Professor Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka
(Emeritus Professor ( University of Peradeniya )
It is to be hoped that the government will treat Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s recent call for retrogressive anti conversion legislation with the contempt it deserves. It is a foolish and dangerous attempt to revive a defunct proposal that was thankfully shelved some years ago. While the Cardinal’s opinion is repugnant to non – Roman Catholic Christians in Sri Lanka, it is evident from his own admission that it is a personal view that may not even be shared by the Catholic Bishops Conference. That he should be in a minority is not surprising considering the awful irony that what the Cardinal is asking for is the very thing that is being demanded by religious fanatics who are hostile to the Christian Church !
It is sad to see the stark contrast between the attitude of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and saintly bishops like the late Bishop Frank Marcus Fernando who in his lifetime was a redoubtable fighter against all anti – conversion legislation. Amongst my most cherished correspondence is a hand written letter dated July 6th 2004 from the beloved Bishop ( even though he did not know me personally and I am not a Roman Catholic ), conveying his congratulations for what he termed an “excellent” article titled “ Legislation Driven by Conversion Phobia” in the “Island” newspaper of 5th and 6th July 2004. Bishop Frank Marcus concluded his appreciative note by saying “At our level we are doing our best to stop this foolish and dangerous legislation” – wise words which are a devastating though posthumous indictment of the measures being proposed by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
It is on record that in 2011 the Cardinal made a similar suggestion to the previous regime with which he seems to have had a cordial relationship. Wiser counsel having prevailed then the Cardinal’s attempt to flog a dead horse now with the present regime, seems like a burst of episcopal megalomania by an arrogant prelate who is out of touch with reality. The Cardinal’s call for what he termed “new laws to put an end to the issue of forcible conversions and preserve religious harmony” is invalid on several counts.
1. It is largely based on anti Christian slander and hearsay rather than verifiable fact.
2. It reflects a naïve and distorted understanding of the concept of religious conversion.
3. It is callous in that it ignores the reality of Christian persecution in Sri Lanka.
4. It is inflammatory in that it emboldens the fanatics and goons who are harassing Christians in various parts of the country.
5. It’s pluralist undertone reflects a corrupted theology running counter to the pre-eminent uniqueness of the truth of Christianity as clearly set out in scripture.
6. Worst of all the statement represents an oblique cynical devaluation of our Lord’s great Commission “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15-16).
Considering the inappropriateness of the Cardinal’s statement at so many levels, one is forced to the conclusion that notwithstanding imposing ecclesiastical rank and title he has betrayed and potentially compromised the security of many faithful Christians who whatever their denomination are the “people of God” in the Universal Church. Cardinal he may be by Papal edict, but whether he is a Christian by biblical definition is the question ? Alas we live in an age where there are too many pluralist Bishops who are not necessarily ‘believers’ in the strict Biblical sense.
For the sake of clarity it is instructive to briefly amplify the 6 reasons for rejecting the Cardinal’s statement enumerated above :
Anti Christian slander and biased reports of ‘unethical’ evangelism raise the question “what then is the ‘ethical’ approach to evangelism” ? In a world reeking in unbelief idolatry and superstition the Christian approach to evangelism was brilliantly summarized by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church in AD 56 “ But we have renounced disgraceful and underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” ( 2 Cor 4:2-4).
There is no doubt that in conformity with Jesus’s “great commission” it is the inalienable duty of all Christians whether priests pastors or laity to proclaim the truth of the Gospel boldly, honestly, and without prevarication urgently calling sinful humanity to repentance and faith in Christ, there being “ . . salvation in no one else for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Christian martyrs throughout history have laid down their lives propagating the gospel in a hostile world. This year we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and remember saints like William Tyndale who was strangled and burnt for translating the Bible into English enabling the truth of the gospel to be transmitted to the uttermost corners of the earth.
Nevertheless Paul makes it clear that while it is incumbent on Christians to relentlessly proclaim the gospel it is not expected of an evangelist that he should cajole, plead with, manipulate, entice, or much less compel anyone to accept it. Conversion is the work of God not man. The worldwide Church is bound to relentlessly announce the Gospel whatever the opposition. But it is God who converts the heart and draws his own to him at his own sovereign will and pleasure. Jesus himself emphasised “ No one can come to me unless the Father ( ie.God ) who sent me draws him . . . Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me . . .” (Jn 6:44,45). And he bluntly told those who rejected the gospel “ but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me” (Jn 10:26,27). As Paul explains in his famous letter written from a Roman prison those who hear the gospel and respond to it have been chosen by God before the foundation of the world and predestined for adoption as children of God according to the purpose of his sovereign will ( Eph 1:4-5 ). “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . .And those whom he predestined he also called . .” (Rom 8:29-30)
Consequently people of other religions who hear the wonderful gospel of grace preached to them should count it a privilege rather than an intrusion. Nobody does the omnipotent God who created heaven and earth a favour by responding to the gospel. People do themselves a favour by being reconciled to God by submitting to the gospel in repentance and faith, receiving forgiveness for sin, and the promise of eternal life. They take or leave the gospel preached to them at their own peril – “whoever believes in the Son ( ie. Christ Jesus ) has eternal life,whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (Jn 3:36).
For this reason the gospel must be preached with passionate zeal, urgency, and longing for the salvation of souls, and yet with the pragmatic realisation that whether people accept or reject it is the prerogative of God who said “ I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom 9:15). As the apostle Paul clarifies “ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom 9:18)
The extent to which pastors in Sri Lanka have deviated from this standard has never been objectively documented. Consequently Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s concerns about so called ‘forcible conversions’ are a misplaced reaction to slander and anecdotal reports that are capable of variable interpretation. There is no reliable statistical evidence to suggest that unethical approaches are commonplace. Therefore allegations of aggressive provocative Christian evangelism are probably biased and grossly exaggerated if not palpably false, especially when they originate from fanatics who would like to magnify isolated incidents and stir up public discord with the intention of stopping any kind of Christian propagation. The Cardinal’s obsession with “unethical conversions” does not stand on a foundation of detached objective investigation and evidence. It is unthinkable that he should canvass legislation over a problem whose true prevalence is only a matter of hearsay. All allegations of Christian workers using improper means to promote their faith remain unproven until they are corroborated through fair and independent inquiry.
2. The Cardinal’s call reflects a naïve and distorted understanding of the concept of religious conversion. To talk of ‘forcible conversions’ in Sri Lanka is misleading nonsense. There is no such entity in Sri Lanka. When the radical Islamists of ISIS threaten to slit the throat of Christians in areas under their control in Iraq and Syria unless they convert to Islam – that is forcible conversion. It has no parallel in Sri Lanka. For Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to rant about forcible conversions in Sri Lanka is not only ludicrous, it is an insult to the faithful Christian martyrs who resist forcible conversion and heroically lay down their lives daily in other parts of the world. What is more pertinent in Sri Lanka is the forcible restraint and persecution of those who voluntarily convert to Christianity, by rowdy mobs and fanatics of other religions who are determined to stop anyone leaving their fold. The problem is not forcible conversion but the forcible prevention of voluntary conversion to Christianity.
3. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s preoccupation with the delusion of forcible conversions reflects a callous disregard for the real problem of religious discord in Sri Lanka ie. the widespread harassment of Christians who are engaged in peaceful worship and propagation of their faith – which is their Christian duty and constitutional right. According to my records there have been about 500 incidents of harassment of Christian workers in different parts of the country from 2002 to the present. This might be a significant underestimate given other reports which claim more than 100 attacks an year. Such incidents ( now receiving global publicity ) have included arson, death threats, obstruction of burials, destructive attacks on churches, disruption of worship, home invasions, stoning, assault, verbal abuse, mob attacks, threat of acid attack, police intimidation and inaction, and other forms of persistent harassment and interference with religious freedom.
It is intolerable that the Cardinal should be insensitive to this reality and distracted by the fantasy of so called forced conversions. One wonders whether – not unlike the frustrated restaurateur who resents his customers leaving him for an eating house where the food tastes better – what is really driving the Cardinal is bitterness over any disillusioned Roman Catholics who might have deserted the religious formalism, institutional traditions, and theological distortions of the Roman Church for the riches of the glorious gospel of grace ( sola gracia ) preached by non conformist pastors in the power of the Spirit based on the supreme authority of scripture (sola scriptura) !
4. The Cardinal’s reference to ‘forcible conversions’ resonates with the language of the rowdy monks and fanatical mobs who are harassing Christians in various parts of the country as described above. His remarks will only embolden elements hostile to the church who sensing that the Cardinal is on their side may actually intensify their attacks on Christians. To that extent the Cardinal’s statement potentially compromises the security of pastors who preach the gospel. Scripture everywhere proclaims the doom of those who reject the gospel. How much more fearful the accountability of those like the Cardinal who while claiming to be leaders of the Church are guilty of deliberately obstructing its propagation ?
5. Past utterances suggest that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s recent call for anti conversion laws arises from an unscriptural ( even heretical ) pluralist mindset where he appears to believe that Christianity and Buddhism are equally valid pathways to salvation. During an August 2016 correspondence I recall confronting the Cardinal with Elijah’s famous challenge to Israel “ How Long Will You go Limping Between Two Different Opinions ? If the Lord is God Follow Him, but if Baal then Follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). It was in response to media reports that at some ceremony to honour a Mahanayake he had seemingly conceded that Buddhism was a panacea for mental stress, asserted that the prominence of the country relied on Buddhism, opposed any change in the favoured treatment afforded to Buddhism in the constitution, admitted that ‘we all live in a country nourished by Buddhism’ and offered to “cooperate with the Maha Sangha to enhance the spiritual improvement of the people” – pluralist views and attitudes that are wholly inconsistent with any biblical understanding of the Christian religion where Jesus unequivocally stated that He is the only way, the only truth, and the only life and that apart from Him there are no other pathways to heaven whatsoever ( see Jn:14 ). Against this background we should not be surprised at the Cardinal’s hostility to evangelism by non conformist pastors in Sri Lanka. We need not speculate here whether the Cardinal’s religious pluralism is a reflection of his theology, or whether it represents astute politically correct posturing that might enhance his image in a multicultural society. Either way it is a travesty of biblical Christianity.
6. The saddest thing about the Cardinal’s call for anti-conversion laws is that it implies a lukewarm, half hearted attitude to our Lords great commission “ Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation . . “ (Mk 16:15). The psalmist was categorical that “ all the gods of the peoples ( Buddhists / Hindus included !) are worthless idols” (Ps 96:5) while Jesus told Paul on the road to Damascus “ I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God . .” (Acts 26:18), as a consequence of which the great apostle saw his earthly ministry plainly in terms of having “ to preach to the gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ . . “ (Eph 3:8). By contrast the Cardinal’s priority seems to be the suave diplomatic pursuance of multi faith fellowship and popularity, no matter if millions perish in the darkness of unbelief never having heard the gospel.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith might do well to ponder whether in calling for foolish and dangerous anti conversion laws he joins those who in the words of Paul “ . . . drove us out and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved . . .” ( 1 Thes:2:15-16 ). It should be our hope and prayer that if nothing else Paul’s solemn reference to the fate of such persons at the end of verse 16, might lead the Cardinal to godly repentance, a change of heart, and public retraction of his unfortunate remarks.
Cardinal Sin : A critical reaction to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s call for legislation banning ‘forcible conversions’ ( ‘The Island’ March 29th 2017 )
Professor Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka
Emeritus Professor ( University of Peradeniya )