Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the north Indian state of Bihar, there are indigenous peoples who never converted to the Hinduism of the Aryan people that conquered and settled India long ago. Some of these tribals, as they are called, exist in another century, perhaps another millennium. In one hamlet, there is a well for drinking water, but no one has used it since a child fell down it and died four years ago. The illiterate villagers fear disturbing the child’s spirit, which, they believe, still resides in that well. Not long ago, dysentery killed twenty-six tribal villagers within two weeks’ time. No one went to the doctor or the dispensary down the road, because they were suspicious of the doctor’s magic.

A few hours’ journey from this hamlet, members of the same tribe inhabit a cluster of villages where living standards are dramatically better. Here, farmers use fertilizers, educate their children, and pay for health insurance. The village “sacrificer,” a sort of shaman, has long since given up his ancient art of placating the spirits. These villagers are Christians, the fruit of a late-nineteenth-century Jesuit missionary effort that has transformed the tribal belt of Chotanagpur, a plateau stretching across part of Bihar and the eastern portion of Madhya Pradesh, a neighboring state in northern India.

Far from the primitive villages of Chotanagpur, American Christians are debating recent efforts to secularize church aid programs in Asia and Africa, and to discourage mission personnel from evangelizing non-Christians. The reasons for the debate are not hard to see. Christian churches in the West are wracked by self-doubt, no longer confident of the Gospel’s universality. This crisis of faith converges with the faddish multiculturalist position—articulated in the National Council of Churches statement on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America—which damns the Christian faith, and the liberal values it gave rise to, as inherently destructive of aboriginal culture.

Christians who accept this argument not only defy the biblical injunction to preach to all nations, they suffer from a serious failure of charity and imagination. The multiculturalist, anti-missionary position assumes that humanity’s most backward people want to stay that way. Perhaps some do, or did. But what of those who have welcomed a new and arguably broader vision of their life? Perhaps their closed community had reached a dead end. What if their frail tribal identity stood defenseless against the onslaught of alien notions of progress, social discrimination, or economic enslavement?

As Western churches discuss the political correctness of Christian evangelization among native people, it seems that many people have lost sight of the astonishing social change brought about by mission efforts in places like Chotanagpur. There a modern conversion movement offers a strong case for retaining the best of the traditional missionary ethos.

In 1885, when a young Flemish Jesuit named Constant Lievens brought the Christian faith to the Munda, Kharia, and Oraon tribals of Chotanagpur, he never considered bypassing evangelization for the greater cause of economic change. He understood that social development depended on religious conversion. But Lievens also knew that the people would follow him only if he defended their rights and offered solutions to their plight. He began by addressing the paralyzing fear that dominated tribal life: fear of the Hindu landlords and fear of evil spirits.

From the fourth century a.d. until the sixteenth century, tribal farmers—also known as Adivasis—had peacefully cultivated the land cleared by their ancestors. Then in the 1500s the arrival of Hindu intruders, or dikus, introduced a tragic era of oppression. The Hindus, better educated and more affluent, challenged the tribals’ property rights. Many Adivasis were forced to give up their land. Bonded labor, exorbitant taxes, and other forms of exploitation were also imposed by the dikus.

In their battle against the landlords, or zamindars, the tribals constantly turned to the “spirit world” for help. They believed that the spirits of tribal ancestors remained among the living, providing a vital link between the visible world and the spiritual world, between the Adivasis, the land, the tribal god, and the creator.

Evil spirits, thought to have been brought by the Hindus, also roamed the tribals’ world, contaminating their ancient beliefs. Droughts, illness, and thievery were blamed on these mischievous spirits, who required constant appeasement through ritual sacrifices. Over time, tribal spirituality began to break down under the weight of superstitious practices and witch hunts.

Lievens defended tribal property rights in court, despite the landlords’ violent retaliations, but he categorically rejected witchcraft and superstition. During his tours of isolated hamlets, he challenged the people’s “fear of spirits, fear of the unknown powers, of the mysterious world beyond,” as one biography explains. Lievens had religious reasons for attacking “devil worship.” But he also contended that superstitious beliefs, fortified by illiteracy, engendered a passive, fatalistic acceptance of failure and exploitation.

Meanwhile, the Jesuits developed practical answers to the Adivasis’ legal and economic problems. A Catholic school system, beginning with elementary schools in every major village and crowned by seven colleges, made tribal families literate, self-confident, and eager to experiment with nonviolent solutions to their dependence on moneylenders and their land war with the zamindars. Jesuit-supervised cooperative banks and credit unions, funded by tribal members, became exercises in effective group action. Loans were guaranteed by the applicants’ fellow parishioners, who learned that a successful outcome required their support and supervision.

Slowly, the missionaries ignited the renewal of Adivasi culture. About 140,000 tribals had entered the Catholic Church by 1910. However, the Jesuits were also educating and training non-Christians, extending the mission’s influence beyond the converts. In 1928, the Jesuits helped to establish a civic organization that addressed problems regarding political representation and anti-tribal discrimination. Previously, most tribals would have shrunk from negotiations with the Hindu-dominated economic and political system; now they were prepared to meet their old foes on equal terms. Later, during the years preceding Indian independence, Christians emerged as major tribal political leaders. After 1947, they gradually moved to the forefront of mainstream Indian politics in Bihar.

Almost from the start, the Chotanagpur conversion movement has provoked questions about the legitimacy of the conversions and criticism of the Jesuits’ methods. Many Hindus and church figures, including some Jesuits, have contended that the tribal converts were “rice Christians,” motivated by greed rather than religious fervor. Critics have attacked the Jesuits’ heavy-handed conversion methods (initially, Lievens would not provide legal help until the tribals were baptized). Some detractors even contended that tribal affluence would put the church out of business: The converts’ newfound economic independence might lead them to drift away from the mission. After Lievens’ death, J. B. Hoffman, a German Jesuit and the primary force behind the mission’s economic programs, defended the bold initiatives:

True Christianity, so far from pauperizing people, must necessarily tend to relieve poverty by the only means worthy of men, viz., by thrift and a distinct rise in the intellectual and moral level of the masses . . . . [The mission must demonstrate that] the Catholic Church is able and willing to give them that which they still lack and without which they cannot be saved as a race, sound economic organization raising them above their present abject poverty, enabling them not only to live decently in their country, but also to take all the resources of their country into their own hands instead of leaving them to unsympathetic aliens.

Doubtless, some tribal conversions have been more “legitimate” than others, but the Adivasis church has withstood the test of time. Today in the district of Ranchi, an area of Bihar that was once the center of Lievens’ operations, conversions continue, albeit at a slower rate, and the Church still offers programs designed to reverse a cultural tendency toward fatalism. The professors teaching in Catholic colleges are the sons of farmers with grade school educations. Tribal missionary nuns prepare to spread the Gospel to other parts of the region. Young tribal men and women compete with Hindus for town jobs and university slots.

In the countryside, amid small huts made of mud and straw, the social and economic differences between Christians and non-Christians are most evident. While the latter engage in disputes over witchcraft and some even forage for root vegetables, Christian villagers cooperate on joint agricultural ventures and banking schemes. Typically, both groups live together harmoniously in a dusty hamlet, and many non-Christians take advantage of church schools and farming programs. But the Christians are moving ahead faster. They have begun to build houses instead of mud huts, and their children appear more at ease with strangers. They have come to terms with the non-tribal world and it no longer threatens them.

During a visit I made to Ranchi last year, an older Flemish Jesuit deplored the notion that social advancement could be separated from spiritual concerns. Referring to the multiculturalist virus, which has infected younger Indian Jesuits, he said that it would be a terrible mistake to ignore the spiritual dilemma of non-Christian tribals. “After baptism, you see the fear leave their eyes,” he said. “Lievens told the people that he would free them from fear of the landlords and of the evil spirits. He didn’t know, then, that the people came to him primarily because they wanted to be free of the dikus’ spirits.”

The best missionaries have understood the Gospel’s allure for native peoples struggling against spiritual and cultural stagnation. Christianity affirms basic human rights, offers a coherent and moral approach to a changing world, celebrates community life, and unlocks the redemptive power of suffering. In the modern world, the unique treasures of Christian faith and culture often are perceived as museum artifacts that belong to an increasingly distant past. Now we are poised to lock up these treasures, preventing access by non-Christians, and, one day, by ourselves.

Joan Frawley Desmond , a freelance writer, was based in India for three years before relocating to Tokyo, Japan. She is conducting research for a book on the final generation of foreign missionaries in Asia.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things onTwitter.