1st September 2017
If, according to the teachings of Vatican II, even atheists can be saved; if we really don’t know who, if any, have gone to Hell; if noble souls like Mahatma Gandhi had a problem with conversions; then why attempt to convert at all? Is it worth the effort, and sometimes the animosity or rivalry that it generates? In today’s milieu of religious one-upmanship, suspicion and hostility, where mass killings and lynchings are justified in the name of religion, is there any sense in adding fuel to the fire by trying to convert others:? Is it a perversion of religion?
This is a complex question, and there are no easy answers, even in the Bible. If on the one hand Jesus says to go and baptise all, there are also myriads of occasions when he told his disciples not to tell anybody who he was. If we study the Gospels we will find that the Evil One was the most enthusiastic to tell others who Jesus was. Was it a strategy to upset the applecart? I, for one, certainly feel so.
Let us begin with the oft quoted last command of Jesus, “Go therefore make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat 28:18). Biblical exegetes tell us that this Trinitarian formula did not exist at the time of Jesus. It is found only in later liturgical texts, and could be an interpolation; not the exact words uttered by Jesus. So we are on slippery ground here. At other times Jesus forbade being revealed. “He commanded his disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ” (Mat 16:20). After the transfiguration the directions were conditional, not absolute. “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (Mat 17:9).
Jesus referred to himself as Son of Man 72 times in the Gospels. In contrast, his adversaries, the forces of evil, spared no opportunity to portray him as the Son of God. The first manifestation is at the temptation. The evil one misquotes scripture, yes scripture, to tempt him into a premature act that could have jeopardised his entire mission. He is challenged with these words, “If you are the Son of God tell this stone to turn into a loaf of bread …If you are Son of God throw yourself down from here, for it is written …” (Lk 4:3,10). James the practical one warns, “You believe in the one God – that is creditable enough, but the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear” (Jam 2:19). He is in fact alluding to one of Jesus’ first miracles, when he drove the evil spirits into a herd of swine. They shouted, “What do you want with us Son of God? You have come here to torture us before the time?”(Mat 8:29). The result was that the local people actually asked Jesus to go away and leave them undisturbed!
So we see that there is a time and place for everything. Wearing a bikini on a beach may be fine, but not walking down the main street in it. Eating chocolates could be enjoyable for a child, but poison for a diabetic. A heavy overcoat is ideal for winter, but not for summer. Jesus was a very wise man. He knew the import of such natural phenomena and how to translate them into his message. He was familiar with the Jewish scriptures, even quoting them in his final moments on the cross. So he would definitely have had this text in mind, “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under the heavens … a time for keeping silent, a time for speaking” (Ecc 3:1,7). He admonishes the self-righteous and over-enthusiastic Pharisees with these words, “You know how to read the face of the sky, but you cannot read the signs of the times” (Mat 16:3).
I never cease to wonder at the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings. We are often told the parable of the sower (cf Mat 13: 3-23). Jesus, besides being a professional carpenter, would have been living in an agrarian society, knowing the nuances of farming. There are three primary elements for a good crop – seed, soil and season. Here in north India paddy is sown during the monsoons, when rain is plentiful. In winter the same land is used for wheat or potatoes. On a recent visit to a vineyard in Italy the sommelier told us that the taste and quality of the wine varied every 10 kms because of the soil. Grape vines are planted on porous undulating land, where water does not collect. Similarly we may say that pine trees won’t grow on a tropical sea coast, nor will coconut trees grow in the Himalayas.
Besides the essentials like seed, soil and season, there are several additional factors like irrigation, fertilizer and, in the case of vines, the pruning that Jesus talks of (cf Jn 15).
If I am using analogies (talking in parables) I am but following in the footsteps of the Master. What is the seed – the Word of God, the Christian message. This message could vary according to soil and season. The soil is the cultural ethos of the place or people. Judaic/ Semitic messianic messages are foreign to the people of India, as Gandhi rightly pointed out. But they do understand terms like Sadguru (true teacher), Akhand Jyoti (eternal light) and Purushottam (perfect man). Are we able to express Christianity in such terms?
What of the season? This is the particular circumstances at a given time that we need to be sensitive to. If there is a Hindu-Muslim riot would it be God’s command to stand on the street corner distributing Bible tracts and telling the rioting factions to become Christian? I hope I have made my point.
What then is evangelization? Years ago I heard a wise man say that it is communicating to others the Word of God incarnated in you. Note that it is not just the Word of God, or even the Incarnate Word – Jesus; but the word incarnated in me. If this sounds incomprehensible to the common believer, let me give you the best example, that of Mary. The Word of God was addressed to her. She accepted it. It got incarnated in her. What next? She then visits her cousin Elizabeth, where the drama unfolds. “As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41). So the Word of God incarnated in Mary was effectively communicated to Elizabeth who in turn experienced that incarnation and in dwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is not for nothing that Mary is called the Queen of Apostles. She was the very first evangelist.
This process is beautifully repeated in Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus’ words touch her heart. In turn she goes rushing to tell her fellow villagers. In turn they too are touched, and bear witness, “Now we believe no longer because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he is the saviour of the world” (Jn 4:42). No theologian or missiologist can put it across as forthrightly as this.
As a child I saw my father running the Catholic Information Centre from our home. The history of evangelization in U.P. states that he reached out to over 10,000 enquirers in Hindi, Urdu and English. He used the literature prepared by two Jesuit stalwarts, Watling from Patna and Theodore Bowling from Pune. I too was fired by this zeal and shared God’s word with thousands of youth, and even ventured out on Gospel journeys without a single paisa in my pocket.
Having expressed what I believe to be evangelization, let me now move to the next question – why to evangelize? Another of my parables for this. Agra is famous for the Taj Mahal and also for its petha (candied ash gourd). After visiting the Taj a tourist also wanted to try out the petha. The moment he savoured it his thoughts flew to his son. He wanted to share the sweetness with him. I have encapsulated this experience in the Hindi couplet, “Baap khaya petha, Yaad aaya beta”. So for me evangelization is the sharing of this amrit (divine nectar) with those whom I love –the vast human family. It is an act of love. It is the most precious gift that I can give to somebody.
Other questions that will now arise are, When and How? This is an article, not a thesis, so I would rather recommend readers to the encyclical “Evangelii Nuntiandi” written by my favourite pope, Paul VI, promulgated on 8/12/1075. I hope that a few relevant quotes will suffice.
“There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also the whole of humanity” (EN 1). These sentiments are an echo of the opening lines of the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.
“The proclamation has two fundamental commands: Put on the new self (cf Eph 4:24), and: Be reconciled to God (cf 2 Cor 5:20)” (EN 2). “It is only in the Christian message that modern man can find the answer to his questions and the energy for his commitment to human solidarity” (EN 3). “Evangelizing means bringing the good news into all strata of humanity, and through its influence, transforming humanity from within … the best way of stating it would be to say that the Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert … both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieux which are theirs” (EN 18). “It is a question of … affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation” (EN 19).
From the above we see that this is not so much a matter of converting from one religion to another, but about bringing a radical transformation in peoples’ lives, and their attitudes towards others.
While affirming its message great respect is simultaneously shown for other religions. “The Church respects and esteems non-Christian religions because they are the living expression of the soul of vast groups of people. They carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God, a quest which is incomplete, but often made with great sincerity and righteousness of heart … They are also impregnated with innumerable seeds of the Word” (EN 53). Unfortunately, some fundamentalist Christians, in their over enthusiasm (an evil tendency), often berate other religions and their practices. This is definitely not inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Here in India, especially in the North East, there is much rivalry and “sheep stealing” between churches. The latest instance was the denial of burial in Manipur to a Naga woman who was earlier a Baptist and then became a Catholic. The Pope condemns such rivalry in no uncertain terms. “The power of evangelization will find itself considerably diminished if those who proclaim the gospel are divided among themselves … Is this not one of the great sicknesses of evangelization today? Indeed, if the Gospel we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarisations or mutual condemnations among Christians … how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented, even scandalized?” (EN 77).
As I said at the beginning, there are no simple answers to complex issues. But I do hope that this has helped to put some things in the correct perspective. I would conclude by reiterating that there is a difference between evangelization and conversions. If indeed the Word of God is incarnated in a seeker, and that person desires baptism and incorporation into the visible church, such persons are welcome. However, any misplaced ardour, like that of the Pharisees or the tempter, are a perversion of true religion, and should be abjured like the plague. May Mary, Queen of Apostles, inspire us to be imbued with the Holy Spirit in this labour of love.
* The writer does not believe in preaching, but in sharing the Word of God, to the extent that it is incarnated in him.