1-7 September 2017 #874

Sermon on the mountain

Last week's Nepali Times package on Christian conversion in Nepal generated vigorous debate online about secularism and proselytisation. Here is a selection of the feedback

  • So sad that Christians often seem to think they know, and are better. Why not just be kind and respect each other instead of trying to change people? Karen Wassenaar

  • I thought religious crusades happened during the Middle Ages. Margit Eggemann

  • How do people “decide their own religion” if they are not permitted the freedom to explore their own faith? When social or legal standards deny the possibility of such exploration, it becomes more like a cage than a faith. Davis

  • Trying to convert people by building schools may not be ideal, but I know of many religions that try to bring change in communities with terrorism, bombs, rioting and rape. Bill

  • Why can people not let others follow their own traditions, customs and religions? Why do they not simply help the poor without trying to convert them to Christianity? No wonder Marx said: ‘religion is opium’. Nishz Gurung

  • Why can religious people not leave others in peace? This sort of manipulative arrogance is very negative. Let people choose their own religion. What these religious people are practising is not religious freedom but religious fascism. Nigel Betts

  • All blame must go to the Social Welfare Council, which signed the 5-year contract with MountainChild. Did the council not know this was an evangelical group? I wonder how much 'commission' exchanged hands! ‘Caste-based hierarchy’ is given as the reason for conversions to Christianity. It is certainly one of the reasons that Hindus opposed to conversion must tackle. Birat Simha

  • Evangelicals come into Nepal under various guises driven by their ‘mission’ to ‘convert’ people to Christianity. Often, their methods are questionable or outright despicable, leveraging on the poverty of ordinary people by luring them with financial aid. The imposition of one religion over another using false arguments and threats should not be tolerated. Conversion by stealth and trickery is unacceptable and should be resisted. It misses the essence of Christianity. Gerald-Fernando Heng

  • Nepal should become a true secular country, that is the only way to be inclusive for all religions and non-believers. Kamana Rai

  • Jesuit priests from the US founded St Xavier’s School in the early ‘50s and have graduated thousands since then who have gone on to make significant contributions to Nepal and internationally. St Mary’s did the same for girls. There was a church in the school grounds for the priests, and the students had to participate in regular prayer sessions. However, the main goal of the mission was high quality education and to develop independent thinkers with a civic sense. There was no attempt to convert students to Christianity. The School’s motto was ‘Live for God Lead for Nepal’ and many of the graduates have grown up to do exactly that. Conversion to Christianity does not have to be linked with supporting education and development in Nepal or anywhere else. A Nepali

  • As long as they don’t use violence, it might be good to challenge long-held beliefs. People in those areas are not museum exhibits: they might find something useful in an outside ideology, or they might find ways to improve their own belief system. Alex Walker

  • Christianity is an inherently imperialist religion that has destroyed indigenous cultures around the world throughout the colonialist period, and continues to do so. Konchog Dorje

  • The so-called Christian missionaries in Africa have done more to destroy the culture of the different tribes than any other organisation. No person, religion, culture has the right to try and indoctrinate any other persons beliefs unless it is to improve definite negative traits such as women’s treatment during menstruation. Raymond Fuller

  • I am glad that the writer makes the distinction between various kinds of Christians. There are the Jesuits who are involved mostly with education and academic research, and then you have these aggressive evangelicals. Nepal should be able to make the distinction and deport those who bribe Nepali people to convert to Christianity and use the name of God in vain. H Linden

  • Fascinating insight into one example of the efforts by Evangelical church organisations to convert Nepalis to their version of Christianity. There are many more. Here is an example of attempts to convert Buddhists, but it is the Hindus who are the main targets, and there is a strong backlash particularly from those who espouse Hindutva and a reversal of the commitment in the Constitution to secularism. David Seddon

  • They try to convert locals to Christianity since their religion is losing ground in Europe and in the US. Christianity is not welcome here in Asia. Anh Minh Dinh

  • Medieval times are back. But it is the Government that lacks support to these groups in order to develop the social prosperity for underpriviledged people. They do not need faith, but education, no Foreign God but competences to foster their wellbeing and ensure a better future for themselves and coming generations. Albert Kampermann

  • Crazy! Proselytising is wrong on so many levels. Gina Marie

  • These American, evolution-denying ‘Christians’ need to go to Texas and do some actual good. Paul McCadden

Ranting on high

Mark Pickett

How disappointing it was to read Brot Coburn’s article ‘Preaching on High’ (#873). It is a heady mix of poor research, misrepresentation and unsupported accusation, and betrays an arrogant attitude towards the people of the Himalaya.

It is ironic that Coburn should reprimand the director of the Sama Learning Centre for his lack of scholarly research but reproduce a bit of sad and ignorant drivel from an unnamed trekker’s blog as his own.

Coburn damns the philosophy of the NGO by suggesting it has ‘an ideological link to Assemblies of God’. I wonder what ideological links there may be in the author’s own work: romanticism perhaps, idealism maybe.

Did the director say that he was driven by a ‘conviction of moral righteousness’ or is that the author’s judgment? What is Coburn’s motivation? Completely dispassionate he is not. Morally convicted he clearly is. Is it one foreigner’s conviction against another’s. Is it arrogant for someone to have a conviction that is different from one’s own? Such a put-down is unbecoming of a quality newspaper. And did the director really say that he is attempting to ‘co-opt a cultural system’? Coburn puts words into said director’s mouth: the director himself is not allowed to speak.

Coburn further misrepresents a text of the Bible: ‘make your enemies your footstool’ (Psalm 110:1) is not a command to followers of Christ and is utterly contrary to the clear command of Jesus to ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44). This is either plain ignorance of the text or wanton twisting of the text to suit the author’s argument.

We do not know of the opinions of the Nubri villagers because they too are not given a voice. The only other voice in the entire article is that of the local abbot, the one who stands the most to lose if the villagers do indeed abandon their tradition. What about the other villagers? The Nubri people themselves are conspicuous by their absence.

Coburn informs us that the founder of the Footstool Project is a ‘shadowy, godfather-type figure’ in a YouTube video that is no longer available. If we can’t assess this ‘shadowy figure’ for ourselves surely such evidence is no longer admissible.

The author asserts that ‘Confronting evangelicals can be tricky because exposing their zealous agenda might only drive them further underground.’ Odd that Om Astha Rai and Dambar Chemjong in their articles, don’t seem to share such a fear.

If Coburn disagrees with the beliefs of evangelicals he should do so in open debate, rather than simply cast aspersions on their motives. Nepal’s press is still free. But he seems not to want an open debate. He wants the peoples of the be-yul to be closeted in a romanticised and idealised bubble. Hence his approval of the present Constitution, with its banning of ‘any act or conduct that may jeopardise other’s religion’.

Would Coburn be happy if such a Constitution were promulgated in his own country? He seeks for the imposition of draconian laws in someone else’s country while enjoying the freedom that his own country accords him. Is this not sheer hypocrisy?

Does he really imagine that teaching in a Himalayan village himself had no impact on their religion? Such people only object to change when they don’t like the changes that others are advocating.

Like the author, I too lament some of the changes that have happened in Nepal’s recent history. But the freedom of the people to choose their own way of life is not one of the changes I lament. Coburn argues that the people of Nubri are not ‘truly free’ due to the attraction of the material benefits that the project has brought the village. But here the author confuses the freedom and independence of the will.

The people are indeed not independent: they are constrained by their environment and the options that are available to a Nubri villager; they are under the influence of parents, lamas, teachers, government agents. But that does not mean they are not free. To deny them free agency is to emasculate their humanity. The people of Nubri shall decide what they do with both the materials and the message brought to them by the project. Denying them that dignity smacks of imperialism.

Mark Pickett is a writer based in Wales who lived nearly 20 years in Nepal and has a PhD from Tribhuvan University for his dissertation on Newar social order. He is the author of Caste and Kinship in a Modern Hindu Society (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2013).

Read also:

Federalism, republicanism and secularism, Anurag Acharya

Saffron surge, Om Astha Rai

The golden age of Gospel, Om Astha Rai

Preaching High, Brot Coburn