Vinoth Ramachandra

Keeping Our Humanity

Posted on: April 5, 2012

I found myself last week in the unusual position of defending in public the United States government. The latter was the prime mover behind a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council calling on the Sri Lankan government to improve its human rights record and launch a credible investigation into war crimes. Some members of the ruling regime and their acolytes have been vilifying the resolution which was carried by a majority of nine votes in the Council, with China predictably defending us against “interference” in a nation’s “internal affairs”. (How China and even Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba can occupy seats on the UNHRC is another of those contradictions that makes the UN such an ineffective agency today- see my last Blog post).

The behaviour of the Sri Lankan regime before, during, and after the UN Resolution was carried only illustrates the necessity for such a Resolution. Such was the main substance of a newspaper article of mine which was carried by two leading English-language dailies. (No Sinhala- the majority language- newspaper will carry it).

We have been treated to the pitiful spectacle of a foreign minister wasting huge amounts of public funds in desperate last-minute trips to Africa and Latin America to canvass support; and the continued use of the state media to whip up frenzy against local and foreign critics, instead of explaining to the populace the content of the UN Resolution; and the manipulation of schoolchildren as well as religious leaders, among others, who were bussed into the capital by the ruling party to stage noisy protests outside the American and Indian embassies. Local human rights activists who went to Geneva to support the resolution have been threatened.

At the same time as we counter state terror, we expose the hypocrisies of those well-to-do Sri Lankan Tamils in Western lands who rejoice over the UN Resolution but who don’t call for the arrest of those within their ranks who continued to pay for arms shipments to the Tamil Tigers when the latter were using civilians as human shields and forcibly conscripting child-soldiers during the dark days of the war. So-called “diaspora” Tamils in the US, like many of their Indian and Pakistani counterparts, carry American passports and very few of them will return to live in Sri Lanka, even if we had a just peace. You will not find any among them joining George Clooney to protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington; or challenging the US government to bring all those Americans responsible for torture and war crimes abroad to face trial. What brings “human rights” language into disrepute is the use of it against our enemies, and not our own ethnic group and nation-state.

I don’t find these articles, letters and Blog posts easy to write. I can handle the hate-mail, it is silence that depresses me. Even on this Blog, whenever I write on some traditional “mission” or “apologetics” topic, the comments flow thick and fast. However, mention the state of American politics and a deafening silence sets in. Try appealing to American Christians to write to their national newspapers or do what George Clooney or the Occupying Movement are doing – getting out there and protesting, for instance, the inhumanity of Iranian sanctions (a violation of international law, given that no evidence has been put forward to show that Iran has breached the nuclear non-proliferation treaty), and you will find the shutters rapidly coming down.

In the current New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff superbly sums up what I have been trying to say in recent posts about the US and global politics: “Since Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in setting up the United Nations and the Nuremberg trials, the US has promoted universal legal norms and the institutions to enforce them, while seeking by hook or by crook to exempt American citizens, especially soldiers, from their actual application. From Nuremberg onward, no country has invested more in the development of international jurisdiction for atrocity crimes and no country has worked harder to make sure that the law it seeks for others does not apply to itself.”

Most Christian pastors are unprepared by their seminaries to think globally about local issues, which is surely what employing a Christian mind entails. To those who say, even before they try anything, that they are “powerless” to effect change, there are many stories one can tell of how little actions of faithfulness by ordinary people have led to social and political transformations on an unimaginable scale. Every community has such memories.

However, I prefer to recall this medieval fiction from the pen of the great Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, tireless campaigner against crimes against humanity and himself a survivor of Auschwitz. It probably explains why I cannot keep silent.

“One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled amicably. Then they stopped listening;  he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.

One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words. ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it’s hopeless?’

‘Yes, I see’, answered the Just Man.

‘Then why do you go on?’

‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’”

(From One Generation After)

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35 Responses to "Keeping Our Humanity"

thanks vinoth for keeping on shouting and for putting up with hate mail…

It is easy to find the wrongdoers among others, but very difficult to admit that we (west) ourselfs are not superior in our morality. Thanks for reminding us to look into the mirror. We need these prophetic voices. You described the frustrations many old testament prophets probably had.

The way India voted in favour of the UN resolution was intriguing. DMK, an important ally of the present UPA govt threatened to withdraw the support if India didn’t vote for the resolution. After the resolution Indian consulate in Colombo was busy explaining to the Lankan govt that India actually toned down the resolution by saying that sovereign rights of states (Sri Lanka) should be respected.

Of course we were warned Matt 19:24: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Perhaps what is needed as well as blog posts and conference addresses (though they clearly are needed) is also prayer. If even a few of the Christians who live outside the rich world were to pray for their rich sisters and brothers who knows God might find a way to convert what mere human words cannot change?

Vinoth,

I believe that one reason–among many–for American evangelicals’ discomfort with issues of political and social injustice is that our western theological tradition is inordinately focused on the personal, internal spiritual life. Sermons and books on theology and personal spiritual growth abound. But pious pursuit of the greatest commandment, to “Love the Lord your God,” can often mask our neglect of the second, to “Love your neighbor.” Don’t all the Law and the Prophets hang on these TWO commandments?

As one who grew up in this tradition, I often struggle with what I can only call narcissistic spirituality. Part of my own ongoing maturity has been to see the significance of my life not only in my relationship with God but also in my relationship with others. As long as our spiritual training and discipleship lacks this dual focus, believers will continue to be sheep among the wolves of cultural and political influences.

Are there theological traditions in other parts of the world that more faithfully follow both of the Great Commandments?

Jacob, there is more than one “western tradition”. For instance, the Calvin-inspired reformed tradition and the Mennonites have, in their very different ways, engaged with social issues; as have many Roman Catholic missionary orders. What is missing in the US are Christian “public intellectuals” who take their academic learning into the public square, without being co-opted by political parties of the right or left. Seminaries and Christian colleges are too enmeshed in the mammon-driven “American dream” to be able to step back and see what they are actually promoting in the name of “Christianity”.

Vinoth,

You are correct in your last comment that there are many American Christian traditions, but in experience, the one that Jacob identifies with is very prevalent. I cannot speak for everyone, but I have heard certain scriptures (about respecting governments and those in authority) preached so many times that the effect on me is that I am not inclined to be a protester, and to be honest, nobody I know is the protester type. I and my friends are very caring, and we extend that love to the community, to the poor, and to the hurting.

The difference is, we do not extend that to the arena of demanding changes in public policy. I truly cannot imagine myself participating in an Occupy-type movement.

I am not saying you are wrong, but I am saying that many of us think (whether it’s because we’re conditioned to think this way, I do not know) that public protests are not as effective as one-on-one relationships, and we tend to view protesters as people easily manipulated by charismatic leaders with an agenda. We tend to think we’re above all that.

Right or wrong? I don’t know.

Thanks for this, as it’s making me think.

I sometimes you feel you let us EU citizens off the hook Vinoth! In theory, our continental political structures born from the most horrendous strife and the chastening of our 20th Century history would seem to be fertile ground for a global ethic that didn’t just take the form of power wearing the mask of “justice” or “anti-terrorism” or whatever other slogan rallies people to its own cause. Instead, the EU is as in thrall to capital as the US and us European Christians are busy fighting over gay marriage or having the word God in any potential EU constitution to actually stand up in the public square as a voice for humble and honest engagement.

The EU today has no independent foreign policy but is an acolyte of the US. In any case, since 1996, according to Gallup polls, between 35 and 47 seven per cent of Americans have described themselves as “evangelical” or “born again”; the European reality is very different. Clearly the question needs to be asked “Which god are these evangelicals in America worshiping?” It cannot be the God of the poor who calls his people to confront the idols of their society, to love their enemies and to speak for those who have no voice. So, yes, what I write applies to Europeans too. But I see proportionately more of them involved with global campaigns against human rights abuses and environmental destruction than I do Americans.

Contra “Middletree” above, evangelical Christians do get out on the streets to protest from time to time. But it is only about abortion and gay marriage. Not about Palestine, Iranian sanctions, war crimes by American soldiers, etc. It is only when evangelicals are seen as consistently “pro-life”- defending the lives of the destitute, Muslims, civilians in Afghanistan, etc- that they will cease to be seen as the religious wing of the republican party and rather as witnesses to the Reign of God.

The question regarding the proper balance between social justice and personal justification will continue to be one of discussion and debate within evangelical enclaves and beyond …

Somehow I don’t think you would be talking about “proper balance” if it were your child who was abducted by death squads or your home was destroyed by a U.S drone.

These theoretical debates only arise in well-to-do churches which suffer from amnesia and live in denial:i.e. forgetting the human victims who make their comfort and “security” possible.

Vinoth,

From an outside or non-western perspective looking in to the US, do you see the kind of protest seen in the Occupy movement as useful? I just finished reading your book on global myths for a Seminary class and felt prompted to continue learning more about the atrocities that the US has committed or been involved with in other countries. Since then I’ve grown more and more sorrowful, the more that I learn. I would like to translate that sorrow into meaningful action, and anticipate seeing Occupy pick up speed again this spring.

Perhaps, according to your post above, usefulness is less the concern, but I’m still curious, how do you view those movements? One hesitation that I have is that they still often seemed narrowly focused on the 1 % in the US and not globally.

Joseph, I never expect to find a “pure” social movement anymore than a “pure” church. Whatever the deficiencies of Occupying at least it is drawing attention to the corruption of public life by corporate greed. That is why it is being muzzled by the corporate-controlled mass media in the US. Why can’t more Christians get involved and give the movement a more concrete direction, formulating specific economic goals?

And, yes, we should not get hung up on “usefulness” or even “influence”. We are called to faithfulness- to do what is right and just, whatever the results. The Civil Rights Movement was launched through the faithful actions of ordinary men and women who were not thinking globally or even nationally. Yet those acts (like Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience in Montgomery) had global repercussions.

You are perfectly right that global issues need to be addressed- and who can do this better than a Church which claims in its confessions to be the global Body of Christ and is connected with churches all over the world? Well-organized public protests and demonstrations are important. But why don’t you try to get, say, just 12 prominent evangelical Christian leaders in the US to write a joint-letter protesting the Iranian sanctions (and the way the US has bullied other nations and foreign banks to toe the line); or to call for American soldiers and politicians responsible for torture and other war crimes to be brought to trial- and send this letter to all senators and all major national newspapers?

I suggest that the effect will be electrifying not only on the US churches but worldwide. It will show others around the world that American “evangelicals” are not a nationalist cult but truly part of the Body of Christ, signs of the new humanity.

I will contact my Dean as he is a prominent Evangelical pastor and Dean in Southern California about how or who to talk to about writing/signing the letter. Perhaps he would be willing to do so as well. I plan to be involved with Occupy when it launches again in May and hopefully I can add my voice and bring others to the conversation from Church.

Thank you for responding.

With all due respect Vinoth (as this is in fact your blog spot), you seem to be a bit biased in your estimation(s) regarding social justice and personal justification — BOTH are important to God. On the contrary, I still believe personal justification is important even as I grieve for those who are lost to death squads and drone strikes.

Finally — one can make an argument both for and against sanctions as they relate to Iran. Why do you make it seem that if one is for sanctions they are then against the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ? … once again a one sided assessment I do believe. I would expect a more balanced approach from an intellectual and an academic.

Also … I try to never forget the human victims in any tragedy. I am bothered by your suggestion that those in “well to do churches” who emphasize personal justification are suffering from amnesia.

Dear Vinoth

I am regular reader of your blog. I read even most of your books. Your latest few books were out of print so few friends at Delhi help me getting the whole volume photocopied.
Thanks for making once again clear that the heart of God & mission of the church is the poor, destitute & suffering. I believe the intellectual jargon & debate suites only in the benality of theological classrooms. My prayer is that the church be only bruising it’s hands in toiling to plant what the Biblical narrative implies. I appreciate you that you let us remind once again to respect, to open the scripture & listen to His voice.
Please keep it up. The Lord of host is our witness.

Hi Matthew,
It seems to me that a concern for personal justification which makes little or no difference to our response and action in the real world of unjust wars/political bullying is not much use . Its not about whether we grieve or not for others – an internal act which unless it results in practical tangible steps does little good to anyone else and only helps me feel better about myself for being such a good compassionate person. The majority of conservative evangelicals I’ve known have consistently majored on personal justification but care little about social injustices and global abuses. One hardly ever leads to the other. On the contrary, one the one often allows people to happily ignore the other because after all “what really matters is our spiritual life”.

As far as Iran goes, it would be good if we made the effort to hear from our Iranian christian brothers and sisters and how it is for them. Surely, the Christian family bond we share must be more determinative than any other nationalistic/patriotic loyalties. (I’m from Australia so my country and myself are implicated in the hypocrisy and shallow christian piety here critiqued)

Thanks Vinoth for your faithful and articulate witness.

Vinoth, people respond to articles that they feel is meant well. I see this among American friends who respond positively in one on one conversations in which I can use irony, pathos, etc to describe US passivity to injustice. However if I use sarcasm, the conversation either dies down or gets muddled.

Good luck to you. I await news of what your converted friends are doing regarding the issues I have been raising in my recent posts.

Most people I know do not participate in these movements, though some of them are supportive in spirit. Some are very angst-ridden about the effects of US laissez faire capitalism at home and abroad. However my own circle is small. I think the fact that they feel strongly for the poor is a positive thing. Or is your question about how many of them actually go to protests or write their leaders, etc? If that is the case I know of noone. I don’t think it would be very different among believers in other countries either.

You leave me puzzled, Rambo. Why did you commend your use of “irony, pathos’ etc, saying that it leads to “positive” responses, when all it seems to result in is private “angst” and no concrete actions? At least Joseph (above) is responding to what he has read on my Bog by trying to get ten Christian leaders in the US to write to national newspapers and senators.

Perhaps you could suggest to your “angst-ridden” friends that they take a cue from Woody Allen and translate their angst into movie-making or writing novels?

Besides, I haven’t been writing about “laissez faire capitalism’ of late; my concerns have been about “Christian Zionism”, Iranian sanctions, and hypocrisy by US governments when it comes to war crimes and other human rights abuses. Silence about these implies complicity.

OK, so your comments about the Occupy movement were not a staple. I have not read the other posts in detail. You are in effect calling for Christians to do something about US government war crimes, human rights abuses, etc. My friends do other things such as feeding food pantries, refugee ministries, homeless shelters, etc. In the case of protests like OWS, they simply are angst-ridden. Your sarcasm not withstanding, I do not consider such angst an incomplete thing. From what I’ve read, Vinoth- I can see that you wear your heart on your sleeve, but I sense that you and many others are (maybe not deliberately) trying to hijack Christian activities into expressing their moral outrage in only one direction. It seems to me that when you goad people in that direction, they shut down fast.

To be clear, I think the topic of human rights abuses does need to be addressed strongly by the church. Evangelicals in the US particularly are guilty of relative silence when it comes to their government’s own abuses. My own experience has been that American believers are so polarized and also ridiculed to the point that they believe critics to be ill-meaning. You had mentioned in your article that it is the silence that depresses you- perhaps this could be a reason?

Also so you don’t misunderstand, my name is a portmanteau of my middle name (Ramprasad) and my last name that I use in blogs like this

In future, I would appreciate it if you (and others) read my post first and addressed its content in your comments.

@Rob (and others who are interested):
I highly suggest Tim Keller´s book “Generous Justice”. He is a conservative evangelical who embraces BOTH personal justification and social justice. He also quotes Vinoth in one of his books. Please don´t put all evangelicals in the same box.

Matthew, you still don’t seem to be getting the point. I am not interested in theory/theology that is dislocated from practice. There are plenty of books and other resources on social justice in evangelical churches and seminaries in the US. Far more than others elsewhere have access to. Do these make the American church more obedient to Christ?

My question is: what are those who read such books doing with what they read? Specifically, what is Tim Kellor’s church (and all those influenced by his books) doing about some of the justice issues that I have been raising repeatedly in this Blog (e.g. use of drones, Iranian sanctions, war crimes, torture, corporate corruption of presidential politics, etc?

Thank you for writing this.

In terms of Tim Keller, his church, social justice, etc., although I will not write a list, I believe Redeemer Presbyterian is in fact putting into practice the theological theory it prescribes and reflects upon. Dr. Keller offers numerous examples in the book I cite above. I do in fact think he and those influenced by his writings are doing their very best to be obedient to Christ. I myself am certainly trying. I agree that all too often evangelicals fail to put into practice that which they analyze and study, but please do not make sweeping generalizations that all follow this notion.

In terms of the issues you bring up in this blog — drone usage, Iranian sanctions, war crimes, torture, corporate corruption of presidential politics, etc. — if I could meet Dr. Keller once again I would certainly ask him about his personal beliefs on these subjects. Since he quoted you in one of his books, I have a suspicion that he may in fact agree with you on some (if not all) the issues you point out in this blog — but as I have already said I would need to ask him personally.

Finally … as for me … I´m not certain that being pro Iranian sanctions and believing that the U.S. is not in fact responsible for war crimes (as examples) means one is not being obedient to Christ and the Kingdom of God — which is what I believe you to be saying. People on both sides of these political opinions can in fact be doing their very best to serve God.

It is only when I hear of “unpatriotic” acts being done by American “Christians” will I believe that they understand what the Gospel of the Kingdom is all about. And, of course, that goes for “Christians” in other nations too.

This was the whole point of my post “Keeping Our Humanity”.

I think I understand what you are saying Vinoth. If American (and other) Christians performed unpatriotic acts, like actively protesting against Iranian sanctions, Christian Zionism, etc., then you would believe they understand the Gospel of the Kingdom. So if I am understanding you correctly (which I believe I am), if American Christians — for example — continue to support Iranian sanctions as well as the State of Israel, then in your estimation they are not understanding the Gospel of the Kingdom. So is the logical conclusion of all this that you believe these kinds of people are not — in fact — even Christian?

Just an aside … from the Christian Science Monitor dated May 4th 2010: (regarding Iran and the non-proliferation treaty) “The answer isn’t black and white. It depends on whom you ask – and how deftly you define “violation.” But in essence, Iran is following the letter but not always the spirit of the NPT.”

Hi Matthew,
thanks for the reply and the Keller recommendation. I appreciate Keller’s writing and ministry but if you’re interested in getting your head around some of the things we’re talking about here let me heartily recommend reading someone like the American Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh. I found reading his book Theopolitical Imagination immensely helpful and paradigm changing. Here’s a short quote from that book to wet your appetite.

“Politics is a practice of the imagination…. We are often fooled by the seeming solidarity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination. How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders. The nation-state is… one important and historically contingent type of ‘imagined community’ around which our conceptions of politics tend to gather… This little book is an exercise in a different kind of political imagination, one that is rooted in the Christian story.” (TI, p.1)

Rob

@Rob: Thanks for the recommendation as well. I think my head is pretty much “around” what is being discussed on this blog … I just don´t agree with everything — and that`s O.K. I think :-)! Also … author Daniel Gordis talks about the Hebrew Bible and its focus on the establishment of the nation-state as a biblical — not imagined — phenomenon. The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 demonstrates this so he says and he attempts to prove in his essay “The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood” that the formation of political entities (nation-states) is part of a complete biblical worldview and allows for the development and enrichment of the cultures within those nation-states. So as such … I would think Gordis would disagree with the notion of nation-states as an “imagined phenomenon”.

It’s so desperately sad that logic and reason should evoke ‘hate mail’. Thank you, Vinroth, for your determination and courage.

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