Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Success and Failure in Conversion Narratives (1)

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Success and Failure in Conversion Narratives (1)

Article excerpt

Introduction

Debates about conversion and proselytism have been gaining momentum around the globe in recent years. This is happening for several reasons but especially because the number of new constitutional democracies that have been created in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America during the last two decades are more than matched by the number of civil wars that have shaken and destabilized states undergoing acute transition in the same period. The modern human rights revolution and the outburst of violent conflicts on religious grounds are taking place simultaneously; indeed, in many places they are interconnected. In other words, "Human rights are as much the problem as they are the solution in a number of current religious and cultural conflicts," (2) and "democratization and economic liberalization often provide the conditions for increased religious pluralization and proselytization activities". (3) Religions and obscure cults that authoritarian regimes have suppressed in the past have taken advantage of the religious freedom newly guaranteed in these states to develop a vigorous life. In addition, evangelicals and Pentecostals, as well as relatively new religious groups such as Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses, have entered the scene and contributed to the development of a climate of competition and strife. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a veritable 'war for souls' was launched in Eastern Europe and other regions, and it provoked deep social and ideological conflicts. In this explosive atmosphere, "rival religious communities have begun actively to defame and demonize each other, and to gather themselves into ever more dogmatic and fundamentalist strands. The ecumenical spirit of the previous decades is giving way to sharp new forms of religious balkanization." (4)

Traditional religious communities and majority religions have frequently urged the state to pass anti-proselytism laws after a few years of such turmoil. In doing so, Eastern European, African and Latin American countries have developed a legal culture that tends to give protection to some religious communities and oppress others. (5) In India, anti-conversion laws have been passed mainly but not exclusively in states ruled by Hindu fundamentalists. (6) While it is not regarded as an offence in India to convert to Hinduism, leaving Hinduism for Buddhism, Islam or Christianity is severely controlled under such laws and is often hindered or even punished. Some converts come under scrutiny and have to prove that they have not been given material inducements to change their religious affiliation. (7)

This situation has triggered a debate among members of different religious communities about the rights and wrongs of missionary outreach that aims at conversion. Opponents usually refer to missionary outreach in this sense by the pejorative term of proselytism, or proselytization. Urgent questions are arising. How can ethically acceptable means of missionary outreach be distinguished from unethical proselytization? (8) Should changes of religious affiliation be avoided altogether for the sake of religious peace? Such issues specifically challenge Christianity. What are the key Christian insights regarding human rights in general and, in particular, the right to make disciples (Matt. 28:19f) and seek adherents among members of other faith communities? How does the implementation of the "Great Commission" affect the objective and modalities of interreligious dialogue, and undermine the encounter with people of other faiths?

There are also questions that can legitimately be posed to people on the other side of such confrontations. Are not many of the accusations that Christians proselytise with unethical means groundless insinuations and propaganda? If, for example, members of a specific Christian group dedicate themselves to care for the poor, the sick, prisoners and outcasts ignored by their co-religionists, is that really a case of inducement to conversion by unethical means? …

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