Relevant Patterns Of
Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
The crucial mission issue of
Christian witness among people of other living faiths is an area yet to receive sufficient attention in the non-western world
where Christianity co-exists, often as a minority community, in the midst of a plurality of religions and ideologies. This
also involves the question of evangelism in pluralistic societies. How do Christians share their faith with their Hindu, Muslim,
Buddhist, Marxist and Gandhian neighbours, inviting them to be disciples of the Jesus of Nazareth? What is the nature of this
invitation? Is it a one way process in which we have all the answers and they have the questions? Or is it an experience of
mutual invitation where the Christians invite others to be disciples of Christ - and in turn, the Christians open themselves
up to the possibility of God’s presence and work among all people? These remain the basic mission questions in pluralistic
It is in this context that the renowned Asian theologian M. M. Thomas initiated, in 1996 (a few
months before his demise), a nationwide study process on, ‘Relevant Patterns of Mission and Evangelism in the pluralistic
context of India’. The study aimed at a review of the patterns of Christian mission in the country, in the context of
a search for alternative patterns. The underlying concern was that, questions of mission and evangelism need be integrally
related to the rapid changes at several levels of the Indian State and society. What is being affirmed here is that it is
by and through relevantly relating the gospel to the context, that new patterns of Christian witness can be sought.
The study, though initiated by the Ecumenical Charitable Trust founded by Thomas, was a collaborative
one. The National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), the South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI) and the Christian
Conference of Asia (CCA) too formally joined this venture.
At the outset itself, the question, what is the relevance of such a study, needs to be asked, especially
as the crucial issue of Christian witness among people of other faiths and ideologies has been the framework within which
Christian theology of mission has evolved during the last few decades. What more can be added to it?
The foremost justification for this study is the conviction that the challenge of the gospel demands
that we repeatedly relate our faith to the ever changing context around us. This needs to be an ongoing process, even where
our task seems familiar and clear. As Paulo Freire put it, ‘what seems obvious is not always well understood’.
Relating the text to the context in the contemporary life situation therefore brings meaning to the faith community. That
is the Biblical heritage, from Amos and the Old Testament prophets, through the centuries. This prophetic hermeneutic invites
us to take both the text and the context seriously. It summons us to bring them closely together in creative interaction.
Our texts, both the Biblical and the cultural - historical, must be constantly put under the scrutiny of our contexts - and
our contexts too, must be defined in the light of the gospel. This is indeed a dialectical process and we begin doing theology
in the context of what we are used to - our life situations, our texts and traditions.
While we recognize that the Christian mission is to respond creatively to the great Commission
of God - to go and make disciples -, we also recognize that this mandate is not given in a vacuum, but in a context - a specific context. The challenge before us therefore is, to define the relationship
between our mandate, as revealed in the text – the Word of God -, and the
context. There is a definite tension as we seek to relate the text to the context, but it is in this very tension that we
realize the cutting edge of the gospel - the gospel of Christ that judges, transforms and redeems - in a context.
Within this overall theological framework, the primary concern of this study is to focus on a paradigm
shift in the theology of Christian mission in India. During the last decade or so, there has been a decisive shift in the
theological thinking on the implications of Christian witness in the country, towards the perspective of the marginalised
people. One of the key aspects of the shift is the awakening of the people to the recognition that theologizing in the past
was not sufficiently sensitive to their perspectives. While this study is, in several respects, within the established theological
framework, there is also a radical discontinuity with the past, a critical corrective rooted mainly in a re-reading of history
and theology from the subaltern perspective. What emerges from this study is the affirmation that relevant patterns of Christian
witness can be sought only in the context of an organic dialogue between traditional
theologies and the emerging perspectives, especially on the questions of mission and koinonia
in pluralistic societies like India.
This study however cannot be confined to a mechanical, periodic application of our faith to the
context. There are specific historical reasons, especially those that occurred during the last decade, that compel us to initiate
a process of reviewing the existing patterns of mission and evangelism and also, of seeking relevant patterns. During this
period, the `context’ has changed dramatically, becoming so complex, the pace of change so rapid that it calls for a
hard look at the whole question of Christian mission today. We will briefly identify some of them:
1. The communal tension and religious
fundamentalism that have gripped most pluralistic societies in recent years have added a sense of urgency to discussions on
relevant patterns of Christian witness. Our societies today are experiencing changes that are unprecedented and historic.
Not only religion - politics relations, but even inter-faith relations have been marked by mutual hostility, suspicion and
violence. In the Indian context, with
the demolition of the sacred Muslim monument Babri Masjid in 1992, the Hindu
fundamentalistic forces shed their tactical inhibitions and assumed a center stage role in the socio-political life of the
nation. The momentum created by the demolition and its aftermath has pushed the communal and fundamentalistic forces to the
forefront. Today the very secular and social fabric of the country is under threat. The forces of secularism and renascent religion, vibrant at the
dawn of India’s independence five decades ago, are clearly on the retreat today. The situation is not far different
in the other Asian societies.
What is the Christian response to this situation?
speaking, the evangelical thrust of most churches has taken a new momentum during this period of communal tension and religious
fundamentalism. Several churches place evangelisation, top most in their priorities. Insensitive and frequently aggressive evangelistic campaigns
characterize missionary zeal in several places. It is significant to note that the recent consolidation of fundamentalistic
Hinduism, and its popularity in the political scene, runs parallel to the evangelistic drive of several Indian churches. While
it would be too simplistic to state that the evangelistic zeal of the churches contributed to a Hindu backlash, what is important
to note is that the missionary work of the churches seldom emerged from a study of the complexities of a pluralistic society
and the meaning of Christian witness in this context.
2. The awakening of the marginalised people: the dalits, tribals, women, the aborginals, the maories,
the minjung etc., in pluralistic societies. This awakening is a global phenomenon, especially following the liberation of
the third world, during the last half a century, from the yoke of colonialism. Specifically in the Indian context, this awakening
is of immense significance as the dalits and tribals were, for several centuries, excluded from any meaningful participation
in the religious and social life of the country. Dalits are the `outcasts’ in Hinduism (The word dalit comes from the Sanskrit term dal which means the broken, oppressed
and bruised). While the society could not survive without the menial jobs performed by the dalits, they just did not count,
in the social or religious hierarchy. The tribals, on the other hand, are the indigenous people of the land and were never
a part of the mainline social order and hence were not oppressed in the way in which the dalits were. However, they were historically
on the periphery of the society and today, are the victims of the patterns of development that increasingly displace them
from their traditional habitat. There are other marginalised sections too, women in all societies, fisherfolk, the urban and
rural poor, the bonded labourers etc.
As a result of the social reform movements that were a part of the political upheavals in the country
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a marked change in the lives of the marginalised people. Exposure
to the western liberal democratic notions of freedom and liberty, the emerging socialist dream of a radical social transformation
and the modern facilities of education (especially women’s education), better health care… all contributed to
the awakening of the marginalised people. The people who were ‘no people’, assumed a center stage role in the
socio-political process. They are today seeking their place under the sun.
The social movements which led to the awakening of the subaltern people found its echo in the Indian
church too. Even though the dalits and tribals constitute nearly 80% of the Indian church, their perspective rarely influenced
the mainline theological thinking in the country. For long, they have been the objects of evangelism and conversion. We will
shortly discuss this point further. In this context, this study seeks to bring centrestage the emerging subaltern perspective
of mission and theology.
3. Lastly, the rapid changes in our society, especially the globalisation of the economy. The process
of globalisation which has progressed rapidly since the end of the cold war is perhaps the most far-reaching change since
the industrial revolution, 150 years ago. With globalisation, the market has emerged today as the determining factor and the
role of human beings is primarily as customers, at the mercy of the market forces. The consumerist values are fast determining
the agenda of the society. The underlying ideology of globalisation is ‘free market’ which is another more scientific
sounding term for capitalism. The free market ideology has strengthened the hold of the big transnational corporations, particularly
in the field of telecommunication and mass media.
The question before us is, what is the meaning of
Christian witness in a context where a uni-polar socio-economic and military order is rapidly replacing the values and traditional
life style of our pluralistic societies?
These are some aspects of our context - the context where we seek relevant patterns of mission and evangelism.
Going back to the preliminary question before this study: What exactly is the meaning
of Christian witness in this context? This then will remain the fundamental question
before this study project.
The process of the study
This is the context and
relevance of this study, initiated by M. M. Thomas. A word about MM’s initiative in this study would not be out of place
here. He sought to pattern this study on the lines of a similar study on ‘Christian participation in Nation building’,
pioneered by him in the 1950s. MM felt that academic studies and conferences, so common today, did not adequately reflect
the collective thinking of the Indian church. What is important today, he felt, is ‘to know the mind of the Indian church’
on relevant forms of Christian witness. Its outcome, he felt, would be crucial for the life and witness of the whole church.
At the inaugural meeting of the study project, he said: “Through this study,
we are trying to give a mind to the Indian church. This must be a process of collective thinking. We must try to involve as
many church-related people as possible. The church must be our primary constituency”.
nature of this study should be stressed. It was the founder’s conviction that as many people as possible should be involved
in the study. Accordingly, as the main programme of the project, a series of study conferences were organised in different
parts the country. These conferences brought together in each place, small groups of church leaders, theologians and social
activists, to discuss various aspects of the overall theme of the study – Towards
relevant patterns of mission and evangelism in the pluralistic context of India. In three years and through 21 study conferences,
over five hundred people across the country responded to the invitation to join this project. The visionary who pioneered
the study has gone, but the search for relevant patterns of Christian witness continues.
At the first conference of the study project, the
historical-theological evolution of the ecumenical thinking on mission in the modern period was reviewed. In the post colonial period, there is available before us a rich heritage of theological reflection on
mission and evangelism. A critical historical survey of the ecumenical discussions in the early part of the twentieth century
reveals the insights on mission in the pluralistic context of that period. The first landmark was in the 1930s, around the
time of the meeting of the International Missionary Council (Tambaram, India, 1938).
Hendrik Kraemer’s epoch-making preparatory volume for the Conference, The Christian
Message in a Non-Christian World, sparked off a serious discussion on various aspects of the Christian gospel and culture
in relation to other faiths and cultures. Kraemer’s world perspective undoubtedly shook the foundations of the prevalent
liberal Christian approach and marked a paradigm shift in the theological understanding of mission. But the criticism against
Kraemer, especially at Tambaram, was that he made an almost absolute distinction between Christianity and non-Christian religions
with regard to their relation to culture. Kraemer’s basic thesis (which was expanded in his book, World Cultures and World Religions: The Coming Dialogue) is that religions other than Christianity are essentially
culture-religions whereas Christianity keeps ‘a detached distance with regard to culture as the field of human creativity’.
Chenchiah, Chakkarai and the Gurukul group questioned
this from the Indian perspective and maintained that such an interpretation is equivalent to saying that religions other than
Christianity were never open to the challenge of truth, let alone the opportunity to respond to it. The position of the Indian
theologians was that the challenge in Asia is the proclamation of the Christian faith in the context of other faiths in a
spirit of mutual respect, dialogue, sensitivity and openness. There is therefore the need to evolve patterns of Christian
witness sensitive to the pluralistic context. The Asian response to Kraemer’s position, Re-thinking Christianity in India, is even today considered an important contribution to discussions on gospel
In the context of these discussions, the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches (New Delhi, 1961) is unique in several respects. The inclusion of the Orthodox churches clearly marked a tilt
from the predominantly euro-centric, Protestant composition of the Council. Equally important was a shift in the attitude
towards other faiths. Paul Knitter records that the Council sought to discard ‘the previous negative, exclusivist attitude
toward other religions that, under the influence of Barth and Kraemer, had prevailed since the Tambaram Missionary Conference’. Theologians from the third world re-interpreted the prevalent understanding of religions and urged a dialogical approach
to other religions. They were voicing the emerging awareness of the need for a more meaningful relationship with our neighbours.
These voices were heard clearly at the New Delhi Assembly. WCC soon initiated a series of consultations with representatives
of other religions, in a program named ‘Dialogue with men of other faiths and ideologies’. By the early 1970s,
inter-faith dialogue was formally accepted as one of the programmes of the World Council of Churches.
Another landmark in mission discussions, more specifically in the Indian context, was when the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS) initiated a nation-wide
study on the Christian participation in Nation Building. Several hundred people
from all over the country were involved in this study process. The participants were led through a series of socio-political
studies in the context of the Christian vision. At the center of all these searches, the study affirmed, stood the judging,
transforming and redeeming presence of Christ. But we also realized that the new humanity and the new creativity offered through
Christ, is realized primarily in our struggles towards social justice and the liberation of the oppressed people.
The Roman Catholic contribution towards mission and evangelism in India in the context of inculcation should
especially be noted. From De Nobili to Amalorpavadas, there is a rich variety of approaches and emphases. De Nobili, a Jesuit
missionary who came to India in 1609, sought to change the general opinion prevalent then that the Christian religion was
only for the outcasts and the marginalised people. To change this opinion, he interacted
with the upper caste people and those who were in power. D.S.Amalorpavadas, an Indian theologian of the twentieth century,
stands at the other end of the Catholic thought on mission in India. While critiquing the present forms of Christian witness,
he distinguishes between the traditional models of evangelism and ‘indirect evangelisation’ which is more relevant
today. “In the past, evangelisation somehow came to be considered to be verbal and vocal, limited to words and words
alone. All activities were considered either as a preparation to the announcement of the gospel or as a means to make the
first contacts, or worse still, sometimes as a bait or device to attract people, to dispose them to listen to the preaching”. In spite of everything, and all the explanations, somehow
we probably still feel a guilty consciousness as long as we do not verbally announce the gospel, as soon as, and as clearly
as possible. This is, first of all, our centuries old, one-sided formation which emphasises the word to the detriment of the
deed, the ministry of the word and the sacraments to the detriment of the renewal of the temporal order, the salvation of
soul detached from other aspects of the human’s integral development and fulfillment.
Amalorpavadas affirms that the task before the church is an all embracing one and therefore, word cannot be separated
from deed. There is but a single integral reality which is the presence of our Lord in our world and history and the task
of the church to bear witness to God’s saving action in human history.
K.C.Abraham sums up these ecumenical discussions on mission thus: ‘What was emphasized here
was that our commitment to Christ does not give us the right to condemn others. This land, with all its diverse faiths, is
also the oikos’. In multi faith contexts, we need to listen to the people’s
fears and genuine questions. Pluralism needs to be seen as God’s gift to humanity.
Linked to the ecumenical discussions on mission is a review of the modern missionary movement which became dominant in the non western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
What was the impact of the missionary era? Did it play a constructive or a negative role in Christian witness in pluralistic
contexts? What are their lessons? These are among the several questions being raised today. At the outset itself, it must
be clarified that any generalization of the missionary impact would be too simplistic and inaccurate. The contributions of the missionaries, especially in the areas
of health care, education and social upliftment have been widely acknowledged, not only within the church, but even by the
secular society and the state. These positive contributions are acknowledged, but the focus, especially within the ecumenical
movement in recent years, is on the legacy left behind in the erstwhile colonies by the missionaries. The legacy, it is generally
conceded, is negative - detrimental to the churches and the cultures of the non
western world coming of age.
A critical assessment of the missionary era emerged strongly in the third world churches towards the
twilight of colonialism. The feelings in the churches were so strong that the General Secretary of the National Christian
Council of India hinted at the IMC Conference in Tambaram that it was perhaps
time for the missionaries to “go home” and leave the task to local churches’. Nacpil from the Philippines too, called on the mission
societies to leave the churches in Asia alone for some time so that they could discover themselves and their ministry to the
people and cultures of Asia. The third world thinking on the impact of
the missionary era is clear: it was one of insensitivity to and arrogance in
the context; it undermined indigenous people and their cultures; the churches that were planted by the missions were potted
plants, remote controlled from the West.
More recently, the focus of the ecumenical movement however has been on the ‘devastating effects’
of the missionary movement on indigenous people and their cultures. The World Council of Churches initiated, a few years ago,
a study process to review ‘how the gospel and culture discussions have been conducted within the history of the modern
ecumenical movement, in order to uncover the different facets of the debates and the presuppositions that have governed the
This study focused on a critique of the missionary movement, mainly from the perspective of the indigenous people of
the non-western world. Here too, the role of ‘individual missionaries’ who worked selflessly for the upliftment
of people is acknowledged. There were also missionaries who tried to work out the meaning of the gospel in a specific culture.
These however were the exceptions. The thrust of the study is that the missionary enterprise as a whole undermined the local
cultures of the non-western world.
It is thus obvious that there is a fair amount of consensus among church historians and ecumenical
theologians that the missionary movement in general aided and abetted the process of cultural and political conquest of the
non-western world during the last two centuries.
Apart from this assessment however, there is a subaltern perspective on the history of Christianity.
We will shortly discuss this aspect.
The interaction of the gospel with the local context has been the theme of Christian mission for well over three
centuries. Reference has already been made to the efforts of De Nobili to build Christianity in India along the lines of the
great religious traditions of the land. Using the idioms of Hindu culture and religion, he laid the foundation for what eventually
came to be known as indigenous Christianity. M. M. Thomas associates himself
with De Nobili’s experiment of forming the church within the Hindu community
though he criticizes him for separating ‘sociological realities entirely from renewal in Christ’ by not reckoning
with the seriousness of caste divisions.
Unlike De Nobili, the large majority of the
missionaries – Catholic and Protestant
- who were in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
realized that the Indian society is caste based and organized their work accordingly. It needs be noted that though there was a visible Christian presence in India
from the early centuries, the dalit experience was that just as the mainline Hindu society outcasted them, the traditional
Christians – the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala - too identified themselves as a high caste community and ostracized the dalits. Despite several bitter experiences
in the initial stages, the dalits and tribals today affirm that the first major breakthrough in their condition came with
the missionaries and their exposure to the gospel of Christ. The missionaries combined their evangelistic efforts with struggles
against social evils and for the empowerment of the indigenous people. The gospel of salvation and liberation, brought to
them for the first time by the missionaries, was perceived by the dalits and tribals as good news and they joined the Church
in large numbers during the mass movements.
The momentum that was created following the missionary period however, waned considerably as the
leadership of the church passed from the missionaries to the ‘indigenous’ hands. At the outset itself it must
be clarified that our ecumenical and theological thinking on mission and especially on the legacy of the missionary era, has been conditioned heavily by the class-caste nature of the ‘indigenous’ leadership that emerged in the non western churches towards the twilight of the colonial period. In most cases, the transition was from the missionaries to the local elite – the socially and economically
privileged sections among the Indian Christians. In this process, the dalits and tribals – the really indigenous yet most marginalised sections in the society - were once again marginalised. One of the paradoxes
of history is how effectively the Indian church, built up primarily by and for the outcasts, could so effectively be co-opted
by the elite of the church.
The missionary movement, like all other periods in history, will be judged for its contributions
and shortfalls. In the specific context of India however, the movement will be remembered as the first major attempt to break
the rigidity of the caste system and bring the gospel to the outcasts. The question before the Indian church today is whether
the momentum created by the missionaries could be sustained. As long as caste and the ownership of land continue as the fundamental
realities of the Indian society, the authenticity and relevance of the church’s message and mission will be judged by
its sensitivity to this situation.
One of the major theological shifts in recent years is the emergence of subaltern theologies that affirm the
centrality of sociological realities as the context of Christian mission. The subaltern critique in India stems basically
from a recognition of caste as an important theological and sociological category. Dalit theologians today maintain that unlike
the gods of the Hindu pantheon who rob dalits of their life and dignity in association with the powerful, the Biblical God
constantly rejects the dominant values and refutes human images of God and ourselves.
Post colonial context
In conclusion, we will briefly go back to perhaps the most compelling reason for this study: the
wave of communalism and religious fundamentalism sweeping across the country. Religion in modern India is invariably linked
to secularism. Secularism in India is defined as freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion and also, the promotion
of renascent and reform movements in religions, especially those aimed at the liberation of the downtrodden sections of the
society. Indian secularism is the product of modern Indian history, evolved mainly during the days of the struggle for independence
and later, in nation building. The neo-Hindu movement of the 19th and 20th centuries was in essence
the struggle of Hinduism to build up a religious humanism in active dialogue with the secular and socialist movements of the
country. Indian Islam was slower than Hinduism to respond to the modern impact and reform itself from within. However, it
too soon produced movements in line with Islamic modernism. The role of the Christian mission, especially Christian educational
institutions, in facilitating the evolution of new religious movements in India has been well acknowledged. What is important
is that all these reform movements, in the context of the awakening of the marginalised people, contributed to the evolution
of a common platform for dialogue between renascent religions and social reform movements, in the process building up the
foundation of a secular and democratic India.
Several theologians and social scientists feel that one of
the reasons for the rise of communalism and religious fundamentalism in recent
years is that this inter-faith dialogue has now become dormant. We had noted at the beginning of this paper that the forces of secularism and renascent
religion, vibrant at the dawn of India’s independence five decades ago, are clearly on the retreat today. Over the years, renascent forces in religion were overtaken
by more aggressive and shrill voices from within. Equally important, the secularist movement, caught up in the web of rigid
academic confines and political compulsions, turned hostile to all expressions of religiosity in public life. The dialogue
of the religious and secular, crucial for building up a secular ethos, became dormant. In the words of M. M. Thomas, ‘it
is my conviction that it is the strengthening of the closed secularism with this
total privatization of religion and the development of what may be called dogmatic secularism which rejects any relevance
of religious values in the public realm, along with the slackening and marginalising of religious and social reform movements,
that have created the spiritual vacuum which is now sought to be filled by religious fundamentalism and communalism’. Thomas however goes on to say that the hope for a secular India lies not so much in the separation of religion
and society but in the positive and healthy interaction of the renascent and liberative elements in both. In his own words,
‘if religion is part of the problem in India, religion must also be part of the solution’.
In our pluralistic societies, there are several
current issues within the context of which alone can we discuss relevant patterns of Christian witness. K. C. Abraham lists
them as, (1) the emergence of the struggles of the marginalised people for identity and justice. Is there a vital link between
identity and mission? (2) The issue of globalisation. A new value system is emerging where market is central to all human
endeavours and where human beings themselves are primarily consumers. (3). The ecological crisis and the degradation of the
environment. These bring into focus the patterns of development available today. A new awareness – that creation is
integral to God’s mission – is needed now. (4) Lastly, the search for new patterns of Christian witness need be
put within the larger framework of a vision for the future. A vision that embraces life in its totality and expresses the
creativity of the humankind is required today. The search for this cannot be left to the academicians or theologians alone;
it has to be a participatory process in which the entire church and the whole inhabited world itself are involved.
Asia is a land of diversities.
Diversities in religion often tend to overlap with sociological divisions. There is therefore the need to understand the theological
aspects of gospel and cultures in relation to the sociological realities. The perspective of the indigenous people that
it is the Christian faith, brought to them by the western missionaries, that liberated them from their traditional
bondage and exclusion, is significant in this context. Such insights also call for a re-appraisal of the role of missions
and missionaries, from the Asian perspective. As D. T. Niles puts it, ‘There is no task greater right now than that of re-defining the missions of the churches
in terms of the mission of the church’.
final analysis, enabling various cultural expressions to be in dialogue with each other, thus bringing these diverse expressions
into mutual accountability in Christ, become not only essential, but our theological task today. The gospel that meets people of other faiths with the message
of salvation needs also to challenge the church to transcend its walls of cultural and historical prejudices. This is a process
of double conversion. While bearing witness to the redemptive act of God through Christ in history, both the evangelist and
the church too need to be open to the possibility of God’s presence and work among people of all faiths.
The tension between our openness – our vulnerability - in a pluralistic situation and our commitment to evangelize
needs to be central to our discussions today. The tension is between our recognition and affirmation of God’s
presence and work among people of all faiths on the one hand and our own commitment to bear witness to the lordship of the
Jesus of Nazareth on the other. The challenge of the gospel demands us to repeatedly relate God’s mission
to the context, for, at the cutting edge of the mission, the church meets the world. The Church is defined by the necessity
of proclaiming the saving activity of God through Christ in history. The central ecclesiological concern
in pluralistic societies like ours, is the search for contextual forms of proclamation - evangelisation. That is also the
central theme of this study.