Religious Fundamentalism and Christian Witnesss in a Pluralistic Context
The Rev Dr. Mani Chacko, Director of the Ecumenical Christian Centre in Bangalore, reflects on mission in the context of violence and fundamentalism in India.
The jungle district of Kandhamal witnessed the worst anti-Christian violence and persecution in Indian history following the 23 August 2008 murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. The Hindu leader had led a vociferous campaign against Christianity for decades in the Kandhamal district of the south-central state of Orissa. Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu fundamentalist groups alleged that the murder was a “Christian conspiracy” and hounded out the Christians while the state administration did little to stop the carnage. In the widespread violence that continued unabated for weeks, more than 90 Christians were killed. Over 6,000 Christian houses and 350 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched. Over 54,000 Christians fled their homes.
Puspanjali Panda is one of the victims of these brutal events. She makes no attempt to halt the tears flooding down her face. Holding her daughter close, she tells visitors how a baying Hindu mob dragged her husband – a Christian pastor – from his bed, beat him to death with stones and iron rods and then threw his body into a river. She found his corpse two days later, washed up on the bank. When she went to the police, they told her to go away.
Mrs. Panda and thousands of others like her are victims of the worst communal violence between Hindus and Christians that India has seen. For a country that boasts of its mutual religious tolerance, the long-simmering tension that erupted in Kandhamal, which included a nun being raped, is a belated wake-up call and a mounting embarrassment. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a “national disgrace”.
While conversion has been an issue, the conflict is more complex than simply a religious disagreement. Many activists believe the fight is an economic dispute between two of India’s poorest groups, complicated by issues of caste and ethnicity. For decades there has been conflict over land and resources between the two groups at the bottom of India’s complex social system – the indigenous people of the region officially listed as scheduled tribes (ST) and non-indigenous poor known as scheduled castes (SC).
A recent conference organized by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and the Council for World Mission is an indication that the church in India is waking from her slumber, and will finally address the issue of religious fundamentalism. During a Dalit–Tribal Interface held at Bhubaneswar from January 17-22, 2011, a day visit to Kandhamal was the highlight of the programme; the participants were able to listen to and interact with the people of the Kandhamal from various villages. According to Bishop Bijay Kumar Nayak of Phulbani Diocese, this interaction was unique because this is the first time that church leaders from different parts of India, and from various church denominations and international bodies, had the opportunity to listen to the stories of the Dalit and Tribal communities who were victims of the Kandhamal violence. The delegates affirmed the following:
Kandhamal is a specific instance of injustice and we acknowledge the unpreparedness and fear of the church in dealing with the situation. The church needs to urgently develop transparent, accountable governance systems for early warning and response and the capacity for performance-based management so that available solidarity can be best utilized.
We denounce the complicity of the government and hold both the state and central governments accountable for their delay in action and inaction. We were prevented from providing even humanitarian relief to the victims by illegal executive fiat. Our visit to Kandhamal and the interaction with the communities overwhelmed us with the pain and the plight that the survivors still have to endure with continued threat to their life. The murder of Pradhan, a lay preacher in Banjamah village as recently as 10 January 2011, has once again stirred up a lot of heat and dust in the Christian communities and once again has heightened the insecurity.
We are shocked at the present and continuing victimization of the survivors of the Kandhamal persecution, three years after the attacks, the scale of deprivation and the depth of institutionalized hostility to their rehabilitation. We realise that peace is not possible without justice, and justice is not possible where impunity reigns and crime rewarded. The culpability of the state, up to the highest levels, in subverting the rule of law cannot be ignored. It is the primary responsibility of the state to protect, promote and secure human rights and dignity. We urge the state to initiate confidence-building processes immediately by rebuilding all homes and places of worship and providing security to the people to freely live and practice their religion with secure livelihoods.
We appeal to the broader society to take cognizance of divisive forces and not fall prey to narrow sectarian propaganda, but to rise collectively to protect the human rights and dignity of all. The role of the media and enlightened sections of society in this regard is crucial in preventing the general slip of society into fascism and apathy.
We will continue to challenge the fascist ideologies, fundamentalist forces, educating and empowering all citizens to be free and equal, rejecting ideologies of social stratification and inequality even when they are clothed in the language of cultural nationalism and liberal ideologies, informing citizens of their rights as enshrined in the constitution and support them as they attempt to exercise their rights. We pledge to help rebuild not just their homes but their lives and their communities in solidarity and atonement in an inclusive process of healing. We rededicate ourselves, with redoubled effort and commitment, for social justice and empowerment of these communities.
This statement is premised on the reality of religious fundamentalism in the country, and it affirms the need to revisit our understanding of Christian witness in a pluralistic context like India. The following are reflections on the above two issues.
Religious fundamentalism is a phenomenon found in all religions. There is Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism and so on. So, at the outset we need to realize that when we talk about fundamentalism, it is not confined to the Christian religion. Religious fundamentalism places high value and priority on doctrinal aspects of religion even at the expense of intelligibility and human transformation. It tends to create a culture in which what is accepted as right within one’s religious domain is viewed as nothing but the truth and as the only truth.
Every religion has a set of fundamentals which are necessary for its own survival and growth. However, being unreasonably selective with regard to the fundamentals, giving them exclusive primacy to the exclusion of others that are apparent in other religions, is a proposition which is challengeable. It is a reality that many fundamentalist religious groups argue that their beliefs and practices are the only true teachings and reject outright the teachings of others as false. This is done usually through a literal interpretation of their scripture, implying clearly that their interpretation is the only right one.
Fundamentalists tend to argue that salvation is available only to those who ascribe to their teachings and practices. Some even behave as though those who do not belong to their religion do not deserve to be treated as human beings. It is on the fundamentals of a particular religion that fundamentalists focus and thereby develop a fundamentalist approach to religion. The antagonism they express toward other religions makes it a matter of real concern in contemporary society. Generally speaking, there are three types of responses to the issue:
- Passivism – the view that fundamentalism is a reality in every religion and it is there to stay and there is, therefore, no point in wasting time debating the issue;
- Activism – the notion that fundamentalism is an evil that needs to be fought in order to create a culture of peace and co-existence;
- Pessimism – the view that religion is a farce anyway, and so why should we bother about this issue at all?
In my pastoral, theological and ecumenical journey, I have found religious fundamentalism to be a very disturbing phenomenon that curbs growth in all respects. It belittles our selves and our understanding of God, religion and the other. It creates a divide between the private and the public, individual and community, heaven and earth, doctrine and ethics, right and wrong and so on. We seldom attempt to bridge the gap between this divide in order to transcend divisions in our search to find truth and meaning in life.
Non-Foundationalism as an Alternative
In my quest for truth, I often wonder whether foundationalism has been the root cause of fundamentalism in religion. I enquire whether non-foundationalism could be offered as a corrective to fundamentalism in religion.
Every religion has certain foundations, which we call fundamentals. All our religious pursuits are expected to be in conformity with these foundations. The essence of the philosophy of non-foundationalism is that there are no fixed or absolute universal foundations for knowledge. Knowledge exists in particular cultural and linguistic communities, and such knowledge does not need validation from outside its community. This non-foundationalist approach enables us to view reality not in fixed categories but in an interconnected, interdependent web of existence.
Non-foundationalism can justify the truth claims of different religions and pave the way for religions to co-exist in the world. It can also validate contextual theologies like Dalit or Tribal or Feminist theology in their struggle to find a place in the vast spectrum of knowledge. The non-foundational rejection of any absolute or universal claims of truth would help the emergence and justification of contextual contested theories.
The point I emphasize is that knowledge is based on multiple experiences and that because of this plurality of experiences there cannot be absolute knowledge. This is particularly significant in India, where people are exposed to different religious experiences and traditions. The challenge to Christian witnessing in the Indian context is to realize that the core of the gospel we are called to proclaim is the dignity and honor of human personhood. This becomes a reality only when we are able to accept the other the way he/she is. In order to accept the other and to accept the difference, theology should change its universal, fixed absolute categories of knowledge and values and reorient its theoretical basis to accept the validity of multi-foundational faith, values and practices. Our theologies and thereby our witness need to be relational with respect to individuals, communities, genders, races and all creation, resisting all efforts to subsume the difference or drift away from one another.
Christian Witness in a Pluralistic Context
The validity of multi-foundational faith, values and practices helps us come to grips with a new phenomenon which has entered the contemporary religious scene, i.e., religious pluralism. If plurality of religions is part of the plan of God, how do we understand the mission of God or the mission of the church? What is the goal of the church’s mission? Is it conversion and baptism of all who belong to other religions, as it was traditionally understood to be?
Paradigm Shift in Inter-Faith Relations
Christianity in the past entertained an imperial and colonial attitude towards other faiths or religions. One can identify three phases in the approach of Christianity to other religions. In the first phase, Christianity, with its absolute and universal faith claim, considered other religions as a threat to its own existence and survival. The other religions were totally rejected as false, and the missionary policy during this time was to conquer territories and peoples in order to convert all to the Christian faith. In the second stage, other religions were looked at more positively, a view influenced by the emergence of scientific studies of religion such as history of religions, sociology of religions, philosophy of religions, phenomenology of religions, etc. The church slowly began to see truths and human values in other religions. Yet still the “other” was disparaged, and there was the notion that the other religions were all human, whereas Christianity was the only divinely inspired and revealed religion and hence the only true and authentic religion.
Today, we see a new phase in inter-faith relations. Plurality of religions is now accepted not only from a historical point of view, but also from a theological perspective. Many accept that different religions, which arose in different cultural and historical contexts, are rooted ultimately in the inexhaustible mystery of God, which cannot be confined to any one religion. It is also believed that God is actively involved in the whole creation and that the salvific activity of God continues even outside the church among all peoples and cultures. This new openness is helpful in bridging the gap in inter-faith relations. New paradigms of mission have been proposed in the light of this new understanding.
Emerging Paradigms of Mission in Inter-Faith Relations
Mission as Humanization
The late M. M. Thomas saw humanization as part of the goal of mission. “Our mission,” he said, “is to make clear that salvation is the spiritual inwardness of true humanization and that humanization is inherent in the message of salvation in Christ”.
As society becomes increasingly technocratic, men and women are in danger of losing their humanity, of being reduced to the level of machines and being exploited and used against their own will. In this situation men and women are no more in a position to decide their own destiny.
The gospel of Jesus Christ strives to save men and women from losing their humanity. Neither religion nor technology has the right to deprive men and women of their humanity. At its Jerusalem meeting in 1928, the International Missionary Council pointed out that in meeting the hearts of people the gospel of the love of God meets them not as Muslims, Buddhists or as members of any other systems, but simply as humans. When we study other religions and meet other people and speak to them, we speak to them as human to human. Men and women as the image of God should remain always human and should not be regarded as machines among other machines.
This insistence on the humanity of men and women helps us realize more fully the common humanity of all people in this world. All men and women – Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Communists and all others – belong to the one human family of God, to the one household (oekumene) of God. One God has created us all, and one Savior has given his life for all of us. As Vijaya Vidyasagara from Sri Lanka says, “God is God of the world before He is God of the Church and all humanity constitutes his family and mystical body”
Mission as Solidarity
Gnana Robinson speaks about solidarity as a missionary principle. The mission of the Church is the missio Dei, the mission of God, the mission in Christ’s way. God’s way of doing mission in Christ is the way of solidarity, solidarity with those among whom mission has to be carried out. To be in solidarity with someone means, “to step in for him/her”. In this sense the concept of solidarity has always been an element of Christian faith.
The incarnation of God in Christ is the concrete expression of God’s solidarity with suffering humanity: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved”. (John 3:16-17) The sacrificial death of Christ on the cross is the sign of God’s solidarity with suffering people. It affirms that God steps in for the salvation of those who are dehumanized and threatened. God steps into human history in order to give “abundant life” (John 10:10) to all those who are denied opportunities to give full expression to their life in this world. Solidarity is thus the missionary principle of God.
Mission as Community Witness
The late George Soares Prabhu advocated Christian mission as an integral whole. It includes not only verbal proclamation but healing action as well. It strives not just for church growth but also for the wholeness of creation. These dimensions of mission form the backdrop to all the mission texts of the New Testament. They find conspicuous expression in a mission command of Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-16): “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world. . . .” This text is richer in its overall missiological content than the much used and abused mission text known as the “Great Commission” at Matthew 28:16-20. Prabhu pleads that the Great Commission be read in the light of the mission text of Matthew 5:13-16. This reflection corrects a flawed understanding of the so-called Great Commission and draws attention to forgotten dimensions of mission. Mission is not just Christocentric, making disciples of Christ, but also theocentric, giving glory to God by building up God’s Kingdom. The way of this mission is not so much individual proclamation as community witness. Unless the church lives as church, that is, as the symbol and servant of the kingdom, it cannot engage in authentic mission.
Challenges for Christian Witness in a Pluralistic Context
From Exclusion to Inclusion
All of humankind is to be seen as a single community because God made the whole human race in God’s own image. God is leading humankind to its final destiny, and for this purpose God has been revealing himself to all peoples in different ways. Any exclusive notion of revelation needs to be done away with as we embrace an inclusive way of understanding the relationship between the divine and human. All religions are to be seen as different responses to basic questions of humanity, such as: What is man/woman? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is truth? What happens beyond life on this earth?
From Church to the Kingdom (Reign) of God
We need to rediscover the fact that Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom (Reign) of God and not the Church. Church is only a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a new reality, a new relationship of God and humanity, a new ethos where peace and justice prevail. It is a new lifestyle marked by sacrificial love, humility and dignity. The Kingdom of God was inaugurated in Jesus, but it is yet to be fully realized. In this process, the Church becomes an instrument for realizing the goal of the Kingdom. Also, the Church is not the exclusive agent of the Kingdom. Other religions and cultures also play an important role in the kingdom-building process. The Church is not the Kingdom, but it is a sign and servant of the Kingdom. This theological perspective on the Kingdom has tremendous value in building inter-faith relations.
From Conversion to Healing
The whole purpose of Jesus’ mission in the world was to heal wounds and build up one human family based on love. His objective was not to convert people in the sense of adding numbers to a sect or a group. He had to break customs and traditions in order to bring healing to suffering people. For him, healing was more than physical healing, for it was holistic in covering all aspects of life. He wanted to create a community and a humanity of wholeness. Conversion in the deepest sense is conversion to God and to one’s neighbor, not simply from one religion to another. When conversion happens in this sense, wounds and broken relationships are healed. There comes a new awareness of the values of the Kingdom (Reign) of God that needs to be established on earth.
From Majority to Minority
For Jesus, each individual mattered. It was not numbers or size that attracted him. He always tried to teach this truth through analogies such as the mustard seed, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, and the lost and the least in the Parable of Judgment. It is the minority who are faithful that mattered, not the majority. Even in the midst of crowds, he had time for the minority.
From Doctrinal to Spiritual
Much time has been wasted in our quarrels about doctrines and creeds. What mattered to Jesus were not doctrines but things that are spiritual, things that are in tune with God and the values of God’s Kingdom (Reign). What Jesus stood for was the establishment of justice and righteousness on earth. His stress was on building up one humanity where there is priority given to values of the Kingdom (Reign) of God, not to doctrines.
From Absolute to Relative
Every faith is absolute for its adherents, and they will naturally make absolute claims for their faith, which is legitimate as far as they are concerned. However, affirming our faith in Christ and God’s revelation in Christ does not mean negating God’s revelation in and among other peoples. The church’s mission is not to destroy such absolute faith claims but to challenge and be challenged by them in mutuality and complementarity. It is with this shift from absolute to relative that we move forward. Absolute faith claims which are part of faith experience belong to the language of mystery. Any God talk belongs to this language. Even the centrality and uniqueness of Christ is also a mystery. When faith claims are seen in this light, we realize the beauty of the language of mystery, which always has the dimension of the “beyond” which transcends all human understanding.
The word “mystery” is a very helpful word in this endeavor. It eases the tension between bipolar realities such as divine/human rational/mystical, eternal/temporal, aesthetic/ethical, individual/community. The concept of mystery helps me realize that God is God and I am human; that God is beyond reason; that the values connected to the Reign of God are eternal and permanent; that experience of God is not simply an aesthetic phenomenon, but rather an experience of ethical relationships of justice and peace; that God is both an individual and a communitarian experience.
Religious Conflict Revisited
The most recent report of the Justice B. K. Somasekara Commission of Inquiry, constituted to probe the attacks on churches in various parts of Karnataka in 2008, is a pointer to the seriousness of the issues dealt with in this paper. On the one hand, the commission cleared the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the church attacks. On the other hand, the commission failed to identify the real culprits behind the attacks and blamed “self-styled pastors” using “unaccounted local and foreign funds” who have been involved in converting people to Christianity, as a cause behind the atrocities committed against Christians in the recent past.
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama decried religious conversions at a recent meeting in Bangalore. He said that “proselytisation by monetary inducements was not only harmful but was the very antithesis of Christian precepts”. However, he also said that conversion in itself was acceptable if a person undertook it with full awareness and knowledge. At the same time, he said that “a response to conversions through hatred and violence on the part of the Hindus by burning down churches and destruction of property was not worthy of the tolerant nature and the embracing tradition of the world’s most ancient religion”.
While delivering the 7th Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture in October 2008, on “The Power of Religion and the Religion of Power,” noted journalist M. J. Akbar remarked,
Everybody is equal within and outside faith and that includes men and women. There is no rationale to treat any person as an unequal. . . . The 21st century gives us everything but peace. Peace comes with better understanding, understanding comes with dialogue and dialogue happens between equals. This is the lesson for all of us.
The unanimous resolution passed at the dialogue between Christian and Hindu leaders at Kochi on 28 September 2008 is significant:
We condemn violence in the name of religion. No religion accepts violence. This meeting resolves that mutual trust, friendship and collective efforts among different religions is inevitable not only for the unity and integrity of the nation but also for the very survival of humanity. Attempts and postures to create hatred and distrust among religions are to be dissuaded and defeated. Faith in one’s own religion is precious to everyone. Any attempt to convert one religionist to another religion by force will upset religious harmony. The right and freedom of the individual to practice his religion should never be denied. Similarly the Indian Constitution and Indian tradition uphold the right and freedom of people of all religions to preserve and practice their respective faiths. The tendency to question and condemn other religions has to be stopped. It is also wrong to picturise in bad taste and insult icons and idols of religious significance held in great regard by the faithful.
One of the beautiful metaphors that have been helpful in understanding human relationships is the metaphor of the world as God’s body. According to Sallie McFague this metaphor encourages us to concentrate on the ‘neighborhood’. It understands the doctrine of creation not to be primarily about God’s power, but about God’s love: how we can live together, all of us, within and for God’s body. It focuses attention on the near, on the neighbor, on the earth, on meeting God not later in heaven but here and now.
Such interconnectedness is vivid in an incident which has always challenged me. An Indian Christian, Satyavati Chidambar, wrote to Gandhiji in an effort to persuade him to become a Christian, because she believed that Gandhi, as an orthodox Hindu, could not follow the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhiji replied as follows:
Dear Sister! Why do you believe that the truth lies only in believing Jesus as you do? Why do you believe that an orthodox Hindu cannot follow the Sermon on the Mount? Are you sure that you know what an orthodox Hindu is? Are you sure that you really know Jesus and his teachings? I admire your zeal, but I cannot congratulate you on your insights. . . . I invite you to climb down from your mountain-top, where you have left no place for others, besides yourself.”
To climb down from our mountaintops and to create room for others is the challenge that comes to us today and which would make our Christian witness relevant and valid in a pluralistic country like ours. To that end, may God empower us and help us.
The Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko has been Director of the the Ecumenical Christian Centre at Whitefield, Bangalore, since 2006. He taught Old Testament for 16 years at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai, where he also served as Principal. An ordained presbyter of the Church of South India, he has served congregations in Kolkata, Chennai and London. He holds the Ph.D. in biblical studies from Kings College, London, the B.D. and M.Th. in Old Testament from Serampore University and the M.A. in sociology from Kerala University. He has been a visiting professor at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore; and the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, Norway. Among other publications, he is the author of Liberation and Service of God: A Theological Evaluation of Exodus 1:1-15:21 (Delhi: ISPCK, 2002). He and his wife Kochu are the parents of two sons.
1 Anto Akkara, Shining Faith in Kandhamal (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2009), 128
3 John E. Thiel, Non-Foundationalism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 92
4 T. Jacob Thomas, “Challenge of Non-Foundationalism to Christian Theology,” in Mission with the Marginalized: Life and Witness of Rev. Dr. Prasanna K. Samuel, edited by Samuel W. Meshack (Tiruvalla: CSS Press, 2007), 269.
5 M. M. Thomas, Salvation and Humanisation (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1971), 10.
6 M. M. Thomas, Salvation and Humanisation, 10.
7 Gnana Robinson, A Voice in the Wilderness (Chennai: Christian Literature Society, 2000), 105
8 George M. Soares-Prabhu in Biblical Themes for a Contextual Theology Today: Collected Writings of George M. Soares-Prabhu, S.J., Vol. 1, edited by Isaac Padinjarekuttu (Pune: Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, 1999), 17.
9 Deccan Herald, 29 January 2011, 1.
10 Deccan Herald, 31 January 2011, 1.
11 M. J. Akbar, “The Power of Religion and the Religion of Power”, 7th Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture, available at panavelinbenjamin.blogspot.com.
13 Sallie McFague, “The World as God’s Body”, Concilium 2002/2, 50-56.