Chapter 17: Two Interviews with K. C. Abraham, by Bhargavi Nagaraja & P. N. Benjamin
Dr K.C. Abraham, an authority on Third World theology, a Marxist scholar and propounder of the theory of "liberative solidarity" shares some of his thoughts on faith and politics in the current scenario with two journalists -- Bhargavi Nagaraja and RN. Benjamin. Both interviews appeared in the Deccan Herald.
Bhargavi Nagaraja: After experimenting with political militancy in the country’s recent history by several political parties, the electorate is by and large demanding a separation of politics from religion. However, one finds that political parties are in no mood to do so. Instead they are creating a façade of myths and half-truths for purposes of justifying their ideological stand of "holier than thou:’ and this has totally confused the voter. How would one deal with this conflict on a personal and societal level?
K C Abraham: The emergence of the modern state, thanks to British rule and the impact of the West on the elite, has changed the political scenario. A secular framework largely based on the liberal humanist traditions of the West was adopted by the elite as a common, centralized political authority. Recent developments have shown that this framework has failed to unite the different religious communities, rather, it has divided them, generating antagonistic feelings, violent conflicts and even bloodshed.
The search for a common political framework based on human and secular values should be rooted in the religions and cultures of peoples. Religions with their liberational strands have the potential for creating a new culture through the ‘humanizing of myths’. Such culture is necessary for providing a new orientation to the political process. The theses assumes that the peaceful coexistence of different religious communities is possible only if religion and politics will make a preferential option for the suffering victims of this suffering earth.
BN: India is essentially a pluralistic society. Why then is it difficult for pluralism to permeate politics in a fair and free manner?
KC: Religious pluralism is a fact of life. It needs to be affirmed and celebrated. That is the only way to achieve and practice coexistence in a multi-religious context. Our everyday life and relationships in rural areas are plural. But the reality of pluralism comes in for a severe test in the political realm, which is governed by a monolithic state structure and rigid ideologies.
BN: Despite the fervour that infused the independence movement, our current brand of nationalism barely inspires and has come under severe attack from the various quarters, among them globalization and the new economic order -- both domestic and global. As such is it possible to revive nationalism?
KC: Yes, nationalism was a powerful ideology that brought people from different backgrounds together against a common enemy, namely, the British. But after the enemy was driven out, it ceased to be an integrating force. A national consciousness with positive contents did not emerge. On the other hand the self-consciousness of separate groups and communities emerged with greater force than before.
When hitherto subjugated people are awakened to their political rights and become conscious of the power, they wield by their number and influence, there comes along a resurgence of their separate religious and cultural heritages. Values enshrined in old traditions and customs are subjected to critical scrutiny. Some are rejected, some reinterpreted and others reaffirmed with renewed vigour. This process of going back to the origins is important and can be a genuine movement for self-hood.
However group identities can be a source of endless conflict, when each group tries to absolutize its past identity, as has happened largely in India. Memories of past domination or exploitation of one group by another and the conflicts between them come alive with a new force, causing group tension and disharmony.
BN: Where does fundamentalism figure in all this?
KC: Today’s upsurge of fundamentalism is in the name of identity in all religions. This has detracted from the essence of religion. And fundamentalist ideology in any religion generates hatred, suspicion and fears in the minds of its adherents towards other religions.
Organized in a militant way, fundamentalist groups are determined to capture political power and this has distorted our political process. When blind religious passion rules people, all norms of justice and law are cast aside. Politicians of all colours dabble with communal forces, succumb to their pressures and deviate from the path of secular politics. The virtual collapse of the very foundation of our political life caused by fundamentalist forces and the politics of opportunism creates a serious situation.
BN: Modernity is seen widely as a factor that has weakened tradition. What is its impact on religion?
KC: Modernity’s influence on traditional societies involves the emergence of the nation-state with secularization brought about by western technology and science. Traditional cultures in Asia have been religious cultures where there has been an unbroken unity between society, politics and religion. It has been a communitarian society, a decentralized sociopolitical existence. Religion provided the integrating principle, and both social structure and political authority were legitimized by it. The break up of this traditional integration has been a conspicuous aspect of the modern awakening of people to the ideas of justice and freedom and rationality, the foundations of a secular framework.
Religious reactions to these changes are complex. An extreme one is the ‘traditionalist’ approach. It is characterized by refusal to accept this break up of traditional integration and the relative autonomy of society and politics, and a desperate attempt to bring them again under the tutelage of religion. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and other communal ideologies in India are following this line. Such revivalism fails to see the personalistic and dynamic elements of the emerging situation and very often ends up as a struggle to preserve the interest of the elite, which had traditionally enjoyed all privileges, and this can easily lead to communal frenzy. Even more disturbing is that the so-called ‘secular’ politicians whipping up communal and religious sentiments.
Democratic institutions come under serious assault through such manipulations of state power for narrow ends. The political process now obtaining in ethnically divided Third World countries is a task of reordering political equations among the ethnic groups. The state rather than addressing itself to the creation of civil society, has become largely a mediator of ethnic political equation; whereas what we really need is a dynamic re-interpretation of the past, taking seriously into consideration, the new elements of change.
BN: Where do marginalized people and disadvantaged groups figure in this scenario?
KC: The good news is that the hitherto submerged groups are organizing to fight for their rights and this exerts tremendous pressure on the system. Their legitimate demands are met with staunch resistance from the wielders of power. A class solidarity of the poor in pure form has not been sustained in traditional Asian societies for various reasons. Where resources are scarce, people use religion or communal grouping as the focal point for their share. Secular ideologies and parties, however militant they may be, have not succeeded in providing such rallying points for the struggle; yet the dominant "identity source" for the majority is religion or community. The fight grows intense when resources become scarce, or one group finds itself alienated from the mainstream, etc. What we see in India today is a political process in which regional and other groups are struggling for their share of the cake and disappointment causes clashes.
Even as the poor are used as pawns by fundamentalist groups, benefits go to the powerful in each group. To quote Paul Brass in his essay on ethnicity and nationalism, "The cultural and religious forms, values and practices of South Asian countries have become political resources of the elite in competition for political power and economic advantages."
Andre Beteille’s study on caste, class and power conducted in 1965 is still relevant today: power has shifted from rich landlords and other traditionally rich groups not to the poor, but to a middle group, mostly politicians who with the support of the rich, continue to use the system to further their interests. The landless, the labourers and other lower strata of society do not share political power. They are onlookers at a game played by the new elite. Caste alliance still plays a prominent role and may be easily exploited for one’s own ulterior motives.
RN: What model of development would you recommend for a pluralistic society like India?
KC: Having followed the technological growth model steered by elite controlled planning and programming, serious questions arise now about an alternative model of development. Ideally it should go beyond the classical capitalist-socialist models, to develop a society appropriate for the multifaceted nature of human beings and their social and transcendent dimensions. Thus the pressures that impinge on us are political, cultural and religious. As diversity is our natural state, plural identities should be the basis for the state. What we need is a new confederative perspective of unity from bottom up.
BN: Notwithstanding compulsions of religious faith, is it possible for us to move on towards a mature democracy and polity?
KC: Right from the days of Plato’s Republic politics has been controlled by a powerful minority. The nexus between the elite of politics and religion continues to oppress people. If Marxism and secular ideologies of liberal democracy were turning points, the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has been historic too. All this compels us to search for a new political culture which is rooted in the experience of the poor.
The transition from religion to the liberative form of politics is still a moot question. But if all of us work to recover the essence of religion which is neither against the poor nor against other religions, we can certainly build liberative solidarity. The idea is not entirely new, but echoes what the mass movements of the indigenous, environmentalists, feminists and all grassroots people have been saying for a long time. They are already generating a new political culture based on spiritual and cultural visions of tradition. They challenge us to live by plurality of culture, demand justice as a prerequisite for meaningful human solidarity, urge for commitment to communitarian values, etc.
We need to see through the facade of myths propagated as religious truths. This may be done by embarking on a process of demythologization and remythologization. Our religions are themselves repositories of such liberative myths and can mobilize people for building a community of communities where there is no fear or domination. People are religious, not secular, so religion has to be given an orientation that is life-affirming and value-based. The existing vacuum in secularism should be filled with a new interpretation of religion that is universal and inclusive.
The following interview by P.N. Benjamin was conducted in the context of Christmas. It is brutally frank assessment of the deplorable conditions in the Indian Church and the urgent, indispensable need for it to re-orient itself to the challenges of the day if it is to continue to be an effective instrument for individual liberation and the ushering in of a happier tomorrow and a better society.
Does not the traditional celebration of the birth of Christ remain a mere ritual for the Church, obscuring the liberationist content of the event when it occurred so long ago and giving it a comfortable capitalistic twist today?
I suppose the answer is an obvious yes. Where is the baby Jesus of the cattle shed in all the gaiety and opulence of modern Christmas celebrations? But, then, people always want a cultic figure to satisfy some of their urges. The rituals, doctrines, institutions and other paraphernalia of religions, including Christianity, have been evolved to meet this cultic expectation of people. They are one form of response to what gives security to their life. This process in itself would not have been bad, but the tragedy is that it has been developed in close collaboration with another production process in society -- economic. The classes that control the production process make use of politics, religion and other structures of society to maintain their dominance and to further their vested interests. The interdependence of these two production processes, the cultic as well as the economic, stifles the dynamism and the liberational content of Christian faith.
The Christianity that we have built up bears no similarity to Jesus’ vision and the movement he inaugurated. It is important to remember that Jesus never founded a religion with all ritual and institutional trimmings. He brought a new vision of God and built a new community of men and women based on love and freedom. Most of the people that responded to him were poor and ordinary. To the oppressed and marginalized, he brought a sense of dignity and hope. His teaching constituted a threat to the establishment. Religious leaders branded him as a rebel. The Church supposedly stands in this tradition, although it has often betrayed its founder or held him captive.
Christianity, especially that which is associated with the Saint Thomas tradition, is as old as Christianity in its homeland. If Christ has been present and active in this country in and through his Church, how is it that basic human rights had continued to be grossly violated within the Church these 2,000 years? Can you give an honest to God answer to this?
I cannot agree with your sweeping comment that human rights have always been grossly violated within the Church. It is well known that the Church accepted within its fold, people of all castes and provided educational and health services to all regardless of their social or economic position. Of course, I must agree that the Church, at least in India, is never known to be a defender or champion of human rights. In the official statements of Churches, you will see a lot of pious declarations about human rights and justice. But in actual practice, especially in the institutional functioning, they are seldom adhered to. The gap between precept and practice is often attributed to man’s sinfulness and somehow or the other explained away by Church people.
We need to look at this critically. The violation of human rights is the consequence of the power being in the hands of a few and its misuse by them. By power, I mean, not only the institutional power -- the control over money, employment and other resources -- but also the ritual power which has a tremendous potential for controlling masses. The rituals and symbols of religions exercise profound influence over the consciousness of people and they mould their values and give approval or disapproval to their behaviour. One who presides over the ritual, priests and others, therefore, have tremendous power at their disposal, although in a secularized society some of it is being eroded. In both these areas, the leadership exercises power disregarding the rights of others. Only by a devolution of power and by establishing a better system of accountability can we change this. In this, Jesus himself set an example.
He consciously rejected the power that enabled one to dominate over the other. He taught his disciples to be servant to one another. His own life was an example of the liberative force of self-emptying power.
Would you deny that within the Church during these many centuries no liberationist impulse manifested itself, that there was no room for it as "there was no room in the inn" in Bethlehem when Christ was born?
I generally agree with you, but I must add there are outstanding exceptions. The Church has provided at times of course, space for men and women who lived in solidarity with the poor and supported them. What surprises us is why this is only an exception but not a norm. I have already indicated some of the reasons. As you have suggested, by the use of the symbol of ‘no room,’ the Church has developed itself into an exclusive community, a caste if you will. But that was not the intention. The Church was meant to be an open community in a situation where humanity is sharply divided. In his birth, life and death (he died in the company of criminals) Christ demonstrated his solidarity with the outsiders.
Would you not agree that Indian Christianity, ancient or modern, orthodox or protestant, not only failed to recognize the need to liberate the oppressed in its midst but built up its structures essentially as exploitative and oppressive structures?
I must point out here that the record of the Indian Church in this area, participation in social reform, is not altogether dismal. It is part of the social history of this country. To give two examples: One, the missionary involvement in the Indigo disputes in Bengal in the later 19th century. Missionaries organized a heroic fight against the system of cultivation whereby the poor farmers were forced to cultivate Indigo plants against their wishes by European planters. They fought much to the displeasure of some of their fellow missionaries, out of their conviction that the Christian faith is opposed to unjust structures. And two, the missionaries in South Kerala identified themselves with the untouchables and unleashed a process of social revolution. One may go on listing other examples. It is true that such efforts met with stout opposition from the conservative votaries of the faith. To a large extent, the latter have succeeded in controlling the Church in subsequent years and thus suppressed the liberational impulse created by the Church in the early days. Although the Church in India deserves credit for sowing the seed of social revolution, it could not recognize or own its own offspring. The institutional framework it has built up over the centuries are being used to prop up exploitative and oppressive structures. It is true there are groups and movements within the Church which are its liberating missions. They need to be strengthened.
Would you not concede to the thesis that effective liberationist impulses, as different from those which sought to mitigate the plight of the poverty-stricken and outcastes were stirred and given an institutional framework by Marxist movement especially in Kerala which has the largest Christian population in the country?
Yes, Marxist movement has in some sense consolidated and given concrete shape to the stirrings of the outcastes. What is ironic here is that Christian missionaries were in a way responsible for creating this ferment in Kerala. But it was the forces outside the Church who fostered it and gave institutional expression to it. That certainly is an indictment on the Church. While the churches in Kerala were preoccupied with litigation and the erection of institutional edifices, the Marxists organized the poor to fight for their rights. Even those Churches which were engaged in serving the poor through their charitable organizations could not provide the needed stimulus and concrete structures for revolutionary change. What is relatively unknown is that a large number of Christian converts from scheduled castes in Kerala joined the Communist movement. In a brief survey I conducted in some areas in Kerala I came to know that several of them, while retaining a nominal membership in the Church, were committed to the Communist parties in their struggle for social and economic justice. They continue in the Church’s fold for preserving their communal identity. Some have severed their link with the Church altogether.
Is it not true that the Church -- its councils and synods -- has tended at first to ignore the Marxist-Christian stirrings within it and now begun to oppose, stifle and subdue them?
I agree. The Church, especially the ecclesiastical wing of it comprising the formal councils and institutions, has always opposed any Marxist-Christian encounter. Some of this opposition was born out of genuine fears, but to a large extent they felt threatened by the presence of Marxists, whose aesthetic philosophy is the bone of contention for many. Instead of facing this challenge in a constructive way, the Church has always succumbed to the propaganda by interested parties which equates a theism with immorality and unscrupulousness. The only way the Church can counter the attack of atheism is by showing forth in its life the fruits of its faith in God. From a Christian point of view, one does not prove the existence of God, a Christian lives by the reality of faith and one’s values are influenced by one’s faith.
There are differences in matters of belief and practice between Marxism and Christianity and they drive them into opposite camps. But the negative reaction of the Church hierarchy is not always guided by these honest differences. The Communist movement has posed a serious threat to the vested interests and securities of the elite within the Church. It is feared that the mass organizations led by Communists would take possession of the vast lands, properties and rich institutions of the Church.
It is however, wrong to assume that Christian-Marxist encounter is totally influenced by the negative anti-Communist attitude of the Church leadership. A creative and a constructive approach is initiated by groups and movements within the Church which are committed to social justice. Notable contributions have been made by some of the Christian thinkers in this area. We also know of Christian leaders who collaborated with Communists in specific struggles.
What must the Church now do in the face of the present challenges to recapture the liberationists impulses of the Christian gospel and let them have their legitimate impact upon its own life and the life of the nation?
The only way the Church can change its direction is by actively identifying with the struggles of the poor and marginalized. There has always been an awareness about the poor in the Church. Most often response to their needs has been in the form of providing charity and service. They are legitimate to some extent. But in the long run, charity will not help change unjust structures and the poor and the oppressed will continue to be dependent on the rich. We also see how the service institutions, ostensibly for the poor, have become agencies for catering to the needs of the rich. Recently, the Churches have launched development projects that hopefully help raise the level of the poor. But they are heavily dependent on external sources and some of the structures and institutions built around this are there to serve the interest of mediators and managers of such schemes.
The Church is yet to find a more convincing way to relate itself in the struggle for justice. Today, in our country, the marginalized sections of society, (women, dalits, tribals, landless, laborers, etc.) are organizing themselves. They demand nothing short of upper class/caste domination in our society to end and strive for a new order wherein the wealth of nations is no longer concentrated in the hands of a few, but wherein people actively participate in the development and well-being of the nation.
The Church can be sensitive to this new fervour and at least be a support structure to people’s struggle, even if it cannot enter directly into them. Some outstanding efforts are being made today, for example, the involvement of priests and nuns in the fishermen’s struggle in Kerala and the participation of Christian action groups in organizing landless laborers in Tamil Nadu. It is quite obvious that the Church alone cannot and should not do this. They have to cooperate with other agencies and movements engaged in fighting for justice. That is why increasing cooperation on the level of struggle along with Marxists and others are a necessary form of Christian service.
In Latin America where the present day version of liberation theology originated, the oppressor and the oppressed are both by and large within the Roman Catholic fold. In India Christians are a tiny minority. Should they proclaim liberation on the basis of the Bible, it may bring a severe backlash. Is there a remedy to this?
It is true that the Latin American situation is different from ours. Christianity is a minority religion here. The symbols and concepts which the Church uses may appear to be alien, however much it wants to put new content into them. In our multi-religious society it is therefore natural for people to brand the liberational message couched in Christian language as a covert effort to ‘sell’ Christianity and to add new converts to the Church. I look at the question in this way. I am increasingly becoming convinced that in every religion there are two streams. One stream can be characterized as the religion of the establishment or the institutional religion. It is often status quo oriented and invariably stifling. The original message, rituals and doctrines are cleverly twisted by the elite to suit their needs.
Much of the theology as it is developed is a padding to this. But in every religion there is a minority stream, the religion of the people which strives hard to break out of the domination of the elite. It is this stream which is liberational. It is seldom conceptualized and intellectually articulated. It is a living tradition influencing the ordinary people through its symbols, folk stories and myths. In their own way they protest the dominance of the elite, they dream dreams of a new order and relation. One may include the emergence of Buddhism and the Bhakti movement in this tradition. I also believe that the people’s stream in all the religions have a common language. Together they struggle for their humanity. My hope is that the liberational stream in all religions will come together. Christian priests and nuns in the fishermen’s struggle in Kerala and Hindu Swamis working among the bonded laborers in Madhya Pradesh have one language and one concern -- liberation of the oppressed. What prevents them from coming together?
There is an enormous potential here. This solidarity alone is the best form to counter the obscurantist communalism, a game played by the elite and the state and the religion of the establishment.
Should the clergy be in the forefront of the movement to end oppression? What kind of clergy? What will equip them for the task? Bible and Capital -- Christ and Marx?
The clergy can play a leading role in the struggle against oppression. They are the educators and leaders in Christian communities. But we are ill-equipped to do this. I do not know whether by reading Capital alone we will be better equipped. Perhaps we should begin by re-reading our own Bible from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed. Certainly we need tools that help us analyze the hidden currents and the patterns of injustice in our society. What is needed is also a new orientation to the preaching and piety. Much of our theology and Church life is oriented to the needs of the individual. This in itself is not bad, but we tend to forget how the individual is part of a web of relationships whose dynamism is determined by certain structures and processes of society. This awareness is slowly coming to us. Perhaps we have not fully discovered a way to hold together the traditional emphasis on interiority -- the inner motive, a sense of meaning and personal commitment to Jesus and the new thrust on exteriority, social action, involvement and struggle. Experience shows how with actual involvement in the struggle of the oppressed one’s commitment becomes real, one’s faith stronger and authentic.
Has Marxism, in its origin or modified forms influenced you?
Yes, Marxism has influenced my thinking. I have read a lot of Marx and re-read some of his writings. I try to interpret Marx to my Christian audience. Some of the basic insights of Marxism help us understand the exploitative mechanism of society. Even before reading Marx I had developed a great concern for the poor. I suppose that is true about many of us. On the gut level we have sympathy for the poor but when I read Karl Marx’s analysis of history and society, I have radicalized my concern. I was able to see poverty as a faulty system and even a spiritual problem.
We are indebted to Marx for his insight that the economic production process and relations decisively influence the values and structures of our relationships. I take seriously Marx’s criticism of religion. Any religion which makes people subservient to the forces of oppression is to be rejected.There are several other insights of Marx which are important for us.
But I must admit that a literal dogmatic approach to Marxism is abhorrent to the dynamic spirit of Marx himself. For example, it is difficult to apply literally, the stages of historical development which Marx outlined from his European experience directly to the Indian situation. I also feel that Marx’s criticism of religion although valid in some respects, does not exhaust the full meaning of religion. We also know that there are new issues which Marx could not have visualized. Some aspects of technology, and some dimensions of women’s question do not fit into Marxist analysis. This does not mean that Marx’s insights are irrelevant. These are all matters which need further enquiry from the perspective of the people. It is disconcerting that a rigid and authoritarian framework of the parties that supposedly follow Marx is incapable of expressing the authentic Marx and for this reason, some of the contemporary efforts often outside the parties, to understand and interpret Marx in terms of Indian realities are important for me.
I want to make it clear. In a situation like ours where a majority of our people are victims of all forces of oppression -- economic exploitation, caste domination and sexual domination -- their liberation from them assumes priority for our religious faith. But as a Christian I also want to affirm that the total meaning of my faith cannot be fully realized by participation in such struggles. What I need is a faith that sustains me in an ultimate sense, even if my concrete struggle fails me. I find this faith in the Christian tradition which celebrates the ultimate victory of humanity which God continuously creates.
Christian revivalists and fundamentalists oppose the liberationist approach, so does the power-holders, the old guard, within each Church. How can they be won over? If not, how to contain and confound them?
This question has low priority in the list of my agenda! My approach to the question is more positive. As I have indicated earlier, if the Church could commit itself to the poor, and interpret the scriptures and faith from their perspective, then the so-called fundamentalist opposition will not have staying power. It is well known that some of these groups thrive on resources drawn from certain Western countries. Such help is not ideologically innocent. It is part of a campaign to demolish communism. For me, the central concern should be the integrity of Christian faith itself. How seriously can we follow Christ who lived in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, whose message was good news to the poor. The salvation God brings includes social transformation. Response to the gospel of Christ in a given context and the struggle for justice are integrally related.
Can an Indian Christian theology of liberation emerge from within the four walls of our teaching and training shops, especially the seminaries? If not what is the alternative? Is it always to be imported?
Certainly not. A theology of liberation can emerge only in and with the struggle of the people. I am afraid the theological training of the Church is far removed from the situation of struggle and therefore ill-suited to produce any creative theological reflection. To a large extent they are also dependent on the category of thought and methodologies developed in the West; they are deeply entrenched in the institutional framework of the Church.
We need to free theological training from these shackles. Involvement is the key here. The spirit of a person who has suffered and experienced the ruthlessness of the system has a vibration which cold abstract theology seldom has. Involvement is not head long plunge into a situation. One should have some equipment and tools to analyze the situation. Marxism is one such tool. There are a few notable experiments in theological education. Some of the theological seminaries have closed down their formal training and encourage students to plunge deeply into the conflict situation of society and to reflect on the faith. We hope that their experience will provide the data for further theological reflection. Imported theology is unreal, even the liberation brand of it. Certainly, experiences of people in other countries can inspire and stimulate us and that is what the Latin American Christians have done. But I believe that we need to discover the liberative Christ in our context.
Do you advocate the use force to liberate, if other means seem to fail?
I always refuse to discuss academically the question of the use of force. It has to be answered from within the context by the participant in a struggle. Any senseless use of force is no solution to social problems. Even Marx rejected it. He compared the use of force to the role of a midwife. In any liberation struggle, especially when we are up against the entrenched force, certain eruptions of violence are inevitable. Every effort should be made to minimize it. We are faced with violent situations although conflict is beneath the surface. Sometimes a dogmatic adherence to pacifism amounts to condoning or supporting the entrenched violence. That is why I said the question of the use of force can be answered only in relation to the context and not theoretically.