Vinoth Ramachandra

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As Israelis go to the polls, the world needs to remember that Israel is not a democracy by any modern understanding of that term. It officially declares itself to be a “Jews-only” state. Arab Israelis are second-class citizens; and as for the indigenous Palestinians, they are a beleaguered and oppressed population in their own land.

So Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid.

Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist often credited with the label “founder of the Zionist movement”, was rightly concerned that assimilation and sporadic persecution were destroying Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews need a “home” where they could preserve their traditional way of life. Herzl was not thinking of Palestine as the Jewish “home”- for Judaism had for the past two millennia reconfigured itself around the study of the Torah rather than the Land and Temple. He initially toyed with the idea of Uganda as a safe haven.

It was “dispensationalist” Christians in the US and UK following the teachings of John Nelson Darby, Henry Irving, the Moody Bible Institute- and later- the Texan Cyrus Scofield’s commentary on the Bible, who influenced the Zionist movement and the British colonial authorities to settle the Jews in Palestine. Wrenching Old Testament texts out of their historical contexts, they taught that the return of Jews to Palestine was foretold in biblical prophecy and would usher in the parousia, or “return” of Christ.

The creation of a Jewish state in 1948 witnessed what today would be called “ethnic cleansing”: from December 1947 till the early 1950s, a well-organized military campaign by the Jewish minority (numbering 660,000 out of a population of two million) destroyed five hundred Palestinian villages and eleven urban neighbourhoods, expelled seven hundred thousand people and massacred those who refused to give up their homes. Those expelled became permanent refugees, unable to return to their ancestral lands. But Jews anywhere in the world who have no Semitic ancestry and no ancient claim on the land are able to migrate to Israel and are granted automatic citizenship. (See Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cortran, eds., The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1988)

This is what Palestinians remember as Nakbah– catastrophe. And if all moral persons should be horrified by attempts at Holocaust-denial, should we not also be horrified by Nakbah-denial by the Israel state and pro-Israeli academics and church pastors?

Israel continues to flout international laws with impunity (for instance, erecting permanent structures on lands seized by invasion). It does so because it enjoys the diplomatic and military protection of the United States.

The military occupation of Palestine encroaches on every area of peoples lives: restrictions on travel, high youth unemployment, poor healthcare and educational facilities, forcible annexation of houses and land.

More Jews live outside Israel than within it, and many are outspoken critics of the Zionist project. There are also courageous rabbis and human rights activists within Israel who are opposed to the abuses heaped on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army and right-wing Jewish colonists. So to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish.

There is a single ray of light in the tragic history of Anglo-American Christian involvement in the affairs of Palestine. Henry King was the President of Oberlin college, a Christian liberal arts school in Ohio which was the first college in the US to admit women and also played a leading role in the abolitionist movement. King was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson. After the First World War he served with the YMCA in Paris. At the Versailles Peace conference in 1919, Wilson asked King to head a commission of enquiry to ascertain the aspirations of the indigenous Arabs in Palestine. Wilson knew that the British and French were eager to seize hold of the remnants of the Ottoman empire. In the Wilsonian vision of breaking up empires, the Arabs, too, were entitled to liberation and the independence denied them by four centuries of imperial rule under the Turks.

What became the King-Crane commission discovered that the majority of Palestinians were fearful of a Zionist presence and a British or French mandate. They wanted either independence or to be part of a Greater-Syrian Arab state. The King-Crane report troubled the governments in London and Paris. The report was shelved when Wilson became seriously ill and collapsed later that year. With it died the liberal vision of national self-determination.

This was the first and last time that any attempt was made, as one historian puts it, “to build a new Middle East according to the aspirations of the local population rather than those of Washington and its allies.”

I tell my British and American Christian friends that they can never be part of the solution to the Palestinian crisis until they recognize that they have been a huge part of the problem. And fundamentalist Christian preachers in the so-called American Bible Belt continue to be the problem as they refuse to accept any other reading of “biblical prophecy”, and spread misleading Zionist historiography around the world through the Internet and TV channels. There are many churches in Asia and Africa that have imbibed such views without ever examining Scripture as to what is being said is actually there (for example there is not a single reference to the land in the entire New Testament).

Ignorance of history has to be countered with historical facts. Bad theology has to be challenged with good theology. The Christian theologians of Palestine have come up with a Kairos theological statement similar to the seminal Kairos document of South Africa in 1985 that countered Afrikaaner state theology and mobilized the Church against apartheid. I commend it to you:

http://www.kairospalestine.ps/index.php/about-us/kairos-palestine-document

A number of metaphors are used to describe the experience of grief that follows the death of a loved one: the loss of a limb, falling into a black hole, wading through thick mud, submerged in a tidal wave, and so on. And the strange paradox about grief, is that although it is universal (every one of us will experience it at some time in our lives) every experience is uniquely personal, depending on such factors as the depth of one’s relationship with the deceased, one’s personality, upbringing, cultural background, and network of other supportive relationships.

In my case, thankfully, I have not needed medication or professional grief counselling. In the weeks following Karin’s death. I kept a private journal recording all my pain, questions, doubts and spiritual anguish. I have lost not merely a wife, but my best friend, a fellow-traveller, critic, encourager, soulmate. And all the philosophical and theological questions about suffering, evil and death which have haunted me all through my life have returned with a fresh existential intensity. Wrestling with these has been for me a kind of self-therapy.

Of course, tears blind us. Our cognitive capacities are clouded by pain and disorientation. But they can also embolden us to question so much of the conventional wisdom of our churches and cultures. Karin and I have always been irritated by the popular theological clichés regarding suffering and death: “God is in control”, “God took him/her”, “God has a purpose in this”, and so on. They smack of Marx called “false consciousness’ and Sartre “bad faith.”

Karin used to point out that so many Western books on suffering addressed the question “Why me?” posed by normally comfortable people whose lives are suddenly blighted by disease, accident or failure. But what of the vast majority of humankind, in history as well as in many parts of the world today, whose all-too-brief lives from the cradle to the grave fall so far short of the flourishing that the Creator intends for them- and often through no fault of their own? Traditional theodicies and rationalist apologetics seem so painfully glib and irrelevant.

Many Christians invoke Job in situations like this, while missing the point of the story entirely. I am bemused by references to the “patience of Job”, when a cursory reading of the book reveals a man who was anything but patient! He vigorously protests his innocence, and hurls his questions, longings and accusations of unfairness at the gates of heaven. Can this God be trusted? That is the basic question in such times. Job lives in the tension between faith and experience, shuffling back and forth but never settling for an easy resolution. This is the tradition of biblical lament. And I believe that the “problem” of suffering and evil can ultimately only be approached through honest lament and compassionate action; not by theological reasoning.

I have often been haunted by the thought that while our faith can be verified eschatologically, it can never be falsified. If we are all deluded, we will never know it. And there won’t be any answers to the big questions humanity has been asking throughout its history.

I am in the paradoxical situation of remaining utterly convinced of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (for I can find no other explanation for the origins of the Christian movement); and yet struggling to make sense of how the billions of people throughout history will one day be resurrected into the new creation that has dawned in Jesus’ resurrection. Clearly bodily resurrection implies a social, collective event; for our bodies are the means by which we interact and communicate with others. And the Scriptures take for granted that we shall recognize not only our loved ones but also those who have gone before us. But how does such recognition happen, given that every part of our bodies has evolved to meet the conditions of biological life on this earth? How did Peter recognize Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration? What aspect of our embodied human nature has Christ taken into the godhead for eternity? Is it only our memories, characters and relationships that we take from this life into the next?

I have long been dissatisfied with the standard models of how mind and body interact (dualism, dual-aspect monism, non-reductionist physicalism, etc.). On this and other matters I am content to be agnostic. But when in grief, we cannot but cry out for some assurance from a good and loving God that our loved ones have not passed into oblivion but are with him, in whatever form.

The typical response of my theologian friends has been either “We have never thought of that before” or “You are asking questions we are also struggling with and for which we have no answers.” At least nobody has suggested that my questions are foolish or stemming from hubris. I know that much of theology ultimately fades into deep mystery. Christian maturity is about living with our questions, practising faithfulness to Christ even as we weep, struggle and yearn for that new world.

Where in the world do we find a political party that lost a general election being installed as the “government” of that country by a President who belongs to that minority party himself?

Nowhere but Sri Lanka: a country which in the 1950s was regarded as a beacon for good governance in the postcolonial world, but is now in grave danger of joining the growing list of failed democracies. The new regime installed a month ago has been decisively rejected in a no-confidence vote by the country’s parliament (in the midst of violent attempts in the chamber itself to scuttle the vote). But the regime still clings to power while lacking political legitimacy. It is backed by a large Buddhist-nationalist faction in the country who regard the newly installed Prime Minister (who was ousted as President in 2015) as a “war hero” as well as one of their own. No foreign government, except China, has hitherto recognized the regime. But the country is economically and politically paralyzed. And, despite public protests and demonstrations, mainly in the capital Colombo, large sections of the population appear simply apathetic.

Such apathy, coupled with the gangsterism that has replaced a civil political culture in Sri Lanka, is rooted in massive institutional failures that go beyond parliament and an easily-muzzled judiciary. For many years now, the island’s schools and universities have ceased to be places where students learn critical thinking or how to engage with those from other ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. Education and the media have become ideologically polarized.

As for religious communities, they tend to live in self-enclosed ghettos, and have ceased to be forums where men and women are equipped with the moral habits indispensable for public life. Indeed, notions such as “the common good”, “the rule of law”, or “conflicts of interest” are little understood, not least among those entrusted with the education of the young, whether in schools or religious institutions.

In my last post, I mentioned the shifting political stances of the Roman Catholic church around the world. In Sri Lanka, the RC church comprises a significant 7 per cent of the population, compared to less than 1 per cent of Protestants. While there are several Roman Catholic priests and nuns who are politically active at the grassroots in promoting justice and reconciliation, the middle-class laity (among whom are found leading politicians, bureaucrats and judges) are largely theologically ignorant and often complicit in wrongdoing. And it is difficult for the RC Bishops to challenge authoritarianism in politics when they themselves are under the thumb of an autocratic Cardinal who is morally compromised and more Buddhist than Christian in his public pronouncements: for instance, claiming recently that a “Buddhist country” like Sri Lanka does not need the “Western religion of human rights” – thus denying his own church’s social doctrine!

In countries like Sri Lanka, the long-term task of building free and accountable institutions is where Christians should devote their energies. It is not simply a constitutional crisis we face, but a deeper moral crisis. Conversion- personal and cultural- goes hand-in-hand with legal and economic change. We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.

“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”- Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Contrary to what is stated in typical undergraduate-level texts on political theory, the first modern political revolution occurred not in France or the US, but in 17th-century England. The English Civil War saw, for a few brief years, the replacement of monarchy by a sovereign parliament. The English dissenters (“Puritans”, “Diggers” and “Levellers”), opposed absolutism on theological grounds and championed freedom of conscience and religious worship. Oliver Cromwell’s ragtag army of common people held formal open debates all over England to determine what kind of government should replace the defeated monarchy. What an utterly remarkable moment in history.

Although Cromwell’s Commonwealth did not last long, his experiment was far-reaching. While monarchy was restored, there was no going back on the sovereignty of Parliament in the government of the English people. And the refugees and immigrants who fled across the Atlantic to New England continued the political experiment begun under Cromwell. Little wonder that in New England immediately after the American Declaration of Independence, slavery was banned (while it continued in the South), women’s rights advanced, and a level of political maturity reached that was unsurpassed anywhere in the nineteenth-century world.

Many otherwise well-educated Americans are ignorant of how much they owe to the English Civil War and its aftermath. Words like Puritan and Calvinist are usually used as “sneer words”: they have become caricatures of gloomy, uptight religious fanatics. Little do we realise how indebted to such men we are in our modern political discourse about equality, rights, the rule of law, and representational democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who traveled around the newly-independent United States observing its culture and institutions, had no such illusions. In his classic work, Democracy in America, written in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, he observed: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions, for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it… I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere belief in their religion- for who can search the human heart? – but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

Recovering the rich heritage of Christian political theology is the first step towards the Church learning to speak truth to power and contributing to the building of free and accountable institutions.

In his epochal commentary on the biblical Epistle to the Romans in 1919, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reminded his readers that “It was the Church, and not the world, that crucified Christ.”

These are words that we need to recall constantly. Authoritarian governments have sprung up all the world in recent years, many of them supported by people calling themselves “Bible-believing Christians.” Even as I write, such folk in Brazil are preparing to vote into the Presidency a former army officer who is brazenly racist, misogynistic, contemptuous of the poor and defensive of the military dictatorship in Brazil’s dark era of repression.

A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That such an ecclesiastical conversion is possible is shown by the case of the Roman Catholic Church. In the first half of the twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church was denouncing the discourse of human rights, and its fear of communism led it to support fascism in Europe and Latin America. All that changed with the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and the widespread influence of liberation theologies. Today it is the Roman Catholic Church that is spearheading resistance to dictatorships and human rights abuses in many parts of the world, much to the shame of their non-Catholic Christian brethren. So we should not lose hope.

Earlier this month, nearly four decades after his death, the former El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was declared a “saint” by Pope Francis. Romero was killed by members of a death squad while performing mass at the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Romero was an outspoken champion of the poor in his country. The day before his death, he publicly denounced the violence carried out by the country’s armed forces against civilian populations during a mass at the National Cathedral. His death sent shockwaves throughout Latin America. It made many sceptics more open to what the Church had to say. Today, when mass consumerism and social conformity has stifled dissent and counter-cultural resistance, the Church (for all its inner contradictions and tensions) quietly and courageously follows Jesus in caring for the poor, the foreigner and the vulnerable.

On this Blog I have often drawn attention to the global class of the “super-rich”, the miniscule fraction of the world’s population who own all the wealth and so influence governmental policies. Last year, a former British journalist Richard Reeves, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., argued in his book Dream Hoarders, that in the U.S it is the top 20% who are the real American villains: a large group of well-heeled pickpockets with huge bonuses on top of high salaries, tax breaks on mortgage interests and college savings funds, who engage in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans.

The book shows how this upper-middle class, while not having seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires, are able to dominate the country’s top colleges, insulate themselves in wealthy neighbourhoods with excellent private schools and public services, and enjoy the best health care. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that- an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, sending them to the top universities, providing them with social connections that make a difference when entering the labour force, helping with internships, paying for college tuition and home-buying. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder- such as reduction in wealth and inheritance taxes, exclusionary zoning, or legacy admissions to colleges.

I believe this is happening all over the world. It may be the top 20% in the West and Japan, a smaller proportion elsewhere, but it’s really the upper middle-class (to whom many of us belong) who are limiting opportunity for everyone else.

This is not a political divide: it’s a social chasm. It doesn’t seem to matter who wins political elections; no party has the will to challenge the way of life of the upper middle classes.

Will the gubernatorial elections in the US next month make any real difference? The upper middle-class Democrats dislike Trump but they are happy to sit out his presidency as they are doing quite well financially under him.

The Rev Martin Luther King famously observed that it was as a cruel jest to tell a man to lift himself up with his bootlaces when he didn’t have any boots.

My wife, Karin, fell asleep in Christ in the early hours of 6th May. Her funeral, two days later, was a celebration of a life lived fully and sacrificially.

Large numbers of people from all walks of life – the very poor as well as the very rich, the highly educated as well as the uneducated- turned up at the funeral home as well as the Anglican Cathedral in Colombo where the funeral service was held. It was a testament to the impact she has had on so many in this country. Not to mention the steady flow of emails and cards she received from all over the world before her death, and I have been receiving since.

Friends in London arranged a Thanksgiving Service for Karin a month later, at the church where we were married nearly twenty years ago. I repeated the tribute-homily I gave at the funeral in Colombo. You can find the audio recording of the service at:

https://youtu.be/BwOS6hiBZ9M (My tribute can be found from 41:24- 53:40)

John Donne’s famous line “No man is an island” from “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is often quoted; but few go on to give the whole section in which that line occurs. Here is the fuller quote, well worth pondering:

“The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions…
when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is
of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is
not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language;
and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several
translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness,
some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every
translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves
again for that library where every book shall lie open to one
another…
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece
of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s
death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for
thee.”- John Donne (1572-1631), “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

A wise friend wrote me last week that “Honest grieving is your current vocation”. That relieves me from the false guilt of not being able to perform as before, whether in writing or public speaking.

I read a poem recently where the writer refers to being “ambushed by grief”. That is a metaphor which resonates with me. Just when I think I am coping well, I am blind-sided by a wave of memories that plunges me into a pit of loneliness. I know that many of you have been there yourselves and well understand what I am experiencing.

And in his book Lament for a Son, written thirty years ago, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote these words that I have treasured, long before my own personal experience of what he meant:

“I know now about helplessness-of what to do when there is nothing to do. I have learned coping. We live in a time and place where, over and over, when confronted with something unpleasant we pursue not coping but overcoming. Often we succeed. Most of humanity has not enjoyed and does not enjoy such luxury. Death shatters our illusion that we can make do without coping. When we have overcome absence with phone calls, winglessness with airplanes, summer heat with airconditioning- when we have overcome all these and much more besides, then there will abide two things with which we must cope: the evil in our hearts and death. There are those who vainly think that some technology will even enable us to overcome the former. Everyone knows that there is no technology for overcoming death. Death is left for God’s overcoming.”

Racism and sexism are increasingly, and belatedly, being identified as major issues on North American, Western European and Australian universities, and are not merely “developing country” phenomena. See, for instance, the recent report from a British task force.

Racism/Sexism manifest themselves not only in hiring practices, unequal pay, hate speech and acts of overt violence, but in everyday paternalism, willful ignorance of and separation from others, and the language we use in identifying others.

Sadly, these are huge blind-spots in many Christian churches and organizations.

For example, many foreign Christian students are shocked to find Christian groups on American campuses that are divided not only on denominational lines, but on the basis of skin colour. And, feeling little welcome from the dominant host culture, such students often end up forming Christian ghettos themselves. In the wider society, people who may work together during the week migrate to segregated colour-based “churches” on a Sunday.

Moreover, it is from rich, predominantly white churches and organizations that we in the Majority World are bombarded with evangelistic “programs”, training courses and methodologies. They show no interest in learning from us. What they produce is for universal consumption. Whatever we produce is local. Ironically, these churches and organizations have little impact on their own cultures and societies.

Afrikaaner theology in South Africa promoted the idea of “separate development” of races by arguing that cultural diversity was intended by God and that, therefore, each race/culture should develop in separate spaces without contamination from or engagement with others.

The biblical premise was correct, but the conclusion drawn was profoundly anti-Christian.

This kind of theology re-surfaces in the popular “People Group” methodology of mission, developed in the 1980s at the US Centre for World Mission in Pasadena and propagated uncritically around the world. It marries a dubious sociology with a flawed theology: gospel preaching aims to plant a church within a “people group” so that nobody has to cross any awkward, let alone hostile, boundaries in becoming Christians. This makes for numerical growth, as “people-group churches” are homogeneous, like attracting like. Hence the mushrooming of homogeneous groups, all calling themselves “churches”, and not in any kind of communication with each other.

The great South African theologian David Bosch criticised Afrikaaner theology’s idolization of cultural diversity: “Paul could never cease to marvel at this new thing that had caught him unawares, as something totally unexpected: the Church is one, indivisible, and it transcends all differences. The sociologically impossible…is theologically possible… All this most certainly does not mean that culture is not to play any role in the Church and that cultural differences should not be accommodated… However, cultural diversity should in no way militate against the unity of the Church. Such diversity in fact should serve the unity. It thus belongs to the well-being of the Church, whereas the unity is part of its being. To play the one off against the other is to miss the entire point. Unity and socio-cultural diversity belong to different orders. Unity can be confessed. Not so diversity. To elevate cultural diversity to the level of an article of faith is to give culture a positive theological weight which easily makes it into a revelation principle.”

It distresses me, therefore, to find this methodology still pursued and promoted in some “evangelical” circles. We are given metrics about how many “decisions for Christ” were made through such a methodology, while never asking what these “decisions” are or- most importantly- which “Christ” they are talking about. It cannot be the Christ who breaks down dividing walls of hostility between peoples and reconciles them together into one new humanity, of which the Church is called to be a sign and foretaste (e.g. Eph. 2: 14ff).

One way of understanding the dynamic of Christian conversion is in terms of the creative tension between what the church historian Andrew Walls has called the “indigenising principle” and the “pilgrim principle” in history. Both these principles derive from the Gospel. The indigenising principle witnesses to the truth that God accepts sinners like us as we are, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection alone. He does not wait for us to correct our ideas or tidy up our behaviour before He welcomes us into His family as adopted sons and daughters. Christ, so to speak, immerses himself in all that we bring to him from our background in our initial conversion; and “indigenises” our discipleship, calling us to live as Christians and as members of our own societies.

But not only does God in Christ take us as we are, but He takes us in order to make us what we ought to be. So, along with the indigenising principle the Christian also inherits a “pilgrim principle” which “whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society, for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system. Jesus within Jewish culture, Paul within Hellenistic culture, take it for granted that there will be rubs and frictions-not from the adoption of a new culture, but from the transformation of the mind towards that of Christ.”

The indigenising principle, then, associates Christians with the particulars of their culture and group, testifying to the sanctifying power of Christ within their old relationships. The pilgrim principle, on the other hand, associates Christians with the wider family of faith, bringing them into a new set of relationships with people whom they would have never associated with before and with whom their natural groups have little kinship.

The pilgrim principle testifies to the universal scope of the Gospel. All those in whom Christ dwells through faith, all who have been accepted by God in Christ, are now family members. The Christian thus has a double nationality: his own former loyalty to biological family, tribe, clan or nation is retained, but now set within a wider and more demanding loyalty to the global family of Christ.

(The closing paragraphs are taken from my book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World (InterVarsity Press-UK and USA, 1999) Ch.4)

I sent this article for publication in local newspapers. It is a response to another spate of attacks by “Sinhala-Buddhist” mobs on Muslim communities in villages in the area around Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. I invite readers to consider how what I say about this “religious violence” resonates with their own experiences in their countries.

Organized mob violence against minorities has been a feature of the political landscape in Sri Lanka for several decades. In fact, one could say that it has become part of our political culture.

Thus blaming Facebook and other social media is a way of avoiding facing up to some hard but simple facts.

In all such mob attacks, the idleness or complicity of the Police has been amply documented. Clearly this cannot be due to fear or incompetence alone. The inactivity of the Police is always a consequence of the activity of senior politicians. This was the case in July’83, a state-orchestrated pogrom against Tamils in the south of the country. It has been the same ever since in every instance of so-called “religious violence”.

So, how do we prevent future acts of violence against vulnerable minorities?

(1) Interdict senior police officers in those areas where the violence occurred. Their dereliction of duty is a criminal offence. They should not be transferred to other areas where they can continue repeat such betrayals of public trust, but arraigned before courts of law. In such courts, they should reveal whoever in government ordered them to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by mobs.

(2) Compensation for affected minorities is insufficient. The President and Prime Minister must take responsibility and apologise publicly to those who have lost limbs, family members, or property. They must personally see that whoever instigated such violence, even if it be senior members of their own political parties, be brought to justice. What we need in Sri Lanka is not more legislation but law enforcement.

(3) The Press Complaints Commission has to be woken up and given some teeth. Who has allowed this body to become moribund? It is not only social media, but mainstream media that have been swamped by “fake news” and fake reporting. In the run-up to the local government elections, the Bond Commission Report’s “findings” were being splashed across front pages of newspapers by journalists who had never read the report themselves. What is called “News’ in Sri Lanka has simply become reporting what some government or opposition politician says, without any attempt to critically question and investigate for oneself. We need not only a free media but a competent and responsible one.

(4) The Sinhala-Buddhist community must realise that the biggest threat to Buddhism in this country lies within themselves. It is those Buddhist monks and Buddhist politicians who embrace violence and corruption who damage the credibility of Buddhism, not non-Buddhists or any “external forces”. The latter have often been a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s ills. As long as Buddhist monks and ruling politicians are treated as being above the law, the cycles of violence will continue. In the interest of protecting Buddhism, Sinhala-Buddhism needs to be demythologized as a nationalist ideology by Buddhists themselves.

(5) Far-reaching educational reforms are needed. Sri Lankan history textbooks used in schools should carry different perspectives on the past and not only that of the majority community. Muslim-only and Buddhist-only schools should be persuaded by the authorities to become more pluralistic. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious associations among teachers and schoolchildren should be formed in every district with a view to dispelling caricatures and stereotypes of other communities.

If the present political culture does not change and a moral compass restored to government, Sri Lanka will remain mired in a chronic state of social backwardness, always “developing” but never developed, with more tall buildings but dysfunctional institutions and morally stunted leaders.


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