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Who's afraid of Hindu-Christian dialogue?

By P N Benjamin

NINAN KOSHY'S article, "Towards accommodation with the RSS' (Open Page, The Hindu, Sept. 11) is a classic example of some Christian leaders crying wolf against parleys between leaders of the RSS and the Catholic and Protestant churches in India. They feel left out, marginalised and sidelined by major church formations like the National Christian Council of India (NCCI) and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), which represent the majority of the Indian Christians.

Christians form not more than 3 per cent of the Indian population. Very often they have to depend not so much on their rights as on the goodwill and generosity of powerful majority Hindu community. Christians in India are dependent in a double sense, on the goodwill of the Hindus and on the churches in the West whose fellowship sustains them and whose affluence often supports them. Judging from numbers there is hardly any equality in relationship. But Christians in India can play a creative and critical role in the life of our nation.

The RSS and other Hindutva organisations question the loyalty of the Christian to this country "because during the colonial era Indian Christians were not particularly noted for their patriotism or participation in the struggle for Independence, by contrast to the Christians in Indonesia. Indian Christians as a community are not spiritually rooted in their own culture. As long as this continues — and as long as Western churches promote this dependence — the burden of proving their Indianness and their wholehearted commitment to the life of this nation is very much on the Indian Christians. Dialogue, properly understood and responsibly carried out, might help both Christians and their Hindu neighbours to examine critically the process of Westernisation and its effects on their minds and hearts" (Courage for Dialogue — Stanley Samartha).

Statistical approach

Terms such as "evangelistic campaign," "missionary strategy", "campus crusade," "occupying non-Christian areas," a "blitzkrieg" of missionaries, and sending "reinforcements" sound more appropriate to military enterprises than to Christian witness to God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ. The statistical approach implied in the words "the unreached millions" is derogatory to neighbours of other faiths. "Unreached" by whom? When Indian Christians themselves use these phrases, which have originated outside the country, to describe their neighbours living next door to them in the community, Christians should not be surprised if the neighbours are offended.

"The attitudes Indian Christians have inherited towards neighbours of other faiths were very largely shaped in the colonial era, with Europe dominated history, church-centred theology, and unexamined assumptions of Western superiority in race, culture, and religion. The church in India should give up this posture and should have the courage to reject past errors and seek new ways of relationships with their neighbours. The right to profess, practise and propagate one's faith should be used faithfully and responsibly, not in an aggressive and flamboyant style. Highly organised missionary activities, supported by vast sums of money from abroad, using expensive mass advertising techniques, loudly proclaiming the word to large crowds, quite often by preachers from outside whose knowledge of the people's religion and culture is limited — do these constitute the way of Christ? Our neighbours in the community should be regarded not as statistics but as persons, not as potential recruits to the kingdom but as partners in common enterprises in the community."

Christianity in today's India with a renascent Hinduism faces an unprecedented crisis. If it is alive to the situation and sensitive to the signs of time, it has to rethink itself, reorient itself and rediscover its basic substance and interpret that in terms acceptable to the Indian mind and genius. The CBCI and NCCI have put the right foot forward in this direction by accepting to dialogue with the Hindutva organisations.

To promote dialogue and to encourage reflection on the social, political and religious issues that arise in such encounters we must first of all remove doubts, overcome reluctance and make clear each other's motives.

Undoubtedly, within any religious community, the web of relationship between the human and the divine, between individual freedom and social discipline, between a partial recognition of the meaning of life and a humble acknowledgement of the mystery of existence, is complex, delicate, and fragile.

"Religious commitments go much deeper than intellectual explanations. They touch the total life of the individual and the collective personality of the community. One must tread gently on hallowed ground and be careful not to offend the sensitivities or hurt the emotions of people. The obstacle to dialogue is not so much the absence of a theology of dialogue as a lack of courage to meet partners of other faiths and ideological convictions freely and openly in a climate of openness and freedom." (Samartha).

This is true not just of Christians but of neighbours of other faiths as well. It is the fear of losing one's identity, of being confronted with and perhaps compelled to acknowledge the truth in another camp, of recognising that the stranger at the gate might after all turn out to be a fellow pilgrim — these are the factors, often unconscious or hidden, that prevent many Christians and their neighbours from moving out of a sterile coexistence to a more joyful cooperation with each other.

A brilliant Danish Professor in the United Theological College, Bangalore, made history when he said: "Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists should never give up their religion to join the Christian Church." On the other hand the Church should humble itself and find ways of identifying itself with other groups, taking Christ with them. Christ, he said, was not the chairman of the Christian party. If God is the Lord of the Universe he will work through every culture and religion. We must give up the crusading spirit of the colonial era and stop singing weird hymns like "Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war." This will lead to Hindu Christianity or Buddhist Christianity.

It must involve the disappearance of the Indian Christian community, but he reminded us "a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls to the ground and dies." Needless to say that the Indian Christians were furious. He left the College, the Church and the mission and took refuge with the Danish Foreign Service! He later returned to India as his country's Ambassador and died in harness in 1988.

Aggressive evangelising

The real source of danger to the Indian Christian community is not the handful of Hindu extremists. Most of the violent incidents have been due to aggressive evangelising. Other than this there have been few attacks on Christians. Finally the sensitive and sensible Christians must realise that acts of certain "born-again" varieties of Christian evangelists who denigrate Hindu gods and abuse Hindu rituals as barbaric are the root cause of tension between Christian and Hindu communities. Christian leaders known for their erudition, equipoise and empathy should come out in the open to disown such acts of intolerance.

Rev. Valson Thampu, an ordained pastor of the Church of North India and Professor at St. Stephen's College, New Delhi, had suggested a `unilateral interim moratorium' on conversion to Christianity to end "the mindless competitive communalism" between different communities.

Most Hindus stand for a secular, liberal India, keeping with their heritage, in-built catholicity of their religion and its basic outlook of live and let live. This situation may not last indefinitely if certain unhealthy trends continue to gain ascendancy. It is very well for the vested interests to play communal card. But this will not pay. Communalism of the minority communities will only make some Hindus more fanatic. Undoubtedly, no quarter should be given to Hindu communalism. At the same time secularism cannot be regarded as a one-way street. Each community must respect the sentiments of others.

By and large, a Hindu is today accepted as secular only if he is pro-Muslim and pro-Christian and pro-other communities. He is lauded as `genuinely secular' if he is critical of Hinduism and enthusiastically condemns his fellow Hindus with or without reason ignoring the doings of rabid fanatics in other communities. The parleys between RSS leaders and Christian leaders will help to rid the Christians of the fake they see around them, to separate the wheat from the chaff. The dialogue must go on regardless of protests from vested interests.

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