Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for June 2010

On 30 January 1972 a civil rights march on the streets of Londonderry in Northern Ireland turned into a scene of mass carnage. Trigger-happy soldiers of the elite British paratroop regiment opened fire on the unarmed marchers, killing 14 men, some as young as seventeen, and injuring thirteen others. That day, known henceforth as Bloody Sunday, proved a watershed in the Irish conflict. The nonviolent civil rights movement was abandoned as thousands of men and women joined the ranks of the Provisional IRA. More than six thousand people died in the violence that gripped Northern Ireland and spilled over to the British mainland.

This week the Saville Report, the culmination of a 38-year old campaign by families of the dead and a 12-year investigation by the British government (the longest in its history) into the events of Bloody Sunday, was released. It vindicated the innocence of those who died, thereby overturning the conclusions of a slipshod investigation by a British judge, Lord Widgery, a few months after the killings. Prime Minister David Cameron, introducing the Saville Report in a speech to the House of Commons,  made a fulsome apology on behalf of the nation and its government to the families of those who had died. The apology, although nearly four decades late,  was received with jubilation by the people of Londonderry.

Nations are not like individuals, but political leaders can have an enormous impact on the way individuals come to terms with the painfulness of the nation’s past. Acknowledging the wrongdoings of politicians, police forces and armies makes individuals feel that they are being recognized as persons and that their suffering is not belittled. It also honours the memory of their loved ones, however belatedly; and the desire to honour the dead can be a powerful incentive for seeking revenge. Apologies can drain that desire for revenge.

Can, but not will. There is nothing automatic about the process of national healing. Even if political apologies lead to the prosecution or resignation of those responsible (and, in most cases, they should), there are no guarantees that reconciliation will follow. Apologies can be rejected by those who would prefer to cling to a monolithic  identity as “victims”. It can also lead to justification for continued violence against the state. And, on the part of those who support the state and its military, there is usually a considerable psychic investment in the nation’s “heroes”- often the elite combat regiments whose exploits are celebrated in popular fiction and films. An apology can be taken by the latter as a betrayal of the whole regiment or even the army itself. Every nation needs its “heroes”, and admitting that its heroes were guilty of war crimes or other unlawful killings can threaten the “good us versus evil them” discourses on which many nations and communities build their moral identities.

However, even if truth and justice are insufficient, and impossible to achieve except in a very limited way, they are indispensable for healing between people and nations. They undermine collective self-righteousness. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. And it is not from the powerful but from the powerless that forgiveness is offered. The Crucified One is the ultimately innocent victim who breaks the link between guilt and suffering. This is no cheap forgiveness that ignores truth and justice, but a costly forgiveness that makes possible new beginnings and new relationships, based not on power but radical equality. Every act of forgiveness is creative, shattering the stereotyped images and myths we carry of each other, refusing to treat the other the way we ourselves have been treated, and thus creating new possibilities for the future.

Dare we hope that David Cameron’s example will be imitated by leaders in countries such as Sri Lanka, Israel, India, or the USA? In the case of Sri Lanka, where I live, the prospects are frankly bleak. Draconian emergency laws are still in force and wielded against anybody who dares to suggest that atrocities were committed by all sides in the 30-year war that ended last year. The ruling regime continues the rhetoric of a “war against terrorists” and is unwilling to support any independent investigation of war crimes or human rights abuses by the nation’s “heroes” and the shadowy paramilitary groups that have operated with impunity for so long. In the dominant religious culture, apologies are seen as signs of weakness rather than strength, and voluntary resignations by public officials are completely unheard of! In such a climate, may addressing the immediate physical needs of all war victims and their families, especially those Tamils still languishing in detention camps, be the first step in the healing process?

Exactly a hundred years ago this week an epoch-making World Missionary Conference took place in Edinburgh, Scotland. The conference brought together about 1200 representative of Protestant churches and missionary societies to study the state of the world vis a vis the Christian faith and to make plans for the evangelization of the “non-Christian nations” (which excluded Europe, North and South America). Questionnaires had been sent beforehand to several missionaries working in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the South Pacific. The speakers and respondents were overwhelmingly of the stock of white European and American males who dominated the ecclesiastical and missionary centres of power. No native African spoke for African Christianity, nor were there many representatives from indigenous churches outside the European world.

More about the fascinating reports that emerged from this conference and how our understanding of the issues they dealt with have changed in the past hundred years can be found in the volume Edinburgh 2010: Mission Then and Now (Oxford: Regnum Press, 2009)- in which I have an essay exploring the best-known Commission IV Report that dealt with the “Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religion”.

I was in Edinburgh last week for the centenary celebration of the 1910 conference. The numbers were far fewer than a hundred years ago, mainly because of financial restrictions; but there was a large internet audience as many of the sessions were broadcast “live”. Also, the conference was the culmination of a 2-year long study process that took place in most of the regions of the world. Many of the papers emerging from that process can be found on the Edinburgh2010 website.

I was one of three “participant-reflectors” who were invited to share our thoughts on the conference in the final plenary session. I observed that, in terms of church traditions, this was probably the most comprehensive gathering to have taken place in the past century. There were speakers from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. I expressed the hope that just as one of the consequences of the 1910 conference had been the birth of the ecumenical movement and the breaking down of the boundaries between churches in the Global South and North, so can we intentionally break down the divisive boundaries between “ecumenical”, “evangelical”, “Pentecostal”, and so on? Mission and unity, truth and justice, reason and emotion, belong together.

Perhaps the most divisive barrier we face is the one between pastors/clergy and the rest of us so-called “laity”.  All the speakers who addressed us during this conference were Bishops and senior pastors, seminary professors or leaders of Christian institutions. This perpetuates the massive “blind spot” concerning mission in our churches. Surely the primary way the church impacts the world is through the daily work of Christian men and women in offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on. These are the contemporary sites of Christian mission. Yet where were these men and women in Edinburgh?

My wife and I work primarily with Christian in secular occupations, helping them to live out the Gospel and communicate God’s truth and justice in the fields of science, business, the arts, medicine, education and so on. These men and women who engage Christianly with the secular marketplace are at the cutting-edge of mission.

Moreover, there are many thoughtful people who are profoundly attracted to Jesus but frankly “put off” by what they see of the church. They see a lack of integrity: a huge gulf between the message the church proclaims and the way its leaders behave, not least towards one another. How did a socially subversive, egalitarian movement centred in worshipping and following a crucified Jew change so quickly into a hierarchical, patriarchal and anti-Semitic religious institution? Whether we are Pentecostals or Roman Catholics we need to keep returning to that old question. We in Asia and Africa cannot keep blaming Christendom. I am amused by how many of our Southern bishops and clergy who bitterly condemn Western Christendom cling so tenaciously to titles and status honour and forms of address (and dress!) that they have inherited from Christendom.

Clericalism has crippled the witness of the church. Not just authoritarian forms of leadership but the way so much revolves around the clergy and their programs. In my experience, “lay” men and women of different church backgrounds rarely have problems working together in facing common concerns. They have no sacred turf to protect. John R. Mott, the architect of the 1910 Edinburgh conference was himself a Methodist layman. It was his experience of working with the Student Volunteer movement and the YMCA that lay the ecumenical ground work for that conference. If left to church leaders and church-based mission societies, Edinburgh 1910 is unlikely to have happened.


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