Sunday, February 21, 1999
CHRISTIANITY has throughout been a missionary religion. The first records of the churches, as contained in The Act of the Apostles are almost entirely a narrative of the first Christian missions. Baron Von Welz went to Dutch Guiana to rouse a missionary spirit among the Lutherans. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Henry Plutschau went to Tranquebar and other places to spread the message of Jesus Christ. St. Columbinus of Leinster went to the mountainous region of the Vosges near Besancon to found the monasteries of Luxeuil and Fontaine.
In England the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts" was founded in 1701, by the Royal Charter for the religious instruction of the Queens subjects beyond the seas". The Church Missionary Society was founded in 1799 to send missionaries to Asia and Africa.
The United Congress of Missions which met on September 28, 1893, in the Columbus Hall of Chicago appointed a committee to arrange an International Missionary Conference between the representatives of all the evangelical churches, to devise means for evangelising the whole world.
Ironically,C.C. Bonney who is credited with bringing all the worlds religious together at Chicago in 1893 presided over it. In a key paper Rev. J. T. Gracey of New York observed that in India alone there were enough native Christians to evangelise the entire empire. He made a prophecy that the day was not far off when Christianity would "demolish for ever the old Pagan religions".
Another Christian theologian, Joseph Cook of Boston expressed similar views. "No other religion now known to man can be called a serious rival to Christianity", he said. "Not one of the great ethnic non-Christian faiths has the hope of converting the world".
Swami Vivekanandas opposition to the missionary approach was obviously in response to such proselytising designs. His indignation at the denunciation of Hinduism by some Christian speakers at the Chicago Parliament elicited a haughty comment on the morning of September 19:
"We have been told to accept Christianity because the Christian nations are prosperous. We look at England, the richest Christian nation in the world, with her foot on the neck of 250,000,000 of Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spains prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellowmen. At such a price the Hindu will not have prosperity".
In another hard-hitting speech on September 20, Swami Vivekananda asked the Christian missionaries to first save the bodies of the heathen from starvation before curing the vexation of their souls. Religion was not conducive to an empty stomach nor were the gastric or pancreatic juices stimulated by doctrinaire priests. "It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion. It is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics".
He further observed that the missionaries helped only those who became Christians "abandoning the faith of their forefathers". If love was righteousness in action the Christians would do better by extending the Gospel of brotherhood beyond the pale of their religion?
It would be pertinent to discuss, the Christian concept of conversion. The word is a derivation from the Latin conversio which means "a change of heart and life". When such a change occurs in a "heathen" or an "infidel" the term signifies an acceptance of the truth of Christianity. In a person already baptised it is understood to mean a return to the forsaken path of righteousness.
According to A.D. Nock, conversion is the recasting of the soul of an individual, "a turning which implies a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old was wrong and the new is right".
Swami Vivekananda ridiculed the idea of conversion by asking how a sinful man could become holy overnight after being converted. "Whence comes this change: The man has not a new soul, for the soul must die. You say he is changed by God. God is perfect, all powerful and is purity itself. Then after this man is converted, he is that same God minus the purity you gave that man to become holy".
In his speeches and lectures in America, Swami Vivekananda argued that all religions were but different paths to reach the Supreme Soul and that unity in variety was Gods plan of the universe. It was wrong to lay down certain fixed dogmas and try to force society to adopt them. The difference in religious perceptions was essential for human progress. "Kill the difference in opinions and it is the death of thought. Thought is the motion of mind and when that ceases death begins".
The human soul struggles through various media for the attainment of the individual infinity. Hence a Christian was not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. "But each must grow according to its own laws of growth". "Why take a single instrument from the grand orchestra of the earth? Let the grand symphony go on", argued the Swami.
Although Swami Vivekananda
appreciated the positive social work of Christian
missionaries he deprecated the method of bribing men to
change their religion as "atrocious" and
"horribly", demoralising". Conversion was
nothing but perversion. To try abruptly to change a
nations religion, he said, would be as irrational
as an Asian asking the Mississipi to go back to the
starting point and commence all over again; or an
American visiting the Himalayas and directing the Ganges
to change its course.
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