A Promise of Unconditional Acceptance: Conversion to Christianity and the Struggle for Being in Sinja, Nepal
Over the last few decades, Nepal’s Christian population has grown at an extraordinary rate, flourishing even in quite remote contexts such as the Sinja Valley, in the northwestern district of Jumla. The reasons why people are drawn towards Christianity are, foremost, existential, and are intimately related to the problematic situations they are confronted with in their lives. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in 2014-16 and 2019, in this presentation I explore the structural reasons that are leading a number of people in Sinja to seek a better life in Christianity, and, crucially, how conversion reorients their experience of personhood.
A person, in Hindu Sinja, is far from a given entity. Someone’s identity needs instead to be constantly actualized through appropriate behaviors corresponding to the kind of person one is socially expected to be. This means that “being”, in Sinja, is a process always in the making, and a relentless existential challenge. There is indeed a great deal of pressure on people of both genders to be the right social persona. This is even more burdensome when the circumstances do not facilitate the fulfilment of social expectations—a failure that in some cases may have a deadly outcome. Moreover, also the gods’ love is not guaranteed, reason why Hindu deities have to be regularly cajoled to favor human activities by means of ritual offerings to mediums and priests. Given the above, it should come as no surprise that a non-judgmental God said to love His creatures unconditionally managed to get a foothold in this part of Nepal among those whom, for whatever reason, repeatedly proved uncapable to succeed in this struggle for being. What makes Christianity appealing seems to be that, in this religion, one’s self is given a priori, and so is God’s unconditional love for everyone. God’s love finds expression in the miraculous events that many a convert report happening in their lives, which, manifesting the truth of the Word in the world, support the conversion of those in structurally disadvantaged positions, like women and the young. Recognizing to anyone intrinsic value and dignity, Christianity provides a safe harbour that unburdens frail people from the pressing anxiety to play out who they are through appropriate behaviours, guaranteeing thus their presence in the world. Conversion, in other terms, is based on a promise: the promise of acceptance. At the same time, though, Christianity introduces also unprecedented challenges in their lives, discouraging viewing conversion as a one-dimensional transition from “bad” to “good.”