by Stan Guthrie
But the death of Graham Staines has become a cause celebre in India, forcing a secular, democratic, and yet largely Hindu nation to confront difficult questions about the kind of society it wants to be.
A native of Australia, Graham Staines, 58, had spent half his life working quietly among India’s poor. A missionary with the Brisbane-based Evangelical Missionary Society, Staines ran a hospital and some clinics for lepers in the eastern state of Orissa. He was well-liked in the remote, 700-person village of Manoharpur, which was the site of a small church.
Every year for the last two decades, Staines had attended the annual meeting of this church without incident. On January 22, Staines and his two sons—Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6—participated in this year’s gathering. When the day ended, they said their goodbyes and climbed into a jeep to get some sleep before making the five-hour drive back to Baripada. There Staines’ wife Gladys and daughter Esther, 13, awaited.
But at about 1 a.m., a mob of between 50 and 100 people encircled the van, chanting to the Hindu monkey god, "Long live Hanuman!" As terrified villagers looked on, the mob set the vehicle alight.
Villagers later accused scores of young men associated with the radical Bajrang Dal group, and police quickly arrested 47 of them. However, the militant leader said to be behind the incident, Ravinder Kumar Pal, also known as Dara Singh, is still at large.
Painful crime, painful questions. Pal is just one of increasing numbers of extremist Hindus calling for the eradication of "foreign" Christianity—although Christians have been in the country for nearly two millennia—and the institution of an explicitly Hindu state. They accuse churches and missionaries of converting tribal and other peoples through bribery or force, charges Christians vehemently deny. "There are enough Christians in the world," one legislator with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said. "There is no need to convert Hindus to Christianity." Another stated, "Poor, uneducated people do not adopt other religions willingly."
However, a government-appointed body, the Commission of Inquiry, submitted a report about the incident to the Home Ministry on June 21. The report has not been made public. It says that evangelism is integral to Christianity, and that a decision to embrace a new faith is individual and private.
"The tribals who have embraced Christian faith, it is submitted, have done so on their own," the report notes. "Since there is no evidence of forcible conversion, any assumption to the contrary would be invalid."
During his life Staines never received the accolades of a Mother Teresa. But the death of this unheralded missionary to the poor has become a cause celebre in India, forcing a secular, democratic, and yet largely Hindu nation of nearly a billion people to confront difficult questions about the kind of society it wants to be.
Yet this is not simply a standard story of persecution. Evangelical Christians, both inside and outside of India, are grappling with troubling, painful questions about whether their language, perceived by some as indelicate and others as triumphalistic, may have ignited the Hindu fury. They are also working hard to maintain unity in the face of the violent onslaught.
Officially, of course, India’s politically pluralistic democracy has condemned the killings. Following the attack, on January 30—the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi by Hindu extremists—Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP fasted to protest the killings. "Such violence violates the country’s tradition and culture of tolerance," Vajpayee said during a nationally televised address.
Violence no stranger. The BJP-run government ordered the inquiry, yet the prime minister also called for a national debate on conversion. And the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a strong BJP ally, was behind the 1992 destruction of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya that sparked rioting which killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.
Persecution of Christians has been a growing problem in India. The number of reported attacks against Christians and churches-everything from arson to assault to rape to murder-has jumped from just seven in 1996, to 24 in 1997, to at least 90 last year. Claiming that the anti-Christian violence was the worst in India’s 50 years of independence, on December 4, Christians observed a day of prayer, fasting, and nonviolent protest. And the Evangelical Fellowship of India hosted a National Consultation on Reconciliation, Religious Liberty and Social Justice, September 9-13, 1998, attended by 150 key leaders from 20 states. Emerging from the consultation was a National Forum to monitor religious liberty in the country.
Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India and a member of the Commission of Inquiry, says India’s current identity crisis is a political creation of the Sang Parivar, a Hindu group, and the radical Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which are seeking to exclude minorities on the basis of their ethnicity and culture.
"Christianity is viewed as the religion of the colonizers and Islam as the religion of the invaders," Howell said. "The move of the Sangh Parivar is to make India into a Hindu nation."
On February 21, thousands of Christians rallied in New Delhi, calling for an end to the violence. In an April meeting in Bangalore, 32 leaders of churches, missions, and other groups in India agreed to form a new society, the All India Christian Council, chaired by Joseph D’Souza, "to act on national issues and concerns."
"India, I say proudly, has resisted any move towards becoming a Hindu nation," Howell said, noting the support of Hindu nongovernmental organizations and even Marxist party leaders on behalf of Christians. The EFI, he added, is working with other minority groups to uphold the Constitution for all. The Commission of Inquiry, for its part, stated that any attempt to block religious workers from their work violates the country’s Constitution.
Still, threats and violence against Christians, who comprise no more than 3 percent of the population, have continued this year, especially in Gujarat state, where few Christians live, as well as elsewhere in North India. But until a Westerner was killed, the world had paid scant attention.
Howell says Christians are simply the latest targets in an "anti-minority campaign" of the Sangh Parivar, following earlier persecutions against the Sikhs and the Muslims-both of which were curtailed when the persecuted group fought back.
"Now the move is against Christians, with the sole purpose to arouse feelings of hatred and to unite Hindus; but, thank God, Christians did not retaliate," Howell said. "In fact, the cause of the gospel has been furthered, and the church continues to grow."
Joseph D’Souza was part of a delegation of Christian leaders who visited the site of the killing in Orissa. "The Christians have no doubt that Graham’s death is not an isolated event but part of a game plan to destroy Christian institutions," D’Souza said. "There is no doubt that Christians are perceived as a peaceful, soft target."
Rhetoric’s role. The mobilization rhetoric of some Christians, however, has been perceived as something else altogether, especially by the country’s politically active Hindu extremists. Stern comments about Hinduism by Ralph Winter, first published in the November-December, 1994, issue of his Mission Frontiers magazine, have been picked up by the national news magazine Outlook as well as the Web site of the Hindu Vivek Kendra (www.hvk.org/articles/0299/ 0056.html).
Winter is quoted (accurately) as saying, "The Hindu world is the most perverted, most monstrous, most implacable, demonic-invaded part of this planet… The perversion of Satan in this part of the world is just absolutely legendary." Responding to an outcry in India over this characterization, Winter’s organization, the U.S. Center for World Mission, has pulled the offending article from its Mission Frontiers Web site (www. missionfrontiers.org), saying the quote does not accurately reflect Winter’s views about Hinduism.
Many Indian Christian leaders say that the offensive language is not only incendiary, but sometimes downright inaccurate. "Hindu" can mean the Hindu religion specifically; other times, they say, it means no more than "Indianness." Thus, in their estimation, someone can be a "Hindu Christian" without slipping into syncretism.
Winter says his perspective on India has since undergone a "major shift" since 1994.
"I have heard reports in the last five years that there are probably more devout followers of Christ in India who still consider themselves Hindus than the total number of equally devout followers of Christ who call themselves Christians," Winter said. "I certainly can apologize for not knowing this-as our articles have since acknowledged."
Winter added, "If anything I said about India is actually false, I would be very glad to know it and will be eager to apologize. I surely hope things are not as dark as I painted. I hope things I said that were very positive about India are all true!"
Another evangelical missions leader, Luis Bush, international director of the AD2000 and Beyond Movement, is also fielding complaints. Bush said, "The major concern expressed was in relation to the reports of 10 North India statewide consultations held last July (1998) in India. These consultations had been reviewed by Christian leadership in India, published there, and authorized… to be posted to the AD2000 Web site." Howell concurs. "The reports were written by North Indian leaders," he said.
Nonetheless, in February, following discussions with Indian leaders, the network moved to expunge all sensitive references to India from the Web site (www.ad2000.org).
In a March 29 open letter copied to a number of prominent evangelical leaders in Asia and the West, D’Souza pointedly asked Bush to help put an end to the incendiary rhetoric fueling a "huge propaganda war" against Christians. D’Souza faulted some Indian leaders, under the influence of the AD2000 Movement, for "bombastic slogans, militant language and a general demeaning of Indian culture."
On April 16 the India Missions Association and the National Council of Churches in India circulated a letter asking evangelistic agencies and networks for the removal of "inflammatory" material from their Web sites. The authors promised joint action if this were not done.
The AD2000 Movement, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies are planning a joint consultation on "language used in mission discourse and promotion." The date and location haven’t been worked out yet.
The Dawn Report, the official magazine of Dawn Ministries, an agency that mobilizes church planting worldwide, told readers that it delayed publication of its May issue on India because "some of our articles contained sensitive material that could hinder the cause of Christ or even put some people in danger of personal harm."
Seeing is believing
By Joseph D’Souza
Jesus said those who believe in him without seeing him are blessed. This is a marvelous truth when it comes to putting our faith in him. On the other hand, he also said that the world would believe in him after seeing us. If the world saw the unity of church, the world would believe in him. If the world saw Christlikeness in the church, it would come to know the truth.
People believe and make life-changing decisions when what they see matches what they hear. This package of seeing and hearing needs to occur again and again if they are to be persuaded to come to faith in Christ, In communication language, the message needs to be reinforced through a variety of ways, and not just through the verbal channel.
The big flaw in our national missions strategy is the lack of attention to the fact that the visible church in India (which is all over the place) is constantly sending a powerful nonverbal message that contradicts the loud proclamation of the evangelist. The mission worker talks of life change, but the local church depicts little life change. The worker talks of the peace and harmony the gospel brings, but the local people remember the police guard on the local Christian church. The evangelist talks of Christ’s servanthood, submission, and the willingness to die for others, but the crowd remembers the latest power politics in the church and the mad rush for personal profit.
The problem is that there are not enough visible demonstrations of the power of the gospel by Christian communities. Often the church seems to swing from life-killing extreme legalism to damaging licentiousness. What should be done?
The missions movements are great for challenging the small evangelical communities within existing churches for new laborers, money, and prayer. But they are weak in bringing hard-core spiritual realities back to the life of the churches. They look at various church organizational structures and draw back from straightforward spiritual involvement in church life.
The strategy of some missions is to completely ignore the church. But that simply won’t wash. The visible church is a post-New Testament reality. And mission leaders must engage the church fully in their missions agendas. When church leaders complain and even attack parachurch groups it is not plain assault but a cry of desperate need. Parachurch groups take away the cream of the church’s people resources and leave a weak church further weakened and vulnerable.
It is sad that national missions movements do not realize that local churches (however weak and problematic) constantly send a silent but very powerful signal to those around them. There will never be a major following of Christ unless this problem is addressed. Mission movements cannot just wish away the problems in the visible church.
Our missions emphasis must be revised. Gifted and mature mission leaders have to determine their role in the national church and its basic life. There are huge challenges in this area.
Just take the case of the Dalit Christian reservation issue in India. There is no doubt that a fair and just government will have to give Dalit Christians their due and not discriminate against them because of their religious affiliation. But there is another problem that must be squarely faced. It is the tacit admission by the Indian church that despite so many generations of Christianity, the church has not been able to fully deal with caste from within its own ranks.
How do you think the Indian people react to this? What does it say about the gospel? It is far more powerful than our many words.
Missions in nations like India cannot be done in a vacuum. There is a prior context. There is the history of the church. There is the presence of the church. Those outside the church clearly receive signals from the visible church. It is up to the national missionary movements and their leaders to face the issue. Unless the church matches the gospel to a reasonable degree, our progress will be severely hampered and much mission effort wasted. One of the goals of national missionary movements should be to put men and women of spiritual stature back into the heart of the church. Church leaders will welcome it, and this can only strengthen the missions task.
The Commission of Inquiry indirectly noted that at least some language used by Christians has been less than helpful. Its report stated, "The mere fact that the vocabulary of evangelisation may need internal reflection to bring it within the perfect parameters of tolerance and mutual respect does not detract from it being a part of the Christian faith, and it must be recognised as such."
Love the sinner, hate the system? Of course, while evangelicals are called to love their non-Christian neighbors, few Christians involved in reaching Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Parsees, or animists for Christ feel an obligation to love these nonbiblical religions. After all, these systems offer alternate worldviews that deny Christ as Lord and Savior, helping to keep their adherents in spiritual darkness. To say or think otherwise is to undermine one of the logical supports for the entire missions enterprise-the lostness of mankind.
Only those elect who receive Christ and accept his atoning sacrifice on their behalf will be saved from their sins and will inherit eternal life. The dark side of the gospel is that there is no life in the world’s religions. Holding to Christ’s uniqueness, while politically incorrect in our increasingly pluralistic world, is no less true today than when the apostle Peter announced to the persecuting Sanhedrin, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Polemicists find strong support in the Bible. Jesus himself, speaking about the narrow way that leads to life, dumped cold water on the wishful religious thinking of his day. He spared few harsh words for his religious opponents, calling them vipers, blind guides, fools-seemingly as often as he gently wooed the downtrodden victims of false religion into his Father’s kingdom.
William Carey, the flag-bearer of modern missions, illustrates the dilemma. Carey had great respect for Indian culture, translating not only the Bible into dozens of its languages, but various Indian classics into English. Yet he also opposed the brutal Hindu ritual of sati, during which a widow was thrown alive onto the funeral pyre of her husband.
There can be no dispute that untold millions of Hindus have been enslaved in a hopeless caste system that tells them, on religious grounds, to accept poverty as their karma. A Christian worldview, introduced and applied by Carey, Staines, Mother Teresa, and others, has done much to ameliorate the evils of Hinduism in India over the last two centuries.
The All India Christian Council’s D’Souza, however, still thinks such a critique is too broad. "Hindu," he asserts, is a cultural as well as a religious term. Hindu culture, he says, "has great things going for it even as it has elements that need to be redeemed by the gospel."
Noting that Carey was the first to call himself a "Hindu Christian," D’Souza says "Hinduism" is too broad, when used as a religious term, since it is an "amalgamation of many belief systems."
"What Christians have traditionally attacked represents large elements of classical Hinduism and Brahmin-ism-such as God being impersonal, the caste system, etcetera," he said. "However, there are other systems that allow for a personalized, incarnated God . . . which allows for bhakti [worship]-which has become a great bridge builder to millions of people who are favorable and responsive to the gospel."
He blames the violence on a resurgence of upper-caste Brahminism in the last 50 years to force India to be one people, faith, and culture.
"India (has been) many peoples, many faiths-even within Hinduism-for many millennia," D’Souza notes. "It is not only Christians who are fighting this but also many so-called Hindus. And it is this huge lot of Hindus whom we do not want to alienate, and they are in the many millions and not part of Brahminism."
D’Souza notes that some of the church’s biggest defenders in India are Hindus. "The (Hindu) fundamentalists must be surprised about the reservoir of good will among the majority of the Hindu population towards Christians and missionaries, not to speak about the good will among the minorities," he said. "These Hindus are defending their Indian Christian brothers. They appreciate the contribution of Christians to Indian society and have no doubt about their patriotism."
Vishal Mangalwadi, a Christian author and intellectual in India, has spent years attempting to educate fellow Indians about the positive role missionaries have played in the country’s history, usually without mincing words. In an open letter to India, reprinted in Mission Frontiers, Mangalwadi stated, "Most front-line missionaries don’t understand the power of their own work. They don’t realize that their work is an historic threat to the socioeconomic power equations that have existed in India for over 2,000 years-ever since Hinduism marginalized the lower castes and tribals. Hinduism has kept these people by force as marginalized, ignorant, and vulnerable to oppression and exploitation. The missions are giving them a new identity, self-respect and new principles for individual life, family and social organization."
While Christian work among tribals is the focus of much radical anger, Howell points out that tribals aren’t even really Hindus, but animists. Thus, to further Hindu political aims, Howell said, they "must also therefore be somehow brought under the Hindu fold."
Calls for circumspection. And yet, just as most Bible-believing Christians chafe when their faith is equated with the Crusades, Jim Jones, or even Jim Bakker, some Indian Christian leaders say evangelicals need to follow the Golden Rule when it comes to discussing Hindus.
D’Souza is calling for mutual accountability. "The time has come for the global evangelical community to act," D’Souza told Bush. "At least the major players have to move seriously to bring a halt to all this destructive verbiage that is flowing on the Internet and other communication (media)."
Bush, in a reply, promised he would look into what else he could do. "All of us (are in) anguish here over persecutions there and are in prayer for the body of believers there, as well as those lost souls who need the saving grace and love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," Bush said. "I seek further inputs and prayers from others, not to defend what has happened-but to enlist and seek the best response and suggestions for the ongoing needs there in India, in the broadest sense that would manifest God’s eternal purposes throughout that vast subcontinent."
The issue highlights the fact that Christians operating out of the West, and gearing their appeals for prayer and money to Westerners, no longer have carte blanche in their cherished freedom of speech. The same technological culture that has helped evangelicals broadcast, print, transmit, and carry the gospel to most of the world’s nations also has allowed many formerly distant peoples to listen in on their fund raisers and strategy sessions. According to the trade magazine PC Week, some 158 million people worldwide are online, with multiplying numbers from outside the West.
Other reasons for anger. Of course, there are other reasons behind the violence. Spiritual opposition to the growth of the church, political manipulation from the BJP, lack of friendships between Christians and those they seek to reach, and disunity and cultural insensitivity among Christians were all mentioned as partial reasons in a roundtable discussion on the subject in the January-March, 1999, issue of the India Church Growth Quarterly.
Mangalwadi, for one, links the violence with an attempt by the BJP to stop Sonia Gandhi, a native Italian, from becoming prime minister for the Congress Party. If so, the words Christians sometimes use to describe their task are playing right into their hands.
Howell goes even further. He says he has received reports that the persecution of Christians was "planned many years ago."
"There are other reasons which relate to reconciliation which have to be addressed," he said. "Wherever the church planters have built bridges with the non-Christian communities, they have experienced less persecution. So it is our evangelistic methods that have to be looked into."
Ebenezer Sunder Raj, general secretary of the India Missions Association, stated in the ICGQ, "The time has come when we need to seriously review the words that… are causing enormous points of conflict and difficulties, like ‘conversion,’ ‘convert,’ ‘missionary,’ ‘soul winning,’ and all the outdated, highly misunderstood, and charged words. Mission leaders and missiologists need to review the terms and words that they have taken for granted all these years."
Deeds and words. In his letter to Luis Bush, Joseph D’Souza suggested that two messages need to be communicated to Christians:
" 1. That we will not use language behind the back of a non-Christian about him and his culture and his location that we will not use face to face when we are witnessing to him and sharing the message and love of Christ.
"2. That we will acknowledge that what is right for America is not necessarily right for India (or for other predominantly non-Christian nations) and that we will have a major review of international Christian publicity and reports put out by the major alliances, networks and federations."
Triumphalistic or insensitive language, some Christian leaders believe, could undermine the positive developments flowing from the Staines martyrdom. D’Souza, noting that Gladys Staines publicly forgave the killers, stated, "Graham’s love stood in complete contrast to the venomous hate of those who burned him. This message was not lost on the Indian people. Cutting across all religious lines, pain and outrage poured out like never before in the country."
Several prominent Christians have been encouraged by widespread public anger over religious violence in India. One poll said that 74 percent of urban Hindus condemned the attack.
D’Souza indicated that the ties between most Hindus and Christians are not likely to be burned up by radical rhetoric and the recent violence. He stated, "The extremists and fundamentalists are being increasingly exposed for what they are. The gospel witness continues strong as ever, with many turning to the Lord."
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