By Dr. Richard L. Benkin
I consider myself to be more knowledgeable about India and South Asia than the vast majority of Americans. Even so, I was not aware just how active Christian missionaries are among Indian Hindus until I came to India and heard about the problem from my friends and colleagues in Delhi. At first, to be perfectly honest, their outrage at these Evangelicals took me aback. I consider religious Christians to be strong, moral,and resolute.
The fact is that the Christian missionaries are more often than not people whom I admire. We tend to be on the same page politically and share similar values. And we have the same view of the threat posed by radical Islam—which without a doubt is the most critical issue of our time—and tend to support the same strong policies for fighting it. In addition, I have known a great many devout Christians personally and have been glad to have them in my life. They are good people, honest people, hardworking people, and people who truly believe that they cannot give a person any greater gift than the message of Jesus. And they act on their beliefs. From their point of view, not to do so would be a personal failing.
Thus, the intensity of my friends’ complaint did not strike me at first—although it should have. As a Jew, I can remember the seemingly endless string of missionaries who until relatively recently came to my community looking for converts. They were determined to “save our souls,” and seemed particularly interested in targeting Jewish children. I did not care how noble their motives were. What they did was terribly offensive and de-valued my faith. They had the audacity to tell me that rejecting my religion—which was a lot older than theirs—is absolutely essential for my own salvation.
Jews, however, have largely eliminated these missionaries from our midst; although there are the misleadingly named "messianic Jews," who are really not Jewish at all; and Baptists still utter a special prayer for our conversion to Christianity during our holiest season in which we re-affirm our Jewish faith. Missionaries remain active among Hindus, however. Their strength comes in part from the qualities noted above, but their strength vis-a-vis Hindus can be explained best by looking internally. We know that putting an end to missionary activity in India will not come in the form of laws prohibiting the activity, which are contrary to Indian democracy and basic principles of religious freedom. And given Hinduism’s respect for all life, there will never be any widespread support for the violent opposition we see in Muslim nations. There are, however, two things that can be done; and to the extent that they are not, Indian failings only strengthen missionary activity.
As it turned, the day after my education in Delhi, I found myself seated next to a group of missionaries on my flight Lucknow. The fact that we were all Americans—not too common on the way to Uttar Pradesh—made it easy for us to strike up a conversation. They said they were here to “do the work of the Lord” and genuinely believed that. They told me stories about individual conversions, and were excited at the prospect of more.
So I asked them, “Have you encountered much resistance or hostility here?”
“Surprisingly little,” one of them said. Surprising, indeed, given the intense complaints I heard in Delhi. For if a foreign religious group came to the United States with the expressed purpose of converting Christians to their faith, there would be a tremendous outcry. While the government would not outlaw the groups—same as in India—everyone would know that these outsiders were not welcome. I can think of at least a dozen US Senators who would be quite public with their outrage and even convey it to local officials whose cooperation—or lack of it— can encourage or effectively block the missionaries’ efforts. Individuals and groups would make their displeasure known loudly, certainly loud enough for the media to take notice.
None of this is happening in India to any significant degree. The only thing these missionaries are likely to conclude it that their targets “just aren’t that strong in their beliefs.” They said they are offering these villagers something better and a faith about which they would feel deeply. As one of them put it, “they’re glad to have us here.” That is the message a lack of public outrage is sending, not only to the missionaries, but also to their potential converts. Why are India’s leaders silent, and thereby compliant in what the missionaries are doing? Is it the open tolerant nature of Hinduism or something more sinister like corruption or moral weakness? If there is indeed outrage among Hindus, the challenge is mobilizing its expression, not in the form of violence or undemocratic laws, but in a show of faith for a religion that has given succor and strength to Indians since long before Christianity’s birth.
When Christians travel the world to bring others to their faith, they do not travel with only a Bible and their zeal. As my Christian co-passengers pointed out, they were on their way to villages where the people lack basic services—no hospitals or access to basic health care, insufficient food, lack of sanitary water, and similar things. Part of their mission--and part of their religion--is purely altruistic: to help people in need. As they do, however, they talk about the faith that motivates them; such that, as they told me, people saw these needed services as gifts not of the men who brought them, but “of Jesus who sent those men.”
Their opportunity arose, however, only because the people who should have provided these services did not. India's political leaders have abandoned their obligations to these people, leaving a gap in services that, apparently, only the missionaries are ready to fill. The process is not dissimilar to what Muslim charities do. In places like Gaza and Bangladesh, the Palestinian Authority and various governments respectively abandoned their responsibilities, which the religious charities took up. They provided food and shelter, with one hand, religious education with the other. While the missionaries' goals are diametrically opposed to those of these charities, the source of their strength is the same.
In Gaza and Bangladesh, the primary culprit was corruption. Corruption might play some role in the Indian situation, but there are others. This year’s national budget, for instance, included funds to pay for Muslim pilgrimages to Al Aqsa in Jerusalem; yet, not a penny for the Bangladeshi Hindus living in garbage dumps and refugee camps. Thus, the question facing Indian Hindus who are concerned about missionary activity, is whether or not they have the commitment to take positive actions that affirm their own faith; to prevail upon their leaders to acknowledge and do the same; and to re-establish society’s obligations to provide basic services for those in need even as the nation is becoming one of the world’s economic giants