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 4: Liberative Solidarity: Church in Witness and Reconciliation
December 6, 1992, rightly described as a black day” for India is still fresh in our memory. The wild religious frenzy displayed on that day has no parallel in our history except perhaps at the time of partition. The total destruction of a structure associated with a minority religious group and the communal carnage and bloodshed that followed it have inflicted a deep wound in our national psyche. It cannot be healed easily
The incidents that happened on December 6th should not be taken in isolation. There is a fundamentalist upsurge in all religions which threatens the very fabric of our social and collective life. A fundamentalist ideology in any religion generates hatred, suspicion and fears, in the minds of its votaries, towards other religions. At the slightest provocation of hurt to the religious sentiments of a given group, violent conflicts arise, causing untold destruction of lives and property as we have witnessed in the recent riots in Bombay
Organised in a militant way, the fundamentalist groups are determined to capture political power. This has vitiated and distorted our political process. When, blind, religious passion rules the people, they cast aside all norms of justice and the rule of law Politicians of all parties dabble with communal forces and succumbing to their pressures 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 which inevitably raises fresh challenges to the churches in India.
Reflecting on the present situation it is now evident that there is a striking link between the marginalisation of the weaker sections and the rampant forms of communalism. It is not surprising that the slums in our cities, where there is an intense struggle for basic necessities, have become scenes of violent conflict, M.N. Srinivas, the eminent sociologist, observes “The richest soil for communal frenzy to build on is poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and slum -- like conditions -- all of which are m plenty in urban India” (India Today, January 16-31, 1993). While speaking to a group of Muslim families who had lost all that they had in recent riots in Bangalore, they told us that the fault was not that they were Muslims or Hindus but they were born poor. The poor in our society are always vulnerable. Violence committed on them is on the increase. They are looted, their women are raped and their hovels are burned.
We have taken many things for granted, especially the idea of Hindu tolerance and the Indian peoples predilection for harmony and non-violence. All these notions are shattered. We are a violent nation; we have become callous to the cry of the weak and defenseless. Rajani Kothari’s incisive analysis of the changes taking place today is worth nothing. He speaks of the threat to the composite culture that India has always been, its community life-style, the whole Indian identity which was the basis of a very decentralized notion of living together, working together, having respect for each other’s diversity, not have a sense of anything being alien. It is that which is under threat. He further states there is the threat to the Indian personality.
“I think the Indian personality is a very fine balance between the aggressive component of human endeavour and the more feminine, soft and cultured conception which tends to integrate various dimensions rather than push along one dimension. That I think is again going to be very difficult.”1
In this situation of worsening communal disturbances, increasing violence and marginalisation of the weaker section and disintegration of Indian culture and personality, we try to reflect on the tradition of our faith. I believe that the search for a meaningful form of witness to the gospel of reconciliation is of paramount importance for the Church’s mission. Recently, speaking to the new graduates of Sermpore College, Dr. K. Rajaratnam in his Master’s address affirmed, “moments of history of this kind have great opportunities for the Church to witness to her faith in Jesus Christ the Reconciler and his concern for the nation.” I should like to reflect with you on different dimensions of this faith tradition and its relevance to the difficult situation we are facing in the life of the nation.
The Church, A Reconciling Community
The word “reconcile” has come to mean, “to make peace.” Literally it means to restore, to bring back to friendship or union. In accordance with the root of the Greek word Katallaso, it means “to make other” or renew Reconciliation is more than justification: it makes us friends instead of enemies, new human beings. 2 “To be reconciled” means to appear sinless before God’s judgement (Col. 1:22), to live in peace (Col. 2:20, Eph. 2:15) a new human being (Eph. 2:15),a new creation (II Cor. 5:17), finally in Col. 1:20 even the reconciliation of the heavenly beings with God. It envisages a totally new relationship that transcends personal and corporate structures of hostilities.
St. Paul in all his letters develops this theme. N.T scholars agree that reconciliation is an interpretative key to Paul’s theology “If we are pressed to suggest a simple term that summarizes his (Paul’s) message, the word reconciliation will be the “chief theme” or centre of his missionary and pastoral thought and practise.” T.N. Manson writes, “The driving force behind the Gospel is the love of God”. The modus operandi is reconciliation.” 3
Reflecting on this theme in Paul, I am struck by his intense awareness of the many conflicts, and problems of divisions and fragmentations, that prevailed in his time, and his conviction that they can be overcome by the message of reconciliation of God in Christ. The conflicts are many and varied but there is a contemporary ring to them: irrational prejudices, ethnic tension, cultural crisis, social discrimination and economic domination were all present in all the conflicts of the time. Jewish Gentile relationship is the immediate context within which Paul reflects on his faith. It was fraught with these conflicts. The “wall of partition” in Ephesians stands for the whole system of Jewish piety and legal observances which constituted a barrier to fellowship between Jew and Gentile. This impregnable fortress was supported by Jewish self-righteousness, or religious fundamentalism.
We cannot attempt an exhaustive study of the concept of reconciliation. But permit me to mention some of the salient points which are particularly relevant for our discussion:
i) Reconciliation is the power that transforms all aspects of human relationships. Although Paul addresses himself to the Jewish Gentile conflict, he places the reality of reconciliation in the larger setting of God’s purposes for a cosmic renewal. This includes the defeat of demonic principalities and powers; breaking the barriers of separation that divided the ancient society -- Jewish-Gentile; slave-free; and male -female and the well-being or healing of persons who are afflicted by inner conflicts.
Paul’s concept of reconciliation should be seen against the background of a broad biblical vision of God’s reconciling and peace making mission. This vision is best expressed by the beautiful Hebrew word, Shalom. It is the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, the eschatological projection of perfect order where all people live as a single family. The relationship among humans and between humans and nature enhance the quality of life and it becomes the primary focus of God’s transforming activity. When there is a rupture or distortion in this web of relationship, then peace is denied. I believe that the centre of our faith is this vision which was made a concrete reality in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To live by this vision and to affirm its dynamic relevance in this conflict ridden situation should be the starting point of our reflection.
ii) Reconciliation is a process of reversal and subversion. It is not a “patching up” of differences between people. Unless there is a radical change in the mode and the logic of existing relationship, there cannot be reconciliation. Relationship based on patronising or even tolerating the other is not reconciliation. It should come about by an active engagement between peoples and groups. Paul is clear on this, when he argues against imposing Jewish ceremonial laws as a condition on the Gentiles for becoming Christians. That would have meant one community accepting the dominance of another. But he was convinced that God’s reconciliation invalidates the logic of the system that maintains division and separation. Paul knew very well that human proneness for self-justification is what maintains them. Like Jesus, he too saw the sin of self-righteousness as that which keeps us far from God’s mercy and love. It is self-righteousness that breeds fundamentalist ideologies and makes religious groups impervious to change. A new relationship based on a new logic of faith alone can bring about the necessary change. It is m this sense that we talk about subversion and reversal.
iii) The affirmation that the ground of peace in this world is God’s reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ. He is our peace (Eph. 2:14). God in solidarity with all humanity is the source of renewal. There is a sense in which this reconciliation precedes all our consciousness of it. The power of Christ is greater than our sin. The new reality is already offered to us in his calling. It is precisely this new reality which makes us aware of our division and of the false pretensions of the system of peace we have established. Only when we have confronted our neighbour no longer within a framework which lets us explain him away, but in all of God’s promises for his peace even when they conflict with what we think is ours, and in all his claims on us, does reconciliation gain its proper urgency “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace” (Eph. 2: 13-15).
iv) Jesus, the Universal peace-maker; is inaugurating a new humanity. The dividing wall set up by enmity is broken down and the divided community is made one through reconciliation with each other. This reconciliation is only possible through the love which Christ showed on the cross.
The reconciled community is again set within the larger framework of God’s work of peace-making.
Some scholars see Eph. 2:14-16 as part of a Christian hymn whose first two strophes have been preserved in Colossians 1:15-17 and 18-20
Strophe I The unity of all things in creation Col. 2:15-17
Strophe II The unity of all things in redemption Col. 1:18-20
Strophe III The unity of the races in the church Eph. 2:14-16
The new community is the “paradigmatic instrument in the unification and pacification of the world”. Breaking down the walls of division has reference to the conflict between the Jews and the nations, but it could apply to all the groups in society. When a communal clash arose between Hindus and Muslims in Kerala in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi sent a cable to people who mediated saying: “Pray Muslims show a Christian attitude to Hindus”. What a mix up of terms! But Gandhi understood the essence of the Christian Gospel. In Christ we can no longer define ourselves in terms of our opposing interests, our communities that exclude each other, our caste securities and the like, but only in relation to one another and as members of the household of God.
The Church Witnessing to Reconciliation
The Church is called to participate in the mission of divine peace making. But, by and large, our churches are mere spectators incapable of responding to the situations of violence and communal tension. Many of them are divided among themselves and preoccupied with narrow communal or group interests. We have lost our moral credibility to be peacemakers in God’s world. How can we be inspired by a new vision for peacemaking? How do we find means or patterns of Christian life and practice that are faithful to the call for peacemaking in an increasingly violent and divided situation?
I do not pretend to have answers to all these. But I want to mention some of the models of peacemaking that emerged in the Church and commend some broad direction for our corporate action.
Service as the Ministry of Reconciliation
Inspired by the love of Christ, the Church has moved into situation of need, providing service to the victims of society. The service institutions and programmes of charity of the church have been and continue to be a source of comfort and succour to the needy regardless of caste or religion. As we have noted in the first chapter, in times of communal clashes, between Hindus and Muslims the church took care of refugees from both sides.
It is not surprising that Mother Teresa is being loved and respected throughout India by all sections of people. She speaks the language of love and compassion and her act of love is not motivated by selfish gain. If we accept the love of Christ as the basis of reconciliation, then the expression of it through charitable and service programmes are important form of reconciling mission.
We are today called upon to be in solidarity with many other groups who are made helpless in modern society The needs of the handicapped should receive serious attention. Children with multiple handicaps are now about 2% of the population and in the slum the proportion is higher. With special training some of them can be helped. But the mentally disabled most often have to be cared for. One of the problems created by urbanisation is the care of the aged. Institutional care of the aged and handicapped is the model that has come from the West. But they need to be modified and the participation of communities is essential.
Reconciliation and people’s movements
In service the church is committed to the care for the victims of society, but the church has the responsibility of creating just structures that are necessary to reduce many forms of suffering -- especially the suffering that is caused by deprivation, inhumanity and violence.
We need to be aware of the structures and forces that shape our attitudes to and relationships with one another. Poverty, for example is not an accident, nor the result of fate, laziness or drunkenness. There are structural causes -- faulty economic developments, political decisions, and policies that favour the rich and a cultural system that excludes the poor. Only with an awareness of such factors can we think of meaningful strategies of change. The movements that focus their attention on such structural questions have helped us to redefine our mission priorities. The marginalised Dalits, tribals and women -- and their struggle for dignity and justice have raised the question of power that influences our relationships with different groups who control power whether it is economic, political or cultural. Which are the groups that have been excluded from power?
These questions are necessary for bringing about a just relationship. Without justice, reconciliation can be a temporary truce. A systemic change is envisioned by these movements. In this they stand in the tradition of the prophets. Walter Brueggemann notes,
The prophet Amos is known for his strictures against the distortion of justice. We usually have not understood that Amos concerns are not with incidental acts of injustice, but with the systematic economic distortion in which the royal-urban managers participate.4
A question is often raised about the relation between reconciliation and the struggle for justice, especially since the latter generates conflicts. The struggle for justice creates conflicts with the powers of establishment that are against change. We need change in accordance with the demand of justice. This inevitably means instability and disorder. As S.L. Parmar has pointed out, disorder in itself is not bad, but if it is not directed towards the struggle for justice, it can be destructive. Traditionally Christian thinking has favoured order over justice and hence we are unable to relate meaningfully to situation of change. But faith in the God of the Bible necessarily means accepting a preference for justice over order. This will generate conflict. In such a situation the basic question is not whether we support conflict or not but how the conflict, disorder can be directed towards peace with justice.
Conflict was very much part of Jesus’ ministry of Shalom. That seems to be the experience of people who follow Jesus. They are at odds with the inhuman and unjust values and structures of dominant society. Jesus was able to bear up the conflict not by retreating into a spirituality that is preoccupied with his own security but by committing himself totally to a God who is present in the midst of his people for their liberation. In this sense Jesus knows that peace is a gift of God. It is also a task. Justice gives concrete orientation to our task but every struggle for justice can only be an approximation and there is an ever expanding horizon to our task in the coherence of justice and faith.
iii) Liberative Solidarity: While we affirm the centrality of the struggle for justice for our mission we need to be sensitive about a danger to which the movements for justice are exposed. To gain more justice the powerless should have power. But if the structure and Orientation of newly gained power follow the same pattern as that of the dominant groups, then today’s oppressed will turn into tomorrows oppressors. History bears this out. I believe that reconciliation is Jesus’ way to avoid this.
Jesus identified with the aspirations of the people for a new age, but his strategy was different from the political messianism of his day There is a difference between Jesus’ messianism or messianic servanthood and ruler-messianism or political messianism.
Both the terms, “messianism” and messiah often indicate a certain “fanaticism” and describe a hero or elitist cult. Such kind of messianism is present in all histories. But the true messianism emerges from the suffering people and identifies with the sufferings of the people. The crucified messiah is on the side of the people, posing a radical challenge to all forms of political, royal and power messianism. Hence all powers must be under the rule of Jesus, the messiah, who came to be a servant of the people, who died for them, and who rose from the dead that we may rise from the power of death historically and not just at the end of time.
It was hard even for his own disciples to understand his concept of servant messianism. They shared with others the expectation of a political messianism which can be achieved by striking an alliance with political rulers or by a head-on dash with them. Jesus seems to have rejected both these options. He thus differed with the Zealots on the nature of the Kingdom and the power by which it comes. “Jesus chose the power of God’s weakness over against the ultimate weakness of coercive human power. He chose sacrificial love over revolutionary violence not because he was anti-revolutionary but because the revolution of God which he represented was radical and total.”5
His identification with the powerless was total as it is revealed on the cross. All who cry from the depths of suffering and despair find an ally in him.
According to the gospel, Jesus willingly surrendered himself to the will of God and even in the darkness of death he trusted God. Easter faith proclaims that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, thus declaring him to be the expression of God’s own life and Kingdom.
The meaning of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus for our understanding of God is this: God was not a distant spectator but was decisively present, speaking, acting and suffering in all that Jesus did and in all that happened to him. In Jesus’ acts of solidarity with the poor and lowly, God acts. In the suffering of Jesus, God suffers. The full force of human alienation, hostility and injustice are experienced by God in the passion and death of Jesus.
This is the liberative solidarity that reorients our value system and power constellations and ushers in a new order. It is possible only if we enter into the life of others, especially the suffering with openness and compassions. For the spiritual resources for a new orientation should emerge from the collective experience of the poor and the marginalised. Liberative solidarity is the channel of those resources. This is the only option left to us in this difficult situation of conflict and blind fury of religious passion.
The emphasis on the poor is not new. But often they are the object of charity or they are being managed and manipulated by social engineers. In liberative solidarity model, the poor become subjects. Values embedded in their collective life and in their struggle for survival will be decisive for shaping a new order.
This model comes with poignancy when we try to respond to the ecological crisis. In order to evolve an alternate form of development which is wholistic and more humane we need to listen to the experiences of the indigenous and tribal people -- their communitarian life and their bond with the earth. They are for science and technology, but not for a neutral kind of scientism that willingly allows itself to be used by the elite for producing armaments. They are for industry but not industry that destroys the ecological balance and causes pollution. In short, they are asking for a system that accepts the interest of the poor as the central concern. For this we need to question and reject the accepted policies and the logic of the present economic order. That requires tremendous moral and spiritual courage. But then the Jesus who rejected the dominative power in solidarity with the poor beckons us to do it. Our task is critical, as well as pointing to new directions.
Conclusion Personal Testimony
In keeping with the purpose of this lecture, I want to share with you a personal experience that helps me depend my own commitment to liberative solidarity as a mode of Christian witness.
Both my wife and I have the responsibility of caring for our brain injured child. It is difficult and demanding but the insights we gain from that experience are spiritually uplifting. One of the difficulties We face when we try to relate with brain injured children is the problem of communication. They do not follow the normal pattern of discourse and there is no use trying to make them conform to it. They have a world of their own. The only way in which we can communicate to our daughter is by finding the ‘right code’ to enter into her world. My wife is able to do it but not others. In order to communicate with our daughter we have to change. With sensitive awareness and sympathy her world becomes our world. Liberative Solidarity is a process by which we see reality as the poor see it and in togetherness build new community.
1. Rajani Kothari, Beyond Darkness, (CIEDS Collective, 1990).
2. Edward Schillebeeck, Christ, (New York: Cross Road, 1988).
3. Quoted in Ralph Martin, Reconciliation, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981).
4. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 199), p. 273
5. David Miglior, Called to Freedom, (Philadelphia : Westminster Press) p. 55.