Tekriwal: How not to be a believer

Tanisha Tekriwal , Op-Ed Contributor

I don’t know how many people on campus have been roped into a conversation about “spirituality” that ended up feeling like an attempt at conversion. As an international student, the title Cru meant nothing to me, and I suspect there are many domestic students too who might not have known much about it before coming to Northwestern. Cru is a religious organization, which used to be called “Campus Crusade for Christ,” and some years ago decided to change its name to be able to have “discussions about Christ with people who might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name,” according to the organisation’s spokesperson who discussed the topic with ABC News.

My encounter with the organization seemed like an isolated experience that was uncommon on campus. Until I asked my friends and they asked theirs and I realized many more stories with more troubling particulars than mine than I had initially anticipated existed.

My meeting with a Cru member started out as a general conversation, which, I have since learned, is nothing out of the ordinary. Quickly, however, it swerved to religion. I was asked about my beliefs and explained that I believe only in morality and if labels are necessary, then I would identify as a Hindu verging on agnostic. The whole conversation proceeded in the friendliest of manners; the girl I met shared with me her beliefs on certain topics and I shared mine. The Cru member brought a friend along, which I didn’t think too much of until I listened to other narratives and realized that this, too, is a pattern: a harmless detail that nevertheless startles in its meticulous regularity.

At some point, one of them pulled out a small booklet, the cover reading “Know God” without specifying its Christian approach. To me, it seemed like Cru was suggesting the only way to know God was through Christianity, closing the door on other religions that also believe in one God. A diagram was presented to me: the first was of two circles — one marked Earth, and the other God — drawn apart from each other. There were arrows reaching out from the first circle, unable to reach the other. The premise, I was told, was that being a good person is important, yes, but no matter what we do, our sins are too insurmountable for us to reach or know God. On the next page, a similar illustration was chalked out, with one difference: the circles were now connected with a cross marked Christ.

As I have explained before, I am not particularly religious, and am not trying to reach God, but imagine if I were. Imagine how offensive it could be to a believer of any other faith that the only avenue to the Almighty is delineated decidedly Christian. Imagine the atheists and agnostics who are implicitly told that no matter how good and righteous they are, their lack of faith will always lead them to damnation. Atrocities committed in the name of God — like the curbing of women’s rights — are often rationalized by the idea that actions are irrelevant as long as the oppressor’s faith is maintained. Isn’t this the dangerous trope of blind faith espoused and abused as an instrument of oppression by extremist factions of all religions? And what of the oppressed and the ones who have dealt with tragedy beyond our everyday — are they to be punished for being disenchanted with a God who has never revealed Herself to them when they have done nothing wrong?

The dialogue also moved to the overlap between religions. When I claimed that all religions are fashioned around being a good human, the Cru member distanced her faith from Judaism and Islam; but doesn’t that very language of division and differentiation engender strife in the world? The conversation ended with her asking me if Christianity was a lifestyle I could see as a means to know God, and evasively I said I could see how it could be a way to know God for some people. More directly now, I was asked if I could see it as an avenue for myself, and I declined the implicit offer, saying my beliefs were, if not antithetical, a step away from those they articulated.

I must clarify now that the member I met with was polite and friendly, and I have heard the same from other tellings of the Cru narrative. The problem resides not with the execution of “sharing the gospel” but the intent. ReCruitment or conversion disguised as a social event or harmless discussion is deceitful — a simple exchange of information and beliefs need not end in one conceding to the other. So to those who want to separate my experience and others’ experiences on campus from the beliefs of Cru at large, consider the following things.

After learning of other incidents, and finally deciding to write this piece, I opened up the Cru website online and came across some articles. A particularly disturbing one was titled “How the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator Can Help You Share the Gospel” which outlined ways to recognize people’s personality types to better give the members “a real advantage when sharing (their) faith” because “sharing the gospel is about more than preparing an arsenal of arguments.”

Advantage — what for? Arguments — what are you trying to convince your partner of, in what was supposed to be an open and respectful discussion about each others’ beliefs? The article charts out personality types and “what they respond to,” which worries me as I contemplate the possibility of students being subjected to manipulation dressed as socializing on a cerebral and subconscious level.

Another article is titled “How To Talk With Agnostics and Atheists” where people are categorized as Christian and non-Christian — isn’t the lumping of believers of a different faith with atheists and agnostics dangerous? How do you tell someone that their beliefs, just because they are different, are equal, in your eyes, to not believing without feeling at least a little bit of shame? This article quotes a converter who says that “evangelism isn’t about giving people information, it is about helping people understand.” Understand that one God is real and another isn’t? Don’t even get me started on the troubling ethics of feeling the need to “enlighten” atheists and agnostics.

So my question remains why missionaries trained to trap one in subtle turns of language and behavior are allowed to conduct activities that in exercising their religious rights simultaneously encroach on others’ rights on a secular campus like Northwestern. I question how we can allow “Crusaders” to flourish in a space where we know what the historical and brutal connotations of that term are. The word jihad roughly translates to “the Crusade for a principle or belief,” not the ugly definition it has devolved to in contemporary context. Yet, the idea of having a group on campus named Jihadists seems insane.

Can one imagine the outrage if today the Muslim, Hindu or other groups on campus contacted students saying they want to discuss “spirituality” and started — however respectfully — preaching their personal views to them? There would be headlines and cries of a “pagan invasion.”

I understand that many regard evangelism and conversion an intrinsic part of their faith, not only in Christianity, but also other religions. For once these people must pick humanity and basic respect for others over their own ulterior motives. That is not to say that religious organizations must abandon their views — I can think of several, such as the University Christian Ministry and Northwestern OM, a Hindu group on campus, that keep to themselves without upsetting anyone. They must, however, stop attempting to promote something as personal as religion. If that is the Crux of the character and purpose of their organization, they should take their activities off-campus.

Conversion itself must be an act of personal interest and free will — it must be sought and not offered. Educating others about one’s faith and helping others need not take that tone. Many put religiosity and morality in the same bracket — but if one wants to do good, one can do so as a human and need not relate it to their identity as a Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh etc. Kindness existed in society long before humankind started looking for God — definitely long before Christ — and will exist long after.

My last word on this is that I know some will read this as an anti-Christianity rant. It is not. I stand for secularism and people’s beliefs being respected. I do not stand for a Northwestern where some communities are allowed to get away with things others are persecuted for. My criticism of a dimension of religious activity on the Northwestern campus will no doubt be misconstrued as an attack on religious freedom. I only contend that the presence and participation of Cru on campus is itself manifesting as an infringement of other, less visible, groups’ religious freedoms, including those who decide upon the agnostic or atheist paths.

Tanisha Tekriwal is a Weinberg first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.