India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, recently passed an anti-conversion ordinance with the stringents of penalties. It’s not the first Indian state to pass such a law — at least eight others have some version of an anti-conversion law.
But Uttar Pradesh is the first to include a provision to punish inter-religious marriages suspected of being carried out for the purpose of conversion.
Under this new law, people who want to change their religion have to apply to the district magistrate and undergo a police inquiry to get permission to do so.
Interfaith couples who violate the law could be penalized with up to 5 years in jail.
To the casual observer, it’s obvious this new law is directed at the so-called notion of “love jihad,” the idea that a Muslim man marries a Hindu woman to convert her to his faith.
It’s no coincidence that Uttar Pradesh also has the highest Muslim population in India.
Already a Muslim man was arrested for marrying a Hindu woman, even though she said she did it of her own volition.
In terms of civil rights, this ordinance will violate the individual rights of adult Indians.
What if the bride and groom voluntarily choose to keep their respective religions? Or on the other hand, voluntarily decide to adopt their spouse’s faith?
Does the state have the authority to impinge on such intimate human affairs such as love and marriage?
Unfortunately, these laws also have a history of inciting harassment and attacks at the local level against minorities such as Muslims and Christians. This summer, several Christians were attacked in Haryana after the chief minister announced a similar anti-conversion bill.
For the Christian community at large and in India these anti-conversion laws raise the fundamental question of what it means to follow Jesus. If you look at Jesus’ record in the gospel accounts, it doesn’t seem he came to found another religion.
In fact, he was critical of the religious system of his day, which was run by elites and power-brokers who exploited the poor and downtrodden for their own gain.
It was his challenge to this establishment that ended up leading to his death.
So what is absolutely necessary for people to find and know God and his all encompassing salvation? Without controversy we can say it is an individual personal faith and following of Jesus and a commitment to the agreed Christology of the ancient church, which clarifies our belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord.
We must remember Jesus does not operate within the confines of the present day Christian religion or its cultural structures, but through his spirit he is present and working in the lives of people in all religions and cultures.
He is the Savior and Lord for all.
Many people in the Western world have rejected the institutionalized structures of the church because the one component that is vital to the Christian faith is missing — a personal vibrant and real faith in Jesus and his presence in their daily lives and practice.
There is plenty of religion, but the actual spiritual experience of knowing Jesus is often absent.
In countries such as India, where institutionalized religion is very closely associated with culture, talking about “conversion” to another religion is sadly perceived as a betrayal of one’s culture or national identity.
Part of the confusion may stem from tales of forced conversions during different periods when Hindu or Muslim-majority kingdoms controlled parts of India.
But the idea that forced conversions are happening today has been questioned by historians and even government data.
The term religious conversion also deprives the glorious experience of knowing and following Jesus with very few requirements except to be Christlike in our behavior in all things.
It also does not show the respect that is due to all people whatever faith they choose to follow, as the Bible enjoins.
Knowing that no power or laws on earth can stop the Spirit of God from bringing people to a personal faith to believe in Jesus Christ and follow him, we need to drop the language of “conversion.”
This word is not for our times.
We need to develop new language and even new rites whereby people can preserve their cultural identities even as they worship Jesus as Savior and Lord.
For example, it’s possible for people from the Hindu community who follow and experience Jesus as Savior and Lord to be both culturally Hindu and disciples of Jesus.
Jesus is Lord of all, and he is not exclusive to what is perceived as modern Christianity, which is largely viewed as a Western religion despite its roots in the East.
Jesus invites everyone to worship and follow him within their cultures and communities.
How we think of our identity as Christians and the experience of conversion is part of a larger discussion in both mainline and independent churches of what it means to follow Jesus today. These are the perennial questions each generation of believers must answer if we are going to be effective witnesses to Jesus, who belongs to all.