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You Cannot Redeem Proselytism

By Hans Ucko


Last March the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Development, and World Affairs published a series of short papers about proselytism in their publication Cornerstone. Each author was invited to respond to the following statement:

The Effects of Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies

The relationship between religious proselytism and development is sharply contested. International covenants recognize that religious freedom includes rights to personal religious conversion and public religious witness. But critics claim that proselytism can violate the rights of affected communities to maintain their traditions and can sow division in fragile societies. Cornerstone asks writers to discuss the social, political, and economic consequences of proselytism.

Four of those responses are reposted this month in TIO as an introduction to a complicated interreligious subject, proselytism and religious freedom.

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Religious freedom is a human right. We rightly quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Although we think that the right to religious freedom is unquestioned, we know that there are countries (and we can name them) where religious freedom is set in brackets or not really affirmed.

Our public dialogue about “Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies” and its concepts are contentious. What do we really mean by development? Our current dilemma is that we use a social development model when we state our intentions, but an economic growth model when we act.

And then there is proselytism. Too often, particularly in the West, discussions of religious freedom are oriented foremost toward the right to proselytize. Religious freedom, then, is turned into the right to persuade others to change religion!  Proselytism was once only a term used to designate non-Jews who, inspired by Jewish teachings about God, chose to become Jews.

Today, as the ecumenical movement recognizes, “the term has acquired the negative connotation of the perversion of witness through secret or open improper persuasion such as bribery, intimidation or external coercion” (see page 829 of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement). This is what makes proselytism unredeemable. In the minds of people, it means targeting or reducing the other to an object for conversion. Your message becomes more important than the addressee.

You cannot separate proselytism from conversion. Someone converting to my faith confirms me in my religious tradition. Someone converting from my faith seems to reject what I stand for. Even those who want others to convert will not easily accept one of their own leaving their faith for another.

The topic of conversion is divisive. It risks putting not only people of different faiths against each other but also of creating frictions among Christians themselves. Everyone should have the right to change his/her religion, but should we be involved in making others change their religion? Why? As Pope Benedict XVI said, poignantly, on this topic: “The Church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.”

When I worked in the World Council of Churches (WCC), our constituencies repeatedly highlighted the topic of proselytism, particularly as it related to Hindus and Christians in India and Christians and Muslims worldwide. We heard the same stories about unethical conversion, about aid evangelism, and we realized that our counterparts in dialogue or their constituencies were not always able to distinguish between Christians in dialogue and Christians involved in what was seen as coercive proselytism. Anti-proselytism efforts also had consequences for social, economic, and political development. Various “Freedom of Religion” bills in India seeking to prevent people from converting to Christianity left mainstream Indian church leaders worried whether running schools and hospitals could be judged as proselytism.

In an effort to address the issue, the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) initiated a project entitled “Interreligious Reflection on Conversion: From Controversy to a Shared Code of Conduct.” Although the project was to focus mainly on “intra-discussion” among Christians on conversion, it was initiated through a multi-religious hearing. What are the experiences and comments from our counterparts in other religious traditions on the issue of conversion? What do Muslims and Hindus say about conversion? How do we address the fears of people wanting to become Christians living in countries where another religion is dominant?

The report from the interreligious consultation on “Conversion – Assessing the Reality” stated the following, among other things:

  • That freedom of religion is a fundamental, inviolable and non-negotiable right of every human being in every country in the world. Freedom of religion connotes the freedom, without any obstruction, to practice one’s own faith, freedom to propagate the teachings of one’s faith to people of one’s own and other faiths, and also the freedom to embrace another faith out of one’s own free choice.
  • That while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating other’s rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.
  • That conversion by “unethical” means is discouraged and rejected by one and all. There should be transparency in the practice of inviting others to one’s faith.
  • That humanitarian work by faith communities should be conducted without any ulterior motives. In the area of humanitarian service in times of need, what we can do together, we should not do separately.
  • That no faith organization should take advantage of vulnerable sections of society, such as children and the disabled.

Social, political, and economic consequences of proselytism risk tearing apart social fibers in society. Focusing on the conversion of the individual may upset the cohesion of family and social relations. An example is the missionary endeavor to judge ancestor veneration as ancestor worship, where the convert was forbidden to continue maintaining the links of the whole family with the past and the present.

We cannot discuss proselytism without referring to the reality of power-relations. Someone is the object for proselytism; someone is considered lacking something that needs to be corrected or addressed through proselytism and his or her conversion.

Proselytism cannot be redeemed. Faith-inspired development organizations should not need to share their faith to be involved in repairing the world (tikkun olam), which should bean affirmation of people of faith and of no faith.

The article was originally published by Berkley Center’s Crossover.