Debate on ethics and religion: violence and religious proselytism

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Minister of Outreach) of the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

In 2005, I undertook a speaking (and listening) tour in 4 states of India with a strong Christian majority. Many of these expressions of Christianity were fundamentalist / Pentecostal. While there is no doubt that some people have converted from honest religious experience, I have learned that many efforts of evangelical organizations are duplicity and unethical. Yes, this colonialist mindset of “saving” the poor black people of India inspired the violence. An important element of my lectures focused on meeting this Western juggernaut with a Gandhian sense of peaceful resistance. This conflict will not be resolved by burning churches or attacking missionaries. But I understand the frustration that inspires some of the heinous acts committed in response.

Groups like Mission India of Grand Rapids used very offensive language to promote their message of salvation. They describe Hinduism as a religion completely devoid of charity, compassion or a sense of duty. And it’s important to note that the World Council of Churches condemned these brutal practices. Having said that, I understand that asking an evangelical Christian to refrain from attempts at conversion is like asking a Muslim not to fast during Ramadan. It is an integral part of their faith. But I hope that one day all missionary organizations will follow the appropriate guidelines set out by the WCC.

Reverend Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

Ending the practice can reduce religious violence. But is it possible? All religions and political ideologies have groups within them who are convinced that theirs is the only true faith and that all others are false. This arrogance leads people to hate and believe that God hates whom they hate. If their god hates whom they hate, then unbelievers should be proselytes. Violence against those who do not comply often follows. Those who commit violence believe they are acting with God’s blessing.

Proselytism is violence. It is an act of pride rather than love. Pride is a disorderly faith that centers on the believer’s trust in his knowledge of the will of God. It is the mistaken belief that their religion is the only bearer of truth and that others cannot be true and worthy of honor and respect either. It is not to honor people created in the image of God, worthy of respect and dignity. Proselytizing reduces people to things to be conquered.

In other words, proselytizing is a sin. Sin is an unhappy reality of the human condition. Love is the cure for this condition. Love does not proselytize. Love invites, accompanies and shares directly with the loved one.

Linda Knieriemen, senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Holland, replies:

First, I understand a difference between “proselytizing” and “evangelizing” or sharing the faith. If proselytizing includes coercion or forced conversation, violence is more likely to come into play. A bigger cause of religious violence, I believe, results from fanaticism and extremism. The risk of inter-religious violence decreases increasing dialogue allowing for growth in understanding, mutual respect and peace.

Father Kevin Niehoff, OP, a Dominican priest who serves as judicial vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

Without an exact reference to the article in the question (an Internet search using the above information provided no help), it is difficult to answer a “general” question. Therefore, the word “proselytizing” in the question is a forced conversion to a specific religious tradition. There are other meanings of ‘proselytizing!’

In the tradition of the Roman Catholic faith, a sincere conversion consists of two elements that work in unison. First, the individual must show humility in recognizing the presence of sin in his own life. The humble acceptance of sin necessarily brings about the second element, which is the realization that God is merciful in forgiving sins. Only this will lead to a real change of heart.

How to stop the practice of religious proselytism is the crux of the matter? The United Nations has created a document called, Action plan for religious leaders and actors to prevent incitement to violence that could lead to atrocious crimes. Changing the hearts of human beings is the only way to reduce religious violence.

My answer:

I will rely on my colleague Fred Stella’s report that aggressive proselytizing led to violence. However, I am not convinced that this is the main source of violence. It seems to me that the majority of religious violence in the world is rooted in the idea that you are from the wrong ethnic tribe or that you are not indigenous to that region and my sense of religiosity therefore believes that I have the right to expel you by force. It is not clear that the ultimate goal is conversion. Another significant part of religious violence is committed against women whose practice does not match that of religious leaders. They are not asked to convert in themselves, but to adhere to a narrower and more restrictive definition of the religion to which they are already affiliated.

This column answers questions of ethics and religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We would love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that arise during your day as well as any religious questions that you have. Tell us how you solved an ethical dilemma and see how the members of the Ethics and Religion panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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