Reconversion and Rice Christians

The reality of mass-movement conversions and the challenges it now faces in the form of re-conversion are used by opposite political parties to stall Parliament and corner the ruling party and the Sangh Parivar to challenge for a debate on conversion, pushing for a bill on it. However the church might respond to this challenge, it cannot hide certain hard historical facts on this subject.

The historical reality is that most of the mass-conversions took place not maintaining the spiritual need of the people alone. I am not trying to blame or find fault with ‘rice Christians’, even if they become a convert only for the sake of material gain. But many Christian missions handle this issue the same way today.

Defending any conversion in which both ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ interests are addressed, Gunnel Cederlof questions any ‘ideological (or theological) position in which the human being is divided into body and soul’. Writing from her field research she says:

…Mass-movement converts have sometimes been accused of being ‘rice Christians’, which meant that they had converted (p. 183) for material and not spiritual reasons. They were, so to speak, not true Christians. This is a normative position, sometimes slightly moralizing. The question ‘Did they come for material or spiritual reasons?’ presupposes an ideological (or theological) position in which the human being is divided into body and soul. The underlying assumption may go even further and indicate that the mission’s responsibility covered the saving of souls, while caring for the body should be a matter for local society or the state; anything else would constitute the buying of souls. On the other hand, if the question is turned into a research question, it disregards the possibility that people may have come for both material and spiritual reasons and that they may not have divided life into two sections, one physical and the other spiritual, at all. However, let us leave he moral aspect of this question aside and concentrate purely on the research question.—Bonds Lost, Subordination, Conflict and Mobilisation in Rural South India c. 1900-1970, New Delhi, Manohar, 1997, pp.183-84

Given my personal experience with missions in the past, I can say without any hesitation that whatever the motive of the converts, the mission’s motive was not purely spiritual but more numerical. The well-known slogan of mass-movements is ‘Win the winnable while they are winnable’. Keeping this as their missiology, they first convert people and then try to pay attention to both to the material and spiritual needs. But when several revert back after their material needs are not met, they ignore the warning of the Lord in Mt. 23:15. They justified their act by quoting the text, “Narrow is the path for mukti; many were called but few were chosen (Mt. 22:14).”

But the tragedy with such missiology is that no church or mission can take complete responsibility of the material need of one covert or many converts, and is contrary to Cederlof’s view that “caring for the body should be a matter for the local society or the state.” How can a society function when every convert has to survive with the support and service of the larger society? They extract and create separate ‘Christian’ villages and communities to safeguard the life and interest of the converts from persecutions, and soon such efforts end in failure. Either before or after the conversion, all their attention that went to attend to the material needs of the people never produced the expected result as such help was done either to the convert or to convert. See, for example what Cederlof says continuing her research question on this topic:

When converts made explicit material demands, the missionaries reacted with irritation. Among the MMS converts, the Koravar caste was often described as pushing for material benefits. In 1927, the Koravar in Kongunad were reported to have reconverted when the ‘material benefits of their new faith were less, and the disabilities attached thereto greater than they had expected’. {CSMA, Unsorted documents, CSM in India 1947, pp. 7-8) In the CSM reports, the Valayar had the same reputation…. (p.184) {CSM = Church of Sweden Mission}

But giving some credit to the Mission, we also have to note that “The overall aim with regard to the Madhari, irrespective of the outcome, can be summarized as ‘self-reliance’. This implies that the CSM’s distribution of resources was designed to produce a deep integration into rural relations” (p.184). At the same time, the theology of conversion is to save the soul from hell (a spiritual need) whereas the missiology proved the fact that they made many converts the children of hell (Mt. 23:15). As Cederlof shows:

…The Valayar was a new group in which sections had decided to convert. They held a much higher social position than the Madhari and lived in ‘neat houses and move freely with all inhabitants of the village’. Several hundreds had been admitted in that year, and three to four times as many were expected to join. But the satisfaction did not last long. Soon they became known for stealing and for illicit distilling, and Bertil Envall reports in 1948 from Palladam that the Christian Valayar had spent most of the year in Jail….Most of the Valayar converts lived around Sulur, between Coimbatore and Tiruppur, and the missionary stationed in Sulur, Jonas Ulrici, complained repeatedly about drinking, theft and quarrels among the Valayar Christians. Villages could relapse and, occasionally, once again return to the Church. {CSMA, MBa 1952:553, p.2}. (p.185) {CSMA =Church of Sweden Mission Archives, Uppsala; MBa =Mission Board minutes appendixes (Missionsstyrelsens protokollsbilagor)}

But we have to appreciate the honest confession of Cederlof as she wrote:

It may be concluded that, when the mission workers were faced with the immediate poverty of the Madhari and with their bonded (p. 191) relationship to the landowners, they chose to go in the direction of more economic involvement…. Rather than spreading resources around, the economic involvement was basically in the form of providing education and giving initial financial support to make people self-reliant and thereby also more independent of the Goundar landowners….When the mission workers entered the villages, their financial means may have been scarce. Despite this, they entered as an authority having material resources which they directed towards the Madhari.—pp. 191-92

Though Cederlof does not directly mention here what actually she means when wrote, ‘Rather than spreading resources around‘, she earlier gave the information for us to infer this:

The most organized form of relief distribution by the CSM took shape during the drought from 1946 to 1953. From 1948 onwards, food was delivered from the United States, financed by the Church World Service, to the Madras State. Bertil Envall was the District Convenor in the Coimbatore district, and it was his task to organize the distribution of the food. According to the Government of India’s terms, these rations were to be given irrespective of caste and creed and ought therefore not have constituted any reason for conversion. But, according to Envall, the rations may have given him a good reputation as a distributor of goods.75 However difficult to measure, the value of a good impression made on people in need should not be underestimated.

75. In India, the relief was organized by the National Christian Council, Famine Relief Committee. TNA, FOOd, Famine Relief, G. O. 976, 28.10.1948; CSMA, MBa 1949:489, p. 5; CSMA, MBa 1952:544; Envall 1995, interview. {TNA =Tamil Nadu Archives, Madras}

The lines I emboldened are enough for one to read between lines what is a ‘good reputation’ and a ‘good impression on people’. However the individual missionaries were humble and simple, the historic reality is that both the church and mission, wherever it went to spread the gospel, went with ‘an authority having material resources’ which lured the ‘people in need’ to accept their terms and condition to receive it.

I am not against any charity done by the church or mission out of compassion for the needy. They have done it without any ulterior motive. Mother Theresa is the good example of this, though she still does not receive the respect she deserves from many Indians.

As I have already quoted many times, ‘throwing a bone to the dog is not charity’. Charity is not an exclusive virtue of Christians. Every human being has it as a part of her nature as she is created in the image of God. Regarding the charity of Hindus, though most of them are done to earn some merit or to get rid of sin or bad karma on a practical level, the theology behind it comes under their obligation to the fellow human beings under five great sacrifices, known as ‘pancha maha yajna’. Each Hindu is expected to take care of fellow human beings and other living beings by providing for their bodily needs known as ‘nara yajna and bhuta yajna’. So in theory at least, this is prescribed and done not to earn merit or to get rid of sin/karma, but as an obligation on their part.

The theology of the Muktiveda in charity says to “Let not your right hand know what your left hand has given”, yet the missiology of the charity is done ‘either to the convert or to convert’, though it was done with a good intention to help. Without adding any further points I would like to close this topic by quoting other Christians’ view on this subject:

St Paul did not convert or attempt to convert people by working miracles upon them. He did not attract people to Christianity by offering them healing. He did not heal on condition that they attended to his teaching. In this he was illustrating a principle which guided the Christian Church in her administration of charity throughout the early centuries of her history. ‘We know,’ says Professor Harnack, ‘of no cases in which Christians desired to win, or actually did win adherents by means of the charities which they dispensed.’ [Expansion of Christianity, vol. I, p. 386]

I cannot help thinking that this is a principle which we cannot be too careful to observe. There was a day in India when our missionaries paid a regular fee to scholars to attend our schools in order that they might receive Christian instruction. The result was not good, and that plan has been universally abandoned. But we still sometimes offer secular education, or medical treatment, as an inducement to people to submit themselves, or to place their children under our religious instruction or influence. This is, in principle, precisely the same thing as paying them, though in a far less vicious form. I cannot help thinking that the day is not far distant when we shall consider the offering of any material inducement as contrary to sound doctrine as we now consider the money payments of former days.— — Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Foreword by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan, [1962] 1989 p. 43.

…Some of the foreign missionary societies could, and no doubt would, hand over the buildings and patronage to the native church, but others could not, and would not, do that, because they (p. 58) hold the property for the propagation of the peculiar views held by their subscribers at home, and the trustees at home could not be sure that the native bishops would continue to hold those peculiar views whether of doctrine or ritual. Yet it is scarcely conceivable that native churches will tolerate the interference of foreign patronage boards, and a grievous strife, material possessions are the most prolific….—ibid. pp. 58-59.

The first and most striking difference between his [Paul] and ours is that he founded ‘churches’ whilst we found ‘Mission’…. The theory is that the Mission stands at first in a sort of paternal relationship to the native Christians: then it holds a coordinate position side by side with the native organization; finally it ought to disappear and leave the native Christians as a fully organized church. But the Mission is not the Church. It consists of a missionary, or a number of missionaries, and their paid helpers, supported by a foreign Society. There is thus created a sort of dual organization. On the one hand there is the Mission with its organization; on the other is the body of native Christians, often with an organization of its own. The one is not indeed separate from the other, but in practice they are not identified. The natives always speak of ‘the Mission’ as something which is not their own. The Mission represents a foreign power, and natives who work under it are servants of a foreign government. It is an evangelistic society, and the natives tend to leave it to do the evangelistic work which properly belongs to them. It is a model, and the natives learn simply to imitate it. It is a wealthy body, and the natives tend to live upon it, and expect it to supply all their needs. Finally, it becomes a rival, and the native Christians feel its presence as an annoyance, and they envy its powers; it becomes an incubus, and they groan under the weight of its domination….—ibid. p. 83

… Hindus often find Christian charity too possessive and interfering, aggressive at times, not sufficiently detached and disinterested; those who practice it are yet not poor enough in their liver or the means they use;….— ‘FOR A TRUE DIALOGUE BETWEEN CHRISTIANS AND HINDUS’, P.Fallon, S.J., in Cyril B. Papali, o.c.d., FOR A DIALOGUE WITH HINDUISM, p.129

“Daniel T. Niles, the great Sri Lankan theologian, has written of Jesus:

‘He was a true servant because He was at the mercy of those whom He came to serve….The weakness of Jesus, we His disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.’

Niles continues:

‘One of the features of the life of the Christian community in the lands of Asia is the number of institutions of service which belong to this community. We run (p. 203) schools, hospitals, orphanages, agricultural farms, etc. But, what we do not adequately realize is that these institutions are not only avenues of Christian service but are also sources of secular strength. Because of them, we can offer patronage, control employment, and sometimes make money. The result is that the rest of the community learn to look on the Church with jealousy, sometimes with fear, and sometimes even with suspicion….The only way to build love between two people or two groups of people is to be so related to each other as to stand in need of each other. The Christian community must serve. It must also be in a position where it needs to be served….Let me say it as an aside, that, I view one of the biggest problems to be solved in the years that lie ahead I how, Inter-Church Aid can be given and received without destroying that weakness of the churches in which lies their inherent strength.’

Niles concludes with, ‘The glory of the Lion is the glory of the Lamb.'” (“This Jesus…Whereof We Are Witnesses” Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965, pp.23-27)— Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove IL IVP Academic, 2008, pp. 203-04.