Headlines today are dominated by death and casualty tolls tragically rising in the aftermath of last week's earthquake which struck Nepal. Social media is abuzz too -- people posting prayers and calling for donations to one charity or another, or sharing human interest stories. While we focus, as we must, on disaster relief, organizing vigils and fundraisers, one story, in particular, captured my attention -- not just because of the many shares on Facebook and Twitter, but because of the emails we began receiving from community members asking us at the Hindu American Foundation, a human rights and advocacy organization, to "please do something."
Where rescue and recovery, food, shelter, and medical supplies and services are so desperately and obviously needed, the story understandably elicited concerns as to whether giving Bibles to the primarily Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim victims is either appropriate or ethical. It turned out, of course, that the story appearing in The Lapine, a well-known satirical paper from Canada, was just that -- satire. But, the sad truth is that the story stirred such outrage because it is plausible. It's plausible because of the exclusivist ideology that motivates organizations like Gideon's and its ilk -- that is to travel around the world and set up shop in order to save "unreached people" from the darkness of their religions to some purported One True Way.
At its core, we want to believe that religion elicits the best that humanity has to offer -- love, compassion, selfless service. In fact, for most believers and non-believers, tragedies of the scale of Nepal's awaken a deep heart-opening towards those who are facing unimaginable loss and hardship, no matter how far or how different they may be. Some are moved to donate, while others drop the comforts of their daily lives and run into the eye of the storm -- to dig, to bury, to serve, and to rebuild. But how do we react to another response -- one that comes from deeply held notions of religious exclusivity. The trending #SoulVultures provides a snapshot of what that can look like:
.@CNN Praying 4 the lost souls in Nepal. Praying that not a single destroyed pagan temple will b rebuilt & the people will repent/receive Christ.
Praying for the people of Nepal. The 10 -- 40 window to share Jesus is opening greater than ever #sharethegospel
Pray that the primarily HINDU and BUDDHIST people of Nepal come to SAVING FAITH in the Lord Jesus Christ. What is the "world" praying for?
Pray and give in Jesus' name. #KathmanduEarthquake #Nepal via these great orgs. @SamaritansPurse @WorldVision @compassion
This kind of religious exclusivism is not new, unfortunately. Throughout history, it has manifested as crusades, conquests, and the annihilation of countless peoples through imperialism. European pagan, African, Polynesian, Native American, and Aborigine are just a few of the indigenous traditions that have essentially been wiped out of existence thanks to religious exclusivism. While methods for such cleansings were overt and violent in the past, in modern times, they're far more sophisticated and covert.
Christian exclusivism, as what we are seeing in some parts of social media, undeniably thrives. In practice, it exhibits as predatory proselytization and through initiatives such as The Joshua Project, which seeks through research to "highlight the ethnic people groups of the world with the fewest followers of Christ." This "research," in turn, provides a battle map for evangelicals from around the globe, and in particular, the U.S. and other "western" nations, to pioneer their church-planting movement and do their part for the Great Commission targeting the 10-40 Window.
Of course, all Christians are not exclusivists, but just like the extremists of other religious traditions, those who are, are too often the ones with the louder voice, carrying the bigger stick -- a stick which is not only beating down on the rights of others to retain their religion, but also all those who fundamentally believe in religious pluralism and mutual respect. This stick is also constantly trying to institutionalize their particular religious vision into legal, political, and educational infrastructures. This can be observed in the active campaigns against marriage equality and access to abortion here in the U.S., the push to criminalize homosexuality in a number of African nations, as well as the global proliferation of AIDS and family planning programs that preach abstinence and refuse to provide birth control.
Because international law and many governments, including the U.S., choose to deflect the issue of religious exclusivism into one of religious freedom, wholesale license is given to some faith-based groups and their members to propagate their narrow visions of the saved versus the damned, without thought to the rights of those who are on the receiving end of false damnation. Some of these faith-based organizations have gone further than just church-planting -- they have chosen to actively engage in proselytization alongside their "relief work."
Earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes in places like El Salvador, Haiti, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka -- all of these natural disasters have brought out the best of faith-based humanitarian work and the worst. We see the worst when ostensible aid workers denigrate local beliefs, conduct healings of victims needing real medical attention, target children through child ministries, or even kidnap children so they can be "saved" by being raised Christian. This type of predatory behavior must be called out for what it is -- a form of violence and a serious human rights violation.
Religious exclusivism is the antithesis of religious pluralism, mutual respect, and dignity. Especially in the wake of tragedy, those who believe that the world's religious diversity is also part of the world's mystique and beauty, must work together to ensure that predatory tactics do not re-victimize victims.
Host countries must do a better job of monitoring immigration fraud as many missionaries, to carry on their work undetected, are known to enter countries like Nepal and India using visitor or student visas, rather than the appropriate religious worker or missionary visas.
As American taxpayers, we should insist that agencies such as USAID monitor more closely the activities of implementing partners to ensure that they are not participating in inherently religious activities. And if they are, that such activities are conducted at a separate time or place as U.S. laws require. Aid recipients should be made aware of what U.S. government funded aid providers can and cannot do vis a vis religious activities.
And as global citizens, we should join esteemed religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Rev. Desmond Tutu, in demanding that the United Nations amend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include "the right to retain" in the definition of religious freedom so that the same protections that are afforded to those who wish to propagate their views, no matter how expansive or narrow, are also afforded to those who wish to keep their own.
Nepal clearly needs help, and the hue of race, color, or religion matters not to the entrapped and the desperate. But even as we revel in the stirring and fearless work people are doing inspired by their faith, we must also ensure that the victims of Nepal's earthquake are not victimized all over again by those conflating the need for bread with the need for a book of another's faith.