Vinoth Ramachandra

Defiant Witness

Posted on: February 6, 2013

Why do men like President Assad of Syria prefer to rule over rubble than surrender power? Arrogance in politics is compounded of ignorance, willful blindness, and fantasies of invincibility. And when entire societies prostrate themselves before such arrogant rulers, what comes to mind are the controversial Freudian notion of a collective “death-wish” and the Biblical language of the “demonic”.

Perceptive observers of the human condition, like the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt, have reminded us that evil at its most radical happens not in acts of blatant, monstrous savagery, from which most of us may easily distance ourselves, but in the mundane banality of ordinary acts of routine de-humanization. No tyrant can last for long without a vast army of people, often decent and conventionally “moral”, who passively follow orders. They don’t have to be all soldiers, policemen and civil servants/bureaucrats. The Nazi regime from which Arendt fled was served by brilliant scientists, doctors and engineers who had anaesthetized themselves to the suffering around them and contributed, often as willing agents, to that suffering and never asking the questions: “whose interests are promoted by my work?”, and “who is bearing the costs of my work?” These are questions that all people in liberal democracies, too, should be pondering; but few, alas, do.

Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by teaching children, from an early age, the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.

I am encouraged that signs of such responsible disobedience are beginning to emerge in the Christian community of my own country. Monday was the 65th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s national independence, and the Anglican church observed it with a 3-hour service in the cathedral in Colombo, not of thanksgiving but of public lament for the state of the nation and especially the collapse of proper governance (see my last post). It was attended by hundreds from other Christian denominations as well as non-Christian observers, all of us dressed in white (the traditional colour of mourning).

What weapons can the Church wield against oligarchic despotisms, apart from prayer, symbolic acts of protest and courageously saying “No”? Central are the word of the Cross and the simple signs of water, bread and wine, tokens of an alternative identity and supreme loyalty (if understood and practised properly).

And, of course, martyrdom.

A few days ago, I attended a fascinating lecture in a theological college in Singapore on the “Lost World of Genesis One” by a visiting American professor of Old Testament, John Walton. His central argument was that the opening chapter of the Bible is not about “material /physical origins” as much as “functional origins”: i.e. the ordering of a sacred space in which the God of the cosmos dwells. The literary genre appropriate to the chapter is that of ancient “Temple texts”. (Thus the framework of a six-day week because many official temple inaugurations took place over a week). The climax of the chapter is the “rest” of God, when God surveys the place of his habitation and comes to make his throne in it.

I have written and preached on this chapter many times; and I found Walton’s approach deeply respectful of the integrity of the text and sensitive to the thought-world of the first Israelite readers and their neighbours in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan. I am persuaded by his interpretation of the divine “rest” by analogy with other texts such as Ps.132:8,14 and Is.66:1. The literal opposite of “rest”, after all, is “unrest”, not work. God’s “rest’ in creation signifies his sovereignty over the forces of natural chaos and social upheaval that always threaten to overwhelm God’s people. Seeing the material world as the Temple of God, with human beings (women as well as men) as both his image in the Temple and his priests engaged in service to the Temple, is religiously revolutionary and politically liberating.

But how does one believe in the sovereignty of such a God in a world that seems so godforsaken? When evil seems enthroned in places such as the nations mentioned above, and rich nations wreak havoc with the earth and its nonhuman creatures, how do the People of God witness to the “rest” of divine rule?

Much of twentieth-century theology, especially following the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has learned to interpret divine sovereignty in terms of the “trinitarian history” of a God who suffers with and for his creation without ceasing to be God. Our tears are but a drop in the ocean of God’s own tears. Easter is not only a reversal of Good Friday, but also its vindication. The risen Christ still bears his wounds, and his reign is the reign of a vulnerable, suffering love in which he calls his people to participate.  The arrogant power-fantasies of Herods and Caesars are undermined not by force of arms but by the faithful testimony of men and women, in word and deed, to  a way of life grounded in a different understanding of being human.

8 Responses to "Defiant Witness"

“Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by teaching children, from an early age, the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.”

Very much, so Vinoth, and more than this, children have an important role in leading adults to godly disobedience through their awkward questions, and sometimes their prophetic voice.

Marcia Bunge has written on the vocation of the child and reminds us of the frequently neglected, or perhaps intentionally suppressed, call to children in scripture not only to obey their parents, but also to disobey their parents. (Bunge, ‘The Vocation of the Child: Theological Perspectives on the Particular and Paradoxical Roles and Responsibilities of Children’ in Brennan, The Vocation of the Child, 2008).

Bunge points to the sovereignty of God as the ultimate source of both life and justice, under whose authority all people are equally and absolutely held. Thus, all human authorities – governments, laws and parents are limited and relativized. She finds in Luther, Barth and Bonhoeffer, as well as Ezekiel and Luke the call to children to exercise their role in resisting injustice, and holding adults to account.

So extending your original statement a step further, “Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by learning from and with children the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.”

This is an important correction, Beth. I am grateful to you.

Very insightful, courageous and inspiring article, Vinoth! It is encouraging to see seeds of witness like the service you mentioned,
even in hard situations where we, even people of hope like Christians, are tempted to dwell in negativity and despair. Thank you for shining a light in the darkness!

Thanks for an encouraging and helpful post

There is a nice video interview with John Walton on the Biologos site

Vinoth’s blogposts always ‘haunts’ me (atleast for a few days) and this time is no exception.

As I read his blogpost this time I was trying to recall if I have ever heard of a sermon on the responsibility to disobey, none. Nor can I recall any of my teachers throughout my university and school days teaching me the responsibility to disobey or the responsible use of knowledge. I have never heard anyone in my local church (either in Delhi or UK for four months now) preaching about the responsible use of our intellect (other than not to use too much intellect in reading the Bible!). Perhaps my churches are yet to learn any lesson from the mistake made by Hitler’s faithful engineers and scientists.

Neelke Doorne from Delft University, reported in the journal of Science and Engineering Ethics that in “a comparison (between) the Journal of Medical Ethics, the Journal of Health Care Analysis, and Science and Engineering Ethics in the ISI database published in the period 2001–2010, shows that 60 out of the 221 research articles published in Science and Engineering Ethics have the word responsibility in the title, abstract or as keyword. For the Journal of Medical Ethics, this number is 112 out of 1.354 articles and for Health Care Analysis it is 25 out of 280” which is obvious that responsibility is rarely discussed.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers code of ethics, the second fundamental principle states “being honest and impartial and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients”. However it does not say anything if the interests of public, their employers and clients clashed. The fourth fundamental canon in the same code says “Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.” Whether engineers takes this code of ethics seriously or not is another matter, but what I understood from this code of ethics is, only to be faithful agents.

Coming to India (my country) it is even worse. I don’t even know if there is a code of ethics as well! As I said earlier, I have never heard any of my teachers teaching me about the responsible use of knowledge leave alone the responsibility to say no.

How do one begin to engage in such an academic environment? What came to my mind was I should start an email discussion in my Alumni network (a network of elitists which talks about alumni gatherings, picnics and awards only) the need to use knowledge responsibly and/or the responsibility to say no. But I feel utterly ill-equipped (atleast as of now). I hope to hear more of such discussions before I graduate out so that I will graduate out responsibly.

Thanks Vinoth. Great post.

Thanks for writing this! I appreciate your thinking and writing.

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February 2013
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