Any document, after all, is only just a document! Words are less powerful than actual deeds or conduct. Still, some documents represent important catalysts for possible action. On June 28, in Bangkok, The World Council of Churches, The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance promulgated their joint position paper on conduct for conversion, Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct. It addresses the thorny issue of inter-religious conversions. It recognizes increasing inter-religious tensions in our world today and notes that politics, economics and other non-religious factors can play key roles in exacerbating religious tensions.
Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World resulted as a culmination of a five year long consultation. A first meeting held in Lariano, Italy, in May 2006, invited representatives of different religious groups to share their views on conversion. Some religions ( Islam, Christianity) make conversion into them relatively easy. Others, such as Judaism, are more difficult to join. Some make out-conversions from their religion quite difficult. For example, in Malaysia, a Moslem country, a born Moslem can only convert to Christianity with the express approval of a Moslem Court ( where approval is rarely granted).
Some of the representatives at Lariano ( including Hindus and Buddhists) complained of aggressive tactics by some Christian groups to make converts by preying on the economically vulnerable and proselytizing toward what used to be called ' rice Christians'.Mainline Protestant and Catholic spokiespersons lamented that in-your-face outreach from some evangelicals in India led to a proposed total anti-conversion bill by the reigning Hindu Party. Russian Orthodox representatives protested the aggressive tactics of some evangelical groups, after the fall of the Soviet Empire, as if Orthodoxy was not Christian. Many representatives also complained about Christian convert makers who misrepresented and denigrated their religions.
At the end of the Lariano consultations in 2006, the following statement was issued: " We affirm that, while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating others' rights and religious sensibilities. Freedom of religion enjoins upon us all the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming the superiority of our faith."
Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World recognizes that " mission belongs to the very being of the church. Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian." Yet it also insists that it is necessary to do such witnessing " according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings". It notes that conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. It is also the act of the free human being who converts. Conversion, it states, should ensure " full personal freedom". There should be--as the Koran also notes--no compulsion in religion. For the three Abrahamic religions ( Judaism, Islam, Christianity), it is a salutary reminder that Abraham, himself, was a convert!
To be sure, in some contexts, giving open witness to Christian values is difficult or hindered or prevented. Here recourse can be had to article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights:" Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." It would seem that, if such freedom of religion entails the right to bear witness openly and to practice one's faith, it also includes the right to defend one's own religion against encroachments or attack.
The new document insists: " If Christians engage in inappropriate methods in exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means, they betray the gospel and may cause suffering to others. Such departures call for repentance and remind us all of our need for God's continuing grace ( cf. Romans 3:23)." The document also sets forth as one of its principles for witnessing: " Christians are called to conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion and humility and to overcome all arrogance, condescension and disparagement ( cf. Galatians 5:22)." One could easily cite, here, the one-sided Islamaphobia some politicians, including presidential would be's, have engaged in, including one candidate saying a community in the United States has the inherent right simply to refuse Moslems the right to build a mosque!
While Christian witness calls for acts of service, the document asserts: " The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach. Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards in their acts of service."
Another core principle in the document is the rejection of violence: " Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They also reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by an religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts." One remembers how in the United States an evangelical Protestant preacher publicly burned the Koran!
While Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World rightly insists on full freedom to witness to the truth of one's religion, it calls for a renouncing of any false witness: " Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully; they are to listen in order to learn about and understand others' beliefs and practices and are encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good in them. Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false winess concerning other religions." So, evangelism and Christian witness are also linked to ( not totally supplanted by, however) true inter-religious dialogue and even shared actions for justice and peace. The document insists that inter-religious cooperation is an essential dimension of a commitment to mutual respect and solidarity, in working for justice, peace and the common good.
There are no enforcement mechanisms in the document. It is mainly a call for Christians to become more reflective about their tactics of witnessing and their call for conversion. But, minimally, it will allow Catholics and mainline Protestants and Evangelicals to call out some of their fellow Christians ( or, for that matter, people of other faiths) who violate these principles and, perhaps, jeopardize the religious freedom of other Christians in Asian or Moslem countries. Not all evangelicals, one assumes, can or will subscribe to its principles. But our multi-religious world will have fewer tensions, conflicts and even violence, if Christians streadfastly reflect upon and implement this code of conduct for conversions. Nor, to be sure, do these principles only apply to Christian witnessing!