Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2017

The American (Eastern Orthodox) theologian David Bentley Hart raises some thought-provoking questions about the American church that if raised by others would immediately be brushed aside as symptomatic of “anti-Americanism”. In an article (“The Angels of Sacré-Coeur”) first published in 2011, Hart writes:

“It is very much an open and troubling question whether American religiosity has the resources to help sustain a culture as a culture- whether, that is, it can create a meaningful future, or whether it can only prepare for the end times. Is the American religious temperament so apocalyptic as to be incapable of culture in any but the most local and ephemeral sense? Does it know of any city other than Babylon the Great or the New Jerusalem? For all the moral will it engenders in persons and communities, can it cultivate the kind of moral intelligence necessary to live in eternity and in historical time simultaneously, without contradiction?”

And he ends with the sober judgment: “European Christendom has at least left a singularly presentable corpse behind. If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity.”

Harsh words, perhaps, but they stem from a passion to see the Lordship of Christ embracing and permeating every area of the church’s life and engagement with the world. The apostle Paul too used harsh language in denouncing the way the face of Christ was distorted by both false teaching and behaviour inconsistent with the Gospel.

American Christian Fundamentalism (ACF) has made deep inroads into churches all over the world since the Second World War, and its influence has been magnified with the rise of satellite TV and the Internet. I have often said that, with the decline of old-style European theological liberalism, ACF poses a far bigger threat to the global church than Islamist fundamentalism. Why? Because the biggest threats arise not from those who can only kill the body but from those who kill our souls in the name of religion.

Here are four reasons, among others, for my concern:

(1) ACF promotes religious hypocrisy. Its preachers rail against “worldliness” while baptising the consumerist “American dream” and right-wing political agendas; they announce that we are living in “the last days” but they don’t close down their bank deposit accounts or pull their children out of school; they teach that “preaching the Gospel” is the primary, if not the only thing, that matters to God, but they themselves spend most of their time in getting married, building a home, ensuring that their children get the best health care, education and employment. They preach that since the earth is going to be destroyed anyway, environmental concerns are a waste of time; but they spend an inordinate amount of time feeding and clothing their bodies, repairing their homes and cars- all of which are likewise doomed to perish. They teach that all who don’t hear the Gospel are “going to hell”, but that doesn’t seem to move them to give up marriage, children, jobs, money, etc., and go about rescuing as many souls as they can from this “eternal hell”. If they clearly don’t believe what they preach, why should we?

(2) ACF promotes mindlessness. It demonizes whatever it doesn’t understand, especially Secularism, Evolution, Feminism, Islam and the ancient Asian religions. Walk into an affluent ACF-influenced church, and you will see some highly educated men and women in the audience who have checked in their critical thinking at the door. They passively absorb the most outrageous theological notions, submit to authoritarian forms of leadership, and fail to see the glaring contradictions between the lifestyle of Jesus and that of the preacher-entertainers on the podium.

This “split-mind” among many ACF-influenced academics and professionals is a product of the narrow “Gospel” they have been introduced to (e.g. “being born again”, “going to heaven when I die”, “having a personal relationship with God”), so that they cannot see how their daily work, studies, political views, economic behaviour, and so on, have anything at all to do with the Gospel of Christ.

(3) ACF promotes divisiveness. By preaching a private, individualistic “Gospel”, it blinds its followers to the scandal of Christian fragmentation, rivalry and separation. It also encourages “personality cults” which are often disguised as “doctrinal distinctives.” ACF-influenced Christians believe they have nothing to learn from other Christians. The concern of Jesus that the visible unity of the church is the best apologetic to a watching world (e.g. John 13:34, 35; 17:20,21) and Paul’s teaching that the visible unity of the church is central to the message of the cross itself (Eph. 2:14ff) – these are completely ignored.

(4) ACF promotes Zionist views re the Middle East, reinforcing the apartheid practices of the Israeli state. The post-1948 secular state of Israel is bizarrely identified with Old Testament covenant Israel, and the politics of the region going back to the 19th-century is simply ignored. Most tragically, there is a profound and culpable neglect of the entire New Testament understanding of Christ as the fulfilment of all the Old Testament promises (e.g. where is “the land” ever mentioned in the New Testament?).

At root, all these spring from the sad fact that those who talk most loudly about the “authority of the Bible” and being “Bible-believing” Christians, don’t actually read the whole Bible. They read a “Bible within the Bible” (selected verses used as proof-texts) or they read the Bible through spectacles taken from their favourite preachers and authors.

Which is why we need a new Reformation among evangelical Protestants.

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While “hate crimes” committed by and against Muslims in Europe receive increasing attention in the global media, the rise of Hindu vigilantism in India receives scant coverage. Yet the loss of life and the levels of terror under which Muslim and other religious minorities in India now live far exceed anything experienced in the West.

For example, a 15-year-old Muslim boy, Hafiz Junaid, was stabbed to death on board a Delhi-Mathura train on June 22. His and his three brothers had boarded the train at Delhi’s Sadar Bazar Station after shopping for Eid, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They were set upon by a mob which repeatedly taunted them with cries of “anti-nationals” and “beef eaters.” In the fight which ensued, Junaid’s three brothers were hospitalized with stab wounds. The police have hitherto done nothing to apprehend the killers.

India is an exporter of beef. But ever since the nineteenth-century Hindu nationalist movement under the leadership of the Arya Samaj made Cow Protection a political slogan, it has from time to time been an excuse for vigilante groups to harass and even murder Muslims in the name of “protecting our religion and culture”. Cows are deemed more valuable than some human lives. Hence the term “sacred cow” that has passed into the English language to denote any object that is immune to criticism.

Under the current BJP government in India, cow protection groups, operating with impunity, have killed Muslims and low-caste peoples simply for transporting cattle. In BJP-ruled states the lynching of Muslim men by Hindu mobs is becoming commonplace.

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cronies in the central government remain silent over these killings. But so do many affluent Hindu Indians in the US who welcomed Modi to the US a few days ago and who are intent on exploiting the Trump regime’s ignorance and fear of the Muslim world. A week after Junaid’s murder Modi was in Washington DC, wooing the Tech Giants to invest in India, while the country itself is deteriorating into a state of near-anarchy.

The BJP-ruled Gujarat state, where Modi was formerly chief minister and blithely ignored repeated pogroms against Muslims, recently amended its Animal Preservation Act of 1954 to extend the maximum sentence for cow slaughter from the present seven-year jail term to life imprisonment.

Anybody familiar with Indian cities knows that cows are treated far worse in India than in other countries. Malnourished cows, their ribs painfully sticking out and munching on discarded polythene bags, are a common sight in Indian cities. But anyone familiar with Indian politics knows that such contradictions are central to the whole ideology of Hindutva. Every nationalist needs a bogeyman, and Pakistan and the Muslim and Christian minorities in India serve that end.

Moreover, academic scholars are under pressure to rewrite not only the history of India but their specialist courses so as to obliterate or diminish the contribution of Muslim, Christian and other minority communities. Liberal and Marxist scholars and journalists, no less than Christians and Muslims, are often the targets of vicious personal attacks. Christian NGOs working among the poor (largely ignored by vocal Hindu politicians except at election time) are constantly harassed with allegations of making “unethical conversions”.

Yet another irony is that the colonial penal code relating to “sedition” has often been invoked in recent months to justify assaults on anybody who criticizes India’s policy or military actions in Kashmir. Pakistani actors cannot appear in Indian movies. A group of Muslims who cheered Pakistan’s recent victory in the international cricket championship were set upon by a gang who charged them with “sedition”. Such are the ridiculous depths to which Indian society has sunk! (Imagine all those Indians in the UK who, despite being British citizens, cheer the Indian cricket team when they defeat England, being hauled off to gaol!)

But all is not yet lost. Amnesty International India has condemned hate crimes against Muslims, and civil society organizations have continued to mobilize people to express their revulsion at police inaction and tacit governmental support for the growing culture of Hindu vigilantism. Several thousands of concerned citizens have marched in Indian cities under the slogan “Not in My Name”, following the murder of Junaid and the spate of recent mob lynchings.

If more Hindus in India and the so-called Indian diaspora in the West do not raise their voice in support of such civil society defiance, they should not be surprised if the fear, anger and frustration of young Muslims becomes channelled in the direction of ISIS and other radicalised Islamist groups. If there is one lesson we have learned in South Asia in the post-colonial era it is that extremism breeds extremism, and the silence of elites strengthens the voice of the mob.

Is a government that fails to protect its minorities a “failed state”?


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