Monday, April 3, 2006 at 2:02am

The Holocaust and proselytism's consequences

Column: Of Karma and Dharma
This week we had a visitor on campus. A holocaust survivor. Jay Ipson, President and Executive Director of the Virginia Holocaust Musuem visited Longwood University to talk about love, hate and bigotry. He began by asking the luncheon audience what it was that made Germans so hate the Jews. Some hands went up: one said that maybe Germans learned it at home; another said that the media played a role; and yet another offered the hypothesis that may be they learned it at school. Ipson did not lower his raised eye-brows. I suggested that it was religion that was at the bottom of that hatred. He nodded his head, looked around, and asked us to consider that fact.

In the audience were a Presbyterian minister, a Catholic priest, and some fervent Christians. There was some uncomfortable shifting in the chairs, and a comment that religions don't teach hate but people misuse religion. Is that true, Ipson asked, and he himself seemed to believe so. Some of us pointed out that there is much in religious literature that is problematic, if not hateful. Scholars have opined on these matters, and we better not unpack them here at this meeting, I teased.

Ipson's story of survival in a Lithuanian Jewish ghetto, and of escape with his father and mother from the ghetto, while the rest of his family was sent to the concentration camps and to their deaths, sent a chill down our spine. He still retains a strong German/European accent but has a fine command of American colloquial English. His talk is precise, straightforward, and avoids the politically correct clichés that many modern speakers use to soften the horrors of the past, and the vulgarities of the present.

The holocaust survivor's story is important not only in the context of continuing anti-Semitism but it also can provide the context for pluralism, and the lessons we can learn from Hinduism and from the concerns of Hindus assaulted daily by messages of proselytizers who want us to become Christian.

At the end of his presentation, Ipson asked the audience what they felt were the answers to reducing conflict and of hate. There were the usual suggestions of education, inter-faith dialogue, acceptance, and so on. I raised my hand, and started with what we in communication studies call a "hedge," a kind of apologetic intro. Human interaction is based on rules and norms, and we don't usually break them. Once in a while we do, either deliberately or by accident. When we do it deliberately, we usually try to soften the impact with an apology. Apologies can range from "hedging" to "credentialing" (when we say, for example, "Don't get me wrong, I like you but..."), to appeals for suspended judgment (for example, when we start by saying, "hear me out on this..."). My hedging began with, "I know this is going to be controversial but...."

Once again, there was some uncomfortable shifting in the chairs. I was, after all, the first one in the audience to say that some people learn hate from religion, and Ipson had acknowledged that. He also found that I was the one person in the audience who knew the group, other than the Nazis, who had mandated the wearing of a piece of colored cloth to identify the "other": these were the Taliban, who had mandated that Hindus wear clothing to identify themselves as Hindus.

After hedging, I said that I felt one of the fundamental reasons why there is religion-fuelled conflict is because of the claims by aggressive monotheistic religions, like Christianity and Islam, that they are the ones who know the only true God, and that it is the command of their religions for them to convert the non-Christian and the non-Muslim. "As soon as you say that my God is not good enough for me, you get my back up, and that has fuelled insanity for the past two millennia", I said.

The couple of Jewish friends in the audience nodded their head vigorously as well as my secular-Christian colleagues and students. There was some throat-clearing and shifting by others, and Ipson concurred with me. The session came to a close soon, and we had pictures taken, and I gave Jay my card, and he gave me his, and we agreed to collaborate on education, information, and publicity.

Two days later the Presbyterian minister Rev. B, who was in the university audience, challenged me. He is a fellow Rotarian, and so at the weekly Rotary luncheon meeting he came to me and said, "Ramesh, I have to disagree with your argument about conversion and proselytism." We did not have much time to argue about our understanding of the nature and influence of proselytism and of the monopolistic claims to "God." With a Ph.D. under his belt, Rev. B is a worthy interlocutor, but his assertion that I could not falsify the claim that "Jesus was the only son of God" in fact proved that Jesus could be the only son of God, I pointed out, was a confused reading of Karl Popper's thesis that only that which is falsifiable is scientific/verifiable knowledge.

He then argued that freedom of speech enabled him to spread the message of Christ, and that he had the right therefore to take his God to others. I told him that I am all for freedom of speech, but that the freedom, if wrongly used to assert unverifiable claims, or to demean and demonize others' faiths led to conflict. Religion-influenced conflict, I said, is the biggest bane of humanity now, and the irony is that religion is so influential in the modern, scientific world.

I told him that it is not as if we could argue about the claims of automobile manufacturers, for example, that their cars and trucks are more reliable and provide better gas mileage than their competitors' cars and trucks. "Oh, but we can," Rev. B asserted. I asked him if economic analyses showed that Christians are healthier than Muslims or Hindus, or whether Christians earned more than Sikhs, or if Christians were more loving than Buddhists. It seemed as if he was about to mention Samuel Huntington's thesis about the "clash of civilizations" to argue that there was some kind of sociological or economic evidence that indeed Christians were "better" than others, when the President of our Rotary Club rang the bell to call the meeting to order.

We stood up to sing some songs, and recite the Rotary pledge: "Is it the truth? It is fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?" I wanted to ask Rev. B if religious proselytism could be held to these standards? But I did not want to rub it in.

However, I told him about the story of Chandrashekhara Swami, a modern Hindu sage, who was asked by a young American why Hindus "will not convert other people to Hinduism". The Swamiji asked the young man why he wanted to convert, and what was wrong with Christianity. "Have you fully understood the religion of Christ and lived according to it? Have you been a true Christian and yet found the religion wanting?" The young man answered, "I am afraid I cannot say that, Sir." The Sage then told him, "Then we advise you to go and be a true Christian first; live truly by the word of the Lord, and if even then you feel unfulfilled, it will be time to consider what should be done." The young man was exhilarated, and said that he now understood that Hinduism sought to make a Christian a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Buddhist a better Buddhist.

If we follow the precept of the Hindu sage, Chandrashekhara Swami, I believe we can reduce conflict and violence in the world to a large extent.

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Ramesh N. Rao is a professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies and Theater at Longwood University, Farmville, Va. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of the institution to which he belongs. © copyright 2006 by Ramesh N. Rao

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