Vinoth Ramachandra

Author Archive

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.

Christmas is about human exclusion as much as divine solidarity. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)

A couple excluded from the hotels and guest-houses of their home town, and later forced to flee as refugees from state persecution. A child who is excluded from his community and eventually from life itself, dying in solidarity with all who suffered the shame of crucifixion.

The best way to celebrate Christmas, therefore, is to reflect on- and repent of – the way we exclude other people and other voices from intruding on our comfortable existence.

I think today, Christmas Eve, especially of my Palestinian Christian brethren. They are caught in a vulnerable position between, on the one hand, an aggressive Israeli settler movement (backed up by an occupation army) and an equally aggressive Islamist militancy, on the other. Rarely, if ever, are their voices heard in mainstream secular news media.

The only exposure to Palestinians on “Christian” news channels is of stone-throwing children or the remains of suicide-bombers. How humiliated Palestinian Christians must feel by constant references on the part of Western Christians to “the Holy Land” (a sentimental phrase that is not found in the Bible) combined with a wilful ignorance of history and a fundamentalist abuse of “biblical prophecy”. The global Church needs to listen to their voice.

Any student of Middle Eastern history is familiar not only with the shameful story of European colonial interference in that part of the world, but also the tragic influence of “dispensationalist theology” (promoted by the Scofield Bible, Moody Bible Institute, Andover-Newton and Dallas theological seminaries) on American and British policy-makers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several of them, including Lord Balfour (author of the infamous Balfour declaration of 1917) were influenced by such theology, believing that the creation of a Jewish state would hasten the “return of Christ”. Such influence has continued under Benjamin Netanyahu who has frequent contact with Christian Zionist churches in the US as well as the so-called International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.

It is now approaching 70 years since the creation of the state of Israel, and there is still no “return of Christ.”

I said in an earlier post (“A New Reformation”, 24 July 2017) that some exported forms of American Christianity pose a far bigger threat to the cause of the Gospel in the world than Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist persecution. This is because it undermines the moral and intellectual integrity of the Church. The misuse of the Bible by those claiming to be “Bible-believing Christians” is, I believe, more dangerous than ridicule of the Bible by atheists; for it turns away thoughtful non-Christians.

All that is necessary to debunk Christian Zionism is to show that (a) “the land” is not mentioned even once in the New Testament; (b) all Old Testament texts, promises and concepts (such as “Israel”) are to be read by Christians through the lens of the New Testament; and, therefore, (c) Christians have no theological stake in Jerusalem but instead look towards the New Jerusalem that is to come (cf. Heb. 11:13-16; Rev.21, 22).

What many Christian Zionists also fail to realise is that there are many more Jews living outside Israel than in the state of Israel; that many among them have decisively rejected Zionism as a political ideology; and that there is a courageous human rights movement within Israel itself, that is deeply critical of Netanyahu’s policies and of human rights abuses by Jewish settlers and the Israeli army.

A sane Palestinian Christian voice that needs to be heard by the Church worldwide is that of Munther Isaac, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem- ironically, the very town/village where the Christmas story begins. Several of his talks are available on Youtube, and I commend especially his talk “Christian Zionism as Imperial Theology”, given at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in 2016.

As for the decisive rejection by the UN General Assembly of Trump’s and his acolyte Nikki Haley’s bullying tactics, best commentary I have read on this is by Hamid Dubashi, a well-known Middle Eastern scholar at New York’s Columbia University.

I wish all my American friends would read this. But I know that some will refuse, because it unsettles. That is the tragedy of Christmas.

In politics rhetoric, while a necessary skill, usually misleads. For instance, no country that carries the title “democratic” and/or “socialist” is either democratic or socialist in any meaningful sense.

Similarly, the United States and the United Kingdom are not only deeply divided politically, but are the most economically unequal among all the industrially developed (OECD) states. That economic inequality keeps widening at a terrifying pace every year. The wealthiest family in the US (the Wallmart owners) have assets amounting to $90 billion, which is the same as the combined income of the 40% poorest Americans or 120 million people.

Last week not only saw the U.S Senate endorse Trump’s egregious tax cuts for the rich (who hide their taxes in secret offshore havens, anyway), but also the resignation of the entire Board of the UK’s Commission on Social Mobility. The reason for the resignation given by the Commission Chair was the massive and frustrating gulf between political rhetoric and political action when it came to addressing the glaring inequalities in British society.

Those of us who were transiting in airport lounges last week would have been subjected to the unavoidable, relentless CNN barrage about Michael Flynn and the Mueller investigation into possible Russian involvement in the Trump campaign. All other news took a back seat. Why should the world care about Russian involvement in American presidential elections when the US has been interfering in the elections of several countries since the Cold War, even to the point of liquidating politicians thought dangerous to American interests?

Just take the case of Nicaragua. The Reagan administration armed and helped train the Contra rebels who were seeking to oust the democratically-elected Sandanista government. The Contras were hand-in-glove with Nicaraguan drug lords, from whom they got the funds to buy weapons from the CIA. The CIA, in turn, protected the drug lords from US law enforcement agencies while they sold crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles and other American cities. The Contra conspiracy was eventually exposed and Reagan’s plans failed. But his “war on drugs” achieved its real goal of removing young African-Americans from inner-city ghettos and incarcerating them instead.

When I asked the former leader of an American university Christian organization to help promote my books among his staff, he replied, “I am frustrated that my staff are not reading books”. But, then, he added, “There are also things in your writings that many Americans find difficult to accept.” I was rather taken aback and could only manage a weak riposte, “There are many things in the New Testament that I find difficult to accept!” But accept I must, or else I die.

Talking of death, my beloved wife, Karin, seems to be in the terminal phase of her cancer. We don’t know how much longer she has, but we are thinking of weeks and months rather than years. My prayer is that she will live the last days of her life the way she has always lived: with a clear mind, loving Jesus and caring for others, always reading books and learning, enjoying beauty in creation- and, of course, with minimal pain.

We have just celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary. What drew us together was a shared vision of the Christian life, which included a passion for social justice and an insatiable appetite for learning. We begin each day together with a time of Bible meditation and intercessory prayer, and instinctively seek to view the world and its unfolding events “from the underside”, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s evocative phrase.

Karin often points out that the typical Christian books on suffering coming from the West deal with the middle-class questions, “Why Me?”, “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” Suffering is an uncomfortable intrusion into an otherwise comfortable existence. But for the vast majority of humanity, suffering is an everyday reality that only makes the world’s headlines when a natural calamity exposes a gross injustice that has been festering unchecked for decades.

Ironically, I had to speak on “Hope in Christ” at an East Asian student conference in Korea in August (you can watch the video at https://vimeo.com/235359504/022027a994). I said nothing new, let alone original, but Karin loved the way I had put it all together and was moved to tears by it. She has been my biggest fan as well as most perceptive critic.

Now it is time for me to walk the talk.

Sexual violence, whether against women, men or children, is a tragic fact of life seen across national borders and class divisions.

Violence against women assumes many forms, ranging from emotional abuse to sexual predation, assault and rape. Honour killings, forced child marriages, sexual exploitation and trafficking, genital mutilation, and sexual harassment at work and school are also considered “gender-based violence”.

In 2013 the World Health Organization, together with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the UK Medical Research Council, conducted an analysis, based on existing data from over 80 countries, which found that worldwide almost one in three women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. The prevalence estimates range from 23.2% in high-income countries and 24.6% in the Western Pacific region to 37% in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and 37.7% in South-East Asia. Furthermore, globally as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.

Leaving aside fatal outcomes such as homicide or suicide, the analysis found that women who had been sexually abused were 1.5 times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection and, in some regions, HIV, compared to women who had not experienced partner violence. They are also twice as likely to have an abortion.

Some of the factors identified by the WHO study that lead to both intimate partner and sexual violence include: lower levels of education; exposure to child maltreatment; witnessing family violence; antisocial personality disorder; harmful use of alcohol; having multiple partners or suspected by their partners of infidelity; and attitudes that are accepting of violence and gender inequality.

In cultures where violence in general is widely accepted and where beliefs about family honour and male sexual entitlement are unquestioned, sexual violence against women rarely evokes censure.

It has also been amply documented that war zones, refugee camps and disaster areas are fertile settings for rape and sexual assault. In these places, even humanitarian aid workers are not immune. One study revealed that female aid workers in places such as South Sudan, Afghanistan and Haiti had experienced disturbing rates of sexual assault, often perpetrated by their own colleagues.

A renewed debate (probably short-lived, like the sporadic debates over gun laws!) on violence against women has been sparked in the United States by the recent exposure of widespread sexual predation in Hollywood and the American media industry. Since the allegations about Harvey Weinstein surfaced, many high-profile names have used social media to highlight the problem of sexual assault, some detailing the harassment they too have endured.

Weak legal sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence is one reason that abusers are never checked. But cultural acceptance is a more pervasive and disturbing reason.

Weinstein’s sexual predatory behaviour seems to have been well-known within the film industry, yet he was allowed to continue his abuse with impunity because the “macho” masculinity that pervades Hollywood culture condoned it or simply laughed it off.

And why did the rich, white women superstars who now join the tirade against him not complain when their careers were being launched? And what have they done with their current fame and wealth to highlight the plight of less fortunate women in the USA and beyond?

Whenever I watch a typical Hollywood movie, what disturbs me more than gratuitous scenes of sex and violence is the constant and routine use of sexual obscenities, especially the F-word. Before you dismiss me as a prude, just consider: here is a swear word used in contexts of cheating, robbing and degrading somebody that we intensely dislike which is at the same time used to describe the most intimate physical act between two human beings. What cultural understanding of sexual intercourse does that convey to young people?

The coarsening and degradation of the English language is not morally neutral. When sex and violence are routinely linked together in our everyday speech, only an alternative language can restore respect and dignity in our human relationships.

And, of course, we must not forget that more than fifty per cent of white American women voted in a President who speaks of them in the most obscene, predatory language.

A bigger tragedy is that large sections of the global church are swift to condemn Hollywood but fail to put their own houses in order. Patriarchy, often in its most oppressive guise, reigns. The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka, for instance, has in recent years known of acts of rape and sexual assault committed by its ministers against women in their congregations. None of these men have been handed over to the police, or even removed from the ministry by the clerical hierarchy. When pressed, the answer given by the latter is: “In a society already hostile to Christians this will only give further ammunition to our enemies.”

When self-preservation becomes more important than moral integrity and faithfulness to the Gospel, hasn’t the church ceased to be the Church of Jesus Christ and become instead just another club for men playing religious games?

Re-reading some of C.S. Lewis’s theological essays, I have been struck again by how stimulating and relevant they remain.

His essay on “Christian Apologetics” (1945), delivered as an address to Anglican clergy, is prescient in gently chiding the latter for being out of touch with the thought-world of a rapidly changing Britain and proclaiming a message that simply did not make any sense to most working-class people. While sending missionaries to other parts of the world, the Church in Britain had not woken up to the reality that Britain itself needed to be evangelized- and in non-traditional ways.

“A century ago our task was to edify those who had been brought up in the Faith: our present task is chiefly to convert and instruct infidels. Great Britain is as much part of the mission field as China. Now if you were sent to the Bantus you would be taught their language and traditions. You need similar teaching about the language and mental habits of your own uneducated and unbelieving fellow countrymen. Many priests are quite ignorant on this subject. What I know about it I have learned from talking in RAF [Royal Air Force] camps.”

We should be grateful that Lewis did not learn theology in a theological institution. He was self-taught. His academic expertise was in English literature and in philosophy. These generally provide a much better education for Christian communicators, provided of course that they, like Lewis, are willing to listen and learn from the non-academic people with whom they interact. Lewis had a voluminous written correspondence (no e-mail or cell-phones then!) throughout his life with men and women from all social backgrounds, largely through his radio talks and popular children’s stories. He seems to have been equally at home in the Senior Common Room, the local pub, or an RAF canteen. (The life of an Oxford don was obviously a more leisurely affair than today. No pressure to publish or perish).

An extract from his essay “Christian Apologetics” (1945) resonates so much with what I have been saying for many years that I cannot resist reproducing it below:

“I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more good by that than by any directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and text book undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects- with their Christianity latent.

You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step to the reconversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and the Thinkers’ Library on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit: and of course its science perfectly honest. Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be sin and folly.” (Emphases in the text)


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