Vinoth Ramachandra

Empty Religiosity

Posted on: May 19, 2011

Buddhists all over the world celebrated Vesak this week. It is the commemoration of both the  birth and the attainment of Enlightenment (nirvana) by Gautama, the Buddha. In Sri Lanka, a society that prides itself on being the missionary centre of Theravada Buddhism, this year’s festivities merged with nationalist triumphalism over the “defeat of terrorism” and hysterical denunciations of “foreign interference” vis a vis allegations of war crimes (see my last post).

If, to Western observers, the alliance of Buddhism with militarism and ethnic jingoism seems extraordinary, it is because, ever since the nineteenth century, Western textbook depictions of Buddhism have often served an anti-Christian polemical purpose (e.g. contrasting “Buddhist tolerance” with “Christian bigotry”). Despite Buddhism’s theoretical commitment to ahimsa (non-violence) rarely has a Buddhist leader dared to challenge state violence. Often the sangha (the Buddhist clergy) has encouraged it, and monks have been in the forefront of mob attacks on churches and foreign embassies. No Buddhist leader, monk or layperson, has hitherto called on the state to acknowledge that not all civilian casualties in the war were caused by “terrorists”.

In an editorial on the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel’s report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, the British newspaper The Guardian wrote: “The point is that truth and accountability, let alone international justice, are not divisible. One country’s ability to bury the evidence of war crimes endangers how civilians are treated in all other conflicts. A single failure of international justice is also a collective one.”

Quite so. And it is precisely why I have been maintaining that the UN’s silence over war crimes and human rights abuses committed by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel in the Lebanon, the Indian army in Kashmir, or Chinese troops in Tibet, make it all the more difficult for those of us in countries like Sri Lanka to convince our own people, let alone ruling regimes, that “truth” and “accountability” are not slogans wielded by the powerful against the weak, but fundamental to the moral order which constitutes our very humanness.

Tragically, Christians in the powerful nations who are most eloquent about “truth” have limited it to religious apologetics. Rarely, if ever, does one hear the call for truth expressed in the public square, whether local or global, in the way the Hebrew prophets did. This divorce of apologetics from social-political ethics, the divorce of issues of truth from  justice and accountability, lies at the root of the crisis of credibility of evangelical Christianity in these nations.

I have observed how, on my recent speaking tour of American universities, my appeals to Americans to be more outspoken about their own human rights abuses at home and abroad were often met with “stony silence”. How encouraging, then, to read of more than 250 of the US’s most eminent legal scholars having signed a letter protesting against the treatment of Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks  source, saying his “degrading and inhumane conditions” are illegal, unconstitutional, and could even amount to torture. The list of signatories includes Lawrence Tribe, a Harvard professor considered to be the country’s foremost liberal authority on constitutional law and who taught the subject to President Obama.  Manning is awaiting a court martial in Quantico marine base in Virginia. He has been jailed since last July, charged with multiple counts relating to the leaking of thousands of secret documents to the WikiLeaks website. Until this letter was issued, he was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, checked every five minutes under a so-called prevention of injury order, not allowed to exercise, and stripped naked at night apart from a smock.

Among the documents alleged to have been leaked a year ago by Manning are the Guantánamo files. These were obtained by the New York Times and shared with the Guardian and National Public Radio, which is publishing extracts, having redacted information which might identify informants. The 759 US military dossiers reveal how many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years, some on the flimsiest grounds or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment.

The Guantánamo system often focused on extracting intelligence, less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters. Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year old Afghan villager, suffering form senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The 14-year-old was shipped to the prison in Cuba  merely because of “his possible knowledge of Taliban local leaders.” An al-Jazeera journalist was held at Guantánamo for six years, partly in order to be interrogated about the Arabic news network.

Obama’s inability to shut Guantánamo has been one of the White House’s most internationally embarrassing policy failures. The range of those still held captive includes detainees who have been admittedly tortured so badly they can never be successfully tried, informers who must be protected from reprisals, and a group of Chinese Muslims from the Uighur minority who have nowhere to go.

It is easy for Christians in the US or Europe to highlight the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Buddhists, or the way Buddhism has been co-opted by the Sri Lankan state. Our critique would carry weight only if we attended to the beams in our own eyes; and this is where the silence of our brethren in the West over abuses of power in their own nations is a massive obstacle to our own credibility.

10 Responses to "Empty Religiosity"

Vinoth, some of us struggle with these challenges daily in our secular work. The more I interact with these difficult scenarios the more I see my own inadequacy. I am well aware of and without the LORD unable to conquer the hypocrisy both within and without. It is the Spirit of God that perseveres in us the hope for perfection and how I yearn for that day. In the guise of political correctness, inter-personal skills, the public and private divide we face the principalities and powers of this world.
Often it is the fear of reprisals (and associated lack of faith) that make me ineffective. Amidst all this I can simply say that on the several occassions I have not compromised, the LORD has protected, provided and blessed the work of his servant. May the LORD return soon in HIS glory. Let us pray for us.

I very respectfully beg to differ from the above comment of Kumar Abeysekara, and what it denotes in summary. Getting ready to pray for ourselves proclaiming that it is the duty and the job of the Spirit to empower us for social mobility is only the other side of the modern evangelical paradigm that Vinoth is trying to deconstruct.
1) We evangelicals for very long time have maintained a defining silence and dead inaction in the societal space when the state has deliberately and systematically acted in counter gospel manner.
2) In Billy Grahramian Christianity all what mattered was me having a direct /personal and ‘redeeming’ relationship with the ‘Lord’. Now this Lord seems bit different to the Jesus I see in the gospels as Jesus of Nazareth was involved and questioned the epicenters of power politics and cultural hegemonies of his time
3) Illiberal Global American policies and activities have severely undermined the Christian character as many foremost American evangelicals are still blessing their government
West whether Christian or otherwise has lost the normative morality to question any state on Human Rights or any such notion especially after what these states have done in the post 9/11 era.
To Vinoth , I will say just because the ‘fallen’ west has no moral right to accuse others , does not make Sri Lanka ( or any such government) above impunity . Sri Lanka and her polity has failed even by the standard of popular Buddhism and stands totally condemned by Buddha’s Páli Buddhism. Therefore let us leave these taxonomies aside and look for conceptual framework and empirical modalities that is ontogenesis to Sri Lanka to sensitize the values of God that liberals have hijacked from us.

Best and Blessings

A most disturbing and challenging one. It’s also one of the reason why I got fed up with so called apologetics in evangelical circles…

Come on Suren, I don’t see Vinoth giving a clean chit to Sri Lanka.

to Suantak, Sorry Madam/Sir,

I dont engage with those who are ‘faceless’
if one cant give thier real identity even on cyber space , there connot be a honest discussion/debate,
you may then ask whether I am / my name is real?
for that, there is this great engine- just google

I think one of the problems with our seminaries is that we have professors who know more about history than about the present. And since their knowledge present culture is shallow they can’t really critique. To my knowledge there is hardly any OT or NT or Theology Prof who critique contemporary cultures. It’s left for lay theologian like you and Os Guinness to do that. And it’s sad!

But I think there is also this part of refusing to see the other side of reality.

Thank you again very much for your prophetic sharp-edged blog post. I’ve posted it on my facebook wall.

Suren, I was exploring the gulf ‘twixt faith and praxis. This is not unusual in a Christian’s journey (e.g. the Prophet Isiah) and I entirely agree with Vinoth. It is opportune for those of us living in the ‘affluent’ West to encourage, educate and express publicly specific challenges faced by respective authorities (e.g. ex patriate Sinhalese Sri Lankans in relation to the predominant Sinhalese government and ex patriate Tamil Sri Lankans in relation to Tamil leaders. This should be done in a spirit of nurture. Those whose motivation to bring peace to Sri Lanka will also be called the ‘Sons and Daughters of God.’ (Jesus in the Beatitudes) This island is hurting. This is the opportunity to be successful as a nation of Peacemakers rather than a nation of avengers. Forgiveness and reconciliation are imperative spiritual facets in this process. The Sinhalese and Tamil diaspora should grasp this opportunity. I congratulate those who have.

Thanks Vinoth for your sharp and incisive thoughts as ever. You are correct that ‘comfortable’ Christians in the west can criticise others without looking at the planks in their own eyes, this, sadly, tends to be the default position. However I think the Atlantic divides Europe from America not just physically but in the evangelical world, politically. Evangelicals in Europe in all areas are generally much further to the left than what the world labels as ‘evangelical’ in America. Carl Trueman’s book ‘Republocrat’ is very good at exploring this issue.

Vinoth, you give me hope. I go to Covenant Seminary and so often I feel hopeless when I deal with how tiny the “gospel” can be. There are great things at my school, and the profs teach some amazing things, but in general it’s just par for the course Evangelicalism among the students, and the administration. There is such a horrible, myopic view of the gospel as having mostly to do with the soul. I just watched the film Kick-Ass for the second time last night, it was so inspiring, I know it seems silly. But it’s about some profoundly regular people entering into the garbage and wickedness of this world, some regular people becoming heroes, because, unfortunately the “bad guys” are oh so real. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for being one of the super heroes. I want to be on your side. I decided to start writing a blog because Jesus is Lord of all this stuff. The Neo-Platonic heresy in Western Christianity is going to have to be fought and defeated again I believe if things are going to change.

Thank you, I’ll look out for the DVD of Kick-Ass.

I don’t know where Covenant Seminary is, but if you can get your professors to read my last book Subverting Global Myths (IVP, 2008), that may help broaden their perspective on the Gospel and the world.

I only started this Blog because my “boss” persuaded me that people who may not read my books may encounter my thoughts online and interact with me. Letters like yours encourage me that I am not wasting my time!

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May 2011
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