Chapter 7: From Diakonia to Political Responsibility

Liberative Solidarity: Contemporary Perspectives on Mission
by K. C. Abraham

Chapter 7: From Diakonia to Political Responsibility

What are the issues important for a consideration of Church’s political responsibility in the present-day Indian context? This paper attempts to highlight some of them.

1. A Brief Historical Survey

We will begin with a historical survey of the Church’s efforts to relate itself with the political situation in modem India. The struggle for Independence and the emergence of a new nation together form a watershed in the life and witness of the Church of India. There emerged a strong national consciousness in the Church which is reflected in its theology and witness. “Participation in nation-building,” was the phrase that summed up the political witness during this time. The Church participated in nation-building as a partner through its service institutions -- educational, health and developmental programmes. Diakonia (service) was the principal form of witness. Many development projects with the help of funding agencies have their origin in this period.

The Church in India did pioneering service by establishing medical and educational institutions. Many charitable institutions like orphanages and relief operations through CASA have provided help to the needy regardless of their religious affiliations. Some of these programmes are well-known and there is no need to describe them elaborately.

It is important that in a situation of extreme poverty and continuing misery of millions in rural and urban areas, the Church provides service for the needy. Sometimes such actions are powerful witness to the Church’s solidarity with people, breaking it isolation.

In their study of the churches m North India, J.P. Alter and H. Jaisingh make a pointed reference to one such moment in the life of the Church in Delhi. In 1947, there broke out the worst communal clash between Hindus and Muslims, and thousands of refugees streamed into Delhi. Christians took the lead ministering to the needs of the victims and this was widely acclaimed:

The service to refugees was of profound significance for the life of the church. It demonstrated that Christians, though neutral in the communal struggle, were not indifferent to the sufferings of their neighbours. It created a fund of goodwill which proved of great value in subsequent discussions concerning faith. Above all, it helped to draw the Christian community out of its isolation and to identify Christians as responsible citizens of the new Democratic Republic.1

However, laudable and necessary such charitable and developmental activities are, they seldom challenge the existing system and structures of injustice that perpetuate poverty and unequal distribution of resources. In the long run they do not provide an answer to the search of the poor for their dignity and justice. It is this critique that led to the awareness by some that the poor have to be organized to fight for their rights and they should not be mere objects of charity but subjects of struggles for a new just order.

For them mission is “struggle for justice.” They are critical of some aspects of nation-building and work towards altering the structures and practices that dehumanise people. This form of witness is more readily found in the fringes of the Church, especially in the so-called action groups. The mainline church is predominately satisfied with service projects. There have been notable pronouncements by the churches, but they remained as rhetoric.2

The emergence of national consciousness is linked with a reassertion of Hindu religion and its values. A response to the Hindu renaissance was therefore, an integral part of Christian witness in modern India. A rethinking on the Christian attitude to other faiths was clearly evident. Christian thinkers like Chenchiah and Devanandan argued for a more positive attitude towards other faiths. Inter-faith dialogue with an attitude of humility and openness and with a willingness to learn from others is thought to be the best form of witness. Today the issue of inter-faith dialogue is more complex. There are economic and political factors that affect the relationships between religious communities. We will deal with this in the next section. But we notice that an aggressive crusading attitude towards other faiths is giving way to a more tolerant attitude.

It is necessary to start with this brief historical note in order to understand the present. In fact, the basic components of the Church’s witness are present in this period (‘50s and ‘60s). Service has been the predominant form of witness, with a peripheral interest in prophetic witness and dialogue. Perhaps today many are convinced that we are in a situation where prophetic response should be deepened. To understand this we need to analyze the contemporary challenges the Church faces.

II. Present-day Challenges

The ‘70s and the ‘80s have seen many changes in the national scene. The domination of a rich and powerful elite over the masses, religious and caste groups organizing to usurp political power, a virtual collapse of the secular framework of the Constitution, continuing misery of the poor and their exclusion from all decision-making process, new ethnic identities and their struggle for justice -- these are some of them. More recently we have seen the globalisation and liberalisation in economic policies which create a new culture that destroys indigenous communities and traditional values. All these have to be evaluated. But we may focus our attention on three issues which exert considerable pressure on our political process.

a)   The Impact of Modernism on Religion and the Fundamentalist Upsurge

The traditional culture in India has been a religious culture, in which there was an unbroken unity between society, politics and religion. 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 traditional 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 under the tutelage of religion. The RSS and other communal ideologies are following this line.3 This kind of revivalism fails to see the personalistic and dynamic elements of the emerging situation and very often ends up as the 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 as absolute and reject the past totally. Often it equates modernisation with radical westernisation, with uncritical acceptance of 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. 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.” (M.M. Thomas).

In a pluralistic context religions should cooperate in strengthening and secular/civic basis of politics. Christians in India are called upon to accept this responsibility and not to pursue communal politics that is preoccupied with their own interests.

b)   The Struggle for Ethnic Identity and Justice

The struggle by different ethnic groups for their identity and justice has brought serious questions as to the nature of a pluriform community we are committed in build. It has to be discussed against the background of two conflicting developments. Threatened by the emergence of modern Nation-State and the ideas of secularism, some sections in all religions assert a fundamentalist posture in the major religions. Under the guise of identity struggle, the fundamentalists, particularly in major religions, are creating a volatile situation. The majority community wants to perpetuate its dominance by controlling the political process through its militant organisations. The Hindutva philosophy of the BJP-RSS-VHP 4 combine is the best example. The process has created a sense of insecurity among the minority communities and marginal groups. This form of resurgence will only strengthen the oppressive forces and we should reject it.

At the same time marginal groups like Dalits and tribals are seeking a new identity for themselves based on their past religion and cultures which had been suppressed or destroyed by dominant communities. In their struggle against historical as well as contemporary process of domination, the Dalits and indigenous groups become conscious of their identity as people. Reflection on mission should be related to this newly gained awareness of marginalised groups.

The Church in the past has been ambiguous in regard to its response to the identity question. Christian mission for sure has enormously contributed to the social transformation of indigenous people. But it has been insensitive to peoples struggle for cultural identity. The Church has often projected a view of uniformity that suppresses all differences.

We need to affirm that plurality is God’s gift and diversity is in the very structure of God’s creation. We are called upon to celebrate God’s gift of plurality and diversity.

If the struggle for Dalit and tribal identity is the demand to secure the rightful space of indigenous people in the wider human discourse and relationship, then it should be accepted as integral to God’s purposes for them. The theological link between Christian faith and the struggle for identity should be strengthened.

The struggle for identity is also a struggle for justice and participation. This gives a concrete and distinct focus for our struggle. Here the biblical tradition of faith can make significant contribution. The prophets were uncompromising on their stand on justice. They rejected any pattern of relationship that fails to ensure justice, as contrary to God’s will. I believe that this focus on justice in our identity struggle gives us a concrete direction as well as a new theological meaning for it.

From a Christian perspective, identity, however, is not an absolute category We are for an open identity and not a closed one. Moltmann in his discussion on the doctrine of creation points out the significance of oikas, living space for our understanding of group identity He says any living thing needs a space, a boundary for its secure living; but if that boundary is absolutely sealed and closed, the living thing dies. “Every frontier enclosing the living space of a living thing is an open frontier. If it is closed, the living thing dies.” (Moltmann)

A renewed community which allows space for different identities to flourish should be our common goal. We need to mobilise the humanistic and liberative vision of regions for building a just and participatory community. Fundamentalism is the very denial of the essence of religion.

Commitment to peace and justice is the essence of religious faith -- that is a conviction shared by many people in all religions not Christianity alone.

An EATWOT Consultation on “Religion and Liberation” states that in the Third World 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 “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 to one another, as with the contribution to human liberation that each can make.5

c) The Pressure of Global Economic System on National Politics and Culture

With the disappearance of the socialist world, the Third World countries have entered a new phase in their development saga. They are now totally and completely dominated by the financial institutions and global market engineered by the First World. The gap between the “rich” and the “poor” countries has become greater, and this gap is no longer a relative surmountable gap, but absolute in terms of access to key factors of production such as capital (including technology).

Globalisation and modernisation through technological growth have brought many serious problems. Increasing marginalisation is the inevitable consequence of a capital intensive urban-centered model of growth. The new economic policies introduced in India, allegedly at the behest of IMF and World Bank, will not alter the basic pattern of development that has been inimical to the marginalised. There is no doubt that we need to link ourselves to the global market system and that we should clear the rot that has set in the public sector. But an unfettered growth of multi-nationals and the emphasis on foreign trade are not conducive for a pattern of development that is oriented to the needs of the poor.

A concomitant problem that model of growth has created is the ecological crisis. Fast depletion of natural resources, pollution of air, land and water, the global warming and other atmosphere changes have catastrophic effects. A consultation on ecology and development has correctly observed that “while all are affected by the ecological crisis, the life of the poor and marginalised is further impoverished by it. Shortage of fuel and water adds peculiar burdens to the life of women.” It is said that tribals are made environmental prisoners in their own land.

The Dalits whose life has been subjected to social and cultural oppression for generations are facing new threats by the wanton destruction of the natural environment. As the Chernobyl and Bhopal incidents show, ecology knows no national boundaries. Climatic changes and related environmental consequences are globally experienced. What we witness today is a steady deterioration and degradation of the biosphere, all life and physical environment.6 The consultation further notes that “the enormity of the problem is caused by the wasteful life-style of the rich and irresponsible use of the natural resources and the degeneration of environment by the profit oriented industry. In this sense, the problem of ecology is closely linked with the pattern of development which continues to create imbalances between different sectors and allows massive exploitation of rural and natural environment for the benefit of dominant classes.7

In this connection we must be aware of a more far-reaching and perhaps the most devastating impact this model of growth has on our culture. The tendency is to create a mono-culture that encourages consumerist and profit-gaining values, destroying whatever infrastructure is indigenously available to people. Ashish Nandy’s words are pungent:

As this century with its bloodstained record draws to a close, the nineteenth century dream of one world has re-emerged, this time as a nightmare. It haunts us with the prospect of a fully homogenised technologically controlled, absolutely hierarchical world, defined by polarities like the modern and the primitive, the secular and the non-secular, the scientific and the unscientific, the expert and the layman, the normal and the abnormal, the developed and the underdeveloped, the vanguard and the led, the liberated and the savable.8

While the elite-controlled government in most of the Third World countries follow the logic of the technological growth model which inevitably leads to the erosion of values germane to indigenous culture and religion, serious questions are raised by some concerned groups about an alternate model of modernisation. M.M. Thomas calls for a “philosophy of modernisation which goes beyond the materialistic world-view and. respects the organic spiritual dimension of human community life.”9

Actually, all religious and cultural traditions of the Third World are quite sensitive to these dimensions through their reverence for nature and concern for the primary communities like the family, and therefore, any emerging new society needs to assimilate some of the traditional spirit and values in their renewed form. This will also help to give modernisation indigenous cultural roots, without which it often brings demoralisation. In other words, Third World development should go beyond the classical capitalist-socialist models to develop “a society appropriate for the multi-faced nature of human beings and their social and transcendent dimensions.”10 From the foregoing analysis it is clear that participation in nation-building involves a more complex responsibility. The pressures that impinge on us are political, cultural and religious. They point to the urgent task of building an alternative view of society where all human beings live and experience as “persons-in-community, m various forms of daily social life.”11 Diversity is the natural state of a society like ours. Plural identities should be the basis for the State. What we need is new “confederative perceptions of unity from bottom up.”12

III. Rethinking on Church’s Witness -- Liberative Solidarity

The Church proclaims and lives by the mystery of Christ. Specific challenges from the situation provide an occasion to delve deep into its meaning and to formulate appropriate response to it. A holistic vision of the Gospel which overcomes all dichotomies -- spiritual and material, personal and social, history and nature, sacred and secular -- should be affirmed as the basis of God’s freeing and creative act. God’s liberative work is towards the strengthening and renewing of relationships among humans, and between humans and nature. Life is sustained by inter-connectedness. Fragmentation and exclusiveness are ways of denying God’s purpose for God’s creation. Justice is the concrete direction of God’s transforming and liberative work in our midst. To participate in the struggle for justice is to participate in God’s mission.

Questions are raised in the discussion on mission about the relation between proclamation of the Gospel and the Church’s involvement in politics and society. Some maintain that evangelism should be distinct from other forms of witness like dialogue, development, service and struggle for justice. But others reject this separation and affirm an integral view of mission embracing all aspects of life and its relationships. One has to proclaim the Gospel through one’s words, deeds and life. They are inseparable. However, we cannot ignore the fact that on programmatic level the Church has been making some distinctions and it is difficult to obliterate them. But we need to ask how each can be informed as well as critiqued by others. For example the justice-oriented approach raises critical questions on all developmental and service endeavors of the Church. If service projects and institutions do not become instruments for the removal of unjust structures, they should be viewed with suspicion. All institutional forms of service in which significant resources of money and personnel from other countries are even now involved, come under critical scrutiny, especially as some of them provide subsidised service to the middle and tipper class sections of society.

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 to 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 tomorrow’s oppressors. History bears this out. I believe that reconciliation is Jesus’ way to avoid this. And it is integral to proclamation.

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.

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.

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 compassion. The spiritual resources for a new orientation should emerge from the collective experiences 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 model comes with poignancy when we try to respond to ecological crisis. In other words 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 cause 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. This 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, besides pointing to new directions.

IV Political Responsibility; Specific Tasks

In conclusion, I want to reiterate some of the concrete steps already mentioned about the Church’s task:

a) The Church is called to strengthen the secular/civil base of politics. All religions should be challenged to evolve a theology that articulates the liberative and human values of their faith which provide a basis for responsible participation in the secular realms.

b) The Church should deepen its commitment to the poor and the marginalised, ensuring justice for all, especially the weaker sections. It should involve in, with other movements, the struggle of Dalits, tribals and women for their dignity and freedom. Mission should be reformulated as liberative solidarity.

c) The State should be called upon to be accountable to justice. A prophetic criticism against the government when it perpetuates violence and oppression is unavoidable for responsible participation.

d) The Church should join with others in evolving a paradigm of development that is ecologically sound. It should reject a value system and life-style that destroy our culture. This also means strengthening those communities and traditions which affirm life and its relationships.



1. James P Alter Ct. al., The Church a Christian Community, p. 35

2. A resolution passed by the Synod of the Church of South India in 1962 is as follows:

“The Synod believes that the social revolution now taking place in India is a manifestation of the eternal purpose and judgement of God inhuman history. It believes that the Church is created by God to be a people holy unto the Lord and to seek the establishment of Righteousness, Mercy and Love in human society. It therefore calls the members of the Church of South India at this critical time to a serious and prayerful consideration of the implications of this belief for their worship, work and witness in a changing India.” (Rajah D. Paul, Ecumenism in Action p.100).

3. The Rashtryia Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a fundamentalist group within Hinduism which was mainly responsible for demolishing the Babri-Masjid in Ayodhya in December, 1992.

4. BJP : Bharatiya Janatha Party--a political wing of the Hindu fundamentalists working closely with RSS.

VHF Vishwa Hindu Parikshit -- this is also a forum for Hindu fundamentalists dominated by Hindu sanyasis. All these organisations work hand in hand.

5. Voices from the third World, 153

6. Daniel D. Chetti, (ed.) Ecology & Development, (Madras: UELC/Gurukul & BTESSC, 1991), p. 96

7. Ibid.

8.   Ashish Nandy, The intimate Enemy-Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, quoted in Surendra, op. cit.

9. M. M. Thomas, “Current Issues in the Third World Approach to Modernisation,” in Bangalore Theological Forum, Dec. 1961, p.38

10. Leonardo Boff “Liberation Theology and Collapse of Socialism,” in Youth of India, National YMCA, Summer 1991.

11. Bastian Wielenga, “The Changing Face of Socialism and its Relevance to the Churches” in Christian Marxist Dialogue, Spring 1991, quoted in Thomas, op. cit.

12. Kothari, “Cultural Context of Communalism in India” in Economic and Political Weekly, Bombay, Vol. XXIV No. 2, Jan. 14, 1989.