Conflicts over conversion often involve divergent logics about religious publicity and persuasion. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Sri Lankan Buddhists began expressing renewed hostility toward Christians, who are seen as “unethically” converting Sri Lankans away from their native religions. They see the material accoutrements of Christian grace as estranging Buddhists from righteous, karmic inheritances. Distinctive economies of religious persuasion are perceived to engender differences in the essential character of persons. Buddhist nationalists tend to take evangelical Christian economic and religio-moral inclinations (prosperity gospels, charitability, and expansionism) as malignant attributes of Christian personhood (greed, zeal, misguided forgiveness, fraudulent economic manipulation). Anti-conversion discourses paint conversion to Christianity as an insidious socialization process that threatens Buddhism and generates fraudulence and anti-nationalism. These anxieties over religious difference crystallized in allegations that a Sinhala convert to Christianity—a businessman and philanthropist—was culpable for the death of a prominent Buddhist monk. The iconic conversion of the alleged culprit, seen alongside prior conversion trends, makes evident a periodized history of “pragmatic” conversions (a) from Buddhism to Christianity (colonial era), (b) from Christianity back to Buddhism (decolonization), and (c) from Buddhism to charismatic Christianity (during “nationalization” of the economy amid global neoliberalization). Religio-economic affinities are split along partisan lines in Sri Lanka, thereby intensifying the conflictual interplay between evangelical conviction and nativist skepticism.
Mahadev, Neena. 2014. Conversion and Anti-conversion in Contemporary Sri Lanka: Pentecostal Christian Evangelism and Theravada Buddhist Views on the Ethics of Religious Attraction. In Proselytizing and the Limits of Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia (ARI Springer Asian Series, vol. 4), pp. 211-235.
Abstract: Over the last decade Buddhist nationalist activists have pursued various measures to curb proselytism by Christians who strive to “unethically convert” Sri Lankans born as Buddhists. Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalist discourses reveal suspicions that the act of becoming enculturated into Christianity is detrimental to the person and to the nation in a number of ways. What can such nationalist discourses about “unethical conversions,” and about the instruments used to engender religious attraction, tell us about the politics of perception that inflame antipathies over proselytism, conversion, and apostasy? Analysis of ethnographic material reveals that Buddhist protectionists tend to regard two forms of Christian “gift” to be operative in securing conversions. First, gifts of Christian charity are perceived to be material “allurements” that serve to induce conversions and religious patronage among vulnerable Sri Lankans. Comparatively examining Christian and Buddhist forms of giving (charity and dāna respectively), which engender radically different types of ethical sensibilities about the use of gifts and care as modalities of conversion and religious attraction, helps to illuminate why charity is a significant point of contention between these religious communities. Secondly, Pentecostal Christian charisma—or the notion that God’s Grace is a gift which can be evidenced through miracles of healing—appears to Buddhist skeptics as dubious and harmful means of manipulating Sri Lankans into committing apostasy. Using ethnography to depict how adherents and detractors alike have made spectacles out of charismatic Christian promises of miracles, this essay describes how recent controversies have played out between Buddhist nationalists and Christian evangelists within the Sri Lankan public sphere. Focusing on charity and charismatic miracles as modalities of conversion, this paper illuminates key aspects of the anxieties over new Christian forms of religious propagation, proselytism, and devotion as they have entered into a milieu marked by ethno-religious nationalism, religious protectionism, as well as established ethical sensibilities and religious conventions.