When I first moved to Boise, Idaho, I received a welcome package on my doorstep. I can’t remember all that was in it, but there was a VHS tape introducing me to all of Boise’s churches. At the time I recall never having lived in a city with so many churches. But most of the time I didn’t see them because many were out in the suburbs. Their presence was ever present, however.
When I spent a semester teaching in Ghana, I was struck by the intensity of Christianity in the southern half of the country where I lived. There it felt different. It felt intensely colonial. The Mormon church in the center of Accra, in particular, with its excessive gold monument on top, was just one of many ways I found this Western Christian presence oppressive. It was the missionary presence, which felt all too colonial, that made it such. But even more than that: the presence of these churches and missionaries seemed to be coupled with images of white Jesus that were ubiquitous. I found them on taxis, cars, tro-tros, decorating businesses–everywhere. Most Ghanaians didn’t seem to get the irony of praying to a white man who came from Palestine (i.e., not the West). Below are some photos of those churches and images of white Jesus I took at the time (unfortunately it is posting the Bangalore photos too so readers will have to make out the differences for themselves until I can figure out how to change it).
Now I am in Bangalore and feeling that the missionary presence is even greater here–and even more oppressive. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this city was once a cantonment for the British army. Now all that land is occupied by the Indian armed forces. But equally pervasive, as far as I can tell, are the other hold over from colonial days: the churches. Thus, the title for this post: the infantry should be obvious. The infant is the baby Jesus. For there are many code names, often in Sanskrit, sometimes in English, in ways that attempt to disguise what is being alluded to. So the word infant becomes shorthand for baby Jesus. And it is a word one would be hard pressed to avoid as you wander through this city. I am rather in awe when I think of how much land space the army and the churches take up when you combine the two. I would love to see a figure on how many square kilometers they take up. It makes the outrage I felt when I first saw how much land UNIFIL takes up in Lebanon seem as if it merely occupies an office and not such a huge chunk of land along south Lebanon’s seashore.
Just in the little northeast quadrant of the city I’ve seen, and photographed, over 200 churches. Each Sunday I take a walk around a new neighborhood near where I live and discover even more. I live in an area that was once heavily populated by Anglo Indians. It’s now a mixture of Indian Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, and a few foreigners are sprinkled into the mix as well.
But it is not just the churches and their missionary zeal and colonial presence that I find disturbing (which is especially pernicious given how many schools these churches operate in Bangalore and, therefore how many young minds they have the chance to control). (For anyone who still associates Mother Theresa with India–see mural at the top of this post–I strongly advise you to read Christopher Hitchens’ work on the subject as he wrote it when he was at the top of his game and he got her dead on in a way no one else ever did.) It is the type of churches that are the most aggressive in this respect that I see all around me–American churches like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Pentecostals, and other variations on evangelism. As with in Ghana, their presence is not only in the churches, but also translates into people’s names and into their business names.
In Bangalore one can see this in the expected way with names like John or Mary. But what is unexpected are the names associated with Palestine like Nazareth and Hebron. But the more I wandered around, the more I saw that did not seem to be related to Palestine per se, but rather to the specific American brand of Christian Zionism that often comes with various brands of evangelical Christianity. One can see this, too, in everything from the names of churches to signs on ordinary businesses. When I Googled Bangalore and Zion, I found a number of businesses that turned up from IT companies to money changers to hospitals and clinics.
Given the fact that there is a plethora of these symbols and signs related to evangelical Christianity and Zionism, it makes me suspicious of other signs that are dispersed around the city, such as the otherwise innocuous “shalom,” Hebrew for hello or peace that once finds decorating the entrance ways to many people’s homes here.