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Jesudas M Athyal

The Passion of the Christ of the Indian Road

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By Jesudas M. Athyal

When Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which depicted the final 12 hours of Christ's life, was released worldwide a few years ago, the movie attracted mixed reaction. The artistic excellence of the movie was undisputed. The film's dialogue too was authentic - in Aramaic, the language Jesus is believed to have spoken as well as in Latin and Hebrew, with subtitles. The theme of the movie revolved around the most renowned story of love, devotion, compassion and sacrifice that has inspired and stimulated nations and individuals across generations. It is said that millions around the world who viewed the film were moved by the intense suffering Jesus underwent and consequently, were drawn to a more personal relation with Jesus. Several Christian groups, in fact, used the film in their evangelistic campaign.

The Passion of the Christ, however, met with criticisms as well. There were questions about the authenticity and accuracy of several events and facts pertaining to the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. Several theologians noted that the film significantly departed from its New Testament source. The severest criticism, however, focused on the overdose of violence in the movie. Several people - even devout Christians - who viewed it were troubled by the film's explicitly detailed violence and especially cautioned parents to avoid taking their children to the cinema. Although only one sentence in three of the Gospels mentions Jesus' flogging - and it is unmentioned in the fourth -, in The Passion there is an overdose of violence. Newspaper reviewer Roger Ebert said: "The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen."

It was also noted by the critics that the very virtues of tolerance, love and forgiveness to which Jesus devoted his life are completely lost in the gruesome, unnerving and overtly graphic nature of this film. The incredible violence seems to overshadow the true meaning of Jesus Christ and all he tried to impress on humanity throughout his life.

Christ of the Indian Road

These discussions often move at a level unintelligible and irrelevant to most of us in India; we need to redefine for ourselves the meaning of the passion of Christ in our context. Indian theologian Raymond Panikkar asks the pertinent question whether people of the Eastern religions and cultures who are "expecting no Messiah" are to be "circumcised in their minds" and become culturally Semitic before they can accept the Christian faith. The vicarious suffering on the cross where "the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" dies to redeem humanity too is a concept not present in the Indian tradition. Panikkar, therefore, says that the task of the Church in India is to "translate" the truth of Jesus Christ in our context - and the translation has to be more than only a verbal one.

The late Dr. E. Stanley Jones in his seminal work, The Christ of the Indian Road, attempted to contextualize the Christian message in India. He affirmed that, while Christianity had much to contribute to India, we Christians also had much to learn from the rich spiritual heritage of India. In the momentous encounter between Christianity and Hinduism, he believed, both could be transformed, both could be enriched. Unlike Mel Gibson, for Stanley Jones, the cross of Christ is not the occasion to celebrate physical brutality but renunciation in the true Indian heritage. Jones believed that the followers of the Christ of the Indian road will know the meaning of cross, for India stands for the cause of renunciation. "Renunciation will be a reality, for India instinctively grasps the meaning of Jesus when he says that the way to realize life is to renounce it - to lose it is to find it", he said.

Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the finest example of an Indian who was inspired by the cross of Christ understood as renunciation and the commitment to struggle for truth through non violent means ("Satyagraha"). Even though Gandhi was indifferent to the historical Jesus, he believed firmly in the "contemporary realization of what Jesus stood for". For him, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus were significant not as historical facts but as symbols of ever-recurring events which can be enacted in the moral life of every person. Even when Gandhi believed that only the principle Christ represented - not the historical person of Jesus - is important, he treated the cross as "an eternal event in this stormy life". It should be noted here that the Indian Christian leader K. K. Kuruvilla attempted to creatively link Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha to the love that flows from Jesus' cross.

The cross has inspired Indian litterateurs also. The Malayalam writer K. P. Appan defines cross as the symbol of the renunciation of those who surrender themselves for a noble cause. "The cross is the sign of the love of Christ that compels us to suffer for others. The cross is also the symbol of the Christ who prayed for those who persecuted him", Appan notes.

We need to ponder over the question whether, over the centuries as Christianity evolved from being an underground movement to an empire that wields power and authority, the meaning and significance of the cross has eroded. The cross, which was once the symbol of shame has now become the sign of pride and prestige. Appan says that today cross has become the most prominent object of worship for human beings but, "the cross that we worship hide the Jesus behind it". Growing in Christ should actually mean growing in the experience of the Cross. This growth cannot be a mechanical process. We need to grow up to the meaning of the cross and also to the stature of the Christ, the Lord of the cross.

Cross as Solidarity and Identification

In India, the passion of Jesus should also be seen as solidarity and identification with the suffering humanity. We as Christians are often eager to pose the cross of Christ as the "solution" for all problems. There is, however, also the need to discern the presence of the Lord in the midst of human pain and agony. M. M. Thomas was deeply moved when he worked in the famine-stricken areas of Chertallai in 1942. In the context of the intensity of the suffering all around him, he searched for the meaning of Christian faith. Paraphrasing Psalm 72, he wrote thus:

And while I looked, I saw a flickering light far off;
I made for it; a man was digging a little grave;
Thought I, who must this man be,
Who has strength enough to dig a grave for his little child?
He was weeping as he dug; his sighs were deep, and his sobs loud
And he was alone, amidst the corpses that lay all around.

With fear in my heart,
I approached the man digging the grave, in the flickering light,
He turned his face to me;
Lo, it is Christ!
His eyes were red with weeping, and his face wet with tears,
Jesus wept;
He said to me in a low voice, through sobs,
Why do you do this to me?
I thirst, I starve
For in as much as you did it not to these,
You did it not to me.
I am dying.

In India there are also traditions that affirm the meaning of cross as the identification of God with all the oppressed people. Fr. Monodeep Daniel in his recently published Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew interprets the passion of Christ from a Dalit perspective. He notes: "Jesus was not to hang on the cross as a hero of a tragic story, but he was counted as one among the criminals! This was a shameless exposition of the zenith of injustice and wickedness collectively brought to fruition. It was out of hatred bred in the hearts of a dominant group of people against one who was powerless. Dalit-readers of the gospel would find themselves crucified in Christ! The Dalits stand dispossessed, disgraced and discarded for no fault of theirs. Christ finds himself today ridiculed in the Dalits."

Easter - God's Protest against Death

In the midst of the suffering all around us, what is the meaning of Easter where Jesus triumphed over the forces of death and darkness? We might ask: where is the suffering? We are doing well! India is shining! Our country has just registered an unprecedented 9% growth in GDP. India is rated as the second fastest growing major economy in the world, even when recession has hit developed countries such as the United States. The shopping malls in India have never been fuller! Information Technology, Call Centres and other areas of globalization have opened up limitless vistas before our youth. Suffering and darkness are far removed from our minds.

A closer look, however, would reveal another side of the picture. Poverty and oppression are still realities in large parts of India. Recent statistics reveal that despite the economic growth, the rate of unemployment is actually increasing. India is also facing an unprecedented agrarian crisis with tens of thousands of farmers ending their lives. Women still cannot walk safely on the streets after dark in most parts of the country. It is, however, the growing disparity that is most worrying. While the affluent sections live in gated communities that shut out the poor, there is a growing cynicism among the marginalized people that their fate is to suffer and endure for ever.

The question, therefore, needs to be repeatedly asked: in the midst of the growing misery and despair, what is the meaning of Easter where Jesus triumphed over the powers of death and darkness?

From the point of view of history and experience, Easter is absurd. It cannot be proved, for in the context of history, death holds unbroken sway. Faith, however, triumphs over the wisdom of the world, and empowers us to translate the vision of Easter into transformation. The German theologian Jurgen Moltman puts it thus: "Faith in the risen Lord is not just a confessional statement; it is also a commitment to be agents of the power of resurrection. Faith means not only believing in the truth of Christ's resurrection and looking forward to a life after death; it means first of all rising up ourselves and sharing in the creative power of God which makes possible the impossible and summons into being things which are not yet in existence" (Rom. 4: 17).

The experience of Easter empowers us to go forward in our life journey with the hope that our lives and our destiny are secure in God. In his book, Cross: Hope of Suffering Humanity, Rev. Dr. P. G. George, quotes the ecumenical leader D. T. Niles who said: "The resurrection that awaits us beyond physical death will be but the glorious consummation of the risen life which already we have in Christ." Easter is the victory over death and over all the forces of darkness. Rev. George adds: "The eternal life gives us hope for the future and strength to face tomorrows. Jesus is now our eternal contemporary."

Easter is God's protest against death and, at the same time, the celebration of life and hope. We need to hold these two in dialectical tension in order to understand the resurrection of the crucified Christ. In India we can say that Easter is the protest against the forces that deny life and justice to the poor and the marginalized, and also that Easter is the hope that ultimately, God's justice will triumph. This is not just a utopian hope unrelated to reality, but the affirmation of our commitment to work for the establishment of God's reign on earth. Struggle is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the celebration of those who struggle.

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(Dr. Jesudas M. Athyal is Associate Professor of Social Analysis at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai)


(This article was published in Diocesan Herald (Chennai - Bangalore Diocese, Mar Thoma Church) in March 2007)

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