Vinoth Ramachandra

“This Should Not Be”

Posted on: June 1, 2020

I am delighted to announce the publication of my new book Sarah’s Laughter, four months ahead of schedule.

Information about the book can be found HERE

I have waived my author royalties in order to make the book available, in both print and e-versions, to as many readers as possible, especially in the non-Western world. The book can be purchased from the above website, as well as from Kobo, Book Depository, Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble. (Both Langham and Book Depository ship free worldwide). The book was written for people who struggle with doubt, pain, the loss of hope, and the questions that pastors and theologians typically evade.

I am personally embarrassed to promote my own books, so would appreciate your help in doing so in the circles in which you move, whether they be churches, university groups, seminaries or parachurch organizations.

Interestingly, the Biblical writers know nothing of apologetics. In the face of innocent human suffering, they don’t defend God. They protest to God. And if the cause of that suffering is systemic injustice or political oppression, they confront those responsible. The Christian church has practised this two-fold response (albeit with glaring omissions and inconsistencies) throughout its history: lament to God and practical action on behalf of the victims. Even in the case of “natural evils” like viral pandemics and floods, I have often pointed out that the scale of suffering and death is greatly exacerbated by endemic corruption, political lethargy, economic inequality, and dangerous cultural and environmental practices.

In Sri Lanka, just as in some other countries, Covid-19 has played into the hands of autocratic regimes who have used the crisis to consolidate their hold on power. Constitutional safeguards have been dismantled, and the rule of law replaced by Presidential diktat. The President, a former army commander who assumed power in October last year, was inserting his army cronies into all government departments before the crisis hit. The current army commander was appointed as head of the task force to control the response to Covid-19.

The country was facing both economic ruin and the threat of military dictatorship, and so the pandemic served as a convenient scapegoat for economic mismanagement and as a pretext for growing control by the armed forces of civilian activities. Ironically, the largest clusters of the virus have been found among armed forces personnel. The absence of free and competent journalism, coupled with the takeover of major newspapers and TV stations by the regime, leaves the public largely ignorant of the slide into despotism.

Even as I write, riots are sweeping through several American cities. While rioting and looting are always inexcusable, they are perfectly understandable. Those who decry the violence must first acknowledge the violence of the racist system of law-enforcement in the US. The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), pointed out that “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”

But he went on, in that same work, to caution: “‘When people are already dehumanized, due to the oppression they suffer, the process of their liberation must not employ the methods of dehumanization.”

Institutional racism and police brutality against coloured people long pre-date Trump, though the latter has emboldened white supremacists by his inflammatory rhetoric. Anyone familiar with Hollywood movies or the crime novels of writers like Walter Mosley know that routine police brutality is a feature of life that has rarely been questioned by whites:

“In the south if a black man killed a white man he was dead. If the police saw him on the street they shot first and asked questions… never. If he gave himself up he was killed in his cell. If the constable wasn’t a murdering man then a mob would come and lynch the poor son of a bitch. And failing all that, if a black man ever made it to trial and was convicted of killing a white man- even in self-defence, even if it was to save another white man- that convict would spend the rest of his days incarcerated. There would be no parole, no commutation of sentence, no extenuating circumstances, no time off for good behaviour.” (Walter Mosley, Cinnamon Kiss, Orion Books, 2006)

Racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system have not been confined to the American south. Ken Wytsma writes: “More African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, and more are unable to vote than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men; estimates indicate that black men have a one in three chance of going to prison in their lifetime.” (The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, InterVarsity Press, 2017)

A revolutionary situation can be said to exist when an economic, political or military system is so oppressive that large numbers of people have in their hearts withdrawn consent from the system and from those who administer it. And lament (“This should not be”) is the first step in revolutionary change.

A good many of my white friends in the US (and elsewhere, I should add), with some outstanding exceptions, cannot grasp the severity of this situation. Their view of “sin” is individual, rather than structural and systemic. Because they themselves are not “racist” in their attitudes to others, they fail to empathize with the rage of those who suffer every day. So they continue to vote for politicians who simply tinker with the system rather than uproot it altogether. And they are more offended by the “tone” in which people protest than the situation which gives rise to such protest!

The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s poignant lament is often quoted in these contexts of comfortable middle-class lethargy:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”

Much more on this in my book above!

14 Responses to "“This Should Not Be”"

Dear Vinoth, again, could never thank God enough for you, my Brother! Who is always writing in your loss, in our loss, to the lost…whether in such blog post or books that continues to beckon us forward.

Thanks for writing Vinoth. I have been thinking about systemic sin and how to explain it well to others. I have come around to the idea through a variety of different conversations, articles, books, and my reading of scripture. But I have found myself unable to articulate well this idea to others who don’t already believe in it. I was wondering how you usually try and convince people that sin can be systemic instead of merely individual? If you have already written about this elsewhere, I am willing to read other things you have written. Or if you know of any other writer who is able to articulate this well, I would be willing to take a look at them.

I echo Sze Khiong’s sentiments. An excellent job of tying together the most topical issues, relating the local to the international with compassion and righteous anger in a relatively brief post. Thank God for your life. What a blessing and how profoundly reassuring to have Christian intellectuals providing thoughtful, well-rounded and honest analysis. That you seem to be one of the exceptions in this regard is something in itself that shouldn’t be.

“…the questions that pastors and theologians typically evade…”

Something too many Christians evade altogether. It’s as if there’s a fear of pulling at the thread at all, lest it should all unravel. I had a similar feeling joining a bible study yesterday. The demographic was one that I thought would be more responsive to these sorts of quandaries but it wasn’t necessarily the case. There must be a place of maturity where we can ask these questions and live with the tensions. I shouldn’t judge others by my own standards, I know. Yet I do think a faith that we question openly from time to time is more sincere. We in turn would have a better, more relatable witness.

A quick note regarding Christian apathy towards the current protests, I am more hopeful that this is a watershed moment unlike any other. More of those comfortably middle class Caucasian Christians are speaking up and out over the murder of George Floyd and turning the questioning inwards. Clearly, there’s still a way to go but let’s pray that this doesn’t fade into the background enough for the Western hegemonic church to put off the hard work of soul-searching.

PS Thanks for bringing my attention Freira’s work.

Matt: It’s quite simple, really. Just imagine a child born in a ghetto. What are its life-chances? On every front- nutrition & health, education, job prospects- he is not on a level playing field with those born into privileged families. Even if he is brighter, more hard-working, and more honest than richer kids, he cannot afford the textbooks and hi-tech educational gadgets that others have. His brain development may even be hampered by poor nutrition (because his parents- if both are alive- are not educated well enough in what makes for proper nutrition). Even if he is given a scholarship to a better school, he may well have to drop out to get a low-paid job to support his siblings. And so the cycle of deprivation gets passed on to another generation. There is plenty of sociological evidence that the children of professional parents do much better, on every educational indicator, than the children of lower economic class. This is how inequalities snowball. Social mobility is stifled.

And if the child happens to be a girl, she has to content with the system of patriarchy as well the poverty-perpetuating system. However bright and hard-working she may be, she knows that certain prestigious jobs are only for men. And even if she manages to get such a job she will not be paid the same wage as the men. There is also the social pressure to get married, because women are expected to find “fulfillment” in marriage and child-rearing, not in their professions. Add to that the constant sexual harassment she faces every day (and even domestic sexual assault) about which there is nobody trustworthy to complain to- and even if she did complain it is not taken seriously (“you should not have dressed that way” or “you should submit to your husband”). Little wonder women internalise such feelings of inferiority and pass on their low self-esteem to their daughters. This is the sexist trap.

The “system” is thus a combination of laws, cultural mores, conventional values and practices that are taken-for-granted, never questioned, and which live inside each one of us. We build the systems, but they also make us what we are.

Cool. I’m adding this to my list of books to pick up along with the revised copy of Gods That Fail. In the meantime, I think I may have to pick up my original, highly annotated and underlined copy of Gods That Fail and reread some of it. Thanks!

I hope I can buy it. Thank you for your generosity , not just making it affordable for people in our part of the world but for taking the time to write out of your deep reflection in the midst of your own loss and pain.

I’m unable to buy it from Bangalore as it is not available on Amazon.in or iTunes in India. Any way I can get it here in Bangalore?

See the publishers I mentioned. Book Depository delivers free worldwide- https://www.bookdepository.com/Sarah-s-Laughter/9781783688579

Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
We should heed this prophetic voice. We ignre it to our peril.

Here is a very amusing article from the Thai Enquirer, drawing (unstated) parallels between the situation in Hong Kong (now largely ignored by the global media) and the situation in the US:

https://www.thaienquirer.com/13861/foreign-affairs-unrest-continues-for-a-seventh-day-in-former-british-colony/

[…] a major obstacle for many white American evangelicals. Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra recently wrote that “many of my white friends in the U.S. (and elsewhere, I should add) … cannot grasp the […]

Just came through your book, Dr Ramachandran. Really impressive overview, and an amazing collection of knowledge and experiences from several disciplines. What came out as an especially interesting feature is that your struggle with the age-old dilemmas of grief, death and suffering results in a renewed “theology proper,” a new perspective of God, incarnation, Church and mission. It provides immense credibility to a theology that it takes point of departure in the messiness of life, and the quarrels that even Job and his friends were struggling with, not to mention Leibniz and others. So, much appreciation for an excellent book, which I hope to use in many places. It will surely follow me, giving inspiration not only to preaching and teaching, but also to devotion, worship and prayers.
Henrik Sonne Petersen

Thank you for your encouraging comments. And I appreciate your promoting it through your ministry.

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