Ripley: Conversion shouldn’t be conquest

source: IFP Press, March 28, 2014

Hula dancers perform during on Memorial Day in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 2012 to honour of those killed by war, natural disasters and health reasons. Christian missionaries to Hawaii once banned hula dancing, fearing it promoted non-Christian beliefs. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

Last week I wrote about the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific and how the Christian holy day of Sunday remains a day when life is focused on faith and family. It’s a benign, perhaps, but positive impact of a culture’s conversion to Christianity.

However, there are many horror stories that have accompanied the introduction of Christianity.

In 1820, missionaries arrived in Hawaii and sought to convert Hawaiians to Christianity.

On the plus side, the missionaries helped to educate the people.

The local belief were thought to hinder conversion,, so the church took an active role in destroying anything it perceived as adverse to conversion. In their zeal, Christians forced the inhabitants not only to give up their deities but also to abandon many traditional cultural beliefs and practices.

The missionaries believed hula dancing dangerously promoted old beliefs and celebrated physical enjoyment. The graceful, expressive dance was soon forbidden.

This strikes to the heart of an issue as old as our species, where one group tries to assimilate another. In Christian context, the issue lies at the core of what it means to be a Christian and that is to be an evangelist, a bearer of the “evangel” or good news.

Good news is for sharing. But religious tidings are deemed good because believers believe them in their heart to be so. The bearer is convinced that this news brings with it light and life to the hearer with bliss unattainable without it.

The only hitch is that your good news may not be considered good news to someone else. Worse, it may rob them of their right to believe what they choose to believe.

Consider this: Creation stories are passed down from my ancestors and I am introduced to deities to be worshipped and adored. Then, a stranger comes along and says my god is false and impotent and I must abandon my beliefs in order to worship the strangers’ god, who is true and omnipotent. With no more evidence to back up the claims for their god than I have of mine, I am expected to acquiesce.


Is this about the truth of a claim or about the exertion of power and control by one group over another?

This week I watched a group of young women perform the hula, expressing with their hands their desire that all people will experience “aloha” which is not just hello and goodbye but an embracing spirit of love. I cannot imagine imposing my idea that their dance is somehow wrong simply because I think that it is.

Christianity and Islam have strong aspirations of hegemony or world dominance, to have everyone bow the knee to Jesus or Allah. If anything is sinful, it is not the hula dancer but the desire of religions to dominate others by coercion or force.

Good news travels farther through lives lived with love.

Rev. Bob Ripley is a retired United Church minister.

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