by Phil Johnson
raham Staines was an Australian (Brisbane-born) independent Baptist missionary who lived and served in India for most of his adult life. Staines was 23 years old in 1965 when he first went to India to meet a pen-pal with whom he had corresponded since childhood. While there, he visited an Australian-sponsored leprosy hospital. Deeply moved, he decided to stay and devote his life to working among leprosy victims in India. He never went back to live in Australia.
Graham became fluent in Oriya (the dominant language in Orissa), as well as the Santhali dialect. His ministry was mainly among India's poorest, most disadvantaged people. He met Gladys, a young nurse, in 1981 when she came to work with leprosy patients. Graham and Gladys married a year and a half later. Though they were relatively late starting a family (Graham was 42 and Gladys almost 32 when they married), they had a daughter (Esther) and two sons (Philip and Timothy).
And on a personal note, they were friends of Grace to India and members of the tape library there.
In January of 1999, Graham took his sons to the remotealmost inaccessiblevillage of Manoharpur (near Kendujhar, Orissa) for a four-day jungle camp. The terrain was so rough that reaching the village required an off-road vehicle. Staines had a four-wheel-drive Willys minibus that allowed him to get there, and he and his sons slept in the vehicle each night.
"Jungle Camp" was an annual event in Manoharpur; Staines had been organizing them there for fourteen years. Graham and his sons were well known and well loved by the villagers there, and he would teach them every year on a broad range of subjects ranging from public health and hygiene to the gospel, which he proclaimed unapologetically, but without pressuring villagers for conversions. Nevertheless, some 22 low-caste families had reportedly converted to Christianity over the years, and Hindu radicals in the surrounding district used the charge of "forced conversions" to incite hostility against Staines's work.
Sometime in the early-morning hours of January 23, a mob of more than 100 angry Hindu radicals approached the vehicle where Graham Staines, nine-year-old Philip, and seven-year-old Timothy were sleeping. The group surrounded the automobile, trapping Staines and his sons inside. They doused it with gasoline and then torched it, burning Staines and his two young sons alive. According to a short news item featured in Christianity Today a couple of months later, "As the flames engulfed the vehicle, the mob danced and some shouted, 'Justice has been done; the Christians have been cremated in Hindu fashion.' The mob kept would-be rescuers at bay for more than an hour until making sure the missionary and his sons had died."
There was a considerable amount of publicity about the incident in the worldwide media at the time (except in America's mainstream media, where the story was barely covered). Regional officials at first seemed prepared to let the matter drop after only a cursory investigation, until the Indian Cabinet in New Delhi ordered a judicial inquiry.
A year later, the purported ringleader, Dara Singh (aka Ravinder Kumar Pal) was arrested. Over the following three years, he was tried, convicted of the crime, and sentenced to death (in spite of Gladys Staines's personal plea to the judges for clemency on his behalf). Finally, in 2005, Singh's sentence was commuted to life in prison, and eleven other persons who had been convicted in the conspiracy were summarily released from prison. Recently, Dara Singh has petitioned the court for his own early release.
Gladys and Esther Staines remained in India and continued their ministry for several years after the murders. About four years ago, they returned to Australia. Esther, barely 13 at the time of the murders, wanted to earn a medical degree in Australia, and Gladys, exhausted, simply wanted to be a mother for a while. She still makes regular visits to India and continues to support the work she and her husband began in Orissa.
Most of India was shocked and outraged by the 1999 atrocity, but there is a radical Hindu element, still strong in Orissa, who continue to justify the unprovoked killing of Graham Staines and his two young children, even today. And the killer, Dara Singh, is still something of a folk hero among radical Hindus.
All of that is important context to keep in mind while trying to make sense of events in Orissa over the past ten days.
When radical Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was murdered last week (see our previous post), Hindu radicals immediately blamed Christian missionaries. Many Hindu nationalists remain insistent that Christian missionaries plotted and carried out the attack, even though non-Christian Moaists have taken responsibility for the murder. Blogs and websites with ties to the radical VHP have been reassuring one another that Christian missionaries were indeed behind the Swami murder, and all reports to the contrary are being dismissed by them as propaganda fomented by "the secular press" in India.
One false story, widely and quickly dispersed through the VHP community, claimed an employee of World Vision had been arrested as a suspect in the Swami murder. It turned out World Vision employees had only been brought to a police station for their own safety, after they were forced to flee bands of marauding Hindu fanatics. But VHP blogs and websites continue to propagate the false rumor anyway.
Sadly, the long-term effect of the violence incited by Hindu nationalists has had a chilling effect on Christian activitiesespecially the preaching of the gospel. Conversion is now a politically incorrect word and a concept guaranteed to stir hostile passions in India, where often no distinction is made between the simple preaching of the gospel and the forced style of "conversion" by which Islam originally spread through the subcontinent at the point of a sword.
Moreover, the situation in India is terribly confounded by the issue of so-called "mass conversions," urged even by some evangelical groups. Mass conversions are frequently publicized in advance and usually appear to be socially rather than spiritually motivated. India's Dalits (sometimes called Untouchables) are especially prone to use mass conversion as a social protest. (To quote a good friend of mine who is an Indian pastor: "Mass conversions . . . can result in social not true Christianity and much false conversions of the low castes who [merely] want aid and social recognition.") Mass conversions to Buddhism are common among Dalits as well.
Some so-called Christian groups in India seem to have forgotten that being a Christian is a matter of personal faith in Christ and obedience to Him as Lord. That's not an incidental idea, but the very heart of the gospel and the principle of sola fide. A failure to make the gospel clear is one of the sad by-products of the decline of Western evangelicalismand it is tragic to see the effects of that decline hurting the church in India as well. Authentic Christianity is not a caste or a social identity, and that fact too often gets lost or obscured, especially in India.
So continue to pray for courage and conviction and safety on behalf of our fellow believers in India. These are difficultdangeroustimes for gospel-centered ministry there.