Chapter 7: Gospel to the Tribal People

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 7: Gospel to the Tribal People

Message to the Tribal Rally in Ranchi on November 2, 1995 on the occasion of their celebration of the 150th anniversary of the coming of the Gospel to Chotanagpur.


I deem it a privilege to have been invited to participate in your celebration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Gospel of Christ in Chotanagpur. I thank Bishop Minz for his kind invitation.

My involvement with the tribal peoples of India began in the sixties when as Director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS), I participated in consultations of Christian tribal leaders and researchers on the manifestations of their self-awakening. Nirmal Minz who was on the CISRS staff for a period before he left for Chicago for his doctorate studies gave the leadership. It led to the publication of a Christian group-study under the title, Tribal Awakening, with several leaders of the tribal people and churches from different parts of India, including Dilbar Hans and Nirmal Minz from Chotanagpur as authors. In fact the Writing Party which produced the book was held at Hazribag. It is significant that the objective facts and the subjective attitudes the book represented were considered relevant for the book to be reprinted in 1981. Later as secretary of the East Asia Christian Conference, the council of churches of East Asia (now called Christian Conference of Asia), I organized an all-Asia consultation of Christian tribal leaders in Sagada, in the Mountain Province of the Philippines; and Bishop Lakra from Chotanagpur and Pastor Zarema from Mizoram were participants. It produced a report on the self-awakening of the “cultural minorities” of Asia, which was the term used in the Philippines to denote the tribal peoples. Much later in the nineties I had the privilege of serving Nagaland as its Governor, which I interpreted as a call to be a sort of “secular pastor” of the Naga people. These are my humble credentials which made me accept the invitation to this celebration.

We are celebrating today the coming of the four missionaries of the Gossner Mission to Ranchi in 1845. As a result of their work, four Oraons were baptized in 1850 and the first church was founded; and two Mundas were baptized in 1851. The Anglican Mission established its work in Ranchi in 1869 and the Roman Catholic mission started work in Chotanagpur in 1887. Thus Christianity spread in the Chotanagpur area. The church, for over a century has been an essential part of your corporate life and a mould in which the traditional pattern of your social and cultural living has been getting transformed.

It is quite clear to all historians of modern India that the story of the spiritual and socio-political awakening of the adivasees or indigenous people anywhere in India can be understood only by taking into account the large role played by western Christian Missions and indigenous churches in transforming their lives. Of course Christian Missions, English education and colonial administration went together. But Christian missions introduced the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ as Victor over cosmic forces of evil, which released the people from fear of malevolent spirits. They introduced Christ also as the revelation of God’s purpose in world history and as the Messiah who fulfilled that goal in the end; it brought the peoples out of their traditional isolation into the realm not only of universal church history but also of secular national and world history. Ever since then, you have been seeking to define your self-identity and historical vocation of your peoplehood and to acquire the political power to realize it.

No doubt the western missions interpreted and communicated Christ in association with their western culture and religious divisions along confessional lines, which had their creative aspects but also their destructive side; and the goal of displacing traditional culture and religion by western culture-Christianity brought some cultural uprooting. But they had also the wisdom to realize that Christ preserved whatever was not integrated with traditional animistic spirituality. So Christianity became the source of renewal and development of your tribal languages and codes of community-life. In fighting for the land-rights of the tribal people, Christian missions brought justice to them and also without being fully aware of it, reinforced the central place of land in your traditional way of life. Therefore, what Julian Jacobs says about Nagas would be true for most Christian tribes. He says, “It would be wrong to see the Nagas as passive victims of a process of deculturation. Rather we may discern the ways in which Naga ethnicity is being actively and consciously moulded in the present era. What emerges is a vigorous sense of history and identity at the level of individual, tribe and nation”(The Nagas: Society, Culture and Colonial Encounter, 1990 p.176).

Awakening to self-identity and sense of history brings tremendous potential for human creativity. But creativity also has within it the seeds of destructivity. Any new stage of creation has its fall. Srishti and samhara always go together in human existence, because the self-alienation produced by the spiritual alienation of finite human self from God sees history as the realm of self-aggrandizement and conquest. Therefore much new evils are to be found among tribal peoples which were not there in the traditional society- evils created by lawless individualism, irresponsible exercise of power and money. Self-giving love is possible only where there is freedom for selfishness and self-righteousness. Therefore any idea of a simple return from modernity to tradition is to be ruled out, though redefinition of the traditional community-values relevant for the post-modern society is to be welcomed. It is here that the Christian understanding of the relation between the Law and the Gospel becomes relevant in a new way in meeting the forces of perversion produced by the human self’s rebellion against its finiteness. Moral codes and power-politics are necessary to check evil and promote legal and social justice that protects human rights of the weak; and redemptive power of Divine forgiveness helps to create a community of mutual love that transcends historical divisions of society.

Within such a spiritual framework, the adivasees of Central India have to work out the paths of their future witness to the Gospel in India.

Firstly, I am sure that while you are celebrating this anniversary of the coming of the gospel, you are also looking towards your part in realizing the unity of the Indian church, transcending not only inter-tribal but also tribal-nontribal rivalries. Christ reconciling cultural diversities is equally important as Christ taking indigenous form in every culture Secondly. in the context of the present government policy of high-tech development based on the global free market, the dalits, the tribals and the fisherfolk are increasingly getting alienated from the Land, the Forest and the Water-sources respectively which have been giving them their living, and are also getting uprooted from their habitat and culture; and women are commoditized and their sexuality, fertility and labour are increasingly commercialized. In this situation, the awakened tribal people of Chotanagpur have a special role, not only to fight for their political autonomy within the unity of the nation, but also to affirm their solidarity with all their bellow-victims of the lopsided processes of modernization in their struggle for political and social justice. Thirdly, in the world setting in which the protection of natural environment and organic processes of production and reproduction of life have become crucial for the continuation of human life itself, there is the felt need for a revival of the spirit of reverence for nature which you had preserved in your culture for ages. Here there is need for a re-evaluation of your traditional spirituality itself which was earlier rejected. Perhaps it may have to come back not in its earlier pantheistic but in a new Christ-centred pan-in-theistic form.

I wish the churches and peoples of Chotanagpur a bright future.