Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The truth of the manger during Christmas

Jesus born in a manger can be likened to Jesus born in front of a shop front (kada thinna in Malayalam) or Jesus born on the street. This season we reconstruct the manger in our homes and churches with baby Jesus surrounded by his mother, father, the shepherds and the wise men. Our construction betrays the very concept of the manger and the manner of the birth of Jesus. In a country where the aam aadmi (common (wo)man) is more an election slogan than a sincere move, it may help to go back to why the most powerful man in the world would be born in the most common (now despicable) of circumstances.

Was Jesus an aam aadmi? Was his power reflected in his commonness with the ordinary people around him and his identification with them? Why would God choose to be attached with the ordinary rather than have a royal and luxurious birth? Jesus’ birth and life can be said to be the rise of an ordinary man from the manger to the cross. In this way he chooses his entry and exit in the comfort of what we would call ordinary and powerless.

Our faith in these times is being symbolised with the huge churches and big homes that we build rather than the truth of the manger. Our march and expansive drives to our churches is crisscrossed by the images of the homeless sleeping on the streets, covering themselves with old rags and pieces of plastic stitched together. One can’t help thinking that we are maybe congregating to the wrong places. Our association to money and luxury simply goes against our Lord on the streets. In this sense does a king need a luxurious palace? A king is rather a king by what he does and how he lives. A true king in this sense will have people congregating to where he is. We obviously want that to be in the churches we build. But this season we should meditate on whether our churches should be more broad and expansive and not just limited to the boundaries of our church walls.

Jesus as an aam aadmi remains a slogan for us as well. We preach about the poor Jesus in our rich sermons in the confines of our rich churches. This is just as the politicians talk about the aam aadmi from within the confines of their political offices and election rallies. Rahul Gandhi tried to define the aam aadmi during the Congress Party plenary session on Sunday. He said “Aam aadmi in India is that person who does not have a connection to the system. Whether he is poor or rich, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian, educated or uneducated, if he is not connected to the system, he is an aam aadmi.” He further explained citing examples of a “tribal boy in Niyamgiri who is thrown out of his land without justice, the Dalit boy in Jhansi who is forced to sit at the back of the classroom; the young professional in Bangalore who cannot get her child into a good school; the university topper in Shillong who cannot get a job because he does not know the right people.” There are problems with his definition but what he tried to say I feel is the lack of opportunity that arises because of the lack of connect with a power system within India.

Jesus as an aam aadmi lacked this political ‘connect’ with people in power and yet he manages to inspire many and continues to do so. His lack of connect with the powerful becomes his connect with the poor. This is the truth which lies hidden in the manger. This is the truth of Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The challenges faced by the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church

Every church is defined by the time it manages to put behind it. The time adds to the seasoning and maturity of its tradition as they stand through the test of times. Every great church tradition is thus a test by time. The tests change with the time as well and become different for changing generations. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church is steeped in tradition and time tested beliefs and faith. But with the turn of the century clock come new challenges put forth by the experiences of the younger generations of the church. These experiences are not better than the experiences of the older generations but different. But these varying experiences bring us to the need of having to look at how we can live meaningfully in the church we belong to, even as we continue living our lives in the changing times with new innovations and new work and living conditions.

Some of us resist not just change but even discussing the change we have already undergone. The dichotomy which exists between our secular and religious lives is appalling and yet we choose to ignore it. But ignoring this aspect of our lives will not take away the reality of what is happening. We have members leaving the church for other spiritual expressions, short term gains, due to language incompatibility, cultural problems, misunderstanding of church doctrines and tradition, and isolation by a powerful minority in individual churches. Each reason is a problem in itself and one cannot tell others in one’s church to get out if they don’t like how things are inside. Every member of the church is in possession of the right to belong and be a part of the church and this right cannot be usurped by a certain few.

At times the change which many want to be discussed may not be a change from tradition to modernity but a change from the true faith of the church. Our refusal to discuss and deliberate goes against the very premise of tradition because tradition itself has come out of discussion and deliberation among other things. Some of the challenges faced by the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church are
1. Language related challenges- English though a colonial left over in India has managed to become a common language in a country like India which has several languages. The absence of a common language otherwise offers this importance to English. Hindi has not come to the level of English as being a common language in India. Also, English is a common business language and so many learn, use and converse in it. The ignoring of this by the church will lead to a vacuum which will be a gap between the liturgy language and the spoken language. Many concepts will go un-understood due to this and the younger generation especially will not understand truly what is going on in church. The same problem arises from Sunday school onwards and continues to the youth which then is brought up in a different spiritual tradition which is completely different from the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church. The use of language should also include the vernacular languages of every particular region which will give more acceptance to the church and its faith and traditions.
2. Country specific challenges- The faithful in Kerala may not be the same as the faithful in the U.S. or in the Middle East. Even though a good part of the crowd has migrated from Kerala they have changed their mannerisms and their children have completely been brought up in a different culture. One cannot engage this crowd in the same way as we do in Kerala. This seeks for a better understanding of the needs of such a group and what the church can do specifically for them. This includes having priests from the same region for the purpose of the congregation identifying with their priests. Country specific challenges also bring about a change in the perception and celebration of festivals and special anniversaries. These celebrations will be different from how it is celebrated in Kerala and therefore they have to be seen from this context. The church has to accommodate different kinds of people who live in different contexts. The church has to re-interpret the practices of the church with relation to the context in which the church exists.
3. Family challenges- The constitution of the family also undergoes significant changes in different church contexts. The number of children in a family, the concept of equality and acceptance in a family, the role of the woman in the family are all bound to be different from that of how it is in Kerala. Even Kerala will have its own differences. Sermons and discussions in church have to take into account these things. One cannot forget the equality which should exist within family and church contexts. For this more discussions on the church traditions and faith has to happen in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
4. Inter-religious and inter-caste marriages- More and more inter-religious and inter-caste marriages can be seen happening in church. Such couples have to be given help for church related integration and should not be isolated from the church fold. Isolated couples will not come to church and will prefer to stay away or go somewhere else. Sermons in church should also reflect a respect for other religions while we talk about our own. This will give a more accommodative picture about the church and will lead to having a diverse but strong membership within the church.
5. Using the youth and other groups in the church- As in India, the church has a predominant percentage of youth. The youthfulness of the church should be used so that the church reflects this youthfulness. In this sense all groups should be given representation in the church committees. Men, women, youth, and even teenagers should be included. This will bring first hand knowledge of the needs of each group within the church and the committee will be able to discuss these issues while formulating various policy decisions of the church. This representation will also give more transparency and participation.
6. Social issues and the church- The church has by and large been a group which comes together, prays and then disbands. All this while the country and world go through various challenges! This total dissociation with reality throws up several questions on the need for such churches. The continuous expression of the Holy Qurbana through the life of the members of the church calls for an involvement in issues which affect the society and the world we live in. Social issues have to be a part of not just the Sunday sermon but has to be weaved into the over all fabric of existence of the church.
7. Using technology to keep tradition alive- The internet has been a technological evolution which has helped people come together and create communities spanning countries and continents. The use of this technology by the church enhances the options of creating a much deeper bond between members of the church. It also allows an opportunity for the church to explore online counselling, knowledge sharing, information dissemination, and bringing people together.
8. Devising a special Sunday school curriculum- The concept of the Sunday school itself is a mounted concept on the church. The church has to decide on a framework which is children friendly and takes into account the feed back of the children as well. Other initiatives should involve learning different parts of the liturgy as this contains the theology of the church. The children should also feel close to the environment they live in and spiritual enrichment should involve this aspect. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in this way should be child friendly and respect the initiatives by children rather than always dumping imported Sunday school concepts on them!
9. The church as a public platform- The church should not just be a place where we congregate in silence and go away to our homes. They should also be spaces where we are given an opportunity to speak our mind. People should be mindful that this does not mean hurting others and misusing personal feuds. But otherwise people who come to church should sit down and speak to one another and seek to help and guide one another. The priest will play a big role but he should also be helped by both men and women lay leaders in the church.

These points offer an important cross section of the challenges that face the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church. I do not claim that these are the only challenges though. The need to discuss them is important. But the platform to discuss should be explored. This could be in churches, prayer meetings, houses, online forums and the like. Whatever the route selected the end result would benefit all.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The WikiLeaks and the Jesus truth

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Jesus attests to his own authenticity in the wake of him being questioned by those in authority. He blows his cover and comes into the lime light with these series of revelations which embarrass many and challenge the authority and power of some. The official version is challenged by an unofficial claim to truth. The unofficial man who makes this high claim comes from an ordinary family which has no claims to any immediate royal authenticity. Those in power are usually unsettled by claims of ordinary people, that they too have the power of the truth with them. This claim by Jesus was indeed unsettling. So unsettling that the leaders got together and plotted his death!

The WikiLeaks are being talked of as irresponsible, anti-national, misleading, and intended for character assassination of those in power. The embarrassment it has caused the U.S. is understandable. The freedom curtain has been exposed even as the U.S. has maintained all along that there is no curtain apart from the erstwhile iron curtain! The leaks also read like gossip stories on various countries. Truth is always bitter and even in this case this is what has come out. The bitter truth is too hot to handle. We are faced with the reality that the U.S. is everything opposite of what we have imagined and been tutored to accept.

Julian Assange is going to be hunted down. He is too hot to be walking free. Especially for those who are into the business of constructing truth and selling it! As usual he is being charged with crimes he hasn’t committed and faults which have nothing to do with the WikiLeaks. Whether he is a world hero in opposition to a national hero remains to be seen! What is fascinating is the role he is now living. The role of someone who has exposed the truth as it is. I don’t know whether the leaks are selective and only against a few, whereas others are taken out of the radar. And I don’t know whether he has an ulterior motive in all this.

What is rather interesting is that the WikiLeaks have destabilised the lies that we have considered the truth. We have got so used to the lies, that they were the truth for us. We have been woken from that slumber and are faced with the truth in all its broadness. The WikiLeaks have indeed brought out several issues. Does diplomacy mean that we lie to each other, will people of different countries come together in the culture of lies or the culture of truth, do we have to lie to be stable countries or will truth eventually stabilise any instability?

The church, like many governments would also not encourage any WikiLeaks like situation. Where does that leave Jesus in a Christmas season commemorating his birth? Should we side line him for the stability of our constructed lives or should we take him seriously and live in the beauty of instability, but peace of mind that we are offered? Can we be religious and sincere at the same time or is religion all about being politically correct and doctrinally sound? Should truth be guarded in a multi security prison or should it be free for us to see and decide?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Where on earth is the truth?

As a young boy everything I saw and heard was the truth. My parents gave their part of the truth which later on was shattered by my peers and school teachers. As I grew closer to the church I was given a different shade of the truth which I considered rock solid. With my foray into the field of communications, the media toyed with my representation of truth and challenged my concepts and notions of truth. Somewhere along the way there were these single individuals who continued to inspire me while never trying to impose their version of the truth on me. Truth had to be found and there were several dimensions to it.

This reminder comes back to me as I read about the Radia tapes and how the industry, media, and civil society always get together to influence governments and ruling dispensations. The truth seems to be manufactured by a select few and then sold to the less suspecting majority of others. We are that way consumers of a product named truth and not free participants in the natural and causal way of truth. But should I buy what others want to tell (sell) me or should I go behind the truth which I consider important and sincere?

This revelation puts out a few questions which have to be discussed in public. Is truth always manufactured? Are we being sold lies in the guise of truth? Can the guardians of truth change truth for their own gains and selfish wants? Can truth be redeemed or will it become a myth which really never existed?

All religions claim to have truth in their possession and yet there seems to be a move towards making people see only a part of it! This makes truth into a claim and not truth itself. Shouldn’t truth rather be something that people should discover for themselves? It shouldn’t be stage managed but left alone to be discovered. The presence of truth also suggests the presence of lies. By making exclusive claims to truth, aren’t all religions trying to cover up the lies that exist in them? Truth is being used for the selfish aims of those in power. This even suggests that truth is being converted into non-truth. Should we then lap up non-truth which is packaged and advertised as truth? Will religions and the media eventually destroy truth itself and convert it into lies? In such a context, truth will become a myth, something which is talked about but which no one has personal experience about.

This is where we should look for truth in the least expected places. Our established religions and institutions have been corrupted beyond repair. Finding truth in them is like finding a needle in a hay stack. It is not impossible but it is not easy either. Religions and the media should start talking and reporting about life stories from the margins. These far off stories are not about leaked tapes, conspiracies, corruption, high handedness and misuse of power. They are instead stories of courage, sacrifice, love and poverty. These in fact are the unreported and unsold stories of India. These are the stories which contain truth for those who are willing to dig deep. With each passing day our faith in religion, the government, judiciary and the leadership is shattered. But truth never the less remains and is existent. But only for those who are willing to search for it. For the others it is as good as dead!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The theology and spirituality of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in India

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church or the Syrian Orthodox church in India is a church which is entwined in the spiritual-cultural spectrum of India for centuries now. As churches in India are in the process of understanding and even re-discovering their place in the new India, the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church will also have to travel the same direction at some point of time or the other. The new India is not just the India of progress but also the India of discrepancies and discriminations. As the diverse country tries to understand itself, it will also look at the various religious groups in the hope of learning things from them which will help it evolve towards a common good.

What does the church have to say about the equality of humankind, sexuality, poverty, the environment, rights deprivation and economic disparity? There may be a notion among the people of India that this church is an old, strict, limited and wasted communion of people. But there is also a notion that this very church can offer through its theology, spirituality and practice a different message for an India which wants to go full blast along the high road of development. This variance in opinion may even exist inside the church itself. There are those who say that church tradition means that which is unchanging and those who say that tradition evolves with time and therefore does not stand still in the time gone by.

What could be some of the aspects we could learn from? The church gains understanding from the Trinitarian relationship of God, is energised by the communitarian essence of worship which is an unending spiritual and practical expression of believers, is aware of the unseen and unheard which brings about humility into the essence of living, brings in a special concoction of the body and the being and keeps in living memory the special relationship of God, humans and creation. These cannot be explained by members of the church. They can only be lived out. This brings out the need for the Syrian Orthodox church to live out their faith in India. The actual living will express itself in various ways and it would be dangerous to give a hard and fast ruling on this.

The church will have to include others in India in this living out of its faith. This will bring out the struggle to include others into a so far exclusive circle which we have created by the non-living of our faith. Better still we may have to do away with the circle all together or make it a flexible circle which includes all, in opposition to excluding all. The church thus has to be an inclusive, creative and life affirming community of believers. There has to be a coming together of the old and the new. This is the meeting point which the church has to affirm to the people of India. This could be the development model which seeks to conserve for many, rather than destruct in the pursuit of happiness for the few.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The religiosity of an Indian Syrian Christian when faced with atrocity

The news of the massacre of Christians in Iraq still hits me hard. Several of my sisters and brothers being murdered in cold blood is not a pleasant sight or thought. My feelings go in the range of the Old Testament eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth only to subside with the different range of readings on love your neighbour also shining bright from within my holy scripture. I cannot settle down to one clear reaction though and my senses sweep the universe for an answer to this injustice on my people, even though I do not know them personally and my relationship with them is rooted to my historical and hierarchical connection with Antioch and the Syrians.

I felt a deep attachment to the protest organised by the Syrians in the U.N. in New York which members of the Malayali Syrian community also participated in. The world wide protest is not limited to the injustice in Iraq but also against a growing intolerance of fundamentalist Muslim groups all over the world. The hate speeches (sermons) delivered to young Muslims incite a growing flame of a jihad or war that has to be won at any cost. The Christian world and especially the Syrian Christian world are also reacting to this.

In India the Muslims comprise a larger group than the Christians but are not the majority group nevertheless. In Middle Eastern countries this is not the case, with a Christian minority existing among an overwhelming majority of Muslims belonging to different sects of Islam. This over riding presence in conflict zones even goes to the extent of ethnic and religious cleansing. The feeling there is therefore of survival and a day to day existence rather than arguing on a basis of equal terms.

Indian Syrian Christians including my church the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in India is at a position of advantage and has not suffered the enduring hardship of Syrian Christians in the Middle East starting from Turkey and extending to other places and ending in a systematic and concerted effort at wiping out an entire community. This story has been largely untold and the Syrian community in India has also not understood this historical context of our Syrian sisters and brothers in the Middle East. We have sought to be attached to the Syrian heritage but we have not had to endure the hardship that they have endured. Our hardships have been due to schisms which have divided us into various denominations, all laying claim to the same history and heritage.

The situation in India for the Syrian Christians has been different. Minority politics and political parties favouring Christians as a whole have meant that we have by and large not been put to such tests by the majority of this land. It is therefore a different experience for us. The Indian Muslim has struggled on two fronts. On the one hand they have had to prove their love to their country India and on the other hand they have had to prove their love and allegiance to their religion Islam. They have been called traitors from within and outside India. Their existence in India is therefore a difficult one and also one where they try to understand themselves. They have also suffered ethnic and religious cleansing battles by Hindu fundamentalist groups.

As an Indian Syrian Christian, what does one say to the atrocities against Christians in Iraq? A sizable population of Muslims in India will condemn the killings as much as we do. But the protests in the U.S. and Europe will have a totally different colour to it because of the support it will get from various groups. What has the Syrian Christian community in India done when children have been robbed of their childhood and education, women have been battered at home, dalits have been burnt alive, adivasis and tribals have been buried alive and branded as anti-state, and people with disabilities have been shunned into a corner? There have been occasional voices of protest but as a community we have not voiced our protest as we are still unaware of what happens in our own country.

Can this be a problem of illiteracy? It is unfortunately not possible to hide behind that argument as the community has a good literacy rate. The problem could then be a selective literacy which has been followed for decades by different Syrian churches in India. This selective literacy has also blinded our eyes to the sufferings of our Syrian sisters and brothers in Iraq and elsewhere. We therefore have to learn about our sisters and brothers everywhere, India included. It would be harsh and immature to jump at Muslims in India for what a certain sect of Muslims is doing in Iraq. But we also have to protest what a certain sect in Iraq is doing to Syrians there, as the right to live, the right to worship and the right to belong is intrinsic to one’s existence as a human being. We also have to join protests which are off line and online in different parts of the world to affirm the humanity of all. This is what we have been offered at the garden of Eden. And no one has the right to take it away.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The youth space and the church

Politics in India has come to the era of being youth-i-fied. Different parties are claiming that the youth are not only their future but present as well. With the youth being lured to join various political dispensations, youth lobbyists are asking for more seats and representation in the political decision making and the running of the country. But the seniors are not willing to let go. Understandably so, because they have themselves burnt out their youthful fire before being handed the reins of power! In the midst of this deadlock and power mongering, the debate should perhaps be about power sharing.

The church in India reflects the same predicament. The youth are demanding their share and the older generation refuses to let go of what they have themselves just received. One way of ending this impasse is to locate spaces within the political and spiritual landscape of India. Spaces where all can be included and all can participate in a worth while manner!

The youth in India are taking to the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in a big way. The internet in its various forms is helping bring about a revolution which is creating a space for youngsters in this country. The church also through interactive web sites, chat rooms, online forums and blogs is being challenged to hear what the youth have to say. A clamp down on such forums and online activity would not fare well for the traditionalists as that would bring the battle on to the streets.

The time has come for the church to claim its youth and its online community. There will be cross overs from the older generation who are still young at heart and that should be welcomed as no one can lay claim to the term youth in an exclusive manner. It would bid well for the church to allow such alternative spaces which are in a way outside the physical church but in all aspects part and parcel of the church.

The concerns about social networking sites like facebook and orkut obviously remain, with prime concerns on whether the youth are being misled into a pseudo-spiritual life rather than one based on reality and real experiences. But one cannot write away such sites without discussing the pros and cons of it. The popularity of these sites seeks a discussion on them. The discussion could also go in the direction of how the church can be a part of these spaces which the youth have made their own and how the church can take them seriously and not just write them off as technological gizmos fit only for gamers and the laptop generation.

Churches in India need to go a step further. They have to discuss the possibility of having a spirituality which fits the demands of the online generation. Is online counselling possible, can video conferencing be held between the leadership and the youth to avoid red tapism and hierarchical high handedness, can the youth meet online and discuss everyday concerns, and can the priest be available online to the youth? The non-involvement of the church will make the youth space a churchless space!

Friday, November 19, 2010

What does corruption in India mean?

Three big corruption scandals have hit India over the past two months. The Commonwealth games is being investigated with skeletons coming out of the closet. The 2g scam involving spectrum Raja has been given the tag of being India’s biggest corruption scandal post independence. The amount runs into 1.76 lakh crores of loss to the state exchequer, unimaginable in a country like India. Even the Kargil martyrs haven’t been spared. The politician-army nexus has snatched flats meant for those who sacrificed their lives for the nation. The Adarsh housing scam has brought down a chief minister. The Congress led UPA (United Progressive Front) is being cornered by the opposition which itself is not any better when it comes to corruption. Two cases involve the BJP in a 500 crore land scam in Karnataka and the CPM in the Lavlin case in Kerala.

As the media have a field day with various scams the citizens of India have to understand the concept of corruption in India. India is ranked 87 in the corruption index. Why do people take money below the table? Existence, survival, security and the like may be the initial reasons of doing this. Once we enter this world, one cannot realistically come out of it. Life in India is undervalued. It is therefore not acceptable to take money over the table but everything is possible in the dark and undisclosed India. The same mentality makes us do anything and everything as soon as we feel that no one is noticing. This is the after 6 way of life.

The church is also at fault for encouraging and not fighting corruption itself. Despite countless sermons on the topic of God and mammon, Christians simply do not stop paying and accepting bribes. The act of not paying the salaries that the priests deserve and instead wishing to pay for ‘services rendered’ brings about a culture of dependence which is similar to bribing. Any discussion to introduce proper salaries for priests will bring about an explanation that priesthood is social work and therefore does not deserve a salary. This light of the day denial is accepted as the need of the hour in the dark of night. What this does is to bring in various categories of priests. There are the ones who will struggle for their day to day living expenses, the ones who will look for weddings and programmes to attend to make that little extra money, the ones who will sell insurance policies and do real estate and the ones who will try to go for a stint abroad or even better settle somewhere outside India.

The M.P.’s in parliament crossed party lines and came together to increase their own salaries by an unprecedented amount. But the list of scams is not showing any sign of decreasing. Power is seen as the single most effective way of getting what one wants. This power is attainable through money, both black and white. Money is used to get white, red and black robes and money is used to further violence from the confines and the safety of these robes. A poor Jesus is only for sermons which happen to be inside richly decorated and huge churches. Jesus is even twisted to include the God of prosperity who gives us whatever we ask. Black or white! It does not matter.

Corruption in India will not end any time soon. This is because it happens because of us the people and our dual natures at dawn and dusk. Even though the space to come together and prevent corruption exists we will never do so because we will never stand together on such issues. The only thing we are going to do is to watch TV, whine about the sorry state of affairs in India and then go to sleep. Jesus on the cross has a definite meaning for our lives. But are we willing to speak up for what he died for? Or are we just going to have Jesus stay on the cross, as a decoration for our churches and homes?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Women and politics in God’s own country

The UDF is euphoric, the LDF circumspect, the BJP satisfied with a little and the independents and rebels are repeating “didn’t I tell you so.” The results of the local body elections in Kerala were announced on October 27 and the winners are lining up to govern God’s own country. The uniqueness of this election is that God’s own country will be governed by God’s own women as well this time. A clear 50% of the seats were reserved for women and saw all women contests in them.

So now that we have women leaders in our society it is time we analyse whether they are going to make a difference or not. If one talks to the locals in any area in Kerala, they are doubtful of whether women will be able to make a difference in the political scene in Kerala. The reasons they give are 1. The women candidates are proxies of men who happen to be their husbands or fathers, 2. The husbands will run the show for five years and 3. These women are not well versed in the nitty-gritty’s of local and regional politics. The first two points one must note are not so much about the qualities of women but about the interference of their men!

The politics of reservation has gone wrong in a way and therefore it is good in one sense that it has not been passed for the Lok Sabha yet. An alternative to this has already been suggested in which 1/3rd or half the seats be reserved in political parties and not in constituencies. This leads to women being allowed to contest from wherever the party decides and not from reserved seats. Women will then get to fight seats against women and men. Proper planning will ensure that the parties don’t just give weak seats to women but will give women seats everywhere. This will lead to women feeling that they have earned their victory rather than being put through a performance of reservation.

As that stands we need to look at what the 50% women leaders in Kerala are going to accomplish. Are we scared of them? Do we look down upon them because we feel they are not up to it? Will they ruin Kerala and thereby God’s own country? One needs to look at the book of Esther in the bible. Esther, the woman chosen to be the wife of the king Ahasuerus is faced with the destruction of her people due to the plot hatched by Haman. The newly crowned queen was in all means faced with a difficult situation. Many would have thought that she does not have it in her to help her people and she will be able to do nothing at all. It is interesting as to what Esther does. “She took off her splendid apparel and put on garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung.” Further… “She prayed to the Lord God and said, “O my Lord, you only are our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand.” Esther’s determination leads to the survival of her people. She understands the seriousness of the situation better than anyone else and helps her constituency.

Instead of one Esther we have several Esthers. It is but natural that we are going to doubt the efficiency of our Esthers. But what we should not do is to get in between the Esthers and God as they try to bring in a new dispensation in our state. Till we fix the problematic reservation bill, we need to be with our women who will try their best to serve their constituencies. Thus will happen as Mordecai dreams in the book of Esther. “Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water; light came and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Everyone wants to play God

Kerala is going to have local body elections on October 23 and 25. We are witnessing unprecedented campaigning and new promises being delivered by all candidates. The bottom line is that all want to win. All want to serve and all are doing it as social service. They tell us that there is no hidden agenda and that development is the key. They have all come into politics to ‘save’ the various panchayats and municipalities of Kerala.

Thus candidates of all ages, gender and political affiliations have a religious tone to them in the form of the save all attitude. But even after analysing candidate after candidate, one does not understand what they intend to do for five long years, apart from saving all of us. It is sad that there is no platform to bring all together and make them explain what they are going to do. Online electioneering will take a bit more of time and so we have to rely on what they say to our faces.

The poor and the rich in Kerala are into a spirituality which is uni-religious in confession and multi-religious in action. This is because people are willing to do anything to get their things done. One has to then wonder that if politicos did indeed fulfil their promises, the picture would have indeed been a bit different. So we are faced with the difficulty of saving one of the candidates to help them save us. It is a quid pro quo. You save me and I will save you.

I am indeed confused. My religion tells me that God saves and I am just a part of that saving process. But the candidate tells me that I can save and win too! This election process has thus put me and many others in a dilemma. Do I become God for a day and vote? Or am I being made into God for a day to serve all the other days? Coming to think of it isn’t that what the candidates are supposed to do? Serve the people and stop being God after they have ensured victory? Everyone wants to play God! Is God watching?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The next Christian mission is going to be in space

A space is a place which is visible, tangible and feel-able. It is right in front of us and we can keep seeing it to assure ourselves of its existence. We can make physical corrections to it and even sell it. Correct? Not anymore! The new spaces can’t be touched (though they can be felt), can be seen in miniature (although it is really much bigger than that), could disappear if something goes wrong, and reproduction of the space is possible across space and time. Space will have a prefix to it and become virtual space. As the word itself suggests, it is virtually close to reality.

More and more people have already replaced part of their real lives with virtual lives and the time spent in the virtual world is increasing by the day. The feeling of real world seclusion and limited opportunities of interaction with people of a common wave length have forced human minds to look elsewhere. The real world in this scenario will be a world influenced by the virtual world in various aspects.

As the church thinks about how to do mission in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious context, a new category emerges quietly but strongly. This is the multi-space context. Modern mission in the church is not complete without taking this context seriously. Some of the characteristics of this virtual space involve the people we seek out. These include 1. Ghost believers- those who may not spell out their identity and belief but may still like to learn more about the church or be associated with it in a very virtual but unofficial way. This is over and against anonymous Christians. 2. Finger/thumb believers- life in the virtual space may not be ultimately decided by the heart but by the finger or the thumb. Church mission will thus be confronted by changing singular sense reciprocity as against set multi sense worship patterns. 3. Multi choice/space believers- the inhabitants of the virtual space will have the luxury of choosing what they like from the security of their chair. They will be able to choose from a variety of spaces and faiths, even when touring from one said place.

Mission in this context is going to be challenging because we may have to look at new models of doing mission. Mission itself may have to be qualified into virtual mission. But then what happens to the trinity and to God? Will mission in the market place be replaced by mission in the virtual space? Will we have to read more into the Nicene Creed proclamation of ‘we believe in one God, maker of all things visible and invisible'? Can Jesus’ death on the cross be broken down to virtual consent and application? Will pain and suffering cease to become physical?

One has to say that Christian mission is not prepared to take this plunge into (virtual) space. Tweets and like buttons are going to challenge mission and blogs will construct virtual opinion on modern mission. Isn’t it then the time for us to make sense of space and the people in it? Shouldn’t we analyse the virtual to find missing pieces of the real and maybe even vice versa? Virtually speaking, Christian mission is going to experience a totally different level of paradigm or page shift!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

My verdict on Ayodhya

Who wants blood in the land of the holy rivers?
Who wants to kill in the land of non-violence?
Who wants to destruct in the land of creation?

The Allahabad high court in a few minutes is going to deliver the judgement in the Ramjanmabhoomi- Babri Masjid title suit. Thousands of police and para-military personnel have taken position in several parts of Uttar Pradesh sensing trouble after the judgement is delivered. After last minute efforts to scuttle the judgement were denied by the Supreme Court, all eyes are on the court premises of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court.

Both Hindus and Muslims are saying that they will accept the judgement. Many Indians across religious and cultural divides are saying that India has moved on since 1992. There is a sense of positive energy this time around. But the government is not taking any chances.

There is still a fear going through several minds of what could happen. The same fear which has lead to the tensions between two religious communities in India. The same fear which make us wall ourselves away from others. The fear that prevents us from sharing our public places of worship and laying claim to each others worship places. Being a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christian, I am in no way preaching to others, as I am also guilty of this same fear that my worship place is going to be taken over by someone else. I live in this fear that someone is going to take away something which belongs to me. My attachment to physical spaces is making me crazy and fundamentalist. I have turned into a warrior for Christ, guarding my church from others. But did Jesus ever think of physical wealth and spaces? My fear thus turns to shame. Shame on what I have become. A selfish, fearful and violent soul!

I understand to an extent what the two communities in Ayodhya are going through. I am going through the same. All I can say is that we have to work together towards peace in this country. I can never continue with my distanced criticism and ten point proposal for peace because I am part of the problem as much as everyone else in India is. Let us pray for peace to be expressed from all our hearts. My verdict thus, is a verdict and a plea for peace.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Who has plundered our common wealth?

With barely a month to go for the Common Wealth games in Delhi, the can of worms is being celebrated in the Indian media. What so far was kept under guard in a locker room of patriotism and national pride is out in full public view. Even though several concerned citizens in India cried foul of the high handedness, corruption and waste of public funds, it was brushed under the carpet. So is this a failure of India which has again breached the 20,000 point mark in the sensex index or is this is a concerted effort of a few to plunder what is basically the common wealth of all the citizens of this country?

The former sports minister of India Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar ruffled quite a few feathers in the Congress party and the Indian government when he said that he wished that the games failed. He must be giggling in private and public listening to the stories of collapsing bridges and unliveable apartments in the games village. These voices of cynicism have been many over the past few months. They have been silenced and branded as anti-national and un-patriotic.

Despite having close to seven years to prepare for hosting the games, the committee with Suresh Kalmadi as its chairperson has ended up confounding not only the people of India but also the several countries which are supposed to participate in the Common Wealth games. The cost of the games coming to 7.5 billion dollars is way beyond the 1 billion dollars of the 2006 games. The cost does include roads, a new airport, new stadiums and a big infrastructure drive which is supposed to be use worthy several years after the games. But can we justify this huge expense in a country like India which constitutes 50% of the hungry in the world and where one out of two children is under nourished?

The post colonial researchers will even question the need for a common wealth games. If India claims to be a nation which is marching forward and even forgetting its colonial past, what is the point in hosting such an event? One explanation would be that some of the oppressed have out grown their outfit and have now grown into the outfit of the oppressor. But who are we oppressing? The only answer would be that we are oppressing our own people. The common wealth organizers are thus plundering our common wealth which is meant for our common people.

What then does development mean? Is it to ensure food and basic amenities for our people or is it to dine with the wealthy? The common wealth games fiasco is not just the work of a few renegade men. It reflects the skewed aspiration of a people who want to be associated with money and power. We have a great bunny in the form of Kalmadi to kick and blame. But isn’t he just one pawn in the intricate game of fooling the poor in India?

All religious communities compete to build massive structures which house only the rich and keep out the poor. Our common wealth is plundered by our leaders who use it to grow into the custom made outfits of oppression. We definitely need a change in the development paradigm. Progress should mean that we try our best to root out oppression rather than becoming oppressors ourselves. Till then our common wealth will be plundered and ravished.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

We need more Elsammas

Kerala is experiencing the battle of the spirits. The orderly queues are visible at the civil supply liquor joints and the spirit filled battle cries in the numerous and ever growing tents of various spiritual organizations. Both are disciplined, decided and sure about what they will get at the end of the exercise. One is predominantly dominated by men and the other by women. The state is thus in a perpetual state of the spirit, whichever way you look at it!

In this state of the spirit, one industry which manages to hold its own in the midst of several film industries in India, is the Malayalam film industry. Even as Mammooty and Mohanlal continue their unabated grip over the industry, new timers and excellent scripts offer inspiring models to follow and think of. One such recent addition is the movie “Elsamma enna aankutty”. Directed by Lal Jose and starring newcomer Annie Augustine, the movie is about a girl who stops studying after her tenth standard to take care of her mother and three sisters. She works as a newspaper delivery girl, newspaper agent, distributes milk, helps to make rubber sheets and cooks in the nearby house as part of the numerous jobs she has to do to make a living. Her day starts at 4:30 in the morning and ends late. The power she has as part of being a newspaper agent and the passing on of news stories to the newspaper keeps the inhabitants of Balan Pillai city (BP city) on their toes. From the panchayat chairperson to the spurious toddy (liquor) business man, the attackers of the natural hills of Kerala to the rich boys who only think of ruining the lives of simple girls, Elsamma appears as the only one who stands for what is right.

Scripts which highlight a woman are rare in all forms of Indian cinema. The male audience also finds it difficult to accept a woman who is after all doing the right thing and is a source of change in society. The panchayat and municipal elections next month in Kerala will have 50% reservation for women. Even though it is a great opportunity for Kerala to have the vibrancy and innovations of women added to the leadership of the state, many are questioning the reservation itself along with the skills of women. Some men are using this to arm twist their wife’s into contesting wards which they themselves can’t this time round. In essence this would mean that the men would run parallel administrations from their homes.

The acceptance of women seems to be something that will take more time. One wonders whether this could be because women are too close and taken for granted. In the gospel of Mark 6:1-6 the power of Jesus is questioned in his home town as they see him as the son of Jesus and Mary. Jesus is too close for comfort. This is perhaps the way we see God too. Whenever God seems close we are uncomfortable. And that makes us seek a spiritual stupor in whatever form. Jesus says that a prophet is without honour in his own place.

Elsamma is also too close for comfort. She is in one sense the girl next door. But if we accept her, we have to accept that we are living in the wrong. So we will look at ways to deny her the credit for what she does. Who is Jesus? Who is Elsamma? Jesus questions the leaders of his time who practised their own beneficial way of governance and living. Elsamma questions the corrupted village panchayat, stands for the rights of her village and fights for the common person. Maybe that is why we may feel inside, “who is Elsamma?” We don’t mind to accept big banners and big screen names. But we are suspect of offerings which make us think.

BP city is a constructed space. But it is also a space which makes us think of our own spaces. Elsamma enna aankutty does have problems with the handling of some of the concepts it contains. But there should not be any doubt whether it does put forward a message. This message is also a message for churches as well. Women in Kerala will provide a substantial portion of good understanding and good governance. If we keep them away we will remain in a spiritual stupor without accomplishing anything more. If we care to entertain more Elsammas’ we might after all find a few solutions to the problems Kerala faces today.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Greatness through acceptance: 30 years as patriarch of the Syrian(c) Orthodox Church. H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

The prince patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox church, H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas celebrated 30 years as the spiritual head of the church yesterday, the 14th of September, 2010. As church members all over the world celebrated along with the blessed occasion of the festival of the cross (Sleeba perunnal), other churches also looked curiously to understand the demeanour of the leader of this ancient church. In 30 years the patriarch has seen the rise and spread of the Syrian Orthodox church to all parts of the world. It is then no wonder that everyone would be interested to know more about the patriarch.

Born in Iraq the patriarch had an initial experience of what many Syrian Christians in the Middle East had to come to terms with; ‘migration from their places of birth’, due to socio-economic reasons and political unrest and war. This has been a significant part of the history of the church in the Middle East, something which the church in India has not totally and completely understood. The will to do well may have arisen through this and the patriarch did well in his studies and was accepted as a good interlocutor early on in his career. This must have led the church leadership into sending him as an observer in the second Vatican council.

The patriarch’s exposure made him a person who the church could count on to dialogue with other churches and communities. The finding of the relics of St. Thomas also brought him into good standing as a man who was not only interested in dialogue outside the church but also within the church as in trying to bring about a link between the present and the past. The patriarch’s tenure thus far has to be remembered as one which has managed to accept the unknown or the other. That is the greatness that we can truly and affectionately attach to the patriarch.

Within two years of patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas’ enthronement he got into talks with the then pope H.H. John Paul II of the Catholic church and signed a joint document in 1984. Both leaders continued in the foot steps of their predecessors. The importance of the document is reflected in the words “The confusions and schisms that occurred between their Churches in the later centuries, they realize today, in no way affect or touch the substance of their faith, since these arose only because of differences in terminology and culture and in the various formulae adopted by different theological schools to express the same matter. Accordingly, we find today no real basis for the sad divisions and schisms that subsequently arose between us concerning the doctrine of Incarnation. In words and life we confess the true doctrine concerning Christ our Lord, notwithstanding the differences in interpretation of such a doctrine which arose at the time of the Council of Chalcedon.”

In 1998 the patriarch became the president of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Middle East region. In his capacity he tried to reach out to the Muslim community in the Middle East. The patriarch has in this way tried to reach out to a local and global audience taking into consideration cultural, national and humane outlooks. It would have been this inter-religious experience which has led the patriarch into understanding the unique situation in India as well, where we live harmoniously in the midst of other religions.

The patriarch has built his ecumenical and inter-religious experience on the rock of ‘love.’ This has also brought about a rich love and acceptance of his spiritual children in India. The love has translated into four apostolic visits to India in 1982, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Even though the huge crowds in India have kept him from speaking to each and every person, a visit to his abode in Syria will get one just that. A deep hospitality and love for all.

The leader of the Syrian Orthodox church has written on several matters in the church and they include the role of women, fasting, identity and monastic life in the church. But more than anything else it has to be the patriarch’s acceptance of what lies inside and outside the church that has to be his greatest contribution to the church and the world. It is this acceptance which gives us a great patriarch, H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas.

Monday, September 6, 2010

St. Mary the teacher

In Christian theology Jesus comes through as the teacher who answers and guides those who question him. This irrepressible quench for teaching starts at a young age and many are amazed by what the carpenter’s son accomplishes. Even as Mary and Joseph shared this sense of amazement one has to also acknowledge the role they would have played in the development of Jesus.

One can question this quest to identify Jesus’ teachers as a futile attempt that will lead nowhere. How can anyone teach God? Jesus being the child of God would then have known everything and what would then be the reason for anyone teaching him, leave alone Mary and Joseph? But isn’t keeping quiet when needed and non-teaching also a form of teaching? In this regard we can look at St. Mary the teacher.

The wedding at Cana initiates one of the few lines credited to Mary which the biblical writers finally manage to part with. Mary says in John 2:3, “They have no more wine.” Even though this looks like a lecture about the state of wine in that house, it is a question directed at Jesus by Mary in teacher’s robes. The answer is something like Jesus is not ready to answer the question. Unlike many teachers in our time who would then proceed to beat out the answer of the student, Mary tells the others, “do whatever he tells you.” The un-complaining teacher gives space to her student to make sense of the question she has put forward.

What happens later is history and well documented in our minds. To look at this passage for teachers’ day brings about a total re-working of the concept of who a teacher is. In the luminosity of the relationship between Mary and Jesus we are still left in the dark because that is indeed what a student-teacher relationship is. It is abstract to the one looking but clear to those involved. The best teachers I have had are the ones who made me think, who left a space for me to be me, who left the jars empty for me to fill up!

For teachers’ day the concept of a teacher has to be re-defined before we wish happy teachers’ day. Who is my teacher? My teacher is the one who allows me to learn and do. For this reason I cannot define who my teachers are. They are one and many. My mother, father, priest, aunt, school facilitator, theology guide, college friend, wayside vendor, co-journeying passenger! Happy teachers’ day to all of you. You have left the jar empty so that I could figure out what to do with it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Is St. Mary our model of protest?

‘Ettu nombu’ (eight day lent from Sep 1- 8) is being observed by the Jacobite Syrian Church and several other churches for several decades now. Even though it is not an official lent of the church, the people have adopted it and made it their own lent whereby they faithfully abstain from meat and milk products and meditate in the mornings and participate in Qurbana. The culmination is celebrated with ‘pachor’ (a sweet preparation made with rice on the 7th evening) on the 8th morning.

The lent is supposed to have started as a result of the faith of the people in the intercessory powers of Mother Mary. Such is the belief in St. Mary that the church has accepted the wishes of the people and by now almost all churches in Kerala and other parts of India and the diaspora observe the eight day lent.

But what is the eight day lent really? For me the lent is a mass protest against injustices in society. The magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) of St. Mary includes these words of protest when she says, “For God has been mindful of the humble state of God’s servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. God’s mercy extends to those who fear God, from generation to generation. God has performed mighty deeds with his arm, God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” What inspiring words?

In this regard the sainthood of Mary does not just come because she gave birth to Jesus but also because she held the beacon of protest in her womb and exclaimed so when she met Elizabeth. I wonder whether in the lent and celebration that follows, we as a church have forgotten that we are celebrating the birthday of the torch bearer of protest in our society? Every day during this eight day lent thus becomes not just a time to be quiet and submissive but a time to take stock of what needs to be done in our society and country. Our lent in that sense should be for thinking of how God turns the tables on the proud and the rich and will fill the hungry.

We are losing people and figures we can look up to during this era of corruption and injustice. But we also forget that some of these people are right before us, it is just that we have never chosen to see them that way. As we lose our energy to fight against all odds, this lent should remind us that St. Mary invites us to protest. She bore witness to the greatness that followed, but she also bore protest as her legitimate right of existence. Shouldn’t we then get all excited and energised during this ettu nombu (eight day lent)? It is indeed our mother and her life of protest that we celebrate.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Eco justice in the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church has taken a step in the right direction by inaugurating the Ecological Commission on August 6, 2010. The decision to plant one lakh saplings all over Kerala has been picked up by many churches already and the church is trying to be more ecologically sensitive. The name ‘Shlomo’ does suggest the setting of peace on earth and this can be accomplished only by the peaceful co-habitation of all of God’s creation.

But can peace come about without justice? This is what we usually forget in our quest for peace. In this sense the church has brought forth a bold initiative because justice also involves justice for all and that includes ecology. Therefore it is not only justice for humans but for all creation. At the same time we should look at more ways of being ecologically sensitive. Churches are already doing their bit. But to be front runners in suggesting a model for all to be a part of in Kerala, India and the whole world, we should put our thinking caps on and see what we can do within the existing scheme of things.

The church always rewards its members for contributing towards the life of the church and more importantly society. Two very common titles that all are familiar with are commander and chevalier. I am sure that the church does confer the titles on people who have done good work. But why don’t we expand the scope of such titles? What about a title for a person who stands for eco justice? Why not honour a person (woman or man) who has managed to log several carbon points by using clean and un-polluting technology? And why not honour people who by their very existence proclaim eco justice? What about churches which use green technology and traditional methods of construction and maintainence rather than spending crores to build towering structures?

As the church bans plastic and plants saplings what about the waste that we produce? Our sermons are usually about cleansing our souls and beings but never refer to the collective sins in the form of mounting waste in our villages, towns and cities. Why don’t we go for bio-gas plants and other eco-friendly waste disposal methods and try to reduce our consumption of plastic and production of waste? Wouldn’t it be a noble and path breaking effort to have these mini waste converting units in the church compounds itself?

As part of our upward social mobility we like to flaunt our cars, motor bikes and other polluting machines. The church also is forced to bless the prosperity of its people. But shouldn’t we also pray for those who by being powerless are actually bringing about eco justice in this world. Shouldn’t we then reward those who consume less, waste less, pollute less, and therefore sacrifice themselves for the good of many? Aren’t they our true commander’s and chevalier’s?

The ecological initiative by the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church should be whole heartedly supported by the people. But it would also help if the leadership of the church takes this further through discussions and deliberations which will lead to a change in the process of rewarding, where more dimensions are added and thereby even people who have stood and will stand for eco justice will also be rewarded for their contribution to the church and the world. In the mean time, let us plant the saplings and nurture them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


(This sermon was preached in the Gurukul Lutheran College, Chennai on June 27, 2010)

Luke 7:1-10
1.When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2.There a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3.The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4.When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, "This man deserves to have you do this, 5.because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue." 6.So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7.That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8.For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
9.When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel." 10.Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

1. Relationships should bring hope not just despair- Society at the time of the centurion can be gauged to have been divided into a master-slave dispensation. But there is a tension in the text as the centurion valued his slave a lot, which may not have been the usual relationship between a master and slave at the time. If this is converted into a news story it gains immediate news value as this news attains human interest because it is odd. Therefore one can say that the story of the centurion and his slave would have grabbed headlines during the time of Jesus. It is odd and sad that the relationships we get to see today are those which have no hope in them. But even though the story of the centurion and his slave is news worthy it is also one which brings about the sense of hope in an otherwise hope-less world. So despite it qualifying as news it instills in us a deep sense of hope. So we not only hope that something is going to happen in the story, but we get a foretaste of hope itself. But do we get to see similar stories of hope in the media or does the media reflect a largely cynical view of who we really are? Let us listen in to a news story about crimes against dalits.

A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells the story of dalits: "Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers"; "Dalit tortured by cops for three days"; "Dalit 'witch' paraded naked in Bihar"; "Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool"; "7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash"; "5 Dalits lynched in Haryana"; "Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked"; "Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits". Smita Narula, author of Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables" writes that "Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same temples, wear shoes in the presence of an upper caste, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls."

By and large stories of violence and discrimination against dalits are not covered in the mainline media because it is not seen to have any news value. It is interesting that the centurion goes against accepted norms. His relationship with his slave is thus hope filled in every way. When we compare this with what happens now, the story of the persons who experienced hope through their relationship appears out of the passage.
2. Authority, its use and misuse- The use and misuse of authority is another key element in the passage. The centurion brings in another twist to the passage which already presents a surprise element. His friends stop Jesus’ entourage and pass on his message to Jesus. There is no need to come to his house he informs Jesus. Several questions may arise out of this twist. Did the centurion consider his house impure for Jesus to visit? Did he see no need for Jesus to come and meet his slave who was on his death bed? Therefore did he on second thoughts send a delegation to dissuade Jesus? But on the other hand we can also see a very positive meaning of authority and position emerging from the passage. We are used to an authority which seeks to perpetrate injustice and stand for the cause of a dominant community. But that does not mean that authority is a lost cause. The centurion rather proposes a true mandate for which authority should stand for, which is to seek out hope for the oppressed, who are diverse. We can say that the courage to state this may have come as an after thought but never the less it comes through in the form of a road block of Jesus. Jesus does not question this late development but rather affirms that authority becomes authority when used for the betterment of people. In a way Jesus is made speechless and he readily disengages and disbands his group which included some influential Jews who had recommended the centurion’s case to Jesus.

M.L. Brite, the secretary of Kodaikanal Public School has been accused of molesting a 14 year old girl student. A case has been registered against the 73 year old man. The school principal maintains that the girl’s parents had not complained to the school authorities. But this has been proved false. The police are on the look out for the absconding man. After the media reported the case, more girls have come forward complaining that the secretary of the school had sexually abused them. There have been protests from several corners that the authorities of the school are protecting the accused.

This is yet another case of how authority is misused in India today. Fortunately the CSI church through one of its pastor’s has been helping the girl concerned and is hoping that Mr. Brite will be held accountable for his actions and justice is implemented for the concerned girls of the school.
3. The word/intention/deed when meant for the good of another becomes the act of God by itself- This is the hope we have amidst the diversity we live in. The centurion expresses the hope of God which he sees in his diverse context. He overcomes his limitations and expresses his word of intention which is intertwined in the hope he felt. Jesus accepts his understanding and commends the centurion’s faith which he has not seen in anyone else. There is then no need for him to go to the house because the house lives in hope. This is the hope amidst diversity in a multi faith context. We usually over ride this hope by saying that we have to say the word and only then there will be hope and the saving grace. But this passage shows us again that hope is not limited to a certain religion or dispensation but to all who claim it.

Rehmatullah is a 60 year old Muslim man who was wrongly accused in one of the 1992 Mumbai riots cases. He married a Hindu woman Mutkamma and adopted his wife’s sister’s daughters when their parents died. His wife and he brought up the adopted daughters Deepa and Suman as Hindu’s and then got them married according to Hindu marriage rites. He and his wife never asked and forced them to convert to Islam but accepted them as they are.

Another story is from Bhagalpur, Bihar, where boys were always preferred over girls, as in the rest of India. But this changed when the village decided that whenever a girl child was born, the family would plant 10 tree saplings at the least and nurture the girl child and the trees. When the girls attained the age of marriage, the trees would pay for their wedding expenses. In one swift act of faith the village has managed to solve the problems of dowry, global warming and female foeticide. No girl has died in the village ever since. Every birth of a child now brings forth hope to the family, the village and the world.

Communicating hope amidst diversity. The challenges remain but multi- faith communities are showing us the way forward. They are bringing out the aspect of hope, which we have been searching for generations. Our relationships, use of authority and intentions and actions should all reflect this deep sense of hope amidst diversity. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The real world cup

(This meditation was preached in the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College chapel on June 30, 2010)

Luke 10: 25-28.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The football world cup 2010 is on in full swing and has reached the quarterfinal stage. People all over the world, including India are sitting glued in front of their television sets, even betting over the outcome of the matches. South Africa is being presented as a paradise on earth hosting a global event. But in the thrill, glamour and glitter of a sporting event we are being misled into believing that this event will unite countries and bring hope and opportunities to ordinary South Africans and others world wide.

The theme for this week is ‘Hope amidst diversity: Communicating hope in multi-faith Asia.’ Sport is definitely one way of communicating hope in an otherwise hope-less context. But are sporting events like the world cup the hope that we are waiting for? The song “Give me hope Joanna” by Eddy Grant was a protest against the South African regime which practised apartheid and racism. And yet a few years later South Africa is being projected as if all this has been wiped away from its land. But the truth is that 16 years after the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa racism still exists and the poorest of the poor remain the same. This world cup has seen a huge increase in women and child trafficking to satisfy the heavy demand for illegal sex. Several of the poor who lived near the gigantic stadiums built for the world cup, have been evicted from their homes and relocated to tin shacks. So even though the world cup is packaged as hope to many, what it really grants is satisfaction to a few. Football and sports do have a role in providing hope but grand events like the world cup end up perpetrating injustice against many. But this does not mean that local sports and games follow the same pattern. They form the ultimate launch pad for hope in small and local communities. The unofficial ‘Poor people’s world cup’ in South Africa is such an initiative involving thousands of people who won’t get a ticket to watch a game in their own country.

Luke 10:25-38 has Jesus asking a lawyer to recount what is written in the law regarding eternal life. He replies, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself. Those into sports will definitely know that the three things which a sportsperson needs are strength, a good mind and a large heart. But the completeness of this is attained only when we love our neighbour as ourselves and therefore the best sportspersons are also the ones who respect their opponents. Who is our neighbour is a relevant question in this discussion and the story of the Good Samaritan should be a model for us to follow. But in a world where we are divided by caste, class, religion, gender and race, are we willing to claim our neighbour? The problem we face today is that despite having a biblical mandate to love our neighbour, we go around this by limiting our neighbours to those in our own community, caste and race. Thus for hope to transpire we have to claim our neighbours.

The football world cup is being sold using theme songs and catchy tunes. The official world cup coca cola song by K’naan, and the song by Shakira have caught the imagination of people. An examination of the lyrics of Shakira's song suggests that nothing has changed. It seems that a war on the football field is happening and the players are supposed to fight till the finish, calling upon their God to help them. This way of presenting the world cup resembles the gladiator battles in Roman coliseums. People attended in large numbers and encouraged the gladiators to kill each other. This also helped the Roman emperors to detach the minds of the people from the real issues facing them. Advertisers are spending millions of dollars to package hope and freedom through their products. Sports and games, football included should not be a means of denying hope but reclaiming hope. This is the challenge before us. One should note that coca cola made K’naan rewrite parts of the song to fit their global need. The original song was much more like the Give me hope Joanna song. Are we then willing to see through this skewed concept of hope? Are we also willing to listen to alternative voices like the local version of the world cup song from Kerala?

Are we willing to realise the existence of hope, claim our neighbours and re-claim hope? We all know the Messi’s, the Kakka’s, the Forlan’s, the Lee Chung-yong’s, the Mueller’s, the Rooney’s, the Drogba’s, and the Khune’s. But do we know Senthil, Prabhakar, Binu, Shiju, Moa, Chinza, David, Ranbir, Sajish, Tasha, Nilu, Riya, Mona and Anushka? They are our neighbours who come together on the unclaimed football fields to re-claim hope. They are our true representatives of hope. Amen.

(Also see http://jerryachensworld.blogspot.com/2010/06/sport-and-religion-world-cup-challenge.html)
Picture courtesy http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-06-12/michael-palin-the-world-cup-shows-the-yawning-gap-between-brazils-very-rich-and-very-poor

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Interceding for hope and the prayer of hope

God of love, we pray for communities who have been denied the essence and the means to hope. We pray for those who have been marginalized from the main stream of life and whose existence itself is a day to day struggle. We ask your help for dalits, adivasis and tribals who are fighting for their land, rights and needs. As they lose hope in the system which is supposed to protect them, we plead you to intervene and restore the hope which is rightfully theirs. Lord, in the midst of diversity, grant us hope.

God of equality and respectfulness, we pray for the equality of women in this country. We pray that women may never be turned away and kept inside their homes because of their gender. May women of all castes and religions in this country be represented by their own candidates and may we discuss and implement a bill for women, which is just and equal for all the women of this land. Lord, in the midst of diversity, grant us hope.

God of nurture and care, we pray for our children. May they receive their right to full access to education, and may they never be forced out of their innocence at an age which is decided by someone else. Give us the insight and the will to keep and not destroy what they should see and experience. May their new thinking and ideas instill a new found hope in us. Lord, in the midst of diversity, grant us hope.

God of unity, we pray for our country which is diverse and rich in its culture, religion and thought. We pray for those who suffer for believing in their way of life. Let no woman, man or child be discriminated and crucified for choosing their belief or their orientation and how they want to live life in its fullness. May we see hope in ourselves and share this hope with our neighbouring countries and the people of Asia and the world. Offer us opportunities to hope in the midst of suffering. Lord, in the midst of diversity, grant us hope.

God of knowledge, we pray for different theological communities which are diverse groups of different Christian denominations. May we learn from each other and help one another in our journey of faith and hope. Let our classes and discussions be multi faceted and exciting. May we lean on each other at times of despair and comfort one another during testing times. Lord, in the midst of diversity, grant us hope.

The prayer of hope.
Our hope in earth and heaven, glory to your name. May your true message be proclaimed and followed, in diverse contexts and cultures. Give us the means and opportunities of coming together by way of community meals and fellowships. Forgive our acts against hope as we forgive those who act against situations of hope. Lead us not into exclusive cultures but make us more inclusive and accommodating. For yours are our lives, our existence and our work forever and ever. Amen.

(This is from a worship order prepared for Asia Communication Sunday which was held at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai on 27-6-2010)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sport and religion: The world cup challenge

A sport is not just a way to entertain ourselves but a coming together of different cultures, minds and bodies. It depends on whether one is on the field or watching the field. For one it is performance and the other it is spectatorship. Both, mind you are important and one cannot survive without the other. Religion can also be demarcated into the enactor and the audience. The enactor detaches himself/herself from the present and uses the past to address the here and the future. The audience brings out their vuvuzelas and rant for victory.

This could sound outrageous or outrageously true! How on earth can sport and religion be discussed in the same breath? It is intriguing that some churches in Kerala still have volleyball courts, badminton courts and play grounds attached to them. This could be because they are near schools or because they have a more youth friendly approach. Whatever the reason, it has led to the youth in the church along with nearby youth belonging to various religions coming together and playing in one turf. The resulting camaraderie achieved somehow cannot be emulated in other instances. Sports do indeed have a case for being discussed.

Football has been a sport/game which has an unparallel following throughout the world because it is played and followed in many nations. It is sort of a religion with a wide following. It has achieved success in acting as a calming influence among disturbed youth and in difficult environments. Youth who would otherwise get into various addictions are given a platform to express themselves. So a sport with a wide following is made use of to help various communities around the world. India more so is obsessed with cricket but come the football world cup, many households and common places burn the midnight oil supporting South American and African teams. Euphoria is created by television and other companies vying with each other to sell their products in the bargain.

Various leaders join in the battle cry for the world cup even suggesting which team will win. Church leaders are not far behind either. But unfortunately what appears to be happening is not a support for a sport which has wide possibility of helping communities and fostering togetherness but a support for companies which stand to gain through sport. Coming a close second is the subconscious need to be part of a battle, whatever kind, as long as it is on a field. Shakira’s world cup song is catchy but the lyrics also talk about this battle. ‘You’re a good soldier. Choosing your battles. Pick yourself up. And dust yourself off. And back in the saddle.’ Again ‘You’re on the frontline. Everyone’s watching. You know it’s serious. We’re getting closer. This isn’t over.’ And finally, ‘Listen to your God. This is our motto. Your time to shine. Don’t wait in line.’

I have loved watching the world cup thus far. The Messi’s, the Forlan’s, the Lee Chung-yong’s, the Mueller’s, the Rooney’s, the Drogba’s, and the Khune’s. But I have also enjoyed watching Binu, Shiju, Philip, Moa, Chinza, David, Ranbir, Sajish, Tasha, Nilu and Priya in the small fields of India, playing for acceptance and togetherness. Why would I watch only the football word cup, a far away battle for primacy and not choose to see a game which is a battle for survival much nearer? I wouldn’t ask anyone to not watch the world cup because after all it is a cultural experience which brings people together. But I would plead with the church and its people to accept the possibility that sports and games offers the church in India. This then is the sacredness of religion and sport. This is the sacredness which lies on the ground and the sacredness which brings people together in a special bond and love.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Who shall save whom? World Environment day

Are you saved? This is the sales pitch (no offence meant) of Christian groups and even certain sections of mainline churches. Obviously the pressure is such that it makes one think as to whether one is indeed saved! We examine our life, the acts we commit and eagerly take our tokens waiting for judgement day. But have we really done enough to sit back, relax and wait for the D- Day? Is what we are experiencing in the form of increased temperatures and melting glaciers a part of the signs of the end of times or is it that the reign of God is here and now and therefore what we sow, thus shall we reap?

What has, being saved and the world environment day got to do with each other? Everything, one must say. Can we be saved in isolation, leaving others to rot in hell? Or do we strive for a more communitarian way of being saved, not just me, not just everyone, but also everything? (For those who would find it difficult to term a tree a she/he but would rather call it a thing) This puts into context the question, ‘Are you saved?’

How can agents of destruction basically ask the question of whether one is saved or not? One has to accept that every religion, sect and group (Barring primal communities like tribal and adivasi’s who don’t have an institutionalised religion) have committed destruction for the purpose of the advancement of their own religion. This is also why it is true to say that, ‘there cannot be any development without destruction’. But to what extend? And if this is so, who are we to talk about saving, when all we do is actually destruction?

This can be questioned by pointing out the steps taken by various religions and churches to plant saplings in every corner of the earth. But unless we rethink our development strategy there can be no turning back of the clock. What has been done has been done and it is only going to get worse because no one is going to slow down but will rather look to up the ante.

Does it then make sense to have a token world environment day when all that we do is actually a farce because when given a chance we will opt to save ourselves and not the environment. It is yet another thing that we time and again forget that by saving the environment we save ourselves in the process too! As usual we will also talk about going back to our roots and to what people did earlier and how they lived in sync with the environment. But we have gone too far in our development process to pedal back so much.

I should not sound too pessimistic. But I can’t sound optimistic at this juncture too. We are in a real soup. Faced with global warming and erratic climate changes, we have pushed the panic button. But we fail to understand the concept of sacrificing oneself to really save someone else. Just like any grand tree would do. It would do good for all of us knowing fully well that we would axe it down at the first opportunity. This is the attitude we need to have, ‘Save someone (thing) and we will be saved too.’ Happy World Environment day!

Monday, May 31, 2010

The power of positive prayer

Prayer in its present form is an inseparable part of a human being who is part of an institutional church. In its various forms it is human being communicating with God and with oneself. In its natural and raw form, prayer is like breathing, without which human beings can’t survive. This natural prayer does not have a form or pattern but is interwoven into the existence of every human being.

Today Christians all over the world are competing with each other with written prayers and extempore prayers, each trying to outdo the other with the words used and the emotion extracted. Kerala has been going through a prayer revival of sorts, with prayer conventions in the open, inside closed doors, vocal and silent. Wherever one looks, one is faced with the overbearing presence of prayer.

Prayer as already pointed out is a communication with God and self and as such cannot be wished away. But what is the end result of prayer and is there a way to pray? Prayer is for individual and community needs, both selfish and selfless. Selfish in the sense that we pray for our own needs and wants. We expect God to provide these needs and wants. Many a time prayer for us follows this pattern. Selfless prayer is for peace, love, justice and equality in the world we live in. This overshadows our personal needs and even keeps us exposed to insecurity and inability. The first prayer sees God as an all conquering and all providing God, who sits in heaven in front of a computer, answering prayer requests coming in every second. The second prayer seeks to struggle with the God on the cross, the God who gave up everything despite having it all.

This opens up the question whether there is a negative prayer and a positive prayer. The negative prayer is the prayer in which we pray to God to annihilate our enemies and tailor make a world just for us, as if no one else exists. Positive prayer on the other hand is very Lord’s prayer-ish. It seeks forgiveness of short comings only if we have done the same to others. Negative prayer is all about us and what we want. Positive prayer is what we have done for others and looks at our lives from the perspective of others.

Churches today are faced with the challenge of understanding these two kinds of prayer. People find it convenient to hide behind the word prayer. So much that if someone says “I am praying”, he/she is then covered in a veil of holiness. Kerala is praying. But what kind of a prayer is she praying? Prayers increasingly reflect contempt, hatred and competition while it should reflect sacrifice, compassion and love. This is why we should de-construct and re-construct our notion of prayer and know that if our framework is flawed, then our prayer is too.

The church has to wake up to this fact. Prayer has to be a selfless act and not a selfish act wherein it is used to subdue and subjugate the other. Prayer for the destruction of another human being is no prayer at all. There is no perfect prayer but there can be a framework which leads to positive thoughts and positive prayer which starts with the other. Welcome to the world of positive prayer!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

From Thiruvalla to Bangalore: A trial of a horrific murder

One cannot fathom the dissection of a murder after it is committed. Everyone is an expert and they offer expert opinions on everything under the sun. The Bangalore murder of a 24 year old woman from Thiruvalla came as a shock to all. The reasons were several. One, how a strain occurred between a couple who were married for barely a week? How could a murder be committed within minutes of the couple arriving in Bangalore and being left by the boy’s parents just to get breakfast? Weren’t there tell tale signs that something was wrong? Didn’t the parents or other family members see any signs of an impending tragedy? How was this wedding arranged? Weren’t the facts implored and the couple given enough time to get to know each other?

There are two versions flashing around in the public post mortem. One is that the girl was too “forward” (meaning smart and confident on a positive note and ruffling a few traditional feathers on a negative note) for the boy and therefore this was a murder waiting to happen! One should think about this statement in slow motion to let the damage of this to sink in. Interestingly, the ammachi’s (grandma’s) and aunty’s (middle aged mom’s) are the ones who are spreading this version of the story. It is very sad that when the girl’s family will be looking for some solace all it is going to get are these behind the back comments from friends and near strangers, all claiming to know everything there is to be known. The other version is of the boy and that he had psychological issues even before the wedding. This is the opinion of few of the people in Bhopal who knew the boy’s family. What was an open secret for people who knew him remained a mystery to everyone else. Does this mean that Syrian Christians hide behind their history and tradition while in reality they face a host of important issues which they are not willing to discuss?

For me what is shocking is not the murder as such but the utter disregard for the two families and those involved. Kerala’s Christian population in its effort to move as far as possible from the tragedy is blaming everyone apart from itself. Priests, bishops, culture changes and even globalisation are blamed. Very convenient, considering that it sends everything back to its normal path and eases people into their comfortable existence. But this habit of time and again asking the wrong questions should be done away with and more relevant answers should be sought for relevant questions. Obviously the church has to discuss the question of what should be followed before a couple gets married. This includes offering pre marital counselling, taking a proactive interest in the wedding, giving an opportunity for the couple to speak and understand each other and for a couple to decide whether they like each other before they get married. But this is possible only with the help of the people in the church. Take for instance how a synod directive on how marriages should be conducted will be treated by the people. Some will be seen as unpractical, some against culture and some against family traditions and practices. Church members will then reject such directives.

The church population in Kerala has been quick to pinpoint the cause of the murder even before the investigation and the court trial. The media has reported based on hear say rather than investigative journalism. The usual reasons found were ‘the girl had a better salary’, ‘she was not happy with the wedding’, ‘she taunted her husband’, and ‘she refused physical intimacy’. All this suggests that the girl had murder written all over her face. What a travesty of facts. Fortunately rare voices begged to differ saying that the deceased girl was a confident young woman. Does this mean that by blaming the girl we can keep our Syrian-ness intact? We are definitely going to be found wanting on this front.

This being the case, what is the step forward? Are we willing to accept that the Christian population in Kerala is following one official faith but living another practical life? Are we willing to discuss the fact that both women and men should be given the space to take their own decisions and live their lives with respect and dignity? Do we have the courage to bring to the table the fact that the Syrian community has serious issues and we should be open about it rather than being closed and reserved? Does the church have an option of providing help for those who are going to get married, need help after marriage and want help in talking to and understanding each other at any point in their married life? Let us talk about these things and leave the bereaved families alone for the time being.