The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism by M. M. Thomas
Dr. M.M. Thomas was one of the formost Christian leaders of the nineteenth century. He was Moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and Governor of Nagaland. An ecumenical theologian of repute, he wrote more than sixty books on Theology and Mission, including 24 theological commentaries on the books of the bible in Malayalam (the official language of the Indian state of Kerela). This book was jointly published by Christava Sahhya Samhhi (OSS), Tiruvalla, Kerela, and The Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (ISPOK), Post Box 1585, Kashmere Gate, Delhi - 110 006, in 1996. Price Rs. 60. Used by permission of the publisher. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 11: Search For a New Ideology of Struggle For Social Justice With Eco- Justice
Address to the Get-together of Social Activists of the a Programme for Social Action at Chilika 1993 expanded from notes taken at the time and published in the PSA Report: Strike a New Note: Student Power. 1994. An edited version is given below.
What I have been asked to do as a silent observer and listener of all what you have been saying through song, dance and comments, is to make a presentation on the subject of our Consultation, as given to you by K.M.Thomas on the first day. It was Ecology, Human Rights and Student Initiative in search of alternatives. We are all from social action groups which are working in different fields with different techniques. Some are with the dalits, some with the tribals, some with the women’s movement and some work for the preservation of ecology. So also we may have different ideological approaches. But we are all concerned with both Ecology and Human Rights and we are all concerned with the search for an alternative to the present pattern of development.
Though we have different work, different programmes, different techniques, the question is whether we can have a common ideological approach. And what are some of the elements of that approach? Now, we all have been involved in the struggle for human rights for several years. There are two types of human rights- one is the peoples’ rights, the rights of tribal peoples, rights of dalits, of women, the fisherfolk i.e. the rights of peoplehood of certain sections of society; and two, within each people, the rights of each person. In this latter, we are concerned with the fundamental rights of the human person for freedom and equality irrespective of gender, language, culture, race, caste, creed or anything else. The relation between man and woman on the basis of equality of personhood comes within it. So rights of peoplehood and rights of personhood are our main concern.
In the more recent past, we have also become conscious of the rights of nature. So we have eco-justice, i.e. justice to nature. Nature also must be given its due if you want to live properly. The ecological basis of life, rights of people and persons, of peoplehood and personhood are the concerns which have brought us to fight against the present pattern of development because it exploits and destroys nature and does injustice to nature and human’s organic relation to nature. And we are looking for an alternative pattern of development, a more healthy pattern which will do justice to ecology, justice to peoplehood and to persons within the people.
But does our fight against the modern pattern of development mean that we want to go back to the traditional pattern of society? No, because yesterday in the group discussion, women complained that all traditional societies were patriarchal in character and were oppressive of their personhood. The dalits said the same thing; the traditional caste culture has not been doing justice to their personhood or peoplehood. So, we have to have an alternative, not only to the modern pattern of development but also to the traditional structures which have not done justice to these rights. Or, we need a new pattern which takes the good community values of the tradition and good values of modernity, like freedom of human persons and equality between them. So we have to take from the traditions as well as from modern developments certain values which do justice to the wholeness of human existence and find a new way of going forward fighting against both the traditional and modern injustices. So what is asked for is a new, completely new pattern transcending both traditionalism and modernism.
Here we are also emphasizing the role of the students, the intellectuals who have a vision of the future. Not only in the Chilika movement but also in many of the movements we are involved, students and other intellectuals have a place.
Social justice was very much the emphasis of the Socialist movement of India in its opposition to capitalism. But now, socialism has broken down in one fire. We have to find a new socialist ideology emphasizing social justice and along with it justice to nature. For this we have to ask why socialism failed in the past. We have also to take into account the ecological factor which socialists or capitalists never took seriously.
In yesterday’s dramatic presentation of the Chilika movement. the role of the woman was quite impressive. It was not really a woman but the representative of the feminist principle drawing the people, the male of the species from surrendering to Tata. It was the feminist principle that was in a way protecting the environment in the drama. I think it is very interesting to see who are the protectors of the environment today. The protectors of the environment are people who live by nature. For instance, the fisherfolk who live by the sea, the rivers and the lakes, the tribals who live by the forests and their produce. the dalits and the peasants who live by the land, and women who are in a sense the creators and sustainers of life are protectors of ecology. One may say, the natural basis of life was protected in the traditional societies by the fisherfolk, the tribals, the women and the feminist principle of their living by nature. As these people are the protectors of ecology, justice to ecology is best realized through doing justice to them as people. That is the new starting point for considering the new pattern of development, the new idea of socialism.
The old socialism considered the industrial working class as the bearers of the new society. There may be some truth in that approach even now. The general feeling at present is that with the breakdown of socialist regimes of Eastern Europe the industrial working class has lost their nerve. And of course that class has imbibed the values of the capitalist consumerist society too much to bring about a new society embodying values of personal freedom, social justice and ecological wholeness by themselves any more. Now the dynamism for the struggle for the new society has to come from the people who are victims of the pattern of modern development and who have the nearness to nature and therefore able to protect it and do justice to it. They are against the traditional society in some respects and also against modernity which has treated them badly. So they may be the people who are the bearers, mediators, of the new pattern of development.
I would say that Lohia, Ambedkar and others saw the need of renewing tradition on the one hand and protecting the humanist principles of modernity on the other. In other words, they saw clearly that along with the struggle for justice for the industrial working class, we must simultaneously go forward with the liberation of dalits, tribals and women if we have to realize an Indian socialism. They saw that there was a common point of justice towards which all these movements were moving and emphasized also the interaction among them. Though each group may be concerned with struggle for justice for itself, interaction between them, between the movements for women’s justice, dalit justice and tribal justice would produce a new common ideology for the struggle for justice. No single movement of liberation can solve the whole problem of injustice, only an interaction between struggles simultaneously pursued; and the one common ideology developing through this process can solve the general inter-related problem before us.
The present Indian government is committed to a pattern of development which is destructive of ecology and destructive of social justice and it has to be fought. Manmohanomics, the economic policy which Manmohan represents is purely a free market economy which has only one criterion, namely profit. With the profit criterion anybody can go anywhere, any part of the world, and destroy nature for profit, destroy people for profit. The kind of capitalist development which has been globally accepted has only one principle viz, profit in the transactions in the free market leading to economic growth. Which means it can destroy rights of peoplehood and personhood as long as it brings profit. We have to oppose it.
Nehruism had at least paid lip-service to social justice. It had welfare ideals and some welfare measures to realize them. But now, Manmohan economics has taken all of that away. Even food rations for the poor are no more subsidized. Prime Minister Rao speaks of helping the poorest of the poor. One does not know whom he means. Kerala Chief Minister Karunakaran says that he cannot distinguish between the poor and the poorest of the poor and therefore he will cut all subsidies. So, that is the way it is going. In other words, the State has no concern for the people and is therefore withdrawing from the economic field in favour of the dictates of the market.
Does it mean that the State always has an anti-people character and has to be fought? Some people think that way. But I do not think along those lines. The present anti-people State with its policy of globalisation giving itself up to the profit-oriented market economy and to the ideology of high-technology development under the auspices of the multinational corporations from outside and inside which are free to exploit nature and people, has to be fought. But we should work for a people-oriented state while doing so.
When I was in Nagaland for two years as governor, one thing I noticed was that the modern pattern of development destroyed all the forest timber. Outside agencies started a large number of timber industries, and after all the big trees have been cut and deforestation has taken place they closed them. With deforestation water sources also dried up. So from December to February no water is available even in the capital Kohima. In other words modern development was very destructive in Nagaland. In Kerala, the fisherfolk know how fishing by modern boats destroys not only the livelihood of the fisherfolk but also the fish in the sea since unlike the traditional fishing community the boat fishing has no sensitivity to the natural cycle of fish life. The same is with the tribals and dalits. They all got increasingly alienated from forest and land which gave them their living. So the pattern of high-tech development has increased the oppression of these people-the tribals, the dalits, the fisherfolk and women.
Their oppression of course did not start in the modern period. The traditional religion had divided the people into those who were ritually pure and those ritually impure. The dalits were impure because they had to deal with land, and with organic nature and its wastes. It also made women impure because women had to deal with blood every month. After child delivery they were considered impure. The purity-impurity divide within the traditional society had excluded the dalits and women from its power structure and its decision-making processes. Now the new pattern of development alienates them still further.
Tradition cannot be fully destroyed. Therefore it should be renewed. Yesterday somebody said that if all traditions were destroyed we would be in chaos. In fact, there is a whole tradition of renewal of the Hindu tradition from Raja Rammohan Roy through Swami Vivekananda to Gandhi and others. Sri Narayana Guru in Kerala and Ambedkar in Maharashtra have been renewing tradition. Both cultural and religious traditions are involved in the renewal. Religion and culture always go together. They need renewal so that new traditions may be created which will help the process of justice. More especially I would emphasize embodying the principle of equality in the tradition through renewal of culture and religion- equality between man and woman and equality between castes and peoples. Equality is the one most important principle which has to be absorbed by the traditional cultures of India. Many young people rightly feel that religion has only been a source of injustice. For instance, from the women’s point of view, all religions have been built on patriarchy to a large extent, and therefore women were never given justice properly. So naturally women feel they should go against religion for their liberation. But even they have to see that there cannot be a total religious vacuum. Therefore they have to work for renewal of religion through religion assimilating gender equality and feminist principles and values. The same is true of the dalits. Religion has been a very anti-dalit force and for this reason many dalits would reject religion. But they cannot go on without some kind of spirituality. They too have to work for renewal of religion, for a new spirituality and tradition, for a spiritual vacuum cannot exist in the world.
I would even say that there can be a secular spirituality. Nehru was never religious, but he always said that we should have not only material development but also a structure of meaning for life. He meant a spiritual and not a religious pursuit. That is also possible. Some kind of spiritual dimension is necessary to sustain the self in devotion to justice. Since traditional dharma has supported a lot of injustice we want a renewed dharma for supporting the struggle for justice. Manu dharma has been no good, but a new secular democratic dharma may help. It may be an open secularism with insights form secular humanism and from religions. Perhaps we shall work for a kind of humanism with technology on the one hand and spirituality on the other, bringing these together so that we have a new tradition and also a new pattern of technological development.
Science and technology themselves have been interpreted in purely materialist and mechanical terms. Capra raises the question in his books, why modernization has tended to destroy people of their humanity. He sees the reason in the mechanical materialist interpretation of science and technology. The organic and the spiritual dimensions have been forgotten. Therefore technology has to be reinterpreted in more holistic terms. Gandhi was not against technology, but he wanted technology which was appropriate to the organic character of society and the spiritual character of the human person. We are not against technology as such but we want a technology which will preserve eco-justice and social justice. We need a science and technology reinterpreted within a new framework which takes the organic and spiritual dimensions of reality seriously along with the mechanical. It is only then that technological development will promote eco-justice, preserve human personhood and peoplehood. It is an alternative technology that we are seeking.
Books like Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive consider the present technology as purely masculine, without any feminist principle in it. Hence it is seen as exploitive of women and nature. Here I would see the students’ role. As students of science and technology they have to reconceive them in relation to this search for alternatives, by renewing traditions as well as transforming technology, make them human. Traditions and technologies have to be humanized so that they support eco-justice and social justice.
Student participation is a reality in many movements of social change. For instance in Nagaland, tribal students are in the forefront in the agitation for Naga selfhood. It is the same with dalit movements, I am sure. What we need is not sectarian student participation but student participation with the whole complex of movements consciously, without self-interest but with self-surrender to justice. I know that students have played a large part in the national movement for political independence. Students can now play a similar role in the struggle for justice, provided as Gramcie said, they have an organic relation with the peoples’ movements.
In the search for alternative patterns of development we are not starting from scratch in India. We have Gandhi, Lohia. Ambedkar and others who have been on the trail before. We certainly have new challenges calling for new responses.