Battling the Christian Missionaries in North East India

Before I begin, let me take care of a few disclaimers. I have known several people in my life who have acted as missionaries to foreign countries. To a person they have been noble, courageous and very dedicated. It must be said that to embark on a career that puts individuals and families in remote corners of the world battling heat, mosquitoes and loneliness takes a level of commitment very few come close to embracing. I also know that there are people who will read this who may be very grateful for having had association with missionaries. Far be it from me to negate your experiences. This is not meant to address all the evangelical activities that ever happened. Many would agree that getting societies to cut back on cannibalism or to shrink a few less heads are worthwhile projects. I only speak of my own experiences in the northeast of India, where 10 years ago I toured 30 cities (towns, villages, etc.) and lectured on the subject of dubious conversion tactics.

I was invited by Vivekananda Kendra, a Hindu organization that is dedicated to the preservation of indigenous religion and culture in India. During this time I spoke to thousands of residents in 4 Indian states (Assam. Nagaland, Meghalaya & Arunachal Pradesh) about the nobility of their traditions and made every attempt to intellectually and spiritually arm them against the work of evangelical Christian missionaries whose methods of conversion are, at times, clearly unethical.

Westerners have always taken for granted that missionary work is an honorable occupation. This notion is born out of a sense of social imperialism. The Euro-American culture has for centuries attempted to make the rest of the world a mirror image of itself. This has often led to the dismantling of functioning societies and broken peoples. A perfect example is how the natives of the Americas (Indians, Hawaiians, Eskimos, etc.) have been decimated by those who came from Europe with a cross in one hand and a sword in another. In attempts to “civilize” American Indians missionaries were exhorted to “beat the Indian” out of their charges in schools if caught speaking their mother tongue.

As many in the missionary trade know, Hindu India has been a very tough nut to crack. Because of its deep philosophical roots, strong families and time honored traditions, evangelical efforts have been met with great resistance. But the Church has found a weak spot in the northeast states of India, which are comprised of many tribal religions that do not identify as Hindu. Historically they have lacked some of the social systems that continue to protect much of the rest of India. Their sense of innocence and hospitality has made them easy fare.  Some churches try to use Vivekananda Kendra’s efforts against them by telling the tribes that VK’s secret goal is to draw the tribals into the Hindu fold. I can attest that this is not the case.

During my time in these states I spoke to several people who bemoaned the presence of missionaries. They told me 1st hand accounts of how pastors would lure their friends and family into the church with medical assistance, education and sometime cold cash. Once members, they were informed that unless they were doing evangelical work they could no longer associate with their “heathen” relatives and companions of their past. All of the sacred dances, songs, rituals and festivals were forbidden as well. This has caused deep rifts in these communities.

In my talks I encouraged them that their traditions were noble and are part of the reason that their societies operate in such cohesive manners. While individuals who have a true conversion of the heart to any religion should be given the respect they deserve, “rice bowl Christians” are losing much more than they gain.

I also told them about the diverse Christian face of America. They were stunned to learn that we have moderate and progressive factions here that have come to believe that God loves people of all religions and doesn’t need them to change the paths of their ancestors. Admittedly, at the moment these strains of Christianity are in the minority; but as more followers of Jesus meet people of other traditions the number is growing. But it is important to note that less extreme sects of the faith now realize that unethical conversion practices are hurting their efforts in their relationship with certain populations around the world. A few years ago the World Council of Churches, in association with other Christian bodies, drafted a document entitled, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” This effort is not flawless. I’m sure many in our fold could find points of disagreement in it. Clearly, the idea that any effort is spent in attracting devotees of one religion into another is something that is foreign to the mature Hindu mind. Again, the concept of one investigating the doctrines of another belief system due to being driven by a spiritual passion is a completely different story.  And the rhetoric that comes out of these organizations that are signatories to this piece often contradicts some of the points made.

In my talks I always encouraged a very Gandhian response to what we at Hindu American Foundation refer to as “predatory proselytization.”  Christianity thrives on martyrdom. Scholars are now discovering that even the stories of severe persecution in ancient Rome were often overblown to encourage people in the faith. We can turn the tide of mass conversion by educating those who are most vulnerable and being the most supportive community we can be.

Here in the West we can be effective by developing relationships with Christians of various stripes and allowing them to discover how Hindu Dharma has enriched our lives and allowed us to thrive, both individually and collectively.  If we touch enough people in this way those who might financially support proselytizing efforts in India may be motivated to think twice before writing that check.

One very telling moment is when I was in Nagaland in a very small village. While I was waiting to begin my lecture I was introduced to an elderly gentleman, whom, I was told, had walked 22 kilometers that day to hear me. I looked into the face of this dear, dear man and spontaneously began to cry. I couldn’t imagine anyone making that effort on my account. Through a translator I asked what possessed him to take such a journey.  He said that when he heard that a Westerner was in the area to say good things about Indian culture he had to see if for his own eyes.

On our way out of that village and onto the next one we gave this dear soul a ride back to his area. On the way we continued to converse. He told me and my team that where he lives there are 3 different tribes. Over the centuries they had always cooperated with each other. But in 95% Christian Nagaland it’s no surprise that most of them had converted. But each tribe was evangelized by a different denomination. Sadly, he said, the tribes no longer cooperate.

Source : MyInd