The myth of charity and paid conversion in India

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“We reckon that no evil can be done to us unless we be convicted as evildoers or be proved to be wicked men; and you, you can kill, but not hurt us” — Justin Martyr (First Apology).

Disturbing news emerged from New Delhi, the capital of India, a few weeks ago, where Hindutva vigilante groups barged into a prayer gathering at the Siyyon Prarthna Bhawan with shouts of “Jai Shree Ram,” beating up the believers, which included several women. The attackers alleged that the Christians were attempting religious conversion. Such incidents have been on a steady rise for the last few years and now have become a norm in most parts of the country.

Looking at these attacks closely, one cannot but observe a clear and distinct pattern — that they are elaborately planned and executed with the support of the local authorities. An often-peddled narrative by the attackers is that Christians are coercively converting gullible and poor Hindus. Over the last few years, various state governments supported by right-wing organizations have vouched for and successfully implemented stringent anti-conversion laws.

The whole stigmatization of religious conversions as something to be controlled and penalized rides on a large-scale perception that conversions are, generally, “forced and fraudulent.” This begs the question as to whether forced or fraudulent conversions are as frequent as some might want us to believe. While conversions are not a phenomenon that's exclusive to any particular religion, the right-wing activism against conversions has been explicitly aimed at Christian missionary work and social action. Beyond the evening news debates and courthouse rhetoric, there has been an alarming increase in mob violence against Christians in recent times, particularly during occasions like Christmas and Easter. This parallel Hindutva vigilantism on the streets speaks of a highly organized and coordinated effort to oppress and otherwise an entire community.

According to the United Christian Forum (UCF) based in the national capital New Delhi, the growth in recorded incidents of anti-Christian violence is increasing “not just year-on-year, but even month-on-month.”  As per data compiled by UCF through its helpline, a total of 511 incidents were reported as of November 21 last year. Practicing one’s religion is a guaranteed right as per India's Constitution, but the war against religious conversion and the way that it is currently played out restricts Christians from exercising this fundamental right. While hearing the plea seeking directions against “forced” religious conversion, last December, the Supreme Court bench, comprising of Justices M.R. Shah and C.T. Ravikumar, remarked that “the purpose of charity should not be conversion. Every charity or good work is welcome, but what is required to be considered is the intention.” The Court’s remark here in many ways is a reflection of the manufactured perception around charity and fails to understand its theological basis.

Charity: A means to convert?

In Christian thought, charity is not merely doing good works for the sake of a heavenly reward, but rather it is a reflection of God’s love and character. The whole of mankind, created in God’s image, is bestowed with equal worth and dignity. The influential medieval theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, brilliantly put it this way: “The aspect under which our neighbor is to be loved is God since what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God. Hence it is clear that it is specifically the same act whereby we love God, and whereby we love our neighbor. Consequently, the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God but also to the love of our neighbor.”

In the New Testament, the Apostle James emphasizes the importance of giving to the poor, he proclaims that "faith without action is dead". The virtue of charity is something that every devout Christian must demonstrate. Thousands of missionary-run schools, educational institutes, and hospitals are the product of Christian charity and social action. If the purpose of charity were to convert, then these institutions would have actualized the goal long ago.

Having said that, the Christian who engages in charity also wills that the Gospel is communicated through his works and words. Why? Because, in the Christian worldview, the greatest good that you can impart to your neighbor is the salvation of his soul. The act of charity itself seeks nothing in return — it is selfless by definition. However, the very Christian conviction that propels a believer to engage in charity moves him, even more, to share the very joy and eternal security that he enjoys in Christ. To care for the needy and supply his material needs is good, but to care for his spiritual needs is even greater. For as Christ says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?”

Christian history is rich with examples of men and women who sacrificed their well-being, traveling to hostile settings to proclaim the love of Christ. Whether one likes it or not, along with social action, they preached the Gospel which played a pivotal role in transforming mankind for the better. The whole idea can be summed up in a simple age-old motto “soap, soup and salvation.”

Paid conversion: An unfalsifiable charge?

The Constitution of India guarantees the “freedom of thought and expression” as a fundamental right. Now let's consider a hypothetical but certainly possible scenario: A Christian who practices charity shares his religious convictions with his neighbor, who in turn, gets convinced of the Christian faith and chooses to convert. Both the persuader and the persuaded are merely exercising their constitutional, fundamental rights. An external party could allege and falsely implicate the Christian for “paid” conversion — because charity done from a Christian point of view can be interpreted as allurement from the accuser's perspective.

Out of 28 Indian states, 12 have enacted anti-conversion bills. These laws primarily share three common aspects: prohibitions on conversions, notification requirements to the government, and burden-shifting provisions that automatically presume guilt. In the Karnataka (now repealed) and Uttarakhand bill against religious conversion, which was later passed as law, the section titled “burden of proof” states that the burden of proof as to whether a religious conversion was not effected through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, lies on the person who has caused the conversion and on the abettor who aids or abets such conversion. The burden to prove one’s innocence solely rests on the person who “caused the conversion.”

Firstly, as shown in the above scenario, it is quite a tricky affair. Secondly, there is a fundamental difference between genuinely caring for the poor and the destitute, and systematically and coercively deceiving them. To orchestrate evidence to prove the myth of paid conversion, the Hindutva faction often cites and interprets examples of Christian charity and social welfare programs as allurement. Witnessing the urgency at which such bills are being championed, gives us the impression that conversion by fraudulent means is rampantly rising and is a serious 'national' threat. However, data proves otherwise. Out of 79 cases registered against pastors in the country alleging their involvement in religious conversion activities, not a single case has been proved in court so far.

If we were to take a look at the anti-conversion bill passed last year in Karnataka or the Uttarakhand bill passed in 2018, the term allurement envelopes a list of activities including offering any gift, gratification, easy money or material benefit, promise to marry, divine pleasure, portraying practice, rituals and ceremonies or an integral part of a religion in a detrimental way vis-à-vis another religion. Similar bills passed throughout other states in the country resemble analogous interesting phrases and a point to be noted here is that assuming such a definition would indeed require most of the prominent yogis and gurus throughout our country to be booked for alluring the masses by portraying practices such as yoga, kundalini meditation, alternative medicines to have health, financial and material benefits. Why should “allurement” be applied only in the context of Christian conversion?

In a country where elected representatives are “allured” to change political camps, where a million gods and goddesses are “allured” daily with money, food and sacrifices so as to shower blessings and bring good fortune — why is it that charity is labeled as allurement when it comes to religion? To misrepresent the Christian virtue of charity and to use it as a tool to attack Christians and curb their religious freedom on the pretext of implementing law and order is simply an authoritarian and anti-democratic act of state violence.

Ashish John is actively involved in ministering in India, especially with youth and local churches. Along with a few like-minded brothers, he founded Carpenter's Desk. He also work voluntarily with Inter Collegiate Prayer Fellowship. His  interests mainly include the philosophy and history of science, missionary activities, and religious conversion in the current socio-cultural scenario. Apart from apologetics, he also teach physics at a high school. He enjoys playing cricket and love engaging in great conversations.

Courtesy of The Christian Post.