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Mission as dialogue means both sides teach, both learn

By John Witte Jr. and Richard C. Martin, editors
Orbis Books, 423 pages, $25


In view of the ruckus caused by the pope’s November visit to India, this is a timely book. Though warned not to, the pope renewed the Christian call -- and right -- to convert India, and all Asia, to Christ. The magazines Hinduism Today and Asian Week summarized Hindu reactions: The pope’s summons was “a war against Hindus and Buddhists,” “a spiritual crime,” an expression of “the Vatican’s expansionist agenda.”

The premise behind these criticisms is that religions should leave each other alone, that none should seek converts from the others. Every land, every nation, has its own religion. But what about religious freedom? Doesn’t freedom to practice my faith include freedom to preach it? To take matters one step further, when does my right to preach infringe on your right to be left alone?

The declared “purpose of this book is to compare what religions with authoritative scriptures have to say on human rights and on the rights to proselytize.”

Practicing and scholarly spokespersons from the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and from “modern missionary movements” (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Baha’is) review and interpret their histories on how well they have balanced sharing their good news with respecting their hearers’ human rights. It is a rich, engaging book.

Opening and closing essays by Martin Marty and M. Thomas Thangaraj both summarize and endorse the drift of most of the contributions: Proselytism, no. Evangelism, yes.

In proselytizing, I coerce and look down upon the others. My central intent is to move them from their religious backyard to mine. In evangelizing (a Christian term, admittedly), I share and invite, respecting the freedom of the other and recognize our common humanity.

This distinction between proselytizing (or cajoling) and evangelizing (or witnessing) can serve as the criterion for reviewing the book’s essays and drawing up a tentative scorecard for each religion: Have they been -- and are they today -- more proselytizers or evangelizers?

The three Jewish essays show that Judaism is “unique among the Peoples of the Book.” While there have been periods when Jews were open to and sought conversions, for the most part, especially since the 18th century, they have actively discouraged convert-making.

Their concern is much more with “in-reach” -- making Jews better Jews. In the Jewish experience, proselytizing -- especially when based on one religion’s claims to supersede another -- leads to persecution. “The flip side of Christian mission,” one of the essays claims, is anti-Semitism.

The writers on Islam correct some popular misconceptions. While Islam as a social and economic system was often carried by the sword, conversions to Islam generally were not. For the most part, people opted to join the Muslim umma (a sacred word meaning community) because it brought economic advancement and liberation; this was especially the case for women during the Middle Ages.

Present-day Muslim scholars lay out the inherent openness of the Quran to other religions; the condemnations of polytheistic faiths are contextual, therefore interpretable. Muslim liberation theologian Farid Esack calls for an interreligious dialogue based on liberation praxis; this would offset the widespread “disemboweled pluralism” that he finds taking place around most scholarly dialogue tables.

There’s more variety among the book’s Christian voices. From the perspective of history, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that while the early Christians were eager to proclaim, they never coerced. And James Muldoon shows that even during the age of colonial expansion, canon lawyers insisted that force could not be used to convert the natives. (Though it could be used if they refused to trade.)

Although Cardinal Josef Tomko of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, claiming to give “the position of the Roman Catholic church,” is opposed to coercion, he does insist that since “God’s revelation and offer of salvation in Jesus Christ is absolute, total, and final for all humankind,” all other religions are meant to be “subsumed [into] this one, unique and universally applicable way of salvation.” Tomko declares, further, that this will not promote “an attitude of superiority.”

The Protestant perspectives balance the cardinal’s, making clear how Protestant calls to practice and promote religion “as an open quest and publicly debatable claim” are the seedbed for human rights and democracy in the United States (as John Adams saw and Thomas Jefferson did not).

The essays on “modern mission movements” are provocative. All of them -- Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, even Baha’is -- show how vigorous preaching, combined with firm resolve to avoid coercion can lead to impressive, often phenomenal, increase in membership. (Since 1950, Mormons have grown by 50 percent every decade.) But there’s a difference: Only the Baha’is recognize both the legitimacy and the validity of other religions. For Baha’is, God does, because God must, act through many religions.

There’s a lesson here. Yes, we want more evangelizing and less proselytizing. But the attitude, or the theology, one brings to the evangelizing makes for a big difference. Do I look on the other as someone whose human rights I must respect, or as someone in whom God may be speaking to me? It’s the difference between witnessing to a “pagan” whose religion I respect but hope to replace or to a “child of God” in whom the divine is already present and active.

It’s the difference between mere tolerance and genuine openness, between just witnessing and also being witnessed to. This difference, it seems, is determined by whether one religion makes absolute or final claims over all others. If I think I always have the final word, I’m not going to be a very good listener. And if I’m only tolerant and nice to you, it may be difficult to maintain that attitude when the power shifts to my side and I’m in control.

To carry out the lessons of this book, all religions need not just to share but to mutually share. The foundational attitude (theology?) would be that while each religion has something of divine truth that the others don’t, none of them have it all. Therefore, they have to not just talk to but also listen to each other. In such mutual sharing, both sides teach but also both sides learn.

Conversion, in the sense of changing one’s mind and actions, is integral to such mutual sharing. All partners in the sharing seek to change and persuade the others, but also they’re ready to be changed and persuaded. It’s more a matter of “intra-conversion”: The Hindu or Christian is changed and becomes a better Hindu or Christian. As for “inter-conversion” (a Hindu becoming a Christian, or vice versa), while it is not the primary intent of such sharing, it’s not discouraged. It just happens.

So maybe the better word for “evangelism” or “mission” is dialogue. For authentic dialogue to take place, both sides have to talk and listen, witness and be witnessed to, teach and be taught. In mission-as-dialogue, real, mutual sharing takes place. With such an understanding of mission, perhaps the pope would be more readily heard in India and in the world.

Paul Knitter is professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati and is author of One Earth, Many Religions (Orbis Books).

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000