Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for March 2013

Much has been written in recent days of the  simple lifestyle of the new Pope. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he shunned the archbishop’s palace and chose to travel in public buses. A few days after being installed as Pope, he celebrated mass with the Vatican City’s gardeners and refuse collectors; and has opted to perform the traditional foot-washing ceremony of Maundy Thursday, not in St Peter’s Basilica, but in a juvenile prison in Rome.

However much we may disagree with the Vatican’s views on priesthood, celibacy and lay ministry, we cannot deny that the Roman Catholic Church regularly provides more examples of incarnational servant-leadership than any other Christian denomination. A prominent evangelist, apologist or mega-church pastor who lives like Pope Francis would be as rare as a snowflake in hell. A lifestyle that revolves around self-promotion, business-class/first-class air travel, conferences in luxury hotels and convention centres – this is what we have come to associate with most “global evangelical leaders”.

The Roman Catholic church has, belatedly, come round to being a leading champion of human rights and social justice in many parts of the world, largely as a result of pressure from Latin American and Eastern European bishops and theologians.

The Reformed Church tradition can boast of a rich heritage of social transformation, resistance to political tyranny, cultural engagement and ideological critique. Paradigmatic twentieth-century figures here are Abraham Kuyper (Netherlands), Karl Barth (Switzerland), Alan Boesak (South Africa). In the US, political philosophers such as Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped recover the centrality of justice to the Biblical narrative and Christian discipleship.

This goes back to John Calvin himself. He spoke boldly of the “wounds of God” not only with reference to the cross, but in terms of human beings as icons of God. For Calvin, notes Nicholas Wolterstorff, to injure a human being is to injure God; to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God. “Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God. If we truly believed that, suggests Calvin, we would be much more reluctant than we are to participate in the victimizing of the poor and the oppressed and the assaulted of the world. To pursue  justice is to relieve God’s suffering.” [Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice”, The Reformed Journal, June 1987]

Not only did Calvin vigorously denounce corruption in the church, but also tyranny in the polity and huge inequalities of wealth in the economy. In his Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, Calvin claims that the cries of the victims are the very cry of God. The lament “How long?” is God’s giving voice to his own lament. One rarely finds such thoughts expressed in Calvinist circles today!

Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.

How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation. Pastors are exhorted to “contend for the faith” (which usually amounts to contending with other pastors, and damning all who disagree with them), and “the faith” is taken to be a set of timeless “doctrines” rather than any distinctive Christian way of living.

But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural.

We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.

A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”

Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.

Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.

Can the North American Church become more Christian by learning from the history and politics of countries like India and Sri Lanka ?

Even to suggest this must come as bit of a shock to those small but highly vocal sections within that Church who believe they have nothing to learn from other peoples, even non-American Christians. In their political discourse, the USA is the bastion of liberty, democracy and prosperity, a beacon to the rest of the world. Somehow Christianity, the U.S Constitution and Supply-Side Economics are fused together. Economic libertarianism is identified as Christian freedom. That precariously-won freedom is now threatened by the likes of Obama, Muslims, the UN, Jim Wallis, George Soros and the IPCC.

How such a diverse crew ever got lumped together baffles me. This bizarre discourse trades on fears engendered by the changing ethnic and religious landscape of the U.S. This self-enclosed worldview, frequently invoking the rhetoric of “persecution” and the threat of Big Government is making strong inroads into the minds of kids brought up not only in the Bible Belt but Christian colleges and fundamentalist seminaries throughout the U.S. It dominates the ugly genre of fundamentalist apocalyptic and the new “conspiracy fiction” (e.g. David Kullberg’s sensationalist War Against God); pseudo news-media such as Fox and World Magazine, and parochial “academies” such as the InterCollegiate Studies Institute and the Acton Institute. There are many more, all massively funded by corporate America.

My first encounter with the tiny intellectual and social worlds of these “Tea Party Christians” (for want of a more accurate term) immediately reminded me of the Sinhala-Buddhist discourse in Sri Lanka and Hindutva (or Hindu Nationalism) in India. While the various schools of Buddhism comprise clusters of religious and ethical practices, beliefs and institutions (such as the sangha, or monastic order), what is labelled “Sinhala-Buddhism” is a political ideology. Sinhala is the majority language of the island, and all Buddhists here speak it. If I were to define the core elements that form the mental map of Sinhala-Buddhists, they would be:

1. Sri Lanka is historically a Sinhala-Buddhist country. All other ethnic and religious groups (Hindus, Muslims and Christians) live here at our sufferance. They must not aspire to equality but accept their proper place within the social and political hierarchy.

2. The high civilization of Sinhala-Buddhism is responsible for all that is good in our history. All that is evil comes from Hindu invasions and Western colonialists (Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British).

3. Even though we are, numerically-speaking a majority (65-70 per cent) on the island, we are threatened by powerful minorities who are aided, economically and politically, by “foreign powers”. Today Muslims, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, are seeking to take over the state and impose their laws on us. Christian missionaries are in the pay of the CIA and other American powers that want to destroy our ancient civilization.

This is the mirror-image of “Tea Party Christianity”. This is not mere ethnocentrism, to which we are all prone. It is nothing less than racism. It thrives on one-sided national histories, ignorance of other people and their faiths, growing economic insecurity, and the fear of losing traditional privileges. And just as we seek to persuade our Buddhist friends to distance themselves from this distorted caricature of Buddhism, so it may be the role of Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others in the US to help “evangelical” Christians in the US to publicly distance themselves from such distorted caricatures of historic Christianity.

Indeed American Muslim migrants can learn from the Roman Catholic experience. For much of the nineteenth century, Catholics in America were the  feared “religious other.” Not only did many not speak English, but some of their religious women- nuns- wore distinctive clothing. Their primary allegiance was to the Roman Catholic Church and not to the U.S Constitution. It took them more than a century to be accepted as equals by white Protestants. At the same time, however, American Catholics helped re-shape parts of their own Church. The Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, was decisive in helping the Second Vatican Council endorse religious freedom- so much so that, ironically, the papacy has become the greatest global champion of religious freedom today. Can Muslim migrants in the US, while not being intimidated by the phobias of the American “right”, still help to re-shape the politics of their home countries in the light of their more positive experiences of American life?

I do not doubt that discrimination against orthodox Christians has been increasing in American universities and the mass media. Those who oppose abortion or gay marriage are regularly pilloried and even excluded from public forums. But Christians betray their faith by their strident cries of “persecution” and lobbing grenades at people, even among their own ranks, from a safe distance. They can become more winsome and credible in their persuasive skills by being consistently “pro-life” (in ways that I have explained in other Blog posts), renouncing racism and nationalism. and being more willing to learn from others. And the place to begin is by switching off their pseudo-Christian media networks, taking their kids out of home-schooling, closing down their sectarian colleges and mono-denominational seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.



March 2013