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The Politics of Conversion: Anti-Conversion Bill in Sri Lanka

Buddhist monk and member of Parliament Venerable Omalpe Sobhita recently introduced legislation to outlaw unethical religious conversions in Sri Lanka. It is a response to allegations that recently arrived Christian missionary groups use bribery to entice poor people to convert to Christianity.

Critics of the bill point to ambiguities in defining “unethical” and difficulties of enforcement. They also charge that the legislation is likely to become a tool that legitimizes already rampant anti-Christian violence. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
My objections are that the bill is more anti-religious than anti-Christian. It is likely to cause serious harm to Buddhist-Christian relations, a tragic consequence in the context of a tenuous peace between separatist militants and the Sri Lankan government.
 
I offer three observations and a recommendation.          
 
First, Buddhists and Christians are both under scriptural mandate to seek converts.
 
The Buddha and Jesus gave remarkably similar instructions to their disciples. The Buddha commanded:
“Go, bhikkhus, and wander for the benefit and happiness of the masses, out of compassion for the world … [T]each the meaning and detail of the dhamma (doctrine) … There are those who … are going to ruin through not hearing the dhamma.”
 
From that time forward, Buddhists have actively propagated their faith first, throughout <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Asia and in more recent times in western countries. In India, at least two instances of mass conversion of Hindu Dalits (untouchable caste) to Buddhism revealed that the Dalits rejected the caste structure along with their Hindu faith, embracing instead the more egalitarian teaching of the Buddha. Just as in the Buddha’s day, the dhamma provides a strong critique of the oppressive status quo and provides a path of liberation.
 
Jesus said to his followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19).
 
Christians understand this as an unambiguous mandate to evangelize. A corollary scripture spells out the content of the teaching: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Mt 10:7-8). 
 
This is a risky announcement. The Kingdom of Heaven (where, as a Christian hymn succinctly states, “justice rules with mercy and love is law’s demand”) stands in sharp contrast to the kingdoms of this world. While this is good news to the poor and oppressed, with whom Jesus closely associated, the Kingdom of Heaven is distinctly bad news to those who oppress the poor and the powerless. 
 
Christian missionaries of the colonial period were so closely aligned with their European governments that they were often seen as oppressors rather than liberators. To accommodate the colonial structure, they reduced their gospel to the simplistic and hyper-individualistic message, “Receive Jesus as your personal savior.” In the post-colonial period, Sri Lankan theologians have made significant strides towards articulating a theology that is true to the liberative mandate and free from hyper-individualism.
 
Buddhism, too, is susceptible to the trap of hyper-individualism. At a recent interfaith panel discussion on “Poverty in the United States” a Japanese Buddhist monk insisted that poverty is only a condition of the mind. Such interpretations are not uncommon and dilute the dhamma that was preached for the benefit of the “masses” and in compassion for the “world,” neither of which are individualistic terms.
 
When the gospel and the dhamma are preached with boldness, both are liberative messages that threaten all oppressive structures. There will be conversions–not necessarily from Buddhism to Christianity–but from any form of religion or ideology that legitimizes or ignores oppression to expressions of liberation.
 
Another observation comes from my experience in the United States, where two interconnected principles–the guarantee of religious freedom and the separation of the church and state–provide an environment in which religions thrive. Freedom of religion means that religious groups can propagate their faith however they see fit, and people are free to convert according to their conscience. Separation of church and state assures that the government will not interfere in religion, even to support or defend.
 
Despite claims by some, the U.S. is not a Christian country. It was founded and remains a secular country, but one in which religion flourishes. According to a recent Gallup poll, 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God(s) or a higher power and 85 percent report praying in the past week. Professor Diana Eck of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project claims that today the U.S. is the world’s most religiously diverse country. In this mix, Buddhists in the U.S. increased 170 percent between 1990 and 2000.
 
The intent of the Sri Lankan Anti-Conversion Bill is to defend Buddhism in the context of rapidly increasing Christian populations–not to curb corruption. The Sri Lankan constitution does accord a place of privilege to Buddhism, while assuring freedom of belief and practice for other religions. Understanding this counter-intuitive principle–demonstrated by U.S. experience–that government’s defense or support of one religion is ultimately detrimental to that particular religion and to religion in general–proves difficult.
 
Third, complex factors motivate conversions. Spiritual enlightenment is often cited as the main motivation, and it is likely to be so. However, careful observation reveals that family influences, personal grievances, economic prospects, new relationships or belief that the new way of life will yield a greater sense of well-being also play crucial roles in motivating converts.
 
A friend of mine objected to being converted, because, he said, “When you get saved, you get an American accent!” While my friend may exaggerate, Sri Lankan Christians have not done enough to dispel this connection. Christianity, brought to Sri Lanka by colonial powers, is still widely seen as a “western” religion.
 
The recent rise of evangelical church groups beholden to western values and theologies prompts the charge that they signal a new colonialism. In the context of globalization, it’s a charge that is not difficult to legitimate.
 
Just as the gospel brought to Sri Lanka during colonial times was a “western” gospel, the gospel proclaimed by present-day missionaries is also a western product and purveys western values. Not only would the saved acquire an American accent, they might also develop a taste for Coca Cola!
 
Thus the question, “Are present-day missionaries paving the way for economics of globalization?” is serious.  The Sri Lankan Church must recognize that Buddhist grievances from the colonial period are still not adequately addressed, making the prospect of a new colonialism all the more frightening. 
 
Still, the answer is not legislation, but an interreligious council with the power to examine incidents of unethical conversions and anti-religious violence.
 
Christians, in dialogue with Buddhists, must engage recently arrived missionary groups to help them understand cultural and religious sensitivities and encourage theological modesty. Buddhists, in dialogue with Christians, must engage militant elements that resort to anti-Christian violence in peaceful conflict resolution.
 
One good thing happened because of this bill. It engaged Sri Lankans in an unprecedented conversation about religion and its role in society. Now it should be taken off the table.
 
Shanta Premawardhana, an ordained Baptist minister, is associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches, USA.