Liberative Solidarity: Contemporary Perspectives on Mission by K. C. Abraham
Rev. Dr. K. C. Abraham is a presbyter of the Church of south India and a leading Third World theologian. He is director of the South Asia theological Research Institute, Bangalore, India and director of the board of theological Education of the Senate of Serampore College. The book was published by Christava Sahitya Samithi, Tiruvalle, April 1996, and is used by permission of the publisher. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: Mission and Ministry as Celebration and Sharing of Life
Our study is an attempt to see the relevance of the Gospel to the many struggles of our people in India. In a situation of abject poverty which is being perpetuated by unjust economic and political structures the concern for liberation has a sense of urgency The poor in our country are religious, but the majority are not Christians. There is an awakening among the poor in all the religions to their dignity and selfhood which has been suppressed by age-old traditions and culture, and they demand a critical review of the fundamentals of their faiths from the perspective of liberation. We should also be sensitive to the fact that in the present-day contest in India religious faiths continue to be used by dominant groups to legitimise their control over the masses. In the secular sphere, although the so called development process has brought many gains to certain sections in our society, the control of the economic elite over our political process and the increasing marginalisation of weaker sections like tribals, Dalits and women raise serious questions about justice and corruption that are embedded in our system. This is the context we reflect upon. It is a context where life is continuously threatened, vitiated and destroyed by many forces of death. We need God’s life-giving mission in our midst.
In an attempt to evolve a theological frame work for Christian mission and ministry, I suggest a brief consideration of three fundamental biblical insights about God in our midst and our response to him, and draw some implications for mission and ministry in the Indian context.
1. God is a God of life and to believe in him is to participate in his life giving activity.
Mission and ministry are endeavours of the Christian community to celebrate and to enhance God’s gift of life. The essential character of this life, which the community shares with other human beings and nature, is inter-relatedness. In responsibility to one another and to nature life is preserved and God’s purpose for it is fulfilled.
Faith in the God of the Bible is faith in a living, life-giving God. The phrase “living God” is an expression commonly found in the Old Testament (I Sam 17:26,36; Judges 8:19; Kings 17:1) ‘The realisation of life, in all its fullness, including the material basis of life, is the primary mediation of the approach to God” (Sobrino)1. For Jesus, God is a God of life. St. John testifies that the word of life is manifested in Christ. God’s own mission is giving life (John 10:10, 14:6). Sobrino observes that God as a God of life is “a primary and generic horizon”. This is a helpful concept. The “genetic horizon” is common to all humanity and not an exclusive domain of the people of a particular faith. It takes us to the very root, the earth-base, of our experience. In this we see a “fusion of horizons” (Gadamar) between us and that of the ancients. This has to “become historicised and concrete in the life of Jesus himself” (Sobrino)2. When Jesus speaks of “bread”, he is using it as a symbol of all life: the generic horizon and concrete horizon coming together.
Bread and food are.....primary mediations of the reality of God. This is why Jesus favours and defends them. This is why he eats with publicans. (Mark 2:15-17 and parallels)...This is why the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (apart from the Christological and liturgical intention of the evangelists) emphasizes that those who are hungry must be fed, and stresses that they ate and had their fill (Mark. 6:30-44 and parallels, 8:1-10; Matt. 15:32-39). This is why the one who feeds the hungry has encountered both man and the son of man. (Sobrino).3
Messianic signs are signs of life in its fullness (Matt.11:2-6). The Kingdom which Jesus preaches is the Kingdom of those who are deprived of life. Jesus’ uncompromising defence of life has led him to a life of conflict with the powerful, ruling class of his time. This conflict resulted in Jesus’ death. “His passion for life led him to the suffering on the cross” (Moltman)4. The one who defended and proclaimed life was put to death. Resurrection is the affirmation that God’s “last word” is not death but life.
To believe in the God of life is to affirm the supremacy of life over death. This also means “any assault on life -- hunger, destitution, squalor, oppression, injustice is an attack on God, on God’s will for the life of humankind. A denial of life, therefore is a rejection of the God of life (Gutierrez, quoted in Araya, God of the poor, p. 73) The demand of the God of life in Christ, the rationale for Mission, is a demand for life abundant “were Jesus is, there is abundant life vigorous .life, loved life and eternal life” (Moltman)5. To follow Jesus is to witness to the abundant life in words and deeds.
We live in a situation where this sacred gift of life is threatened, vitiated and destroyed. Our willful resistance to God’s demand to choose life and our refusal to participate in God’s life-giving activity are expressed in many ways. From dowry death to nuclear disasters one could draw up a long list of violence we commit to one another and to nature. Our tendency to reduce all these to sin and selfishness is often an abstraction. In the modern world, sin and selfishness assume corporate and structural character; greed is a personal sin but is operative in organised form in our economic system. Caste oppression cannot be simply reduced to “personal” factors. Caste-structure like other evil structures, has a logic of its own. That is why our faith in a God of life has to be expressed as affirming values, practices and institutions that affirm and enhance life and as denouncing the systems and structures that diminish and extinguish the lives of so many voices.6 Mission is a response to the demand of God that life be abundant, the demand for humanisation “The mission of salvation and the task of humanisation are integrally related to each other even if they cannot be considered identical” (Thomas, Salvation and Humanisation, p. 8).
2. The God of the Bible is a liberator God and faith in the liberator God calls for struggle against all forces of oppression.
Life is not an abstract, but an historical reality. As we have noted the “God of life “ provides generic horizon for our faith and its practice. But the living God in the Bible is a liberator God, the God of the Exodus experience. Liberation theology, particularly that from Latin America, has developed this theme on the basis of biblical insights and the experiences of new ecclesial communities of poor Christians.
Aloysius Pieris of Sri Lanka points out that the concept of “liberation” is not new and mentions various perceptions of liberation found in ancient philosophy, Roman theology, religions of Asia, and Marxism.
“The stoic perception... sees liberation primarily as spiritual/ personal/interior. It does, however, tolerate an individual’s search for freedom from external social structures that are oppressive -- as exemplified in the case of slavery. But it does not envisage any radical change of social structure” (Pieris) .7 He adds that this is the “ideological substratum” of the Roman theology (one may add, Protestant theology as well). Further he observes that classical Buddhism (one may add Hinduism as well) also has similar views of liberation. It holds that structural change is a consequence of interior liberation.
“The Marxist?’ restricts liberation to a class struggle of the poor (proletariat) aimed at socio-economic justice.
In contrast to these three positions, “biblical revelation” seems to advocate a unitary perception of all these aspects social, spiritual/material, internal/structural -- whenever these are predicated of “sin” and “liberation from sin.” (Pieris).7
Another distinct and important aspect of the biblical view of liberation is the pivotal role played by the poor in it. God has entered into a pact with the poor. “The poor in the Bible are dynamic group who are not the passive victims of history but those through whom God shapes his history” (Soares-Prabhu).8
Biblical liberation is more than a class struggle. It is a “religions experience of the poor” (Pieris). Thus to affirm the biblical faith in the liberator God is to affirm a life in solidarity with the poor.
Pieris constantly reminds us that the poor in Asia are non-Christians, and Asian reality is an interplay between religiousness and poverty. So in affirming solidarity with the poor in Asia / India, an inevitable consequence of the faith in a liberator God is to enter deeply into the religious (non-Christian) experience of the poor. The liberational thrust helps us to enter into a dialogue and cooperation with people of other faiths.
An EATWOT consultation on “Religion and Liberation” states that all religions, Christianity included, “are in various ways and to various degrees both oppressive and liberative. They are oppressive because they legitimise unjust social systems like apartheid, and caste, and because they create their own special forms of religious unfreedom... But history shows us that religions can be liberative too. They have inspired powerful movements of social protest (like Hebrew prophetism in monarchical Israel, or the bhakti movements in mediaeval India) which have attacked both the oppressive rigidity of the religious systems themselves, as well as of the unjust socio-economic and political structure of the societies in which those religions flourished” (Voices).9
It further states that In the Third World, where all religions together face the challenges of enslaving social and cultural systems and the need to struggle for justice, religions should meet each other, exploring and sharing their liberative elements. It calls for the development of a “Liberative ecumenism, that is, a form of inter-religious dialogue which is concerned not so much with doctrinal, insights or spiritual experiences that different religions can offer one another, as with the contribution to human liberation that each can make” (“Voices,” Vol. II No. I 168 ). This is mission, from a liberational perspective.
Mission is to share the gift of Jesus, God’s way of liberation; but at the same time it provides an opportunity to learn from others. A genuine dialogue is not manipulative, not a strategy for conversion but a form of witness on the basis of trust and respect. Participation in issues such as human rights, minority problems, social and economic injustice which we commonly face, give a basis for fruitful dialogue. It must also be pointed out that today we are discovering the dynamism of people’s tradition distinct from elite’s sophistication in our religion and culture and its potential for liberation. People’s tradition is often maintained in protest movements within dominant religions, in myths, stories and legends. This dynamic heritage and its humanistic, liberative revival have set the stage for a more meaningful dialogue and cooperative action among the religions.
The liberation that we experience in God through Christ is cosmic. The biblical vision of “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 21:1) and our confession that Christ is renewing the cosmos (Col. 1:15 -20) compel us to the earth and to its liberation and transformation. The creation’s “groaning in travail” (Rom. 8:22) together with our own groaning is audible in the ecological crisis we face. The marginalised groups in their struggle for freedom and human dignity have discovered the close link between environmental crisis and exploitation: tribals, fishermen, landless people and women. They are pleading for an alternate form of development which is ecologically responsible and meets the basic needs of the people.
How do we witness to the God, the liberator of cosmos in a situation of increasing crisis of ecology and in the context where the people are forced to search for a responsible relation with nature? That should be an agenda of mission. Too long we have been preoccupied in our theology with the dimension of history in isolation from the cosmos. We can never set the plane of human history and nature in opposition. It is in the search of liberation of all aspects of human life, cultures and natural environment that we can truly affirm that salvation is the wholeness of all creation.
3. “To know God is to do justice”
The God of life, the liberator God orients the struggle of his people in a precise direction toward the establishment of justice. In the Hebrew faith, Yahweh appears as the Goel the defender of the vulnerable groups from whom all rights are taken away -- the widow, orphans, aliens and the poor. God is the “near relative”, the protector and avenger of Israel. This is affirmed in the covenant which Yahweh has established with his people -- and the clear expression of that relationship is justice. It is in justice done to the weak and helpless that Israel’s true national identity is to be found.
Indeed, Israel’s identity, the meaning of belonging to the Jewish nation, is the rendering of justice to the poor, rescuing their rights trodden under foot. And when the Jewish people fails to do justice to the poor, it is false to itself as a people. That is, it not only does evil, does wrong, but in violating the pact of the covenant, it goes directly against what identifies it as a people and always has : the liberative act of the exodus, the historical experience of having come up from Egypt thanks to its alliance, its covenant, with God. 10
To know god is to enter into this covenant-justice-oriented relationship. So for prophets to know God is to do justice (Jer. 22:13-16). This is the basis of mission. as doing justice.
In an interesting study of missionary activity in the later nineteenth century in India G.A. Oddie has brought out documents about missionaries’ involvement in agitation for social reform. I was interested in the account of the missionary involvement in the indigo disputes. The opposition was against the indigo cultivation by the European planters, their own country men. The system was such that the poor ryots had to yield to the pressure of the zamindars and cultivate indigo. This cultivation was not profitable and it led to the neglect of rice and other crops. European planters working through the zamindars with the support of police and other government machinery had thus designed a system which exploited the poor ryots. Missionaries organized a heroic fight against this system and at enormous cost: imprisonment, threat, loss of job and so on and succeeded in changing it.
One or two aspects of this involvements stand out. Response to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a given context and the fight against unjust structures are integrally related. Some of the missionaries criticises their fellow workers who are involved in such social issues. But those who led the fight were clear about this integral relation with the gospel and the transformation of unjust structures.
We should also notice how in their fight they were in solidarity with all victims regardless of their caste or religion. It is true that they were led to the fight when they saw the hardship of some of the poor Christians. But when the fight was directed to a system they had to broaden their base and include every one who was subjected to the evils of the system. A deeper involvement in social issue borne out by our commitment to the gospel takes us to an open arena of human sufferings. It is also interesting that when they stood by the exploited people they had to oppose their own fellow “Christians”. In a context like that an alliance for the sake of perpetuating a so-called Christian identity was not so important as establishing solidarity with the suffering masses who were not necessarily Christians.
The practice of faith in a God of life, liberation is our mission and ministry Theo-praxis. Where life, liberation and justice are denied in praxis God is denied. To believe is to practice. To believe in God is to turn from oneself and to commit one’s life to God and to all men and women in concrete practice. This is conversion, an essential dimension of mission. Although it occurs in the realm of the personal, it is not privatistic; it is a process translated into the socio-economic, political and cultural sphere in which the converted lives. It is to participate in God’s mission. Concrete forms of it in the context in which we live were mentioned earlier. Commitment to life-affirming values, and structures, solidarity with the poor in their struggle for justice and for their forests and land, and dialogue with other faiths directed towards a liberative ecumenism are some of these.
Perhaps one may issue a word of caution here. The experience of the ultimate which is concretised in our struggles for justice and liberation is not the ultimate in itself The Gospel has the character of givenness, a mystery, if you will, the meaning of which is not exhausted in our response. ‘It continues to expand our horizon, judging and transforming us. One of the perennial problems in Christian understanding is to keep in tension these two dimension -- the ultimate and concrete. But the issue is never simply either one or the other, although accent my be placed on a particular aspect in view of the urgency of a given situation.
I have not said anything specifically about ministry. In fact I do not want to make any separation between mission and ministry. It is argued that ministry is about caring of the “faithful” and mission is what the faithful do in response to the faith. This division is artificial when we acknowledge that Christian ministry is our total response in faith and action (praxis) to Christ and his message in a given situation. Ministry cannot be reduced to what the minister does as a poojari or guru but what the community of faith together do and how they live out the faith. In this sense Christian ministry is a community endeavour. Mission and ministry are signs and instruments of God’s life-giving, liberative act. Elsewhere, I tried to suggest that there are three moments in Christian ministry (Wilson C. ed. J, The Church, 110). First, there is a critical awareness of the situation, particularly the factors and structures that influence the life and struggles of people. The second moment is the faith-reflection. Here the scripture as well as the heritage of faith is studied and interpreted in the light of the experiences of people . In this faith-reflection Christian community should sink its roots into the life and culture of all people. The third moment is action which is an interaction between the other two moments. In a situation of injustice we need collective action directed towards generating life-affirming, humanising values, altering unjust structures and building new alternatives. Ministry in this sense becomes part of God’s mission.
A question that keeps on coming is, “Can the present church be trusted with mission?”. This demands a new look at the shape and structure of our congregations, and the administrative bodies, the leadership pattern and the Christian community’s relationship with people of other faiths . It is not enough if we just introduce Kuthuvilakku or add a few Indian Lyrics to our service. The challenge is to express our solidarity with people of other faiths in common quest, action, shared values and spirituality. Indigenisation and liberation should be the same process. The church in its mission and ministry is called to be a community who make ‘Jesus’ theo-praxis, their own.
1. Jan Sobrino, The Epiphany of the God of life in Jesus of Nazareth” in Richard Pablo, Idol Of Death and the God Of Life, Maryknoll N.Y Orbis, 1983, p. 70.
2. Sobrino, op. cit., pp. 73-74
3. Sobrino, op. cit., p. 73
4. Jurgen Moltmann, The Passion For Life , Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983, p. 22.
5. Moltmann, op. cit., p. 19
6. Voices From the Third World, June 1988, p. 91.
7. Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation, Maryknoll, Orbis, 1988, p. 123.
8. Soares-Prabhu, in Vidyajyothi, New Delhi, p. 320
9. Voices, June 1988, p.152.
10. Gustavo Gitierrez in Victoria, Maya, The God of the Strategic Covenant, Maryknoll N.Y Orbis, 1994. p. 69