David C. Scott is Emeritus Professor of religion and culture at United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Born in India the son of United Methodist missionaries, Dr. Scott received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and his Ph.D. in South Asian Religions at the University of Wisconsin. He is ordained in the United Methodist Church and has a distinguished career teaching in India at Lucknow Christian College, Lucknow; the Christian Retreat and Study Centre, Rajpur; Leonard Theological College, Jabalpur; and most recently in Bangalore. He is author of several books, the most recent being Re-Visioning India’s Religious Traditions (ed.), Bangalore: United Theological College, 1996.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 31, 1990, pps. 103-108. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Conversion and baptism are all too commonly seen as part of a movement of ‘denationalization.’ Though the real fear is the awakening and uprising of the people, opposition is expressed in terms of religious conversion. But once we are freed from the obsession to baptize, to ‘save`, and our concern becomes the much wider concern of God to bring about God’s Kingdom, the obvious relativization of baptism opens the way to understand the Church not as an Institution of Salvation, but as a movement of Jesus followers at the service of all God’s people and God’s creation.
One of the ironies of virtually all religious traditions is that the power which draws and holds members together in religious community seems to be matched by an equal and opposite compulsion to exclude non-members. In the case of Christianity it is obvious that the checkered history of the universal Church has led many to understand that to be Christian is to be a people set apart, a people with a separate exclusive communal identity. In this the understanding of baptism has been crucial. Considered absolutely necessary for salvation, the Church has on the basis of baptism neatly divided human beings into categories of ‘pagans` and ‘believers`, ‘saved` and ‘damned`. This thought pattern, which has been dominant in the Church for centuries, was clearly expressed by the Council of Trent when it declared “If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, anathema sit.” The well known principle extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, or the most notorious position of Boniface VIII, “Furthermore we declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff,” are but further indications of this exclusive attitude – dominant but by no means universal – of the Church which separates Christians from all others.
From quite a different tradition is an early Baptist confession formulated at Amsterdam in 1611 C.E. It reads:
Every church should receive all its members by baptism upon the confession of their faith and sins wrought by the preaching of the Gospel, according to the primitive institution and practice. And therefore churches constituted in any other manner or of any other person are not according to Christ’s treatment.
Several assumptions clearly underlie these statements from two very different traditions within the Church.
(1) That baptism is a ‘necessary` and ‘required` rite due, presumably to an imperative from our Lord, and therefore, every church should be constituted solely of baptized members. Exception to this is contrary to the Christ’s ordinance.
(2) The act as such is essential both for individual salvation and for membership in the Church.
Arguably some of the most ugly consequences of such an exclusive stance in the Church’s missionary enterprise, and the consequent urgency to baptize, have been forced or induced ‘conversions`, signed and sealed by baptism. Further compounding these consequences in India and elsewhere, has been the fact that conversion and baptism, though fundamentally consequences of the exercise of personal conscience have assumed marked social and political overtones and repercussions which have enhanced ‘communalistic` tendencies both within and outside the Church. Moreover, the common perception of the “westernization” of Indian Christians has been a major factor in making baptism a divisive factor in Indian society, especially from the late 15th and early 16th centuries onwards. The observation of a Roman Catholic writer is indicative.
Baptism became the symbol of a break with the whole of one’s past and marked the assimilation of the convert to European ways and customs. By impoverishing the Church’s genuinely ‘Catholic` image, the colonial missions have left the young Churches of Asia, Africa, South and Central America with a heavy historical burden till the present.
From another perspective the Indian Christian convert has been described “as deracinated, and as an outcaste, no longer recognizable as a functioning member of his or her former community….in terms of the loss of caste and the pronouncement of civil death by Hindu law.”
It is for these reasons that numerous Indians consider Christian conversion and baptism to be effective denationalization. For many conversion to Christianity is offensive, a betrayal of India’s national heritage, an alienation harmful to the life of the nation, a disturbance having undesirable political and economic implications. British colonial records “reveal with astonishing clarity how not only Hindus and Muslims but also the British regarded conversion as a disruptive act.” Certainly such feelings, whether justifiable or not, produce consequences which cannot be ignored by the Church in India.
Confronted with this kind of reality, our present concern calls for a perspective on baptism which differs from the more usual biblical or theological approaches. One could, of course, usefully engage in an examination of baptism in its biblical context, attempting particularly to formulate a theological discernment of the dividing and uniting aspects of baptism – the ‘sword` that the Christ brings, and the ‘peace` that the Christ offers. However, we propose, in the Indian context, to look at baptism from a more explicitly socio-political perspective. This will involve a consideration of the prevalent caste ideology and the growing impact of Hindu revaunchist groups which consider the Christian enterprise as a threat to Indian national unity and integrity. We shall examine proposals made by some `Hindu-Christians’ – Hindus who follow the Christ without renouncing their hindutva or “Hinduness” – where baptism does not separate but enables one to work with others for the Kingdom of God. Various implications of this kind of approach will be considered. We shall conclude with a suggestion that we learn to look at Christian identity not primarily in terms of rites and rituals, but in terms of commitment to the Kingdom of God, with all those who are committed to it in terms of opposition to sin in its personal and structural manifestations. This will involve a life of love, renewing humanity and creation, which will become obvious if we pay attention to the meaning of baptism.
THE MEANING OF BAPTISM IN ITS BIBLICAL CONTEXT
The Old Testament does not, as far as I am aware, know baptism, or a similar rite. However, phenomenologically baptism belongs both to the category of ablution rites, in which water is used as a symbol of religious purification, as well as to the rites of initiation, involving a symbolic dying to the old self and rising to a new state of existence. Such rites can be observed in many religious traditions and they are also present in the Old Testament, the Qumran community, Jewish baptismal sects and Judaism in general. These phenomena partly form the background of the New Testament understanding of baptism.
Ablution as an act of purification was an important element in the Old Testament. Perhaps it is significant that the Septuagint translates the Hebrew verb tabal -a technical term connected with the ablutions and baths for the removal of ritual impurities – with the Greek bapto [“to dip”]. The rite of the Day of Atonement involves the priest taking a ritual bath. Ablution was also required in a number of life situations, e.g. after the consumption of ritually unclean food, after emission of semen, after sexual intercourse, and after contact with ritually unclean persons or things. It is obvious that these ablutions are not solitary acts performed once for all. They are to be repeated whenever there is need for them. According to the dominant world view of the times, it was through these acts of purification the possibility of communion with God and with the members of the community is restored. However, it needs to be recognised that such purity rules contain the seeds of exclusion. They are drawn up by a social group to define the boundaries which separate times, places, persons and things which are `sacred’ [set apart for God] from those that are `profane'[set apart from God]. In the Jewish religious tradition these purity rules formed a closely interlocking network which clearly marked off the sacred precincts of the Temple, the holy land of Israel, and the covenant people of God (or groups of the `separated’ within the people), from the `profane’ world peopled by the `demon-ruled nations’ outside. Obviously such a system of purities would foster exclusive ideals and practices, particularly in groups like the sectarian Qumran community or the Pharisees who carried its separatism to extremes.
In a more `secular’ vein, the prophets use the symbolism of baptism to express not so much the traditional values of ritual purity as the idea of moral purification. In other Old Testament texts the purification which is carried out by God brings into being a nation of the future and final salvation. This kind of purification is not the purification of individuals, but of Israel as a whole, an eschatological act.
It was, however, early Christian reflection which endowed baptism with a wealth of meaning and a variety of interpretations. Some of these have affinities with Jewish proselyte baptism, others with the practice of circumcision, and still others with certain aspects of the ‘mystery religions`. But the immediate connection of Christian baptism is with the baptism of John.
Early Palestinian Christian tradition understood baptism as an eschatological reality binding believers to the eschatological person of the Messiah, conveying them into the end-time reality of the Kingdom, bestowing on them the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sin, and incorporating them into the company of those redeemed by the Christ. Baptism was experienced as an eschatological act, “eschatology put into practice”, as it were. It manifests the coming of God, through the Christ, into human life. Jesus accepted and altered John’s eschatology of judgement into an eschatology of forgiveness and mercy.
Hellenistic Christianity saw baptism as a sacrament of dying and rising, thus sharing in the experience and destiny of the crucified and risen Lord. From this Hellenistic theology there developed the understanding of baptism as new birth and new creation – ideas familiar to the mystery religions, but corrected by linking the interpretation with eschatology and by introducing moral obligations. Significantly, in the New Testament, `washing’ and `purification’ is not so much ritual cleansing as it is moral transformation. For all Christians – Palestinian and Hellenistic – baptism meant admission to the people of the Covenant and to all its blessings. The close association of proselyte baptism with circumcision, and in particular with the prophetic idea of circumcision of the heart led naturally to the view that baptism took the place of circumcision, or that it was the Christian circumcision incorporating women and men into the new people of God, made up alike of Jews and Gentiles. In this Jesus, with his radical redrawing of the purity regulations of the Jewish religious tradition had certainly led the way. With his pronouncement that “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him,” but that it is “the things which come out of a man that defile him,” Jesus delivers a devastating denunciation of Jewish exclusivism. This can only mean that distinctions between what is holy [set apart for God] and what is profane [set apart from God] were set at naught.
Baptism, therefore, means remission of sins, reception of the Spirit, belonging to the Messiah, entry into the new people of God, the true circumcision, sharing in the blessings of the Kingdom, dying and rising with the Christ, rebirth to become a new creation and leading a resurrection existence morally blameless. Related to these are ideas like adoption as sons and daughters of God through the gift of the Son’s Spirit, restoration of the lost likeness of God, call and commitment to mission and witness, and equipment for endurance. For the early Church, then, baptism was not a thing in itself, nor merely one of many aspects of Christian existence. Baptism was for the early Christians a foundational experience, a reality which derived its meaning from the Gospel of which it was the enactment and effective representation. It was “the symbol of the kerygma, the locus where in faith and freedom people took hold of the Gospel and let the Gospel take hold of them. However, from among the various meanings of baptism, we shall explore four which seem particularly relevant to our present concern. They are i) conversion – death to sin; ii) participation in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; iii) commitment to the Kingdom, and iv) entrance into Christian community.
Acceptance of the Good News and repentance cannot but imply a new pattern of life. The Good News of God’s unconditional love is at the root of the movement of freedom from self and from bondage, to fellowship, justice, the Kingdom of God. Conversion is not just an individualistic change of heart but a new mode of life resulting in a new pattern of relationship in society. The by now thoroughly studied and discussed Lima Document talks of this new pattern of life in terms of “new ethical orientations”. Conversion implies a rejection of the value system that exists in the ‘world`, namely, of the value system based on `having’: one is what one has, be it possessions, positions, success, good name, achievements. It is, therefore, the rejection of cupidity and differentiating wealth; of lust for power, pleasure and domination; it is a repudiation of racism, casteism, sexism and all values opposed to the Gospel. Conversion is that move
from individualism in religion and society to corporate existence; from spiritual and economic selfishness to the truth of the community and of the world which God loves; from rigid doctrines of private property to the original purposes for which God gave his earth to his human family; from privatization of life to Trinitarian communion; from ritual preoccupations to pursuit of justice; from law to grace and from sacrifices to mercy. Conversion in this sense is participation in Christ’s and his Church’s option for the oppressed and commitment to the Kingdom, both of them implied in Jesus’ baptism from the river Jordan to mount Calvary.
This is the picture we get in the short description of the first Christian community in Acts 2:42ff., 4:32ff. and what is suggested in Jn.4:24. The early Christians saw conversion as a rejection of sin. Though slowly the complexities of the idea of original sin and freedom from original sin entered the scene, the clear meaning in Acts and elsewhere was the rejection of actual sins, personal and social. A sinner refuses to live by God’s love, refuses to be in a relationship of obedient love to God and self-sacrificing love to others. God takes the initiative in coming to the sinner and welcomes him/her through the love and acceptance of the community. When the sinner allows him/herself to be touched by that love, to let that love be operative in her/his self, s/he there is new being [2 Cor.5:17 Jerusalem Bible]. His/her pattern of relationship is changed: relation to things – instead of appropriating for self, sharing; relation to others – instead of dominating and manipulating, self-giving service; and relation to God – instead of fearful self-serving, joyful obedience. The rejection of sin is not merely an opposition to personal sins, but also to its structural forms, namely, the unjust power structures that keep millions enslaved, hungry, and impoverished, that oppress, alienate and dehumanise God’s children on earth.
In conversion the God-ward, Christ-ward movement is central and it is necessarily expressed in a renewed pattern of relationship in society. But it is not primarily a change of religious traditions, cultures, societies. “Christians… are not interested in horizontal conversions – a mere change from one’s religious tradition to Christianity, leaving the person on the same level of character and way of life.” The reason this issue has been dealt with at such length is precisely because of the misunderstanding that is so prevalent in India about conversions.
Conversion, rejection of sin is, therefore, the beginning of a new way of life, a new way of relating to God, people and things. This is also expressed in terms of participating in the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Significantly enough, the Lima Document, when it talks about participation in the mystery of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, refers to Jesus’ own baptism which meant solidarity with ‘sinners`, immersion in the culture of the despised masses as against the culture of the priests, scribes, the rich and the pharisees. It was his stand in favour of justice and its fulfilment, which is good news to the poor, but bad news for him, as it led him to his death. Jesus spoke of his death as a baptism, because his baptism was the beginning of a life of commitment to the cause of the exploited masses, which led him, in turn to his death. Jesus’ death, which sums up his entire life, is the “one baptism” we profess in the Creed. The Apostles did not receive a ritual baptism, but were totally immersed in the Christ event. The link between his baptism, ministry, passion and death on behalf of the oppressed, crippled, despised, and the like, appears clearly in Mark’s Gospel.
Our baptism, then, as an immersion into the Christ event, into the life of the one who lived and died for the wholeness of people, becomes our commitment, even unto death, to human solidarity in a given historical situation. That is why becoming a follower of Jesus is not a rush for privileges and priorities, but readiness to be baptised in the same ‘bath of pain` in which he was baptised. Our baptism is our “joining Jesus in the eager service of giving our life in ransom for the oppressed multitude (Mk.1:45).” It is our option to follow his path, a dedication of life in solidarity with our fellow human beings, especially those who are fettered, voiceless and kept down. This is also spoken of as putting on Christ, putting off the old man and the acceptance of the new value system. Undue mystification of the ‘participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus` has caused us to lose sight of its historical, social effects and challenges.
The entrance into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a commitment to that to which Jesus was committed, and for which he died, the bringing about of the Kingdom of God. In other words it is doing what the Christ came to the world for: effectively to proclaim and prophetically to act out the reality of the Kingdom – foot washing, table fellowship, association with outcastes, women, ‘sinners`, healings, exorcisms, etc. Paul speaks of having the mind and heart of Jesus in us, which means looking at reality through his eyes, loving as he loved, and thus being committed to work for a more just society, a society of freedom, fellowship and human solidarity. The values of Jesus, when accepted in truth, will have social consequences. They will call for a totally new pattern of relationships, as the first Christians so clearly understood. The Kingdom values of freedom, justice, harmony, spirit of sharing, respect, etc. will have to find social expressions in alternative structures.
At this point I merely refer to the matter of entrance into the faith community as it will be dealt with at greater length later. This is, in fact, a very ancient idea. “Through baptism, man becomes a part of the new humanity which is the body of Christ, and thus comes to share in the resurrection of the heat of the body, Christ the Lord,” is the way a study on Iranaeus has been summed up. Following this classical tradition, virtually all branches of the Church stress the idea that baptism implies membership in the body of the Christ, the Church, an entrance into a brother/sisterhood, a communion, fellowship of all in the spirit of the Christ. People are “incorporated into the Church by baptism,” baptism ,therefore, constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are ‘reborn`. While this is certainly an ancient tradition it does raise questions in our times, as we shall see presently.
Before we proceed to the next section of our discussion, it may be well to sum up what we have seen so far. We have seen that baptism, whether we look at it as a conversion, rejection of sin, as entrance into the paschal mystery, means ‘putting on` the Christ, an acceptance of his value system, with and like him being committed to the cause of God’s Kingdom. Just as Jesus brought the ‘sword` that divides, separates son from father, daughter from mother (Lk.12: 51-53), the stand one takes for the Kingdom will be in opposition to the prevailing value system in the world and hence an opposition to those who dominate, exploit and ‘kill`, and in that sense will be a great dividing event. But conversion is not primarily a change of religious tradition, culture, social custom, except in so far as they are opposed to the Gospel. Indeed,
”…the New Testament does not justify an interpretation of baptism which makes it a rite whereby a separated community can make exclusive claims of salvation. Only by taking texts out of context or by giving partial exegesis of passages can one derive an exclusivist, separatist or communal interpretation of baptism.”
BAPTISM AND COMMUNITY
Does the acceptance of baptism mean necessarily a membership in a new sociological group? Does one give up one’s native community and become a member of another community? Does being a ‘new creature` affect one’s social belonging? In the context of the history of the Church in India, and many other parts of the world, this point is crucially central. Beginning primarily with the missionary activities of the Portuguese in India in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Christian converts became for all practical purposes outcastes, cut off from caste and community. There are instances where converts were forced to eat meat, drink wine and take on other “western” ways, perhaps to prevent lapses into their former religious tradition. For the dalits this change was, in a way, a release from caste oppression; for many, being like “westerners” meant having an enhanced status. Whatever the reason, Christians are considered not to belong any more to the castes to which they originally belonged. Hence, in part, the fear that becoming a Christian means ceasing to be an Indian.
It is well known that eminent Indians like Mahatma Gandhi, Keshub Chunder Sen and many others who, while admiring the teachings and person of the Christ, were opposed to baptism, as it implied a change of culture and community. For many, even today, the attitudes and practices of Christian missionaries have much to do with their opposition to conversion. Orthoprax Hindus see conversion not so much as a spiritual event, but as a social, civil, ‘political` event whereby a person ceases to be a member of the Hindu community and becomes a member of the Christian community. They understand baptism as the renunciation of one’s own social community and the joining of another, in this case, a “foreign anti-national group”.
This supposed change of social group has also legal consequences. For example, “the Hindu law does not apply to converts to Christianity”. The issue needs further examination.
No Hindu professing the Christian faith can retain himself such before the law. The convert ceases to be a member of the Hindu community. His personal matters such as property, marriage, guardianship, etc. which affect him intimately, are no longer governed by Hindu law. He is governed by laws which are of outlandish origin…. profession of the Christian faith ipso facto snaps the legal bond uniting the convert with his (joint) family and Hindu society.
Such being the case, Saldanha asks, “could Hindus professing the Christian faith have remained Hindus?” He studies carefully the term ‘hindu` to see who are considered Hindu according to Indian law, and shows that the term is applied to many different groups with very different faith commitments and belief systems. So he concludes:
The converts could have remained Hindus…Hindus professing the Christian faith could have continued under the Hindu personal law. This was all the easier because there is no specifically “Christian” personal law, as is the case with Islam. We may recall that the early Church prevented, albeit after much controversy, the imposition of a foreign (Jewish) law upon Gentile converts (Acts 15; Gal.2:14). It should not be necessary for Hindus professing the Christian faith to change their personal law.
Saldanha refers to the fact that the Kerala Christians had followed the Hindu laws of succession for centuries. Even after the promulgation of the Indian Succession Act in 1865 in the rest of the land, in the states of Travancore and Cochin this law was not made effective. In this regard it is important to recall that it was these Christians who had resisted the efforts of the Diamper Synod to impose on them Portuguese customs of succession. Such precedents, which are admittedly few, suggest the possibility of pressing demands for a change in the law, to include Christians within the purview of Hindu personal law.
Indeed, one would think that, given the avowed profession of and firm constitutional foundations for secularism in India, the prospects for a uniform civil code – code of personal law for all Indians irrespective of religious affiliation – would be bright. The reality, in fact, is otherwise.
While there can be no denying that in the past acceptance of the Christian faith implied a change in community and culture, it is certainly not a necessary corollary of such an action. The teaching of the Church is clear on this point, and while one could quote ancient and traditional sources, we restrict ourselves to more contemporary guides in the persons of a number of present day missiologists. With minor variations, they hold views similar to those of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, namely that the Hindu tradition is a samaj dharma or societal tradition which is open to a variety of sadhana dharma(s) or spiritual traditions. Indeed, it is well known that in the Hindu tradition there is no fixed belief system or cult that is obligatory for all Hindus. Membership is primarily a matter of birth.
Being a Hindu means being born into a social group which is recognized as belonging to the Hindu community and on avoiding everything that would lead to one’s separation from the group into which one was born…. A Hindu can remain a genuine Hindu even if he worships none of the Hindu gods…
On the other hand, being a Christian, it is argued, is a matter of sadhana
dharma which does not demand a distinct samaj dharma. While the approach of all these authors is basically the same, a few words seem in order regarding Brahmabandhab, since he was the first to advocate such a theory, as do also some observations concerning the relation between Christianity/Christians and Hindu society in Tamilnadu. Regrettably, in both cases present time and space permit no more than a mere reference note.
Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907) has been described by his admirers as “the greatest Hindu that ever found his way to Christ.” Concerning Brahmabandhab’s conversion Julius Lipner observes:
When he converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1891….it was a sort of change of gear, of widening commitment, not a change of direction. Bringing his compatriots to Christ would accomplish spiritual svaraj [self-rule], which in turn would assist political svaraj in the broad sense. As Upadhyay perceived it, becoming a Christian was not inimical to remaining a patriotic Hindu.
Here we are primarily interested in Brahmabandhab’s attempt to give content to his self-description as a ‘Hindu-Catholic`. This he developed by pointing out that just as Christianity is different from European culture and European thought, so Hindu culture is different from Hindu religion. Hinduism, he held, is both samaj dharma and sadhana dharma. The former denotes social custom and a way of life, while the latter is about individual moksa or salvation, and is basically unrelated to cultural idiom. Because of this distinction Brahmabandhab asserted that an Indian can be a Christian by faith and a Hindu in social custom and belonging. As Brahmabandhab wrote in his newspaper Sophia:
We are Hindu so far as our physical and mental constitution is concerned, but in regard to our immortal souls we are Catholic. We are Hindu Catholic. That is, we are Hindu in the way we think and live, but Catholic from the viewpoint of saving belief.
This conviction grew with the advancing years, and to all appearances he lived like a Hindu. When he returned from Europe he underwent the prayascitta (lit. “penance,” or “atonement”) ceremony, prescribed by the Hindu tradition for all Hindus returning from abroad. Considering the goddess Sarasvati as a symbol of art and learning, he permitted his pupils to perform Sarasvati puja [a rite of divine veneration] at the time of Sarasvat Ayatam, the annual festival honoring the goddess . His insistence on remaining a Brahman till death did not weaken nor diminish his attachment to the Christ and to his Church. However, since the name ‘Christian` had come to indicate one who eats meat, drinks wine, wears trousers and has become thoroughly westernized, Brahmabandhab did not like to be known as a ‘Christian`. In spite of all this Animananda and other friends assure us that he remained a Catholic to his death, though he was, in accordance to his own wishes, cremated according to Hindu rites.
The type of Hindu-Christian interaction which Brahmabandhab articulated and lived out was primarily personal and individual. However, it is also important to acknowledge the larger societal dimensions of our concern, for which we refer to the very different kind of work done by an anthropologist, C.D.F. Mosse in a study of a mixed Hindu-Christian village in Ramnad District of Tamilnadu. The issue, as addressed by Mosse, involves on the one hand “the existence of structural continuities between Hindu and Christian social and supernatural worlds, and on the other the relationship of the distinctive Christian institutions and the universal ideals and values of Christianity to this cultural matrix in which the religion is embedded.”
All too briefly stated, Mosse gets at this problem in several ways; first by establishing that Christians are party to the same service relations, and employ the same ritual servants for ‘impurity removal` – barbers, funeral servants, etc. – as Hindus. Furthermore, while ‘excluded` from the services of certain Hindu priests (brahman, pantaram), they nonetheless have Christian specialists (the kovilpillai and the Pallar pantaram) who occupy the same structural position as the Hindu priests (purohits). Interestingly enough, the Christian priest’s services fall outside this structural order, which finds its logic in the opposition of purity and impurity. Simultaneously, there is also ample evidence that in the formal structure of Christian life-crisis rituals themselves (puberty, marriage, death), there is again continuity with those of the Hindus. In particular there is the same association of transition with heat and impurity, and the return to normality with coolness and purification.
However, in other contexts these associations, together with notions of purity and impurity, are abandoned, as for example when the bier is taken into the church building for the funeral service/mass. Further continuity is apparent in the structuring of the Hindu and Christian supernatural worlds; a continuity which could well and does co-exist with radical theological differences, just as caste among Christians exists with a religious ideology which denies it. Mosse suggests that “the characteristics of the Catholic saints, like the Hindu deities of the village, are in part defined in their relation with other superior and inferior forms of the divinity around the notion of the bivalent sacrifice.” Here the inferior or negative aspects of divinity (represented by the blood-thirsty Hindu deities) are included as complementary to the superior and life-giving aspects of divinity. These complementarities within the divinity (between, e.g., saints and deities of the village) take the form of hierarchical relationships of service and subordination which mirror those of village society.
In sum then, many 19th and early 20th century Christian missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, seem, in fact, to have functioned from the model which Brahmabandhab articulated in terms of samaj dharma or religio-social identity and sadhana dharma of private subjective religious experience. They presented Christianity in a very spiritual or otherworldly form. Its concerns lay beyond the social world of caste. Salvation – appropriated by means of baptism – was a matter of totally rejecting ‘pagan` religion and, through the Church (i.e. the clergy) and its sacraments, receiving the forgiveness and grace of God. At the same time a more immediate power was available for the confrontation of evil and misfortune, often conceived in indigenous terms as possession by pay-picacu (spirits), through the saints, exorcists and to some extent the clerics themselves. Mosse observes that the missionaries’ accommodation of caste, and their weak political position, provided Christians with a distinctive religious tradition, but not a new social identity. Indeed, the missionaries’ rejection of things Hindu, and encouragement of Christian spirituality probably further enabled the development of a complex hierarchy of Christian divine beings – in the form of the ubiquitous cult of the saints – parallel to, and to some extent structured by the same principles as, the Hindu divine hierarchy. What was important to these missionaries was not so much the form of worship but rather that the object of worship was Christian rather than Hindu. What was distinctive about Christianity was not the socio-cultural form, samaj dharma, but its religious or spiritual content, sadhana dharma.
Mosse concludes that today in Ramnad Christianity is taking a form which increasingly challenges the complementarities of its traditional relationship to Hindu society. The Church imposes an egalitarian social order in the organisation of its rituals and is increasingly involved in secular affairs, thus collapsing the complementarity of religious equality and caste hierarchy, and more generally of the sacred and the secular. At the same time the divine power both for salvation and for relief from suffering and misfortune is directly available to villagers less and less mediated by the Church hierarchy and the hierarchical order of saints, but more and more mirroring that of the Hindu pantheon.
In completing this section a few observations may be made. Even though some Hindus accept a distinction between culture and religion, the distinction between samaj dharma or religio-social identity and sadhana dharma or private subjective religious experience would not be acceptable to most Hindus, as there is no such distinction for them. In the Hindu tradition all is social and all is religious. However, in the context of the past where converts had been forcefully drawn from their community and made outcastes, this approach has much to its credit. Even though the samaj–sadhana distinction may not be accurate, what is intended by it is that the disciples of Jesus, the Isupanthis do not become a separate ‘civic group`, a political identity. Here, the Christian community is a “community of faith, not a community of sociological identity.” The Jesus community remains one in faith but diverse in social customs, culture and the like. Without becoming a new civic group, culturally too they retain their original jati, except for the faith dimension and the discarding of the varna ideology. One may not forget, however, that though the jati system is independent of the varna ideology, in fact, they have become identified and so may continue to function, even without the explicit support of the ideology. The main thrust of this missiological approach is valid since, from the perspective of the Christian faith, there is no reason why conversion and baptism should involve changing one’s civic community. In the Indian context the retention of one’s civic identity is important especially because of the accusations of ‘extra territorial loyalty` of the Christians and their being ‘governed` from the outside. This is even more important today given the rightist propaganda ploy that conversion and baptism are political moves to destabilize the country.
Needless to say, terms like “religious identity” or “subjective experience” are no less open to critical scrutiny for their suggestions of a fixed referential meaning than the split between public and private realms of experience that they come to signify. However, in basic respects it is true to observe that in the conflicting messages that Christian converts receive about their religious identity – how are they to reconcile themselves to being socially Hindu when they have adopted Christianity? – ordinary Indian Christians have little recourse to anything like a language of subjectivity that offers them the means to express their relation either to doctrine or community. However, in the context of powerful forces seemingly establishing the terms of Christian self-definition to the point that it could be argued that the identify of Christian converts is externally determined rather than self-determined, the very concept of a determinative “language of religious experience” is necessarily reduced to an abstraction. We return to the ground realities of the Indian situation.
Given the pervasive nature of caste and the implications of the caste system in India it is not at all surprising that historically Christians did, in fact become a sociological group, virtually a ‘Christian caste`. This is evident from the fact that, however unconstitutional, many official government forms include a space to indicate caste designation, where it is not uncommon to find ‘Christian` entered. The question of whether or not there is a Christian caste is, in fact, complex and problematic as may be seen from Mosse’s study. It is, moreover, important to recognize that the hierarchic ordering of religious identifications with community and caste is achieved in at least two closely related ways: first, the positing of the unstable and indefinable category of “private religious experience” as a separable, essentialized reality falling outside historical affiliations of caste or community; and, second, the isolation of belief as extraneous to determining an individual’s membership in the community.
However, there can be no question that consciously or unconsciously there is an ubiquitous existential anxiety concerning the matter of preserving a Christian identity. This is commonly expressed by the use of special ‘Christian` names, which are frequently viewed positively as a public confession of one’s faith. Other conventional signs of Christian identity are to be found in personal dress and life styles, church architecture, forms of worship, including music, as well as a concern with numerical increase. This urge, too, is historically conditioned. We have already noted that in the past the Church has understood itself as a unique institution of salvation, which has been entrusted with the sole means of salvation -the sacraments and grace. Hence the commitment, even urgency, to ensure that as many as possible are baptized, and thus receive salvation. Indeed, given this exclusive claim to be the sole possessor and dispenser of salvation, the Church could not but be preoccupied with baptism. It could also not allow Christians to have contact with other religious traditions, which were seen as ‘false` religions. In the context of this kind of self-understanding it is hardly surprising that the Church became extremely self-centered, concerned primarily with its numerical expansion, as this was the prime indicator of the success of its mission. Here Christian identity would be necessarily a sociological reality, a separate and identifiable community. However, moving away from this historical background, it seems well to turn our attention to what Jesus considered the identification of his followers.
Jesus clearly set forth characteristics by which his followers could be identified. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [Jn.13:35 NRSV]. But how do we understand this love in today’s world? Here one can only point the direction in which a possibly useful approach to answering this question may be found.
Agape, effective love has both a spiritual and material dimension. The spiritual dimension is described in biblical passages like 1 Cor.13, Mt.18, Rom.14, and so forth. The material dimension, effective love, ‘doing love`, has regularly been practiced in the Church as almsgiving, charity. But looking at the meaning of Jesus’ parables, his ‘good news to the poor`, his opposition to the institutional authorities of his time, the Indian biblical scholar Soares-Prabhu contends that effective love has to go beyond almsgiving to working for a just society, working for the Kingdom of God. This interpretation of love as working for a just society, and not mere ‘relief` works is, of course, based on an understanding of women and men as embodied beings in society, where society as a structure of relationships takes precedence over individuals. A change of individual hearts is not to be played down or minimized, but this alone is insufficient if we are to follow the path of Jesus. Therefore, among the central identifying characteristics of the followers of Jesus would be involvement in the struggle effectively to bring about the Kingdom of God, “on earth as it is in heaven,” where freedom, fellowship, justice, responsible love reign and where people live as brothers/ sisters, equitably sharing the resources of God’s creation and being accountable for their own human future and that of the created world. This immense task is possible, however, only if we join hands with all others who, whether they call on the name of Jesus or not, are committed to the struggle for a more just society, and who want to make this world a better place for all living beings. In this way Christian identity would be a non-communal identity and in itself not be a dividing factor.
Surely in being centered around the concern for the Kingdom we merely follow the practice of Jesus. Ever since the time of the prophets the Jews had been looking forward to the coming of a new age of abundance, peace and harmony, the reign of God. Jesus himself was “gripped by the vision of the human-divine community of the end time” which was “already germinating in the present”. In Jesus’ view this new humanity will have no center other than God, and it will be God’s gift, yet not a ‘cheap grace`, but gift as human task. Jesus thus enhanced the importance of human response to God’s creative love. And this new way of seeing God’s rule in and through human effort has called for a re-interpretation of the prevailing culture. Conversely, a radical critique of the prevailing culture involves a re-interpretation of the ultimate goal. Further, when this ultimate goal begins to appear in a concrete manner, however small it may be, it will create a “prophetic counter culture”. In the light of our discussion, then, as an example, we may suggest that in a caste ridden society, when some groups begin to live as brothers/sisters, rejecting the varna ideology, which is divisive and discriminatory, a prophetic counter culture would come into being.
The interpretation of early Christianity as primarily, though not exclusively, a movement rather than a community is important for our present purpose. Increasingly students of the New Testament and the history of early Christianity are convinced that what Jesus inaugurated was more of the nature of a movement than a specific religious community.
The record of the Acts indicates that the early Christians went to the temple as all Jews did. As far as their religious life was concerned the disciples of Jesus were Jews. As Rayan perceptively points out, what seems to have distinguished them during that early period “was their meeting in the homes around four shared realities: shared faith, shared prayer, shared or broken bread….and finally shared material resources”. Surely, the dynamic character of the life of these early Christians was in large part the result of the interrelationship of these four shared elements. Their shared faith involved them in shared bread, and all material resources and this made them a family of God, in which faith life and social relationships flowed into each other. Early Christianity was a movement of freedom, a movement of sister/brotherhood, of peace makers who announced the good news to the poor.
Being with Jesus was geared to being for the new humanity. The community….did not feel called to settle down around Jesus and find fulfilment in worshiping him. Its destiny was to march forward to the unknown Beyond, with Jesus at their head. Hence it would be more appropriate to call what Jesus inaugurated a movement rather than a community. As has recently been pointed by an anthropologist, the early Christian communities bear many features that are specific to millenarian movements, such as homogeneity, equality, anonymity and absence of property.
However, the prophetic subversive thrust of Jesus was not maintained by and in the community for long, and the whole message of Jesus about the Kingdom was spiritualized and the ‘project of hope` was transferred to heaven. The lesson for us is clear, says Kappen.
No project of hope can survive if it is not translated into historical praxis. And it cannot be so translated unless it takes hold of the oppressed classes….The oppressed must be in a position to forge their project hope into a theoretical weapon for political action.
Hence, the challenge today to the followers of Jesus, to the Church as the Servant of the Kingdom, is not to form an exclusive sociological entity but to be a movement, which empowers the powerless and which is open to all with a similar vision. Exclusiveness is not its characteristic.
In the context of this openness a threefold dialogue is called for: the dialogue with cultures, religious traditions and the dispossessed of society. The followers of Jesus are invited to be involved with the on-going life of the people and make every effort to transform it in view of the Kingdom in the power of the Spirit. It is in doing this that the Church can escape ‘archeologising` and alienating tendencies of looking into the culture of the past and of the elite.
The fact of Christians being a minority in India need not adversely affect involvement with people and political decisions. In secular states like India a religious minority community need not be a political minority. As suggested earlier, the minority faith community or movement does not necessarily become a separate civic group, political group, but remains with its own original group. It joins hands with others in working to defend human and spiritual values. While religious faith can and must find expression in political choices and activities, religion as an organization or institution must not have, strictly speaking, a political role. The growing number and influence of right-wing revaunchist communalist movements highlights the importance of this.
Certainly, working with others does not mean that the distinctive contribution of Christians is necessarily sacrificed. Whatever specific endowment there may be from a Christian point of view in any given situation, may be enhanced in the context of dialogue with others. Certainly, the community that carries the active “memory” of Jesus brings to the common struggle for the Kingdom a special light and power. Experience seems to indicate that we will be able to clarify our specificity to ourselves and to others most effectively in living dialogue with those who share a common vision and hope, however differently they may believe.
The Church in India is in a privileged position, because of its situation in the midst of other religious traditions, to work out new ecclesial structures which translate the vision of the Kingdom. In the context of the life and work of other religious traditions it is incumbent on the Church in India to evolve more open ecclesial structures that do justice to its experience of an interrelatedness and mutual inclusiveness with other religious traditions and their adherents. The Church in India today is being challenged to eschew the feudal class relations and power models that continue in the Church. This will mean greater autonomy and independence from the control of western money and power. It will also speak to accusations of ‘denationalization` and ‘extra-territorial` loyalties.
The emphasis on the Kingdom and on joining hands with all who are committed to the values of the Kingdom has rightly raised questions about the need to baptize at all. Perhaps it is sufficient to encourage discipleship and struggle for a more just society. The point needs some clarification and focus before we attempt to answer the question.
We have noted that in the present Indian context it is important to recognize that conversion and baptism are all too commonly seen as part of a movement of ‘denationalization’ and hence tend to strengthen the communalistic interpretation of Christianity. When the ‘depressed classes` awaken to their rights and begin the struggle for social and economic equality, and when the members of the ‘aboriginal` tribes, who have been peacefully secluded for centuries from the main stream of Indian nationalism, join with others in demanding their rights, fundamentalist groups and the monied classes oppose such moves. A forceful means of instigating opposition is to raise the cry of ‘denationalization`. This is particularly effective when such movements for human rights are inspired by Christians, who are accused of ‘extra-territorial` loyalties, and whose religion is considered ‘foreign`. It is manifestly in the interests of the powerful majority to keep the marginalized on the peripheries of national life – social, economic and political. So, though the real fear is the awakening and uprising of the people, opposition is expressed in terms of religious conversion.
….if the Church leadership is taking recourse to liberation theology, it may not be out of genuine love for the poor but may be a calculated move to save its existence and prepare ground for mass evangelisation at some opportune time.
The author of this statement, a Hindu, is quite familiar with the thrust of `liberation theology’. This bogey of ‘mass evangelisation` seems an obvious cover for the real motive of wanting to keep the marginalized ‘in their place`. Under the title “The Church Goes Political in India,” an RSS author expresses the real fears of the Hindu nationalists. In this context it is significant to listen to Nirmal Minz, himself a tribal Christian, convincingly argue that the primary objection to Christian conversion in the tribal areas is the fact that people begin to make demands for basic human rights when they are converted.
There is yet another consideration. In the model of the ‘Church as an Institution of Salvation`, baptism is an absolute necessity for salvation, indeed that extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. However, when we begin to understand the Church as a servant of the Kingdom, and salvation as effective growth as God’s children in freedom and love, into the likeness of the Christ, then there is a relativization of all rites, including baptism. Within this perspective, it is significant to remember that all religious traditions, peoples, rites and movements are called to a self-transcendence, to a new future. Once we are freed from the obsession to baptize, to ‘save`, and our concern becomes the much wider concern of God to bring about God’s Kingdom, the obvious relativization of baptism opens the way to understand the Church not as an Institution of Salvation, but as a movement of Jesus followers at the service of all God’s people and God’s creation. This transformed image will enable the Church more effectively and creatively to be in communion with others for the cause of the Kingdom.
Evangelisation centered on the Kingdom is dynamic, future-oriented, rooted in reality and history, integrative and holistic. It is the building up of a new humanity…the new heaven and the new earth.
Following on this kind of understanding it has been suggested that there be a “non-communal-koinonia,” of all those who love Jesus and want to follow his ways without being baptized. Such a koinonia has precedents in, e.g. Kagawa’s Fellowship of Friends of Jesus, whose purpose was “to promote a sense of unity and other Gospel values, yet without belonging to a community.” These “confessors of Christ” would be allowed to eucharistic fellowship, if they so desired. (Christians who do not allow even other Christians to eucharistic fellowship will undoubtedly find this unacceptable.) Other suggestions include a “Christ-centered secular fellowship outside the Church.”
These suggestions would be meaningful in a context where baptism necessarily implies a change of community, culture, jati, etc. But in the light of what we are suggesting, namely that baptism is not a change of culture and jati, there is no need to question or eschew baptism. One may, therefore, conclude that baptism as the acceptance of the Christ and his ways, as the celebration of one’s conversion, of one’s attitudinal change to form a more inclusive community with the goal of a fuller humanity is meaningful. Baptism as a new vision of reality, a changed, new pattern of relationship to God, people and creation is desirable and is not in itself a separating event. In the light of the interpretation suggested earlier in our discussion, when we welcome people to baptism in the context of the struggles for the Kingdom, it is a call to a prophetic counter culture, not a so-called “Christian” culture, which will turn traditional values up-side down, will bring down the mighty, and empower the weak, the lowly, the ‘impure`, the helpless, and transform their self-image world view. It is in view of this mission that conversion and baptism become meaningful, not in view of the salvation of a few individuals. In order for the Church in India to regain its lost authority, it must abdicate its alliances with power. It must be humble enough to be baptized in the Jordan of Indian religiosity and bold enough to be baptized on the cross of Indian poverty. As Aloysius Pieris perceptively observes
”Does not the fear of losing its (Church) identity make it lean on Mammon? Does not its refusal to die keep it from living? The theology of power-domination and instrumentalization must give way to a theology of humility, immersion, and participation.”
Baptism, understood in this sense, is not a matter of sociological community change and hence does not divide or separate. This is, of course, not to deny that at all times and in all places, the ‘sword` brought by Jesus is a dividing factor in a world of sin. When Christians, like their Master, are committed to working for a new just socio-economic order, for the integrity of all creation they will necessarily cause divisions and so will be persecuted. While we Christians positively eschew divisions based on caste, class, race, gender, and so on, we welcome the division that comes from radical commitment to following the Christ.