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Mr Joseph Vempeny Posted on : 04/02/2008 07:00:41

Conversion

CONVERSION OR CHANGE OF LABEL

Josweph Vempeny

“It is enough that man be good, whatever his religion.” Narayana Guru

Missionary Religions

Founders of some of the religions asked their followers to go out and spread their teaching and convert people to the new religion or new way of life. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are the three major missionary religions. The teachings of these masters brought a new way of life to the regions where the word had spread. Buddhism originated in one corner of India, spread throughout the length and breadth of India and then through the whole of Asia. Christianity and Islam with origins in West Asia also have spread through various regions of the world.

Christianity brought the concept of one true God, the creator of the universe, to the people who lived around the Mediterranean, those whose religious practices were steeped in mythology, in polytheistic customs and practices commonly described as pagan. By the end of the first millennium A.D. all of Europe had been converted to Christianity. While Christianity had spread from around Jordan or Galilee across the Mediterranean to North Africa and Western Europe why was the gospel not preached to the next-door neighbours, to the people of Arabia, to the children of Ismail? Did not one of the twelve apostles or one of the hundred or so other disciples go to spread the good news in Arabia? I think that there was such an attempt and that one of the twelve; Thomas had gone to Arabia with the intention of preaching the gospel and converting those people to Christianity. A possible scenario of what could have happened could be explained something like this: It is a generally accepted fact that St. Thomas, one of the twelve, came to India, landed in Kodungalloor on the south-east coast and that after establishing some congregations in Kerala and elsewhere in the south he was martyred in Chennai on the south-west coast. The question of how and why he came all the way from Judea to Kerala some two thousand years ago has always puzzled me, as I am sure it has puzzled many others. And now I think that this is what could have happened. Thomas went to Arabia and started preaching this new rather revolutionary idea as taught by Christ. The religious and socio-political leaders of the time found this rather harmful to their established comfortable lifestyle. What would normally happen in such case is assassination or martyrdom. But the Arabs didn’t go that far. Those were the times when the Arabs were having trade with the spice land of southeastern India by ships or boats. So they took Thomas, put him in one such boat and ‘took him for a ride’. This is the most likely explanation for Thomas landing in Kodungalloor. So instead of preaching Christianity to the Arabs, as he was supposed to do, he took it to the Hindus.

Conversion of Christianity:

Thousand years is a very long time in which so much can happen. What happened in the case of Christianity in Europe was that many of the teachings of Jesus were forgotten. The emphasis was shifted from spirituality to religiosity, from the man-centred view of Christ to a God-centred view. Whereas Christ stood for the rights of the poor, the representatives of Christ in Europe stood for the feudal lords and supported the exploitation of the poor by the rich. In other words, during the first half of the second millennium Europe successfully converted Christianity to European materialism. It was this state of affairs that led to the splintering of the Christian church to various denominations and groups.

Conversion of Colonies

Though Christians had forgotten most of the teachings of Christ they held on to one idea. Every one had to be baptised and thus ‘saved’. In South America the Spaniards plundered and looted villages and towns for the gold and other precious stuff abundant there. For the success of this venture it was necessary to shoot and kill most of the inhabitants who did not have the gun. It is said that they then baptised the remaining population and taught them the principles of the catholic faith. The case of the rest of the Americas and Australia was not very different. I think that the perpetrators of this genocide considered themselves as doing a good deed for their country and God by reducing the number of ‘heathens’ and increasing the number of ‘believers’.

Billy Graham, the evangelist, was once addressing a group of American missionaries ready to depart to China. He told them, “The greatest commandment is not to baptize the nations but to love one another. Please remember this always.” Most missionaries considered that their prime duty was to baptise as many non-Christians as they could. What these missionaries achieved was a change of label - heathen to Christian. Conversion was not in the agenda of their missionary schedule. Conversion in the true sense implies a total renewal, a change of attitude – turning away from the old ways to new ways of the kingdom, ways of love and happiness.

Pearl Buck the novelist grew up in China as the daughter of an American missionary. Her father had succeeded in converting many Chinese and had quite a congregation. Pearl reports of a conversation with him where he wonders if he had done any good at all. According to him those who were good Chinese before baptism continued to be good after the ‘conversion’ also. Those who were bad before the baptism remained so even after. She then recalls the special case of a person who was a thief before baptism and who later stole from the church coffers. Pearl’s father was one of the few missionaries who noticed the difference between a change of label and conversion.

Voluntary Conversion

Today many people leave their mother church to join another because they have suddenly found out something wrong with their church. They feel proud of the fact that they are not following their parents’ faith blindly but that they had been smart enough to sort out such important problems of life and to make their own correct choice. They rarely recognise the fact that they had been the victims of peer pressure or that they had been converted by others influencing or brain washing them. Such people also feel that the church or group to which they now belong is the perfect church without any problems at all.

While in Lesotho, I entered an office where four of my colleagues and the principal were in a heated argument. Seeing me, they all wanted my opinion on the issue – what to do when you find that there is something wrong with your church; should you or should you not leave the church and join another? My reply satisfied every one but the principal who had recently changed his church. I told them that there are imperfections in all the churches due to the fact that human beings run them. Every church and every religion gives you the same chance of salvation. What is important is not your membership of a church or a group but the way you lead your life. If you find something wrong with your church you can and must try to rectify it from within, by being an active member and leader in it. Talking evil of it from the outside or crossing the floor of religious affiliation as in politics is not the solution.

Gandhi’s Conversion

Bryan, a Canadian missionary in South Africa once told me of an interesting experience he had in the seminary. They were given an assignment to write an essay on ‘The greatest Christian who influenced me’. Bryan made Gandhi the subject of his essay. He supported his choice on the following grounds.

• Gandhi, though never baptised, was a Christian because he lived according to the teachings of Christ.

• He put the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to practice both in his private and public life.

• Gandhi was the one who brought home to Christians the importance of the Sermon on the Mount.

• Gandhi was ‘converted’ to Christianity if you take the word conversion to mean a change of ways instead of a change of label.

For his essay Brian got an F- symbol, the lowest in that batch. If he had chosen Hitler instead of Gandhi, he might have got at least a D, I guess, as Hitler was a ‘Christian’ and he did a ‘good job’ of crushing the Jews who crucified Christ. I agree with Brian that what makes a person a Christian is not just the statistical label but the way the person leads his life. Based on this criteria Gandhi was one of the greatest Christians to walk on this earth. Gandhi’s friends and followers included some European missionaries. One of them asked why he did not accept Christianity as his religion? Gandhi replied in his characteristic way. “Your mother may be more beautiful than my mother. That is no reason for me to leave my mother and accept yours as mine. I love my mother dearly even if she is not as pretty as yours.”

The Way and the Truth

Whenever I talk of the God-fearing people of other religions and that many of them lead a much better life than some Christians, my Christian friends ask me how I understand the words of Christ, ‘I am the Way and the Truth’. My answer to such questions is this: I believe these words of Jesus. But we must take them in the context of space and time. A prophet is a person who, standing on a mountainside, points to you a stream and says that if you go through the stream you will reach the ocean. If you go uphill, against his instruction, you won’t reach the destination. It does not mean that on another mountain another river will not lead you to the ocean. All rivers lead to the same ocean. Even so all religions lead to the same God. Only thing is that you must go down the stream and not upstream against the current.

In conversation with a Muslim Colleague I happened to say that as a child I was taught that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church and that later I found that to be a very wrong view of the other religions. She seemed surprised at my attitude. “But isn’t that what you are supposed to believe?” she asked. “We strongly believe that there is no salvation outside the Islamic faith.” She was serious. In her simplicity she believed that it was the right attitude. She was not worrying her head to ponder if one of us could be wrong and if so which one. This conversation in 1980 made me underscore the insignificance of the ‘label’ of one’s religion. The essence of the teachings of Christ, the Prophet, the Gurus and the masters is the same. It is the golden rule. “Do to others what you want others do to you”. Or, “Love one another”. To be a Christian it is not enough to be baptised. One must live according to the teachings of Christ. A Muslim is not just any one who had been circumcised but one who ‘submits to the will of God’. A person who has not even heard of Christ, but live a life of love and selfless service is a true Christian.

Conversion Today

When my son Siju was doing his engineering degree he was very active in the students’ union and a prayer group. A Hindu friend asked Siju’s advice if he should be converted to Christianity. Siju wrote to me asking for my opinion. I discouraged the idea. “Conversion is necessary,” I wrote, “Not just the Hindus but every one should be converted, not from one religion to another but from one way of life to another better way, from materialistic way to a spiritual way, from religiosity to spirituality. Baptizing or changing the label of a good, God-fearing, Hindu is no conversion at all.”

What percentage of the so-called Christians of Europe and America attend church services even once a year? How many of those who attend church know the teachings of Christ? And how many of them live accordingly? There was a joke that a ‘good’ Christian should be in church on three occasions - for baptism, marriage and funeral. But I suppose this is outdated by now. In those days marriage was only once in your life, but now it is a frequent affair for many in the west. Besides, if you are rich you do not have to go to church to get married. The priest will come to your house or the hall and marry you for the right fee.

The point I am trying to make is that there is a great need for Christians to be converted from the worldly, materialistic way of life to a Christian and spiritual way, from a selfish life of pleasure and greed to a selfless life of love and generosity. Many people have left or neglected their church and religious affiliations due mainly to a void in their lives that could not be filled by their church or pastors and parents. Many of these try to fill this spiritual void in one of several ways, some good, some not so good and some outrightly dangerous. Who is to blame for this state of affairs? I think the problem lies in what I prefer to call unbalanced evolution.

As mentioned earlier, the biological evolution had reached a zenith some 12 000 years ago with the creation of Homo sapiens. But evolution continued in the cultural sense. Over the past few millennia man had been making for himself great advancements in various aspects of his existence. These various fields can be generally put under two heads – material and spiritual – those relating to the body or the soul. All the progress made in the past few centuries was in the material field only. There was no corresponding growth in the spiritual realm. The last one or two decades has seen some progress in the spiritual sphere but nothing comparable to the progress in the scientific sphere. Religious leaders failed to rise to the challenges of the times and to keep pace with the material advancement of humanity. Take the case of Education. In ancient times education meant learning about the eternal truths - about God, soul, eternal life, how to lead a good life. In short the aim of education was wisdom. The masters would impart wisdom to the disciples. This was the case in Ancient India. Later the emphasis shifted from wisdom to knowledge. Schools and universities were there to impart knowledge of all kinds. Today nobody is interested in knowledge even. The sole aim of education today is imparting of skills. In the modern curricula of educational systems various types of skills are mentioned. But they all boil down to one skill - the skill to make money.

Feudal lords used religion to exploit the poor. To redeem the poor from the clutches of the church-state coalition, and to bring the life of the poor up the scale of standard, as Christ would have wished, Marx had to label religion as the opium that blinds man to the realities of life. This was necessary to get the poor away from the clutches of slavery or serfdom. Communism was trying to do to the poor what Christ himself wanted done. It was said that if Christ himself had come and fought for the rights of the poor the church leaders themselves would have crucified him. Even as the Church went far from the teachings of Christ, the communist movement went far from its original ideals, especially under Stalin. The tragic fact of history is that the churches supported capitalism against communism even as it once supported feudalism.

What is required is a thorough reorientation of all religions and churches to fall in line with the changing times. What is needed is very simple. It is enough to remember and put into practice the following simple ideas.

• Religions do not exist for God; they exist for people.

• Religions should teach people to love each other and not to hate, to unite and not to cause division among peoples.

• Spirituality must replace religiosity.

• The realisation that the self of man is not the body but the soul.

• The realisation that the soul of each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and thus all are children of God and your brothers and sisters.

• The realisation that selflessness brings happiness and selfishness misery.

• Learn to be content with what you are and what you have and try to help others less fortunate than you.

The term conversion means a sort of lateral inversion. It means turning around from the old ways and taking new ways, new directions that will lead you to happiness and peace. If you are on the right track what is needed is not conversion or change of direction but further progress along the same path. A Christian must try to be a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Hindu a better Hindu and so on. What is needed is a change of heart, not a change of label.

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