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 5: Peace And Justice In Indian Context
I shall begin by reflecting on my Christmas vacation in Kerala. In December we frequently encounter groups of pilgrims on their way to Sabarimal for their darshan of Lord Ayappa. Devotees come from all South Indian states and they travel in small groups intermittently chanting “Lord Ayappa Sarnam”. It is reported that every year the number of devotees is higher than that of the previous year. The devotees undertake this pilgrimage after a long period of preparation which includes growing a beard, wearing beads and a special dress, observing certain dietary restrictions, fasting and prayer. Many of them undertake this long journey by bus but at the foot of the hill they start climbing hundreds of steps to the temple for the final darshan of Lord Ayappa. For most of them this pilgrimage is a way to fulfil the vow they would have made for favours received. But they are inspired by a sense of power of the divine. Peace is inner tranquility achieved by rigorous discipline and ardent devotion to Lord Ayappa.
In some sense this pilgrim’s view of peace is not uncommon among religious people. The emphasis of this spirituality is on the interior life, or the motive of the actor. There is no spiritual significance or necessity for effecting any change in the social structure. The external situation becomes complex and one may retreat to the safe haven of the inner soul for peace.
Kerala has witnessed another popular celebration. Marxist volunteers in thousands from all over Kerala marched into Trivandrum to participate in the concluding celebrations of thc National Congress of the Marxist Party. Clad in red clothes and caps they rent the air with their slogans. One of the dailies described the final rally as “Red Sea Roaring”. The Marxist movement, as we know, represents a way of realising peace by the struggle of the workers for justice. For them economic justice alone will ensure peace. There are other marginalised groups -- Dalits, tribals, unorganized workers and Women -- who also approach peace through the road of justice. Marxists have no use for religion in their search of peace. For them all religious spirituality is other-worldly and narrowly communal. It is significant that the National Congress of the Marxist Party expressed its commitment to fostering the unity of all secular forces and rejecting any alliance with so called religious/communal forces.
These two approaches to peace -- one found in the recesses of our inner life and the other in the concrete historical struggle -- are very much present in our context. We need to discuss the perspectives on peace and justice against this background. However one of the main assumptions of this paper is that Christian faith advocates a unitary perception of different aspects of peace -- personal/social, spiritual/material, internal/external, and there is an integral relation between peace and justice in our concrete areas of relationships and action. Let us examine some of the biblical insights on peace and justice.
1. The biblical view of peace, Shalom, is a vision of wholeness that is being translated into concrete relationships and actions.
The Hebrew word, Shalom, inadequately translated as peace, is not just an inner feeling but a dynamic reality that is expressed in human relationships and actions. The abundance of harvest, physical and mental healing, harmonious relationships between humans and beasts and a new stewardship of all resources of earth (Lev. 26:3-7, Isa. 35:1-10) are all part of Shalom experience. The harmonious growth that is indicated by Shalom makes no dichotomy between so-called spiritual and material realms, and it embraces all aspects of life. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is a utopia, of a perfect order where all people live as a single family. The relationships between human and nature enhance the quality of life and that becomes the primary focus of God’s transforming activity When there is a rupture or distortion in this relationship, there peace is denied.
2. Peace and Justice are integrally related to each other
Shalom is a political community based on justice. There is no Shalom if there is economic inequality, judicial perversion and political exclusiveness. This is the message of prophets in the Old Testament. There is no peace without justice. (Jer. 7:5-7, Mich. 2:1-12, Amos. 4:1 and Psalm 34:14).
In the Hebrew faith; Yahweh appears as the God the defender of the vulnerable groups from whom all rights are forcefully taken away -- the widow, orphans, aliens and the poor. God is the “near relative”, the protector and avenger of Israel. This is affirmed in an agreement which God has entered into with his people (Covenant). The clear expression of that relationship is justice. To know God is to enter into a covenant with God. A covenant that is justice-oriented relationship. So for the prophets “to know God is to do justice” (Jer. 22:13-16). To worship God is to “seek justice” correct oppression, defend the fatherless and plead for the widow (Isa. 1:17).
Justice is not an abstract concept, but the perspective from which to judge the total system and structure of political and social relationship-the perspective of the poor and the weak. The prophets have a wide range of concerns : commercial exploitation (Hos. 12:8, Isa. 3:14, Amos 8:3, Jer. 5:7, Mic. 6:10-11); hoarding of land (Micah. 2:1-3, Eze. 22:29); dishonest courts (Amos: 5:7, Mic. 3:5-11, Isa. 5:23); violence of the ruling classes (II Kings 33:30, Micah 3:1-12, Amos 4:1); slavery (Amos 2:6); unjust taxes (Amos 4:11, 5:11-12); unjust functionaries (Amos 5:7, Jer.5:28). How contemporary they all sound! We cannot leave out any aspect of human relationships. In recent years we have become concerned about eco-justice, that is the just way in which we use natural resources and the environment. Here too how can we allow a section of society to consume a majority of resources when many have no access to it.
3. Shalom experience of a person is to live a caring, sharing and just life in community.
We have already pointed out how Shalom is linked to a political and even a cosmic (nature) reality based on justice. But it is experienced as our personal responsibility to the wholesomeness of Gods community. So, covetousness is a self-seeking act that destroys Shalom.
Isa. : 57:17, 19-21 may be quoted here:
“Because of the inequality of his covetousness I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry. Shalom, to the far and near, says the Lord and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the tossing sea, for it cannot rest and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no Shalom, says my God, for the wicked.”
Selfishness becomes the root of evil that disrupts our relationships. In society it becomes organized in a large scale and we need to fight them on the structural level, but we need to counter them on a personal level -- the question of life-style, attitude, irrational prejudices against others and other areas. More positively we need to be “sensitive” to values that, helps enter into the struggles of mothers. “The biblical vision of Shalom functions always on a firm rejection of values and lifestyles that seek security and well-being in manipulative ways at the expense of another part of creation, another part of community, or brother or Sister” (Brueggemann). I hope it will be possible for us to give serious thought to a life-style appropriate to our commitment to peace and justice. However we should avoid the danger of setting the personal responsibility in the area our struggle for peace against structural and corporate dimensions of it. Both are necessary and there are situations where one is emphasised more than the other.
4. Jesus is the embodiment of Shalom.
The heart of Jesus’ preaching is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God -- a reality that is present in the world but whose fulfillment is yet to come. The sighs of the Kingdom are the same as the experience of Shalom in the Old Testament -- the life in all its fullness, the concern for community based on equality and mutual acceptance and freedom from self-seeking security. John the Baptist, the elder cousin of Jesus who had initiated Jesus into public ministry sends messengers to ascertain whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. The reply is poignantly relevant to our discussion (Matt. 11:2-5) “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sights and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”. These are all indications that Jesus adopted a new scale of values, that was different from the value system of the dominant society in which he lived. He valued persons over systems (Sabbath is for man, not man for Sabbath), he affirmed the value of persons over things (His concern for children, women); he rejected any custom or system that marginalised people (entered into solidarity with the poor and the weak); he was harshly critical against the self-seeking leaders (Pharisees) and excessive dependence on mammon -- the commodity mentality -- was abhorrent to him. His own uncompromising commitment to the values of the Kingdom and his solidarity with the victims of society made himself an enemy of the powers that be. 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 value and structures of dominant society Jesus was able to bear up the conflict not by retreating himself into a Spirituality that is preoccupied with his own security (Gethsemane) but by committing himself totally to a God who is present in the midst of his people for their liberation. In this sense Jesus knew 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.
5. The struggle for peace and justice generates creative instability
If our concept of peace is integrated with justice then an uncritical acceptance of status quo is not tantamount to achieving peace. We need to change the system in accordance with the demand of justice of the poor. 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 the situation of change. But as we have seen God of the Bible is a God of justice and to believe in God of 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.
There is a slogan that became popular in SCM circles at one time. In situations of conflict we are called to be peace makers, but in a situation of false peace we are called to create conflict. As young people we raise questions to the patterns, and systems of our society for the sake of better equality and justice and that is our Christian vocation.
6. In a pluralism situation the struggle for peace and justice should be a cooperative effort of the liberative elements in all religions.
Commitment to peace and justice is the essence of religious faith -- this is a conviction shared by many people in all religions -- not Christianity alone.
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 legitimate 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 medieval India) which have attacked both the oppressive rigidity of the religious systems themselves, as well as of the unjust socio-economic and political structures of the societies in which these religions flourished” (Voices from the Third World, p. 153)
It is further stated that in the Third World where all religions together face the challenges on 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 experience that different religions can offer one another, as with the contribution to human liberation that each can make” (Ibid. p. 168).
Here I would like to mention the experience of a contemporary Hindu Swami, Swami Agnivesh. I heard him narrating his search for a dynamic form of spirituality that is meaningful for involvement with the untouchables. He started his work among the poor who had become Christians with a view to reconvert them. Let Swami speak:
As we started working with the people we saw elements of exploitation. In poor farmers houses there was not enough to eat and we would ask ourselves what happened? He is producing all the food, the milk and honey and his children are eating coarse food and the milk is being sold in the market. They produce cotton and not enough clothes on the bodies of their women and children. So this simple question started working on our minds.
But when I came to Haryana and started asking these questions and in the same vein a simple question again came up that we want to fight against Christian missionaries who were among the tribals, untouchables, landless labourers. Why are they forced to accept Christianity and then we knew that the whole society is up against the poor, they are at the bottom of the whole structure of this exploitation and unless and until this exploitation is removed there is conversion into Christianity. And so why nor strike at the root? Unless and until untouchability, disparity, exploitation are wiped out we will not be able to fight.
We analysed religion, here is a religion, where the idols are washed in milk and there is no milk for the children to drink, the rich being overfed and the poor starving and yet the religious leaders have no feelings, why are these big temples empty, why cannot poor people take shelter in these temples. This was the whole system of religion and we hit at the fundamental principle of Hinduism -- that is the karma theory of Hinduism. We are born into this life as we had worked in our previous lives. According to the fruits of our karma. Poor people as you see them poor yes, but they have done very bad things in their previous life and that is why almighty God has given them birth in such a place. That is why you cannot do anything. It is their karma, written on their forehead which we cannot wipe out. If it was written on fingertips or toes it would have been wiped out but it was on their forehead and nothing could be done. So everything is neatly planned and set. We started questioning where is it written?
We had to trace the entire vedic literature and find out who was the enemy of the Arya? It was never a Christian, Hindu, Muslim or a Sikh battle. Struggle is always between Arya on the one hand and Dasyu on the other. What is Dasyu? One who does not toil and lives on the wealth of others is Dasyu or robber and now the lines are drawn. And on the one hand are those Hindus, Muslims or Christians and who do not subscribe to any religion or God but are toiling and on the other those who are exploiting the battle has to be between Arya and Dasyu and not between Hindu, Christian, etc. So this was a clear case of class struggle. (From an unpublished statement).
Similar testimonies and efforts at reinterpretation are found among Muslims, Buddhists and tribal religion. We need to encourage cooperative action for peace and justice what is emerging today is a non-communal face of religious faith which is liberative. As youth, we need to cross over action for peace and justice.
Issues Faced Today
In the light of the perspective on peace and justice outlined above, we need to discuss some of the concrete affirmations.
a) No to Communal Rights but Yes to Human Rights
An exclusive emphasis on minority rights is a denial of our vision of Shalom, the wholeness. We are committed to human rights, the right of the poor and oppressed everywhere and not to communal rights.
When we fight for religious freedom, it is not for the right of Christians alone, but the right of everyone to follow and practise his or her religion. The plight of Christians from Scheduled Castes has assumed a special place in the Church’s agenda now. There is injustice done to them and we need to build up pressure on the government to reconsider its policy. But if we fail to take up the cause of the struggle of all the Scheduled Castes for basic justice, then we appear communal. In a situation where inter-group rivalries are intense, and the entire body politic is considered as a balancing of communal power, it is difficult to keep this perspective alive. But there seems to be no other way by which we can live true to our Christian vision.
b) A Pluralistic, Secular Framework
The traditional culture in India has been a religious culture in which there was an unbroken unity between society, politics and region. In fact, religion provided the integrating principle and the social structure and political authority were legitimised by it. The break-up of this traditional integration has been the significant aspect of modern awakening of people to the ideas of justice and freedom and technological rationality, the foundation of a secular framework.
Two types of reaction to this are evident. One is the so-called traditionalist approach. It is characterised by a refusal to accept this break-up of traditional integration and the relative autonomy of society and politics and a desperate effort to bring them again under the tutelage of religion. The RSS and other communal ideologies are following this line. This kind of revivalism fails to see the personalistic and dynamic elements of the emerging situation and very often ends up as a struggle to preserve the interests of the elite which had traditionally enjoyed all the privileges.
The other extreme mode of approach is from the modernists. They find the emerging secular society as absolute and reject the past totally. Often it equates modernisation with radical Westernisation. The effort is made to accept uncritically the Western technology, Western politics and Western style of life. From our experience we realise how inadequate and unrealistic this approach is. No people can forget their cultural past.
What we need is a dynamic reinterpretation of the past, taking seriously the new elements of change. The religions should see the relevance of the new secular framework that is emerging. It is based on certain values which they all together can affirm -- the values of justice, equality and participation. Of course, what is sometimes dangerous is a kind of secular attitude that is closed to religion. Any absolutising elements in politics can be termed inhuman and oppressive. A pluralistic outlook is necessary as a viable form of relating one religion to another on the basis of shared values and goals. “We work not for Christian culture but for an open, secular, pluralistic culture informed by and open to the insights of many faiths, including Christian faith.”
Christians have a special role to play. Whatever be the interpretation of the modern change, it cannot be denied that the presence of the Gospel has awakened the humanistic elements of modern secular movements and ideologies. That presence should continue even for the preservation of their integrity.