told that generally farmers were resistant to the use of chemicals in agriculture, but the scientific missionaries called Junior Technical Assistants (JTA), usually recruited from poor families with subsidized education, would give farmers free chemicals and fertilizers manufactured by Rockefeller and other companies, and say “go ahead, try it, you are getting it for free.” A problem is that once you start using these, they disrupt the natural relationships and eventually community relationships in the land which produced fertility and sustained traditional agriculture. With cultural and natural fertility destroyed, the chemicals then seemed to be what created the fertility of the land and it became harder and harder to quit it. Everywhere from government offices to NGO seminars, the success of agricultural development was measured in terms of extent of chemical use. My children’s agricultural classes in Nepali school only talked of chemical use and the associated so-called “High Yield Variety” seed and associated techniques. So-called “traditional” agriculture was considered backward and based on superstition without anyone even trying to understand what was there in the first place or its value. It is why Wes Jackson of the Land Institute calls such people “drug pushers.” What it really has been is a mass world-wide destruction of agriculture and cultural knowledge, dispossession of people from the land, and enclosure that started back in 16th century England and has been spreading, very intentionally and systematically even, like a blight ever sense. Religion is playing on the desolation and desperation that has been created and while it offers solace for this “veil of tears,” it is also collaborator in the process.
The Question of Objectivity
Jan Sacherer: I have been very impressed with SIL’s secular contributions to tribal languages and literacy in China and I have met people who spent time in Nepalese jails for their conversions. I will also be interested to see if Nepalese Christianity will revert to relativistic recidivism characteristic of many other Christians in Asia. Ian Gibson I’ve just ordered your book by the way and look forward to reading it.
Ian Gibson: Thanks! Sorry if the tone of some of my comments has been a bit confrontational, it’s just that I’m very attached to the Nepali Christian community and sometimes when I feel I’m sticking up for them I can let my emotions get the better of me! (I’ve also got an article coming out with JRAI soon which looks specifically at Nepali Christian responses to inter-community and family conflicts.)
Jan Sacherer: I understand. I studied Sherpas and I feel the same about their Buddhism. Please post the reference to your JRAI article when it’s available.
David Seddon: I also will look out for JRAI article… there has always been a bit of a problem with foreign anthropologists ‘defending THEIR community’ – not that I’m not sympathetic, but it does raise serious problems of ‘objectivity’ (yes, I’m that old fashioned).
Jan Sacherer: Point taken and often pondered, especially now that so many from my village have immigrated to the U.S. and I see them regularly as friends and help them with the bureaucracy when I can. Where to draw the line of objectivity between an insider’s subjective view of a culture and an objective observer looking from the outside in?
Ian Gibson: David, Jan, thanks for your comments about objectivity and positioning, which are important and get to the crux of the strong feelings exhibited on both sides of this debate, including in this Facebook discussion!
As, I think, one of the few anthropologists working in Nepal who is also a practicing Christian (though I am more theologically liberal than most Nepali Christians), I occupy I kind of ‘middle space’ between secular scholars and local believers/missionaries, and, as best I can, I try to ‘translate’ the experience and practices of the latter into the language of the former, while also attempting social scientific explanations.
This position has both benefits and drawbacks. For a start, it would have been impossible for me to conduct effective fieldwork among Nepali Christians without being a believer myself, as, due to the community’s legally and culturally embattled position, they are naturally suspicious of outsiders and not entirely open with them (also, if I were a non-Christian they would have spent a lot of time evangelizing me). Additionally, I think that having a sense of the reality the supernatural, what it is like to pray and worship with feeling etc, helps one to interpret such experiences without reflexively ‘explaining them away’ as a function of social or psychological processes.
At the same time, I can see that my desire to defend Nepali Christians against what I see as unwarranted and potentially dangerous stereotypes, means that, at least in contexts such as this, I highlight the positive elements of Christian practice more than the negative ones (such as power struggles within churches and endemic church splitting, ‘demonizing’ of the deities of other religions etc). While I think that an atheist anthropologist, for instance, would come to the subject with just as many distorting biases as I do, I do agree that there are objective realities that can be empirically verified, and I also think that productive and reasoned discussion is possible across the ‘ontological divide’ of belief.
For instance, the fact that missionaries or missionary-funded organizations play no role in the majority of conversions can easily be empirically verified simply by spending some time in churches and observing that most people who convert do so through their interactions with Nepali believers in churches and house fellowships, having no contact with foreigners or their organizations. Questions of motive, however (the balance between ‘social’ and ‘spiritual/theological’ factors in conversion) touch on intangible aspects of experience, and thus interpretation tends to be more guided by one’s assumptions about the nature of reality.
What I try to do in this respect is to fully describe the social contexts, theological influences, and experiences of ‘spiritual ecstasy’, ‘healing’ etc as they are reported and observed. Analytically, I hope I show, at least, that social and cultural changes are necessary but not sufficient conditions to explain the rapid growth of conversion and the sense of personal transformation that converts often experience.
Jan Sacherer: To add yet another perspective, I have had the experience of teaching the Anthropology of Religions in a social science department and the Anthropology of Asian Religions in a humanities department and found that there is a wide divide between the approaches of the two disciplines starting with their vocabulary. Personally, I found the humanities approach to be more insightful, inclusive and sympathetic to religion. In my writings on Sherpa Buddhism I have tried to use both approaches in the same article. Some appreciate this interdisciplinary approach, some don’t.
Conversion and Material Benefits
Ian Gibson: One final point on all of this. Although there certainly are a significant number of Christian-funded hospitals, schools and social service projects in Nepal, the number of these is tiny in comparison to the number of churches/Christians (likely between 1 and 2 million people). Most Nepali Christians have had little or no contact with such organizations, nor have they received any benefit from them. This is quite a simple way of demonstrating that material benefits are not the main reason behind the majority of conversions, though such benefits may of course influence some individual cases. (The hospitals/projects run by UMN and INF make no link between treatment/service and evangelization, but this may not be the case with projects run by some non-affiliated and less ethically scrupulous Christian organizations.) Simply talking to or getting to know some Nepali Christians makes clear the complex cultural, social and personal reasons that people convert, which typically have more to do with a desire for a new community and supernatural healing than with any expectation of help from foreigners.
Pramod Mishra: Ian Gibson, when you say that “material benefits are not the main reasons,” “material” may not be cash or direct food grains and clothing but maybe more intangible benefits, such as education, promise of future benefits. It might be difficult to separate the material and non-material benefits clearly. And when you asked them about how they converted, would any new convert tell you that he/she converted because of direct material benefits? There is a stigma attached in Nepal to people who do anything just for tangible goods. Such people are called in Nepali भाते। Arundhati Roy uses the expression “rice Christians” in her The God of Small Things for her Kerala case in India. Then again, the new converts possess the zeal of converts that we have seen in mainly faiths, including Islam that V.S. Naipaul presents as his thesis in his two non-fiction books on converted Muslim countries, from Iran to Indonesia (Among the Believers and Beyond Belief). This, too, would preclude a new convert confessing to even insider family member, let alone an outsider, of material benefits.
Did you find many instances of philosophical discussions between a missionary and a potential convert(s), as in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, who then converted because he was persuaded solely by the logic of the argument itself? In fact, the village chief who debates the missionary does not convert. But those who have psychological and material reasons do. So, even while acknowledging your thesis that there are complex reasons for conversion, one cannot separate materiality from other incentives. Nor can a convert’s interview be the sole arbiter/expression of pre-conversion state of mind or circumstances. As an outsider “representing” the wider Western/European/powerful world, your reach into the inside vernacular story of the circumstances of conversion would be definitely better than that of the blanket judgment of the high caste hill Hindu commentator but may not be flawless. I guess the point I’m making is that the material benefits are inextricably mixed with other benefits, even for the relatively educated converts, let alone the poor and the deprived.
Ian Gibson: Pramod Mishra, thanks for your reply. I would say a couple of things:
1) Fieldwork methods. You are absolutely right that my understanding of the people I worked among is far from flawless, and that my status as an outsider creates significant problems in terms of understanding and interpretation. You are also right that how a conversion is represented in an interview/conversation is often quite different from the reality as it was lived at the time (not only because of conscious distortion, but also because of the inherent difficulty of remembering and expressing complex sets of motives and intangible spiritual experiences). So I will say a little about my fieldwork methods.
I did not simply turn up in churches, interview people, then leave, never to interact with these people again. Rather, over an 18 month period (and over subsequent trips making a total of more than 2 years in Nepal) I did ‘participant observation’ in three churches in Bhaktapur, going to services and events, visiting people in their homes, becoming friends with people and getting to know their families. I would only conduct recorded interviews with people once I already knew them quite well. By ‘hanging out’ in the churches, I was able to observe people converting in ‘real time’ – that is, coming to the church for the first time because they had heard that the Christian God could heal people, getting to know people at the church, having prayer meetings organized for them, making a ‘commitment’ to Christ, later being baptized. I listened to the things that were said to these people, and to what they said, and I spoke to them myself. By doing this I was able to observe that people very rarely interacted with foreign missionaries while converting.
With relation to fieldwork among missionaries (which I did after my main period of fieldwork), this was much more a matter of interacting with my ‘peers’, and so I can be fairly sure in my interpretation of their feelings, actions, and motives. At this time, I was myself a member of a large Anglican church in Oxford, and a number of people in this church were connected with the Anglican missionary organization, the Church Mission Society (CMS). Through these connections, I was able to meet quite a few CMS and other missionaries (mainly in INF) in Nepal, and as they knew who I was and my connections they trusted me, and spoke openly with me about their missionary work. When they told me that they were extremely careful not to evangelize people who benefited from their social services, I believed them (the British CMS missionaries I met restricted themselves to working as doctors etc, and did not evangelize at all; this would also be the case for many INF missionaries, through it’s a large organization and my knowledge of it is not comprehensive).
I also lived with a Hindu family in Bhaktapur thoughout my fieldwork and conducted some research with Hindus in my locality (though my understanding of Bhaktapurian Hinduism is far shallower than my understanding of local Christianity).
2) Motives for conversion. You point out that ‘”material” may not be cash or direct food grains and clothing but maybe more intangible benefits, such as education, promise of future benefits.’ You are right in this, but as I point out in the post above beginning ‘One final point…’, most converts receive NO TYPE of benefit from missionaries or missionary-funded organizations whatsoever, and this can be easily discovered simply by spending time in churches and observing the process of conversion. Indeed, most converts are fully aware that converting will likely lead to ostracism from community and family, disinheritance, and discrimination in employment and other arenas. Why, you may then ask, would a person convert? I found two main types of motive:
(a) Desire for a new and different community life. Most converts have experienced some form of trauma (illness, domestic abuse, alcoholism, widowhood, etc) that leads to a breakdown in relationships with family, community, and religious specialists. They are thus attracted to a close-knit community which is focused on caring for suffering people and which has stronger norms of inclusions for lower castes, women etc. Also, strict ethical rules (such as not drinking and strong condemnations of all forms of violence, particularly domestic violence) make it easier for such people to rebuild their lives.
(b) A desire for SUPERNATURAL benefits. Within Nepal, it is becoming ‘common knowledge’ (that is, a commonly reported idea/belief) that the Christian God is particularly adept at healing illnesses, and many Christians and non-Christians report cases of people they know or have heard of who have been healed. The process of healing, whereby a person comes to experience themselves as healed, is usually lengthy, and involves a gradual process of regular intensive group prayer and integration into the church community and new ethical norms. People tend to report experiencing the Christian God as giving them a sense of inner peace, due to his ability to defeat evil spirits causing illness stemming from supposed witchcraft (defeated by the ‘power of his blood’), and also his absolute love for the individual (as a ‘child of God’).
While you may find a belief in supernatural healing irrational, it cannot be denied that it is a significant motivating force for those who become Christians. People are willing to become Christian without any expectation of help from missionaries, and knowing they will face negative social consequences, because they REALLY BELIEVE that the Christian God will heal them, and often experience this as having happened.
I think one of the reasons that secular intellectuals/scholars are so fixated, without strong evidence, on the idea that converts must be receiving benefits or have expectations of benefits from missionaries is that they find it impossible to understand a mind-set were supernatural things are just as ‘real’ as material things. Most people in Nepal other than the highly educated have a vivid sense of the reality of the spiritual/supernatural world. Thus many converts do expect benefits and a ‘better life’ when they convert, just not the sort of benefits or ‘better life’ that can be given to them by schools, hospitals, or missionaries. They expect supernatural intervention on their behalf, and in the sense of spiritual peace and relief from pain they frequently receive, at least, they often seem to receive it.
You ask if I found many people who ‘converted because they were persuaded solely by the logic of the argument itself?’ I did not, partly because I was not working among the highly educated, and partly because even among the highly educated there would be few who converted solely for intellectual reasons (Paul Hagen’s doctoral thesis, cited in my thesis, explores ‘intellectual’ conversions among Brahmins). Among some pastors/younger people I did find the idea that Christianity is more ‘rational’ because a single all-powerful God suggests a more ordered and predictable universe than polytheism, but this was rarely a primary consideration.
I think your question suggests a false dichotomy between material benefits from missionaries, on the one hand, and intellectuality, on the other. Between these two options is the whole world of spiritual and supernatural experience, as well the social world of fulfilling human relationships – it is in these worlds that the explanations for conversion will be principally found.
Sorry for the long post!
Jan Sacherer: The subject of conversions is an intriguing one which I’ve long been interested in. I agree that the intellectuals of every culture are so embedded in rationality that they seldom consider a spiritual world view and when they do, their explanations mirror the intellectual trends of the day. The very words that anthropologists originally used to describe religions, such as magical and mythological, are pejorative to their adherents though perfectly rational if one believes only in the material world. Shamans have been described as magicians practicing trickery, or else as psychotic individuals in past anthropological literature, part of the medicalizing trend of our society. Then in the 1960’s as many middle class Americans took drugs, they were used to explain the world of shamans while those who studied with them on their own terms often came to accept another dimension to reality.
Meanwhile, I have visited many Hindu and Buddhist retreat centers in North America, and found that their long term inhabitants were sometimes attracted by the sense of community and by the philosophy of eastern religions, but mainly were attracted by their experiences of spirituality in connection with them, something they had never encountered with either Christianity or Judaism. Similar motivations it seems to me, but different cultures and religions. This in turn has led me to ask if people growing up in a world of the spiritual and supernatural as have Nepalese, are searching for the spiritual or simply seeking to enhance what they have with a more orderly, powerful, logical form of it. I personally think that a worship of Shiva transferred to the Christian God in the form of Pentacostalism is more of a continuity than many acknowledge, or as one Hindu observer put it, “it seems you have merely changed the name and form of your God, not the universal divine energy that you worship.”
David Seddon: See the fascinating arguments of Rajiv Malhotra in The Battle for Sanskrit (2017) who argues that Western academics (Orientalists) have tended either to romanticise or to secularise other cultures – which is certainly the case in Nepal…
Pramod Mishra: Ian Gibson, no problem with the length. I have no reason to doubt the soundness of your fieldwork method. What your copious explanation suggests is that it is a complex phenomenon–a mixture of spiritual/miracle-related (for the secular folk, it maybe psychological), community-related, etc. My only problem is minimizing the material aspect of it. I’m sure you have consulted Gauri Viswanathan’s Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity and Belief, as this is your field of study. Among other arguments she makes in that book is the material benefits that conversion brings to those who had been poor for centuries for social and religious (all three are intertwined in my view) reasons. No need to deny that. Look at the third-world elite who quite deftly “converted” their pre-modern privileged social, economic, intellectual position into modern privilege by sending their children to St. this and St. that schools and colleges in the colonial/postcolonial world. Yet, they seldom converted. Instead, they became cosmopolitan and secular.
So, if the third world poor and socially, culturally dehumanized convert and if it brings self-esteem, dignity, a sense of equality and material opportunity for education, health care and general upward mobility, what’s the harm in it? Especially when the privileged caste and community does everything fair and foul to cling to their unfair, unjust privilege. Nepal is a prime example of that. So, I would not deny any benefit the converted receive. That is the point I have been making. Like the Indian north-east, Adivasi belt, Nepal’s hills, especially the resource-deprived indigenous communities and the Dalits, will remain an easy target for conversion given the political intransigence of the hill high castes in the major parties. Finally, if spiritual/healing were the dominant reason for conversion, unorganized dhami-jhakris and their healing and claims of miraculous cure would have been enough to keep people with their fathers’ spirits and gods. There is spiritual plus the power of an organized world alternative at work with potential to transform a convert’s life world. That’s why, I take the material to mean its broadest definition rather than just money, food, clothing and other tangible goods and services. Thank you for providing details of your work. I look forward to reading your work at some point.
Ian Gibson: Jan, David and Pramod, you make very interesting and perceptive points.
1) Pramod – Thanks for clarifying your perspective. I certainly agree with you that, ‘There is spiritual plus the power of an organized world alternative at work with potential to transform a convert’s life world.’ You are right that if ‘material’ is taken to encompass functioning and supportive community relationships, dignity, self-esteem, and habits (such as not drinking alcohol and being frugal with money) that may lead to upward mobility, then material benefits are very important to conversion. (It should be noted that there are also material costs, in terms of social ruptures, which in the short term are often greater.)
What I strongly deny is that material benefits of conversion are connected, for the great majority of believers, with foreign missionaries or missionary-funded organizations. Rather, these benefits come from the community and norms of Nepali believers. I realize that I have laboured and repeated this point excessively, but the reason I do so is that the idea that most Christians are ‘bought’ by missionaries is pervasive in Nepal, and, as well as being demonstrably untrue, it is often used to justify violence or other forms of persecution. It is rather like the idea common among some Americans that all Muslims are somehow connected with terrorism – it’s an ideological tool promoted by opportunistic politicians and elites in order to inflame one group of underprivileged people against another.
Your citation of Viswanathan is apposite – an obvious contrast I would draw is that Christians in 19th century India had far more political power, and controlled far more institutions, than do Christians in contemporary Nepal. Missionary groups in Nepal operate in a legally restrictive and culturally hostile environment, and this (along with ethical and theological considerations) frequently makes them scrupulous in not linking education, healthcare etc with evangelization.
2) Jan, I think it is very true that Pentecostalism can be fruitfully compared to more ‘monotheistic’ forms of Hinduism, and that, theologically speaking, conversion often involves as much a reordering and extension of previously held beliefs and intuitions as a complete rupture. In terms of theological change what I would emphasize is the way in which, within Pentecostalism, the forces of evil, conflict, and danger within the spiritual world (often associated with witchcraft and the Tantric deities) are seen to be brought under the power of a single all-powerful and loving God, whose sacrifice on the cross decisively disempowers evil spirits and creates spiritual security for the believer. Other new religious movements in Nepal seem to ‘bring under control’ / rationalize evil in analogous ways.
From my own perspective, I would certainly recognize the validity and reality of intuitions towards the divine experienced by people in all religions, and indeed by non-religious people striving towards the ‘Good’ as they understand it.
3) In response to a comment about the relationship between evangelicalism and capitalism: I agree that evangelicalism in America (and indeed, in prosperity gospel churches around the world) is closely tied up with capitalism/consumerism. One thing to note is that in Nepal, although healing is central, the ‘gospel of wealth’ is rarely preached, perhaps because it is just not plausible to tell people in a Nepali village they are going to get rich. But I do agree that there are affinities between the culture of Nepali churches (teaching individual dignity, work-ethic, delayed gratification) and the early stages of capitalist development.
Jan Sacherer: Ian, I believe another example of this phenomenon is the conversion of some Nepalese (mainly Newars, so far) from the complicated cosmology of Vajrayana / tantric Buddhism to the simpler and more ordered Theravada Buddhism of S.E. Asia with its claims of utilizing only the original teachings of Buddha and simple memorial services rather than the subsequent revelations and ceremonies of Mahayana.
David Seddon: Now there is a debatable suggestion… these poor Buddhists in north Gorkha are not just victims of unscrupulous fanatics! In fact, some of the local lamas are fighting back! But IS conversion such a terrible thing? Discuss!
Jan Sacherer: It will be interesting to see if Nepalese Christianity follows the east Asian example of Korea and becomes very evangelistic and exclusive, or if it will follow the examples of China and Japan and incorporate the other religions under an inclusive philosophy whereby Hindu gods (Saraswati-Benzaiten) were incorporated into Buddhism and Buddhist saints and gods were seen as counterparts to Christian ones (the Amida-Jesus and Kannon-Maria) phenomenon. I would say conversion is an unfortunate circumstance only if the converts become fanatical and begin to ruin paintings and melt down statues as happened with the Christian conversion of the West.
Deepak Shimkhada: I know a number of Nepalis belonging to upper caste Hindu society who have converted to Christianity. They were initially brought to the U.S. by the Church to study in a seminary on scholarship. Nepali officers who issue passports have little knowledge of the seminary curriculum; for them, it’s an academic institution and these individuals are going to America to get an education. Accordingly, the officials don’t see any problems issuing them passports. The standard seminary curriculum includes Bible study, ministry, counseling (actually a course in the art of persuasion), and marketing (Evangelism), among others. Once trained in those areas, the individuals return to Nepal to do God’s work; that is, running church activities, including conversion. The church leaders have learned that it’s more effective for natives to convert the masses than for foreign missionaries to do so.
Going to America for education is a big enticement for Nepalis. Bribes come in many forms, as Pramod Mishra alluded to, and they need not be tangible or material. Healing could be a powerful incentive for a sick person. If the recruiter tells the sick individual that Jesus is a healer and the illness will be cured by embracing him, he or she will likely do so. A Hindu lady in the U.S. was converted to Christianity by her own son (a recent Christian convert) while on her deathbed. Parent churches in the U.S heavily support Nepali churches, which means the churches pay the pastors and their assistants for their work. This is one indirect benefit that the converts receive. I don’t want to name names, but I know a couple Nepali Christian leaders who regularly come to the U.S. to collect money for various projects in Nepal. Some of them even had direct access to the White House during the tenure of former President George W. Bush.
As Ian Gibson argued, conversion isn’t black and white; the circumstances under which conversion is taking place in Nepal are rather complex. Christian operatives studied Nepali society carefully and applied every trick in the book to convert the poor, sick, and illiterate. It’s easy to convert those groups when you provide them with free food, clothing, shelter, education, and a hope for the hereafter. With the educated upper class, however, they use reason—theological arguments that the Nepalis can’t win. Christians always use caste, karma, and reincarnation effectively against Hindus. I have met several Hindus who lost debates with Christians on all those accounts.
Ian Gibson: It’s certainly true that a number of Nepali pastors (particularly pastors of larger churches based in the Kathmandu Valley) have trained in seminaries in the US and elsewhere funded by foreign church organizations. However, these people would only receive scholarships after they had already spent a significant amount of time as Christians, demonstrating their commitment and leadership abilities. At the time of converting, they would have faced significant social costs in terms of rupture from family, and there would have been no certainty that they would receive scholarships from abroad. Many of the prominent pastors to whom you seem to be referring (e.g. Mangal Man Maharjan of Koinonia Church in Patan) converted during the Panchayat period, so they also would have risked jail time when becoming Christians. So while the hope/expectation of studying abroad may well, for some leaders, play a role in the decision to convert, it is unlikely to be the only or even the leading factor. Many religious groups have funded training programmes for their leaders, and we don’t automatically assume that, say, a Buddhist leader who studied in Thailand adopted his beliefs mainly in order to benefit from a foreign education.
It should be noted that the vast majority of pastors and church leaders in Nepal have not benefited from a foreign education (indeed, outside the Kathmandu Valley many pastors have barely had any training at all). I include some survey information on the educational levels of pastors in my doctoral thesis / book.
You write that “the Nepali churches are heavily supported by the parent churches in the US” and that the salaries of the pastors are paid from the US. Again, your information is based on the situation of some of the larger churches in the Kathmandu Valley, and is not applicable to the great majority of the churches in Nepal. While, in the Kathmandu Valley, it is reasonably common for missionary organizations to fund church buildings, it is not at all common (though it is the case at some larger Kathmandu Valley churches) that the salaries of church workers are paid from abroad. I have met numerous pastors and visited their homes, and I can confirm that many of them live in very straightened circumstances, relying on contributions from their local congregations.
The reality is that the majority of churches, both in the Kathmandu Valley and elsewhere, do not receive any support whatsoever from foreign organizations. You will find that many Nepali Christians worship in rented rooms or small buildings with zinc rooves, paid for by local believers, and that there is no money to pay a full-time church worker. Such churches are not as ‘noticeable’ as large churches with impressive buildings, but I assure you they are far more numerous – again, I provide evidence for this in survey data presented in my thesis, and refer to church surveys which have been done by others.
You write that “It’s easy to convert [poor people] when you provide them with free food, clothes, shelter, education and a hope for the hereafter.” As I have repeated many times and demonstrate clearly in my thesis (see also the work of Tom Fricke) the great majority of Christian converts DO NOT RECEIVE ANY free food, shelter, clothes, education, medical treatment or other material benefit when they convert, or indeed after they convert.
There are a significant number of Christian hospitals and aid projects in Nepal, but the great majority of these (and all of the large established institutions such as hospitals) make no link between aid and evangelization, on pain of being shut down by the government. Visit, for instance, the INF hospital in Pokhara, and you will find that Hindus are treated precisely the same as Christians, and no attempt is made at proselytism. Those aid projects that do link assistance with evangelization tend to be smaller and more informal, and the number of people reached by these is quite limited.
I think when you assume that poor people would only convert if they were given something, or if they were ‘tricked’ into believing that Jesus would heal them, you are adopting a patronizing attitude which denies the subjectivity and agency of people less privileged than yourself. Poor people are just as capable of making judgements about what is true and untrue in questions of religion as are the educated, but their criteria of judgement will likely be very different from those of the educated, and less wedded to a mechanistic and materialistic view of the universe deriving from the European Enlightenment. They are not simply ‘tricked’ into believing that Jesus will heal them, but rather often genuinely experience themselves to have been healed, in a process that involves integration into a caring community of Nepali Christians, and the experience in prayer and worship of relationship with a God who loves them as a ‘child of God’ regardless of their caste or circumstances, and sacrifices himself in order to protect them from evil and danger.
I would note that many members of the Nepali elite, such as those who work in academia, journalism or NGOs, have themselves been educated abroad, and significant numbers may have had this education paid for by foreign scholarships or aid organizations. Perhaps one could argue that these people have been ‘bribed’ into adopting a materialistic view of the world by lecturers in American universities – but I do not argue this, because it would not properly respect the agency, subjectivity and thought-processes of these people, who have undoubtedly reflected deeply on their intellectual commitments and do not simply ‘mirror’ the ideas that they have been taught abroad, but come at these ideas from their own angles.
I would appeal to you to extend a similar respect to poor people and others in Nepal who have chosen to adopt Christianity by not automatically assuming that they must have been ‘bribed’ or ‘tricked’ into converting. Even when people are quite poor, they do not only think about money or medicine – like all human beings, they search for love and meaning, and if they find these things in churches, is that so sinister, explicable only in terms of an international conspiracy?
One has only to look around the world to see that the global explosion of Pentecostalism does not stem primarily from international missionary activity or resources. Christianity is growing rapidly in China, which very closed to foreign missionaries, and in Africa independent Christian movements are burgeoning while historically missionary-associated churches are not. It is ‘bottom up’ churches, giving leadership opportunities to women and the dispossessed, which are growing (see, for instance, David Martin’s Tongues of Fire), rather than ‘top down’ churches controlled by missionaries, such as were typical in the colonial period . What seems to be happening is that the dislocations caused by global capitalism are causing the global poor to search out more demanding, intense and egalitarian forms of religiosity, which enable them to spiritually, psychologically and socially reorient themselves within an increasingly unstable environment. See Mike Davis’s article ‘Planet of Slums‘, which interprets both Pentecostalism and radical Islam in these terms.
Deepak Shimkhada: You wrote, “[….] they search for love and meaning, and if they find these things in churches, is that so sinister, […..?]” No, not all. I am not against “self” conversion. I believe in freedom of religion. My only qualm is with conversion by an agency, whether a foreign evangelical arm, one’s own family member, a friend or a church. Again, I am not singling out the Christians; it applies to all religions including Hinduism, albeit Hindus don’t believe in conversion. However, in certain swami-founded movements, there is a strong Hindu evangelical approach to bring all, regardless of their religions, to his fold. I am against this. If any one, on his or his own volition, wishes to convert for a variety of reasons whether it’s for the purpose of belonging, identity, love, hope, solace, healing, etc., he or she is welcome to do so by all means. However, my objection still stands if an agency comes in the picture to influence his or mind by telling them the stories of healing, miracles and any other material or spiritual promises. I have read and heard enough stories of direct or indirect persuasion to convert. Please don’t tell me they are a part of an “international conspiracy.”
Dialogue and Exclusivism
Ian Gibson: Dr Shimkhada, I realize that the tone of this discussion has become rather heated – please understand that my comments do not indicate any ill-will or disrespect. Indeed, I respect your scholarship, goodwill, and desire that people not be manipulated or coerced. The reason I speak forcefully on this topic is that I believe it is an subject on which there are widespread misconceptions, mainly relating to the extent of international influence on Nepali Christianity. You are right that Christians in Nepal often try to persuade others of their religious viewpoint – I suppose where we would differ is on the morality of trying to persuade another person of one’s religious ideas, even if there is no manipulation or coercion involved. Anyway, I apologize if you sensed any hostility in my tone – please understand that it is more a passionate loyalty to my Nepali Christian friends and the reality of their life-stories and beliefs.
Deepak Shimkhada: Thank you, Dr. Gibson, for your response. I have no ill feeling or disrespect for your scholarship. Although I haven’t read your dissertation, I can already see the amount of research you have done on the subject. You speak with an authority that I lack; I speak only from conversations I have had with several converts and a smattering of writing and news. My comments weren’t directed towards your research methodology or the accuracy of your research findings. They are impeccable, indeed.
Throughout my lifetime of teaching Asian religion courses at a college/university in the U.S., I developed an interfaith love affair with all religions of the world, including Christianity. There is no one religion that is better than others. An individual should be able to practice religion without any manipulation and I absolutely respect all religions. By the same token, I have equal respect and admiration for those who don’t believe in or subscribe to a religion. In fact, some of my friends and students are atheist. I get flustered when I read or hear about stories of conversion by slight coercion or manipulation. That must stop. That’s all. Is that too much to ask?
Pramod Mishra: I’d add that any new faith for the twenty-first century should emphasize interfaith dialogue and seek commonality and mutual respect rather than exclusivist doctrine and interfaith intolerance. Inclusivist, flexible conversion is what I’d go for. Mine and yours rather than mine only and yours nothing or mine angel/God worship and yours devil worship. The world is troubled as it is with absolutist, all-or-nothing doctrines of the faithful.
Deepak Shimkhada: I completely agree, Mishra ji. Polarization of society through political ideology, class, gender, religion will only further widen the gulf between nations. Mutual respect of each religion, culture, language, and race through interfaith dialogue seems to be a viable solution to the 21st century’s ills as we are currently experiencing.
Ian Gibson: Speaking personally, I’m be very much in the same place as you both, Pramod Mishra and Deepak Shimkhada – when I interact with Hindus, Buddhists, or other non-Christians (which is all the time) I’m much more interested to find out about their lives and ideas that in ‘converting’ them. The basis for any friendship or dialogue has to be a respect for the integrity, worth, and complexity of another person’s experience and it just doesn’t make any sense to me humanly or theologically, to say – ‘I’ve got all the right answers and you’ve just been doing the wrong thing all your life’. Rather, I’d say that every person is made in the image of God and so has intuitions of and promptings towards the divine, though these are expressed in wildly diverse ways. At the same time, if people are interested I do share my religious ideas with them, and I’m happy if they find any merit in these ideas.
I think what I’d say with regard to Christians in Nepal, who undoubtedly have very different attitudes towards religious pluralism and evangelism than the ones I’ve just described, is that many of these people have had very negative experiences within Hindu or Buddhist society, and this will naturally shape their response to these religions after they have converted. For instance, is it realistic to expect a Dalit convert who has been treated as ‘untouchable’ and denied access to Hindu temples to have the same respect and affection for Hinduism as a Brahmin who has found nothing but affirmation, intellectual interest, and social status within his religion? Of course not.
One thing I found in my research was that conversion was often as much a response to pre-existing social conflict as a source of social conflict itself (see particularly my forthcoming JRAI article). For instance, if a person becomes ill and their family and friends were unwilling to support them adequately, or a Hindu healer is unable to cure them but charges them a lot of money, this may cause conflict resulting in the idea that the illness had been caused by witchcraft from family, neighbours or healers. Coming to church, the person is told that the Christian God can defeat all evil spirits causing illness.
During a subsequent experience of ‘healing’ or personal transformation, the convert will experience a radical sense of rupture with their previous life, allowing them to begin afresh in a new spiritual, social, and moral world. Integral to this experience of transformation is the idea that the evil spirits that have been holding them in check, associated in one way or another with conflicts in Hindu society, have been decisively brought under the power of Christ, giving them a new sense of spiritual security and the ability to remove themselves from cycles of social aggression without fear of spiritual retribution (i.e. witchcraft). This is what I argue in the JRAI article – that while Nepali Christians are theologically hostile to Hinduism as a religion, their ethical approach to Hindu people is fairly pacifistic. Paradoxical I know!
It is a truism that in all societies dominant religions become tied up with power structures and social inequalities in a way that can become pathological; this often breeds reactions which are themselves excessive. I think, for instance, of the Catholic church early 20th century Spain, which was so associated with crown and privilege that Spanish left became viciously anticlerical, destroying churches and killing priests during the Civil War in the 1930s. Ditto the present wave of anti-Catholicism in Ireland, which is a reaction to episcopal cover-up of child abuse.
It seems to me that Hinduism in Nepal occupies a similar position – it is a religion that has given shape and meaning to the lives of millions of people over many centuries, but it has become profoundly associated with the perpetuation of social inequalities (while there is undoubtedly much more to it than that). In an age that is increasingly egalitarian, a significant minority of Nepalis have come to find the social exclusions – whether of caste or gender – they associate with Hinduism intolerable, and have searched for spiritual meaning within new religious groups whose demanding ethos creates ‘counter-societies’ which operate according to more egalitarian norms, as well as offering communal experiences of personal ‘deliverance’ and ‘ecstasy’. This can be seen as much in, say, some strands of Theravada Buddhism as in Pentecostal Christianity – and many of these new religious movements are quite critical of traditional Hinduism (see, for instance, Lauren Leve or David Gellner and Sarah Levine‘s or Chiara Letizia‘s work on Therevada).
So, as ‘intellectuals’ who incline towards more pluralistic and dialogue-based approaches to interactions between religions, I think it is our job both to interact thoughtfully and respectfully with each other (which I have enjoyed doing with you both), but also to understand the lives and situations of people much poorer than ourselves for whom theologically more exclusivist forms of religion that may provide a sense of ‘deliverance’ which they need to reorient their lives within extremely difficult and sometimes degrading circumstances.
The Process of Conversion
Pramod Mishra: “During a subsequent experience of ‘healing’ or personal transformation, the convert will experience a radical sense of rupture with their previous life, allowing them to begin afresh in a new spiritual, social, and moral world.” Ian Gibson I like this elaborate conversation. Thank you for advancing it. How does “a radical sense of rupture with their previous life” happen? What would you say to people like VS Naipaul who would argue, as he has done in his two travel books on Muslim societies (Among the Believers and Beyond Belief), that this is precisely what has happened in converted Muslim societies. Their faith brooks no trace of the past cultures and life but wants to wipe them out, giving them some awful name (satanic, idolatry, etc). The destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas by the Talibans is but one example of that. So, the question would be–does the radical rupture happen on its own in the process or is RADICAL rupture the result of doctrine and the doctrinaire? You see, Krishna of the Mahabharata also says the same thing to Arjuna at a time when the latter is confronted with life and death crisis in the battlefield. Krishna, assuring Arjuna, says, “सर्व धर्मान्परितज्य मामेकम् शरणम् ब्रज। अहंत्वाम् सर्वपापेभ्य: मोक्षिष्यामिमासुच:।।” Give up all religions/paths and come only to my shelter, mine alone. Freeing you from all sins, I’ll purify you and give you salvation.” You find that those Hindus who follow this verse think Krishna is the greatest but there is no theological injunction or tradition of formal priestly prohibition that such a follower can’t bend his or her knees before other gods/Gods. No radical rupture from previous life here. I suppose I want to know more about this radical rupture–its sources and the process and consequences.
Ian Gibson: Pramod Mishra – thanks for your reply to the discussions above. I’ve appreciated the way you’ve brought in various literary references – I’ll have to have a look at the V.S. Naipaul books you mention, as well as the Arundhati Roy book you mentioned above (the one novel you’ve raised which I have read is Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which I think is pretty instructive for the Nepali situation).
In some ways literature seems a very appropriate medium for approaching the sorts of experiences we’re discussing, because they relate the most intangible and inarticulable areas of human experience – that is, human relationship with the divine (or, experience perceived as such). Mystics of all religions have always stressed the mysteriousness of such happenings (because the divine is so much vaster than our limited powers of perception), and human beings have found ways of expressing them that go beyond conventional modes of communication – take the Pentecostal practice of ‘speaking in tongues’, for instance. Myself, I have always found that poetry best expresses what it ‘feels like’ to be religious, but I have not yet found a novel that describes a Pentecostal conversion experience well.
The reason anthropology has often failed fully to register the nature of experiences of ‘rupture’ such as the ones I have alluded to is that anthropology as a discipline tends to see human beings and their experiences as highly determined by an enduring cultural environment; this makes anthropologists (and others of similar intellectual leanings) skeptical when faced with claims of radical rupture or conversion in the lives of individuals. They thus tend to ‘explain away’ such claims, assuming that converts have not really changed their basic orientations all that much, but that they have rather shifted religions for more practical reasons such as the goods or opportunities available from churches. (This is the argument of Joel Robbins in his excellent article ‘Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture’).
So-called ‘continuity thinking’ may also blind observers to the very important factor you have mentioned in experiences of rupture – that is, specific religious or theological doctrines. As you suggest, radical rupture does not ‘happen in its own’. There may or may not (as a believer I incline towards ‘may’) be a supernatural agency involved in these experiences of transformation, but is also clear that the ways these experiences are understood and articulated, and their consequences, are profoundly shaped by the theological environments in which they take place, and by the communities shaped by these theologies.
In my article soon to be published in the JRAI (entitled ‘Pentecostal Peacefulness: Virtue Ethics and the Reception of Theology in Nepal’) I describe in detail the way experiences of rupture come about among Nepali Pentecostals, and highlight the ways these experiences have been shaped by a very specific form of Pentecostal theology. This is a theological tradition I label ‘Pentecostal Eschatological Peacefulness’. This tradition, arising in the early period of Pentecostal history (just before and during the First World War) ‘immanentized the eschaton’; that is, these Pentecostals believed that the Kingdom of Heaven had already inbroken into the world at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, which they saw less in terms of atonement for sin and more in terms of Christ’s liberation of humanity from the power of Satan and the evil spirits associated with him (see Gutaf Aulen’s book Christus Victor on different Christian theologies of Atonement).
Seeing themselves as successors of the Apostles, these early Pentecostals lived out the inbreaking of Christ’s Kingdom and the defeat of Satan through continual, unstructured rituals relating to ‘spiritual gifts’ – that is, exorcism, prophesying, speaking in tongues and healing. All this typically took place place in an environment of communal worship tending towards religious ecstasy. Consistent with their belief that they were living out the inbreaking of Christ’s Kingdom, these communities were highly egalitarian – giving leadership roles to women and members of racial and social minorities – and demanded deep communal involvement and rigorous adherence to new ethical codes (see for instance Harvey Cox’s Fire From Heaven). When faced with violent social hostility (in the USA, often relating to the social mixing of white women with black men) and then the mass slaughter of the First World War, these early Pentecostals responded in a pacifistic manner – seeing themselves as people ‘set apart’ from society at large and thus called to live out a different, and more rigorous set of values, including the eschewal of violence.
The history of ‘Pentecostal Eschatological Peacefulness’ as a theological tradition is complex (I outline it in my JRAI article), but suffice to say that it has arrived in Nepali churches reasonably intact, though of course bearing the marks of other theologies and local Nepali cultures. As I mentioned in my previous post, the experience of rupture is understood theologically as a matter of Christ finally and decisively defeating (in his sacrifice on the cross) all evil spirits, in particular those associated with social tensions and resulting witchcraft accusations. Converts are thus freed from the profound anxieties they often feel in connection with these conflicts and spirits, and are at the same time inculcated into a pacifistic code of personal ethics that encourages them to remove themselves from cycles of social hostility. Informants would often report to me a profound experience of peace or wellbeing (‘shanti’/’ananda’) occurring during rituals of communal exorcism. These were long periods of communal, verbalized prayer in a house or church, during which a number of believers would stand around an afflicted person and pray vigorously that the spirit troubling should to leave them, invoking ‘the power of Christ’s blood’ to drive the spirit out.
The process of conversion or rupture, whereby a person’s previous religious system comes to be seen in demonic terms, while this person also disengages from previous, more conflictive social relationships and integrates into the church community, does not happen overnight or in a single session of prayer. Rather, after a person comes to church seeking healing, church members gradually get to know them and integrate them into the church community, typically setting up a special fellowship which meets regularly to pray for the person, either in their home (if the family is amenable) or another church member’s home. The person is also prayed for at ordinary house fellowships and worship services. The special prayer fellowship serves as a way in which the person can get to know well a small group of church members (usually from their locality) and also serves as a forum in which they can be taught the basics of Christian belief and begin to experience (if experience they do) the power of the type of intensive, vocalized communal prayer I have described. It seems that such prayer is often very spiritually/psychologically powerful.
Sometimes within a period as short as a few months, other times over a period lasting a year or more, significant numbers of people who involve themselves in such prayer rituals report that they have been ‘healed’. While I do not discount the possibility of genuine physical healing, it seems that when people report themselves ‘healed’ they usually mean something wider than just a physical change. One man, for instance, reported to me that he had been healed of a back problem, and yet his posture was still visibly stooped. When people say that they are healed what they seem to mean is that they have experienced a transformation in their sense of wellbeing (‘shanti’ or ‘ananda’ again), which both gives them a sense of freedom from a former life that had become intolerable and hope in the possibility of new life in a new community (which has opened up before them in the form of church). This newfound sense of wellbeing may also result in a reduction of physical pain, or the complete elimination of problems such as alcoholism or some manifestations of mental illness.
The final stage of this conversion or rupture is when, after a person has been healed and thus now believes in the power of the Christian God, they are told that in order for the healing to be permanent it is necessary to make a complete commitment to Christ – that is, to abandon all Hindu worship and be baptized. It is this decision – to abandon all Hindu worship, including death rituals for parents etc – that is likely to cause a decisive rupture with the convert’s family and local community, who will regard the neglect of important rituals as scandalous. It seems that for the deep sense of personal transformation and freedom from previous problems that ‘healing’ involves to take place, such a singular commitment to the Christian God, necessitating a break from old social and religious ties, is necessary. The ‘inner’ rupture of conversion/healing is mirrored in the outer rupture of a break from previous social ties (though these ties are often later repaired at least somewhat).
So, this should give you a broad idea of what conversion looks like in practice (see my article or thesis/book for detailed case studies; obviously not all conversions are precisely as described above, and some are very different – I’ve described a ‘typical’ case). To return to the issue you raised in your post, Pramod Mishra, why is it that the results of this rupture are rather different from, on one the one hand, the violence of Muslim fundamentalism and, on the other hand, the pluralism of Vaishnavite Krishna cults? A simple answer to this would be – ‘it’s the different theologies’. While Pentecostalism shares with Muslim fundamentalism a ‘demonization’ of previous religious forms, it also, at least in the Nepali case and others influenced by similar streams of Pentecostalism, associates this demonization with a pacifistic theology, which holds that, because Christ has ‘won’ the battle against evil, human beings no longer need to enter into conflict themselves. While Pentecostalism shares with Krishna cults the veneration of one Lord above all others, it adopts a more exclusivist stance than these cults because of the aforesaid demonization of other spirits/deities, which is integral to the process of ‘healing’, as I have described.
I think that was the longest post yet – phew!
I am very grateful to you everyone who has have contributed to and advanced this conversation – I’ve found it extremely stimulating and thought-provoking. I think it’s great that we can discuss this controversial subject in such a respectful, intellectually deep and mutually informative way – it seems like a small model of dialogue in the context of religious and intellectual diversity!
Jan Sacherer: I too am very appreciative of this conversation – for its intellectual depth and respectful tolerance. One idea that occurred to me as I read through Ian’s latest contribution is that the phenomenon of Christian conversion is probably part of an endless cycle of religious evolution. I was struck by the similarities between Ian’s descriptions of Christian converts feeling that Christ had freed them from evil spirits and similar descriptions of the conversion of the Tibetan nation to Buddhism. Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan) journeyed from India to Tibet to accomplish this and could not institute Buddhism there until he had freed that land from spirits. The Tibetans were war-like until this happened, even conquering parts of western China at one point, but became pacifists after that, aided of course by their geographic isolation.
Ian Gibson: Very interesting, Jan. David Gellner was my thesis supervisor and used always to suggest interesting parallels between my material and Buddhism – there seems to be a certain affinity between some forms of Protestantism and some forms of Buddhism.
Jan Sacherer: I have heard similar accounts of an ongoing movement whereby more orthodox Buddhists visit very remote villages (mostly in eastern Nepal), exorcising the spirits and teaching that people will stop being bothered by them when they stop making animal sacrifices and become peaceful Buddhists. Ironically, as mentioned before, a number of Vajrayana Buddhists have become Theravada Buddhists in recent times, seeking a simpler spirit free Buddhism. Dare I say, that to an outsider familiar with Christian history, it would seem a kind of reformation. —- I think we can also see the Hindu renaissance that started in Calcutta as a reaction to the British and the cultural pressure of missionaries who were quick to point out the superstitions and inequality of Hinduism. As a result, the Vedanta Society, the Sri Aurobindo society, and the Self Realization fellowship all began teaching a modern and egalitarian form of Hinduism. In the case of Vedanta and SRF, they even saw their mission as including America and showing that the original esoteric essence of Christianity could best be understood through reference to Hinduism. —-This leads me to think that all religions go through cycles of inspired leaders, ever more complicated rituals and hierarchies, attempts to simplify, charismatic revivals, and in the case of the west, secularism finally.
Ian Gibson: Jan, yes, that’s another interesting parallel – just as Buddhists are, Christians in Nepal are very critical of animal sacrifice (which is a big thing for the Newars in Bhaktapur). They understand this in terms of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross being the final sacrifice needed to defeat evil and cleanse sin. I stayed with a family in Bhaktapur where the daughter in law is Hare Krishna – also very anti-sacrifice and very pacifistic.
Jan Sacherer: To this day, the very traditional Eastern Orthodox churches do not allow the Bibles in their churches to be bound in leather for the same reasons.
Ryan Conlon: I read Ian’s book a few months ago. It’s very good (as was this discussion). I would say that the Nepali Times article, however, is a quite problematic. I came to that conclusion having inquired about it with a number of people from the concerned area.
Proselytism in Other Religions
Jan Sacherer, in reply to a comment suggesting that Christianity seems to be the most proselytism-oriented religion: I have been approached many times by Hari Krishnas at airports and train stations. They are always surprised when I tell them I already have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.
Deepak Shimkhada: Sikhs provide Langar (free food), while Muslims distribute Qurans. I don’t know if there’s a hidden agenda in these acts. As Americans say, “There’s no such thing as free lunch.” Maybe it’s not for them. Is there?
Stephen Mikesell: Ditto with the Hari Krishnas. I’ve enjoyed the free food of both Hari Krishnas and the reputably CIA-financed Unification Church during my grad school days, which where aiming to capture my devotion. The latter in support of an attempt by my roommate to separate a woman he’d made friendship with from it, which evidently failed. I have observed the spread of Hindu temples well-financed from India throughout Nepal’s lowlands, which I gather are tied to spread of hegemony of interests and spread of certain kinds of enclosures of lands and resources derived from India and beyond. Also much of the money from Buddhist temples in Nepal comes from places like Singapore, so I would not say that they are indifferent. And what about the empires of Hindu god-men particularly the ones with their TV shows which middle-classes watch and flock to?
Hinduism is not of a single origin or one prophet like Christianity or Islam or even Buddhism, itself an offshoot of Hinduism, so proselytization really takes a different form. It represented the spread of form of a certain kind of sovereignty, organization, farming, distribution and property system over the subcontinent which incorporated local deities and sovereignties into its pantheon. You aren’t necessarily converted to it, but people become followers of incarnations, manifestations, saints, and godman with their own institutional frameworks. Recall Max Weber‘s great variety of categorization of the different forms that religion takes to serve similar purposes in different ways.
Deepak Shimkhada, addressing the person who originally posted the Nepali Times article: Apparently, conversion is a highly charged subject as can be seen by so many responses to your posting. It seems you have opened the hornet’s nest.
Stephen Mikesell: I’d say that it is evident that a lot of people have been thinking about it. (Personally, I always like to throw in monkey wrenches, draw analogies, extend to other fields. And given that I’d been thinking about it for a couple decades but not doing a lot about it, I was delighted to see the response.)
Power and Conflict
Deepak Shimkhada: All organized religions operate on the principle of power. This is exactly why communism runs contrary to religion—because religion is perceived as a direct threat to the government. There is definitely power in numbers.
You cited some valid reasons for a Nepali to convert to Christianity, Ian Gibson. It’s certainly his prerogative to cross the religious boundary to attain personal happiness; we all want happiness and should accept and respect that. But it raises a red flag when it’s done for the purpose of power. A number of informants who have attended Christian gatherings report that Christians would like to turn Nepal into a Christian country. At least one Christian, who I personally know, confided that she would like to see a cross on top of the Pashupatinath temple. Pashupatinath temple, as you well know, is the holiest Hindu temple in Nepal, attracting hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims from across Nepal and India during the Mahashivaratri. Such an agenda, although stated privately, is hurtful, if not an outright threat to non-Christian Nepalis.
Advocating transforming a nation into a Christian one represents little more than domination or religious hegemony, which these people walked away from in the first place. Why not just be Christian and be content with that? It is a numbers game, in the end: if more people belong to one religion, the community has more power, which they can use against another religious group. History speaks volumes about religious persecution. At one time or another, all minor religions, including Christianity, suffered persecution. Now that Christianity is the largest religion in the world, it wants to wield the power of world domination, which amounts to religious imperialism.
I have a colleague who works in Chhattisgarh in India, collecting data from Christian organizations that are actively using devious methods to convert local illiterate and poor people. The methods that are being used include:
1) Christian organizations operate a number of schools for girls that are far away from the villages, requiring the girls to be bussed.
2) At the schools, they are gradually inculcated in Christian practices such as prayers and reading uplifting Bible stories.
3) On a certain day, while returning home late in the evening, the bus suddenly stops in the middle of an isolated road. The driver opens the hood and tinkers for a while, going back and forth between the ignition and the hood. The driver eventually gives the girls the bad news: the engine died. He says to the girls, “You pray to your god (i.e. Hindu gods) while I try one more time.” The girls pray and pray. The driver turns the key in the ignition, but the engine doesn’t crank up. He finally says, “Now pray to Jesus and see what happens.” The girls are nervous because the sun is rapidly setting and they are in the middle of a deserted road, tired and hungry. Out of desperation, the girls pray to Jesus. Lo and behold, the engine starts! Everyone is jubilant and they all thank Jesus for saving the day.
4) Of course, it was a ruse all along—a well-choreographed Lila (play) that management taught the driver. If this is not manipulation, what is?
5) Chhattisgarh has been a fertile ground for conversion by Christian missionaries for years. They set up many altruistic projects, including free clinics, schools, and shelters. But these come with strings attached. The poor villagers of Chhattisgarh desperately need these services, but they come with the ultimate intent of conversion.
6) Another coercive method being used by both Muslims and Christians to convert young Hindu girls is rather disturbing. Young, handsome, and flashy lads on motorcycles with smartphones, and cash in-hand are recruited to scout young, vulnerable girls from high schools. They impress the girls with their charm and gadgets, pretending to fall in love with them to gain their confidence. After gaining the girl’s complete confidence, the boy either makes plans to elope or simply takes her to meet his well-to-do family, which, in fact, is a paid surrogate. The girl is dazzled and begins to dream of a happy future and the boy says, “You can have all this if you marry me. I will give you my love and undivided attention.” For a poor girl, this is music to her ears.
7) Most of these cases have been documented and, in some cases, the boy and family that facilitated the crime have been arrested. Most cases, however, go unreported and the girl who winds up marrying the fake rich lover remains in wedlock for the rest of her life. She can’t return to her parents because 1) she brought shame to her family by running away with a stranger; 2) she is pregnant; and, most of all, 3) she converted to another religion (Christianity or Islam, depending on who the boy is or the organization that’s behind this orchestration). When the girl finally gives birth to children, they are raised as Christians or Muslims, according to the mother’s new religion. Although Muslims originally used this method, it was co-opted by Christians as well.
There are a lot of ills in society and this one, while it may seem innocuous, is a cruel way of converting a naïve girl. Con games and altruism do not mix. When an agency is involved, a conversion is a conversion—no matter how you cut it. It’s prudent to note that human traffickers use this same technique to lure young girls into prostitution. This is another explosive area I don’t want to go into.
Although these data don’t pertain to Nepal, they are unsettling, nonetheless, and it makes me wonder what other innocuous methods that may have been used to influence the minds of the poor Nepalis. A society ravaged by war, economic and social inequalities tends to gravitate toward a religious or political order that promises to provide a sense of belonging and support. That may just be true in the case of Nepal, as you have effectively argued in your comments. However, I also think that the arm of evangelism is long having a world-wide network for running well-oiled machinery. If conversion is the core principle of Christianity, helping, which it does, then becomes secondary.
Jan Sacherer: I think Mr. Shimkada has named the real issue here and it is power. For an outside, disinterested observer, it should make no difference whether Hinduism or Christianity is in the majority in Nepal, while non-religious people would almost certainly prefer a secular political solution and ideology. Interestingly, Bhaktapur has not only been the center of Christian conversions but also of various Marxist inspired movements. Taken together, we can say that indigenous urban dwellers whose primacy was suppressed by the ascendance of the caste system, are looking for alternatives. The reason this becomes a societal concern rather than a personal preference, is that some wish to retain their power and others to usurp it. — For every example of Christian chicanery related by Mr. Shimkada, I can relate a similar story of middle hills high caste Hindu trickery towards tribal people told to me by those tribals when I was assigned the question by a development group of “who are the poorest people in this district and how did they get that way.” — For those who truly value Hindu history, philosophy, art, and culture, rather than political power, the solution would seem simple. Make Hinduism modern and egalitarian and thus more attractive than the alternatives. There are in fact, many models for doing so, starting in the 19th century India. My guess is that most people prefer to stick with the familiar rather than go through a societal rupture, so Hinduism should have an advantage over Christianity if it was even a little more egalitarian and flexible.
Thupten Lama: Why have celebrities like Richard Geere, Stephen Seagal (can’t recall the other names) and the likes voluntarily converted their faith to Buddhism? I think if those working towards conversion focussed on stopping their own people from leaving their faith in droves for another faith voluntarily that would make more sense. It seems Buddhism attracts more people voluntarily than the other faiths. This is just an impressionistic view and not study-based. This is like promoting tree plantation programs in Nepal where people are enthusiastic to plant new trees to protect the environment but least interested in protecting the existing trees. I think Robert Thurman needs to be brought into this discussion for his expert views.
Pramod Mishra: Dr Mishra provided a link to a column he had published in the Kathmandu Post on 31st August 2017; the text of the article is as follows:
Of Faith and Indoctrination
Nationalists, evangelists alike need to understand that the 21st century has room for all but the ones who force belief on others
Conversion has once again become a hot topic in Nepali media; however it has always remained an obsessive preoccupation in the minds of evangelists and hill Hindu nationalists in Nepal. For the hill caste nationalist, India is another obsessive preoccupation. In the eyes of such a nationalist, Nepal could disappear at any time, because it could be swallowed by India. They also believe that secularism is a western conspiracy to transform Nepal into a Christian country.
The evangelist Christian missionary is obsessed because any opening in any part of the world offers him a fresh pasture for his God-given mission to proselytise. The nationalist cannot believe that Nepalis can voluntarily become Christians for a number of accountable and unaccountable reasons; the missionary cannot believe that people with the gods and spirits of their forefathers can ever be equal to him and his faith. The nationalist always suspects the role of money and other nefarious temptations in the conversion of his fellow innocent Nepalis and the evangelist always believes that those who do not convert to his ethnocentric, monocultural, singular faith are lost souls, condemned to burn or rot in hell. For the evangelist, his singular faith is the only right one; all the rest is just superstition and false belief—the work of the devil. If Indophobia and Christophobia spoils the nationalists’ sleep and turns his dreams into nightmares, how to convert others into his own faith turns the evangelist’s nightmares into dreams.
In the paragraph above, I may seem facetiously hyperbolical and binary but in many ways both nationalists and evangelists belong to the same fraternity—the fraternity of the intolerant and the narrow minded, and ultimately self-centred. In both cases, anything or anybody that does not conform to their way of faith and community (in one case, their idea of the nation; in the other case, their idea of the path to salvation) are sorely lacking as individuals. In both cases, they don’t live in the reality of the twenty-first century; they only react to it with the potion of centuries past.
Many years ago, I struck up a friendship with a born-again Christian minister whose group “converted” culturally-raised Christian students into born-again Christians. He was a nice guy. We had frequent open sessions of discussion about the big questions. He would try to prove the scientificity of Jesus Christ; I would argue that Jesus Christ was certainly a prophet and the Bible is a revered holy book without question, and both have taught me a great deal that has significantly shaped my character and life goals, but I also argued that, for other people, there are other equally important prophets and holy, revered books that have equally effectively shaped their lives.
But even after two years of knowing each other, he would still try to make me believe that the only way to God was through Jesus. All other ways were false. This may be true and persuasive for you, I would tell him, but it may not be so for others. When I realised that it was not friendship that was the bond between us but his zeal to make me like him, the balloon of our friendship punctured.
Similarly, I have encountered many Nepali nationalists with degrees from Western universities who are appointed as gatekeepers of scholarship. When these nationalists run in to Madhesis who are smarter than them, they assume that these Madhesis are actually Indian. It is very difficult for them to believe that some Nepalis can acquire their BBC accents just by listening to a short-wave radio, and not by virtue of being a wealthy Indian educated in an expensive English-medium school in India. Many such nationalists find it very difficult to believe that Nepalis can convert to Christianity voluntarily for a variety of reasons other than cash and immediate benefits. These reasons include generations of poverty caused by the state and its caste system, dehumanisation by their fellow faith community, or superstition as a result of miracles and miraculous healing and cures. In a country whose prime minister hardly does anything important without consulting his family astrologer and wears myriads of birth stones for good luck and correlates the alignment of planets and stars with human fate, why should one not believe that common Nepalis can leave one set of dhami-jhakris and visit another set of miracle workers for healing, peace, self-esteem, dignity and solace? And why not do so if it leads to good fortune?
But the catch here is that these new sets of miracle workers preach an ethnocentric doctrine of faith, a singular way to salvation and Godhood. And that is a recipe for future disaster, as we have seen in many parts of the world. Nothing that preaches singularity could be suitable for the twenty-first century. There cannot be only one God and only one prophet if peaceful, tolerant mutually respectful coexistence is to be promoted. Whoever spreads and preaches such doctrine needs to be challenged. Why not preach like the Dalai Lama or Gandhi? You can remain as who you are and we can learn from each other. Why should you give up your religion? You can benefit from other religions without giving up the one you follow, and others can benefit from your religion without becoming exactly like you. To the Nepali hill caste Hindu nationalist, I would say this: start a campaign to put your own house in order first and only then can you go about criticising conversion.
Exclusivism and Politics
Ian Gibson: In different ways, the basic issue you have raised, Deepak Shimkhada in your post, and Pramod Mishra in your article, is that of whether a religiously exclusivist, conversion-oriented faith such as Nepali Pentecostalism can ever coexist peacefully with other religions, and whether, in the long run, the growth of such faiths is a recipe for social breakdown and political strife.
I think this is a very reasonable concern, and one that’s widely shared as exclusivism seems to be growing among all of the world’s major religions, probably as a response to the various dislocations brought about by capitalist globalization, as discussed in previous posts. It’s undeniably true that these religious forms can disrupt relations within families and communities (I’ve mentioned the ruptures in families conversion often causes in Nepal) and are also frequently associated with violence (ISIS, Hindutva, George W. Bush’s crusader-like evangelicalism etc).
I think it’s also clear, though, that religious exclusivism doesn’t inevitably lead to the breakdown of societies, and that in certain manifestations it can actually serve as a spur to the growth of pluralist democracies and functioning civil societies. This is the argument of the Pentecostal theologian and social theorist Miroslav Volf in his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. He points to two features of exclusivist religion that can give it a surprising affinity with political pluralism.
First, he points out that because exclusivist religious groups tend to make significant demands on the time and emotional commitment of their members, they are not at all suited to becoming ‘society-wide’ religions, such as were, say, Catholicism in medieval Europe or Hinduism in 19th century Nepal (that is, religions that order the whole of society, even if not everyone adheres to them). Consequently, religious exclusivists often find themselves as minorities, and so tend in the long-run to flourish best within pluralist political systems that guarantee freedom of religion and separate church from state. He raised the example of the connections between zealous Puritanism and the growth of freedom of conscience guarantees in the early United States.
Second, he argues that the kinds of practices some exclusivist religious groups encourage – regular participation in group activities, promotion literacy and articulacy through reading of holy texts and speaking in public, giving of leadership roles to previously excluded groups – may in fact cultivate ‘democratic virtues’ which are useful to the formation of functioning civil societies and democratic publics. David Martin (see Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America) has made an analogous argument about the connections between Pentecostalism and democratization in Latin America.
In Nepal, I think there are reasons to be hopeful about the effects the growth of Christianity will have on society as a whole. For a start, as I pointed out previously, their theology is highly pacifistic as well as being exclusivist, so they are not at all prone to political violence. Though there are undoubtedly some, as you point out Deepak Shimkhada, who speak of making Nepal a ‘Christian nation’ (though no one speaks of doing this by force), there are also others, particularly among leaders and more educated Christians, who are beginning to realize that as Christianity grows it will have to come to accommodations with society at large, and forge alliances with other religious minorities. I think, for instance, of K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Nepal (NCCN), who has worked for years to foster inter-religious dialogue, or Ramesh Khatry, director of Nepal’s Association of Theological Education, who finds common cause with Buddhists in the promotion of secularism. As time goes on, and it becomes clear that not everyone, or even a majority of Nepalis are likely to become Christian, more and more Nepali Christians will likely adopt these types of accomodationist stances.
I think there are a number of things that can be done on all sides to ensure that the growth of Christianity remains peaceful and does not destabilize Nepali society at large.
1) Work to promote continuing education among Nepal’s leaders and pastors, including education about Nepal’s history and culture, the relationships between Christianity and various political systems, and the experiences of Christians in other parts of the world as they deal with political and social challenges. This is one area in which I think international missionary connections can be useful to Nepali Christians. I once went to a Lausanne Movement conference in Malaysia that included both Nepali Christians and Christians from all over Asia (as well as some Western missionaries), and saw there very productive discussions about pluralism and accommodation between religious groups. I’ve also spent some time around Nepali seminary education, for instance at the Himalayan Graduate School of Theology in Sanepa, and I can confirm that the teaching in these schools often tends towards a fairly moderate and pragmatic approach to political involvement and inter-community relations.
2) Encourage ordinary Christians to participate as fully as possible in social and civil society activities. For example, while Christians cannot participate in every aspect of a ritual like bhai tika, they can, for instance, visit their siblings, give them presents and show other signs of love and affection on this day. Things like this do a great amount to repair relationships within families, showing that Christians still value and respect their relatives, and want to live alongside them in harmony. There are increasing trends towards the encouragement of adapted forms of participation such as this in major Hindu/Buddhist festivals and holy days, as there are many aspects of these events which can be seen as ‘social’ rather than ‘religious’. Churches need to foster developments like these, and reflect on specific ways that believers can show respect and affection for their families and communities. (Ole Kircheiner has recently published a book on this topic.)
3) Promote a moderate and pluralist form of patriotism among Christians. Because Christians are often accused of adhering to a ‘bideshi dharma’, there is frequently a fair amount of emphasis on patriotism in churches and at church gatherings. I saw Nepali flags in quite a lot of churches, and heard the national anthem (which of course celebrates pluralism) sung during church services and at church events. Quite a number of Christians spoke to me about their pride in being Nepalis, and many in fact share the same nationalist concerns (for example about the domination of India) as other Nepalis. This ‘civic patriotism’ could be strengthened by increasing education of church leaders on questions like the theology of the relationship between church and state, the functioning of liberal democracies, and the history of national, ethnic and religious conflicts.
For pluralist minded scholars/journalists/others in Nepal who are sympathetic towards secularism but also concerned about some aspects of Christianity:
1) By all means (as you do Pramod Mishra in your article, and you do Deepak Shimkhada in your post) strongly criticize those missionaries who engage in manipulative practices or who make an inappropriate link between social assistance and evangelization. In Nepal, such people would be violating the terms of their visas and so could be asked to leave the country. However, when you make such criticisms please also make clear (unless you have evidence to the contrary) that the major missionary groups – INF, UMN, and the Catholics – do not engage in practices like this, and in fact help many people in Nepal regardless of religion. Please also make clear (as you do in your article Pramod Mishra) that the great majority of Nepalis who become Christians do not do so because of missionaries or missionary money – it’s very important to make this point because the idea that Christianity is a ‘dollar khane dharma’ etc is routinely used as justification for violence and exclusion both on a community and political level. Finally, I would encourage public intellectuals, human rights advocates etc to treat the persecution of Christians as seriously as they would treat abuses against any other disadvantaged group.
2) As you point out in your article Dr Mishra, and you also suggest Jan Sacherer, if Nepali society could ‘put its own house in order’ with relation to issues like poverty, inadequate schooling and medical care, caste and gender exclusion etc then there might be fewer conversions to Christianity, or at least those who did convert would likely feel less hostile towards their former religion. Of course, this is much easier said than done, and all groups in Nepali society need to work towards this. There does seem to be an increasing trend in Nepali churches to engage in social service activity – I’m thinking for instance of a church-based old people’s home I saw in Banepa, or another church that took in orphans from its village. (This is an increasing trend within global Pentecostalism – see Miller and Yamamori’s Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement.) Perhaps secular/Buddhist/Hindu and Christian groups could collaborate on social service work, as this is a ‘religiously neutral’ activity.
3) Engage in dialogue with Christian leaders and intellectuals, in order to foster mutual understanding, as well as cooperation on common issues of concern like secularism. There are various groups promoting such dialogue, like K.B. Rokaya’s NCCN. I think it’s in the common interest of the educated middle class, Buddhist and janajati groups, and also Christians to form a united front for a secular and pluralist system, as the Hindutva extremists who want to impose their ideas on society by force are a threat to all of these groups. Nepali Christians may be exclusivist theologically, but they don’t want to impose their views by force or through state power. As we’ve seen in India, it’s a matter of ‘first they came for the Muslims, then they came for the Christians, then they came for the secular intellectuals…’
I think that’s enough writing for now!
Thupten Lama: I think the discussion (though interesting) is going off the point even though at times it may be remotely related. As far as I see it, plainly, the issue that is unsettling here is whether proselytization is a right thing to do on moral grounds (in religious terms aren’t you committing a sin in itself and more so adding to it by covering it up with a lie saying you aren’t doing that) in the context that it is being done in Nepal on a selective basis targeting the most vulnerable groups using highly exploitative and deceptive methods and tactics which OBLIGE the recipients of the target group and yet claim it is not being forced but voluntary. Doing all that under the guise of charity work and lying your way through admitting that you are not involved in this business, I think its too much to bear or is lying also OK if it is for a religious cause if so it just adds to the types of lies we have-black like, white lie, religious lie etc.
As far as I am concerned even though Nepal has progressed itself from a Hindu state to a secular state it still does not legally permit proselytization of any faith not just Christianity. So the crux of the matter is the methods and tactics opted for needs to be changed and the Jesuits have been very good on this and made significant advances. They do not proselytize (they used to in the past but that is the past, they have learned for the better). By the way I myself was educated by Canadian Jesuit Missionaries and I think it was grade 4 or 5 in which we had the Bible as our part of our English literature curriculum. In my school we had a separate room where the Jesuits had on the walls the pictures of religious leaders of all faiths and everyone was free to pray according to their own faith. It was not compulsory to attend Chapel except those who were Christians and all the brothers of the Nepalese Royal family and the former King of Bhutan too receive their elementary education from this mission school. You see there it goes. But they do promote Christianity in a subtle way with their development/charity work and there is a whole world of a difference here. They expose the Christian religion and we in the school got a detailed and thorough exposure to the Bible which for me simply turned out to be one interesting and fascinating story. Anyone can expose any religion to anybody and for that matter it is not illegal its just like any business that promotes their products to sell in different markets using different marketing strategies but then no business can coerce or force you to buy their products. The Jesuits who all have been very successful in the education sector do just that- they promote their faith. They do not exploit by making it obligatory. Then its up to the targeted audience to choose voluntarily whichever faith they find more accommodating according to their needs. But using a highly exploitative method and carrot to induce or attract conversion through obligatory methods is unfair practice and as good as emotional black mail.
The discussion seems to be drifting into christian religion. I think we should not digress into theology and stick to the point. Frankly speaking I too thought this discussion was going to be over soon and I had earlier pulled out of the discussion simply because I felt this isn’t the appropriate platform to discuss it thoroughly.
Deepak Shimkhada: Dr. Gibson, your advocacy for the spread of Christianity in Nepal is not surprising. Although tacitly stated, you imply that Nepal’s Hindu society didn’t cater to the needs of the poor or the religious minorities; hence, the time was ripe with the opportunity for minorities to abandon Hinduism in favor of Christianity. I, too, feel that there was a vacuum or fissure created, which the Christian missionaries took advantage of.
You wrote, “In Nepal, I think there are reasons to be hopeful about the effects the growth of Christianity will have on society as a whole. For a start, as I pointed out previously, their theology is highly pacifistic as well as being exclusivist, so they are not at all prone to political violence.” Today, no religious minority will even think of attempting to change society by force. Many minorities throughout the world, including the Maoists in Nepal, are using violence to achieve political change. Religious movements can be achieved through subversion, though. In my opinion, Nepali Christians—a brand of Pentecostalism—are resorting to a peaceful and yet subversive method to slowly convert the minorities. One day, these minorities may become a formidable voice for social and political change. I am reminded of a story:
A woman had a python for a pet. She loved him, cared for him, and slept with him as though he was her lover. One day the python suddenly stopped eating and cuddling with her. Concerned that something terribly was wrong with him, she took him to the veterinarian. After examining the reptile, the doctor pronounced, “There’s nothing wrong with him.” “Then why did he stop eating and cuddling with me?” the woman asked. “Well,” the doctor continued, “He is making enough room in his belly. He was all along sizing you up by cuddling with you. Now that he has sized you up, it’s only a matter of time.”
Pramod Mishra: Deepak Shimkhada’s story above reveals the fears many caste Hindus have in Nepal. One may call it paranoia about something that’s still in the distant future but when scholars like Ian Gibson do everything not only persuasively to argue that Christianity fills in the void left for long by exploitative, discriminating hill caste Hindu state and that other psychological factors, too, count in the mix but also unconvincingly hesitate at best and refuse to acknowledge at worst that certain aggressive brands of evangelists do have theological hostility and use them effectively against other religions where they proselytize while keeping silent about the historical and theological flaws in their own religions and such hostile indoctrination may have adverse consequences in the society in which it is happening, then it may become advocacy rather than scholarship. I have no problem with that if it is recognized as such. Ian did at first mention that it may sound paradoxical that these aggressive evangelical churches possess theological hostility and pacifism in practice. But to not explore the historical circumstances behind this paradox would not explain fully the lived past, continuing present and possible future. When Ian cites the Pentecostal scholar’s argument about Protestantism spreading democracy in Latin America and endorses the argument for a country like Nepal, he ignores the specificities of the two situations. Latin America is Catholic and Nepal is majority Hindu/Buddhist. After Vatican II, Catholicism as an institution officially adopted the principle and practice of reconciliation with other denominations as well as other non-Christian faith traditions to work with them rather than against them in an interfaith understanding. So, Latin American Catholics would approach evangelists in the spirit of reconciliation and evangelists, even though preaching their denominational superiority, won’t be hostile to the Christianity of Catholicism itself that would occur in the case of Hindu/Buddhists. Hindu/Buddhists would retaliate if demonized and for aggressive evangelists, Hindu/Buddhist faiths are no faiths or at best inferior faiths and at worst idolatry or even heathenism. Doesn’t history history of the last five hundred years tell us so? What has changed in the theological structure and ideology of these aggressive evangelical churches, as it did in Vatican II, for example, to make us believe otherwise?
In Nepal, Jesuit missionaries have served with their mission since the 1950s or so and spread education and have received high respect from mainstream society. In fact, in many Catholic educational institutions, such as the Lasallian ones, such as mine, there is a clear adoption of the ecumenical approach and of the university campus as a “sanctified zone,” a place/space where people of all faiths, races, colors, genders and orientations must be accorded respect and dignity due to any human being. Violation of the sanctified zone would amount to violation of the university’s mission. Now, if the evangelists officially adopt a similar institutional principle/resolution, I would applaud their service to the poor and the suffering and defend their work. But at the moment their detractors may argue, and they would have valid reasons, that their tactical pacifism is only a tactic because they don’t have enough numbers, and once they have enough numbers or gain majority, their theological hostility will gain priority, as Professor Deepak Simkhada illustrates through the python story.
So, I suppose, we need critique and critical thinking here more than advocacy, ruthless critical, historically informed examination of texts/arguments and contexts rather than rationalization of one theological supremacy or another. Both Hinduism and Hindu state with their majority and national power and evangelical Christianity that represent global power need to be subjected to rigorous critique without dismissing their positive aspects. That’s our obligation as scholars. Nothing less would do.
Deepak Shimkhada: Well said, Professor Mishra. Couldn’t agree more.
Ian Gibson: Pramod Mishra I think this discussion has probably gone as far as it can go at this stage without me simply repeating things or referring to more extended scholarship, so I’ll probably leave my contribution at that, other than a couple of responses here, unless there seems to be a strong need to write more. The main thing I’d like to respond to are the charges that I “unconvincingly hesitate at best and refuse to acknowledge at worst that certain aggressive brands of evangelists do have theological hostility and use them effectively against other religions”, that I “[keep] silent about the historical and theological flaws in [my] own religions and such hostile indoctrination may have adverse consequences in the society in which it is happening”, and that my work is “advocacy rather than scholarship”.
In a number of places in the posts above, I have acknowledged that Christians have been responsible for many terrible things throughout history, and indeed in the present. I also write very critically about the activities of the more aggressive missionary groups. The reason I’ve focused more on other aspects of the Nepali Christian experience is that there are plently of people on this forum who are capable of providing such critiques, but there are few who have extensive experience in Nepali Christian communities; the role I can play is to let people know about the perspectives and motivations of Nepali Christians (about which most people here are uninformed), and about the diversities and complexities within the Nepali Christian community – this is what I have tried to do.
Obviously, if I was able to write at more length here, I could provide fuller historical contextualization etc of the various theologies and movements discussed – I would encourage you to read my book, forthcoming article etc before concluding that my work is advocacy rather than scholarship. I received my doctorate from a secular anthropology department (Oxford) – it would not have passed if it was just a work of partisan Christian advocacy. By all means offer the kind of historically informed critical thinking you mention with regard to Christianity – but please make sure that it is based on a factual understanding of the lives of Nepali Christians, rather than just on abstract assumptions drawn from historical parallels.
You ask, “What has changed in the theological structure and ideology of these aggressive evangelical churches, as it did in Vatican II, for example, to make us believe otherwise?” There were in fact very significant changes in evangelical missiology over the course of the 20th century, which are analogous to the changes that have taken place in Catholicism. It’s not possible to give a full description of these changes here, but the key text in these developments, which both described them and pushed them forward, was David Bosch‘s highly influential Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in the Theology of Mission. These changes consisted in ideas such as that of ‘Missio Dei‘, which extends the concept of mission beyond conversion and church growth towards a more holistic concept including social justice work and the activity of God through people in any culture, ‘Integral Mission‘, a similar idea to the former but including a greater emphasis on evangelization, and ‘contextual theology‘, which rejects theologies identifying Western culture with Christianity and questions the unequal power dynamics that often exist between missionaries and those whom they work with.
Obviously, evangelical theology is less centralized than Catholic theology, so there is more diversity among evangelical missionaries than there is among Catholic ones. But significant numbers of evangelical missionaries, including many in Nepal, have been strongly influenced by the liberalizing trends I have described. As I have described repeatedly above, the projects run by UMN and INF in Nepal represent precisely the kind of “sanctified zone” you mention- “a place/space where people of all faiths, races, colors, genders and orientations must be accorded respect and dignity due to any human being” – and with no proselytism. If you visited an INF or UMN hospital in Nepal, or spoke with a medical missionary from one of these organizations, you would find missionaries for these organizations are much more thoughtful and culturally sensitive people than you seem to expect.
Admittedly, there are also evangelical missionary groups who have not been significantly influenced by liberalizing trends within missiology, and they are also represented in Nepal. It is these groups that invariably appear in newspaper articles. As I have argued in previous posts, these groups are a minority among missionaries working in Nepal, and are not numerous enough to have any significant impact on most Nepali Christians. My claims with relation to all of this are based on direct research within churches and among missionary groups.
Finally, Pramod – your points about the differences between Nepal and Latin American are very valid. I was simply drawing the limited parrallel that some of the skills people learn in churches – eg literacy – are likely to be useful in civil society.
Pramod Mishra: Ian Gibson, I look forward to reading your book and articles.
David Seddon: This is a really fascinating discussion. I hope it will be possible to consider why there is so much evident concern among many Nepalis about a) conversion and b) the role of foreign missions/churches. Is it really an anti-imperialist stance disgised as a concern about religion or is it really a theological issue?
Jan Sacherer: Theologically, there is no religion more flexible than Hinduism. Worship of rocks, trees, animals, local goddesses, and the Buddha, as well as the invisible unitary Almighty are all acceptable. In fact, Hindu temples in the west often emphasize that Jesus was another incarnation of Vishnu. Therefore I believe the issue is one of political power and privilege. —– In a more practical light, I have often been asked in rural Nepal in recent years if my country has caste and then the perceptive question, “If you don’t have caste, who does the dirty work in your society?”. —– Certainly this question is one to make an American in particular, ponder the role of certain ethnic and racial groups in relation to “white privilege” in our own society, the human desire to have an advantage over others whether in the name of ethnicity or religion, and whether and how things can ever be evened out, especially in a multicultural, multi ethnic society. The answer also always involves capitalism in some form or other, whether through higher wages for dirty work or the mechanization of same. Needless to say, I have had many fascinating conversations along these lines with Nepalese villagers both educated and illiterate.
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