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Jesudas M Athyal

From Permeation to Protest: Widening Frontiers of Christian Mission
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By Jesudas M. Athyal

I

During last Christmas, I spent a few days with my family at a Christian camp centre near Chennai. Stuck on the refrigerator in the Centre's kitchen is a magnetic inscription that reads: "Darwin is dead, Jesus is alive; who will you follow?" We can admire the zeal of the evangelical spirit behind such a loaded question; however, we are left with a few counter-questions: Is such a head-on collision with modern science essential to establish the superiority of the Christian faith? Shouldn't our faith rise above the level of such naive reasoning in which faith is related in a most superficial manner with science and reason? Will it be that forever, science, reason and most areas of everyday life, are at loggerheads with our faith?

I hasten to add that faith unrelated to life is not a characteristic of all evangelical Christians; nor is such an approach confined to evangelicals alone. In fact, what the above instance demonstrates is not only a mere superficial and mediocre approach to a complex problem but a creeping apathy towards meaningfully relating our faith to everyday life. Growing religiosity is a significant characteristic of our times, at least in India. Religion, in fact, has seldom been this popular in the past. However, along with religiosity what is growing is a compartmentalisation through which even those who employ the faculties of reasoning and a spirit of scientific enquiry in everyday life, approach religious life with blind faith. We are thus left with a further question: Why is it that intelligent people become perfectly comfortable with an irrational and illogical approach when it comes to faith matters?

The theme of this year's CMS Consultation, Exploring the Union of Theory and Practice in the Pursuit of Mission, reminds us once again that there is the need for a critical corrective in our discussions and involvements in Christian mission. As far as I can see, there are at least two aspects to this theme. One is a tacit admission that historically there has been a discord between theory and praxis, between what we profess and how we live. The second is the recognition that there is an integral link between our faith, spirituality and theology on the one hand and the mundane realities around us, on the other. The world in which we live is not merely the arena of our faithful living but the very context in which the mission of God takes concrete form. Without and outside this world, there is no mission, at least not in the way in which we understand the term. What we need today is a mission that takes the world seriously - or a worldly mission.

Within this larger context, this paper addresses specifically, some challenges before Christian mission today. I start with the premise that our traditional mindset of ecumenical - evangelical divide may not any longer provide a valid framework for the theory and practice of mission today. The dichotomy between the so-called "evangelicals" and the "ecumenists" arose in response to certain definite historical - ecclesiastical - theological developments in the past; these "contradictions" are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the post-modern context of today. As the dichotomies of the past disappear, it is necessary to recognise the alternatives emerging - both in the form of challenges before Christian mission as well as in the form of relevant paradigms of mission. This paper seeks to identify some such trends and employ them as useful categories for our journey forward.

The Historical Background

Till recently the terms, "evangelical" and "ecumenical" were often used as mutually exclusive terms, despite the fact that the roots of evangelicalism go back to the 19th century when ecumenical cooperation and social transformation were considered as essential parts - not an appendix - to the gospel that was preached, and also, despite the fact that the origin of the modern ecumenical movement can be traced back to a commitment to, "evangelise the world in this generation itself". It is true that the ecumenists and the evangelicals have trodden diverse paths during the last one and a half centuries. A distinct identity as "the evangelicals" can be traced back to at least 1846 when the World's Evangelical Alliance was born. The Alliance's nine theological tenets summarize "the contents of the historical Protestant confessions of faith, but its implicit understanding of Christianity in practice rested on the religious bases developed in early pietism and in the evangelical revival."(1)

The formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) a century later, was seen by several as a challenge to the uncompromising evangelical focus of the Church. The evangelicals have specific criticisms about the course and content of the ecumenical movement. For many of them, ecumenism has become a pejorative term. They associate the ecumenical movement with the implicit goal of a "super-church", and are convinced that in the dominant quest for the visible unity of the church, institutional and structural issues are displacing the confession and propaganda of the central message of the gospel of salvation.(2) Daryl Guder puts it thus:

For several decades after the founding of the World Council of Churches, several mainline Protestant churches tended to de-emphasise evangelism as the verbal proclamation of the gospel with the intent to draw people to personal faith in Christ. The focus was generally more upon the church's social witness and involvement with the broad agenda of justice and peace. Often evangelism was redefined as an expression of social witness, so that the word was used for almost anything a mainline denominational agency wanted to affirm.(3)

It would however be erroneous to assume that throughout this period the ecumenical movement was insensitive to the evangelistic mission of the church. There was a notable stream in the movement that sought to include both verbal proclamation and social witness as the central concern of the churches. With the founding, in 1921, of the International Missionary Council (IMC), an effort was made to dispel the traditional evangelical notion that "missions" is what you do outside the Western world, notably in Asia and Africa. By providing a common platform for the ecumenical youth and student lay movements such as the YMCA, YWCA and the World Student Christian Federation, IMC affirmed that mission is concerned with the whole of human and social life and was appropriate both at home and abroad. One aspect of this change in perspective was reflected in the preference, at least in the ecumenical circles, for the term "mission" over the traditionally used plural form of the term, missions. Christian mission, it was noted, is one, inland or abroad.

A shift was discernable in the evangelical circles, from at least the early 1970s onwards. There was a gracious evangelical openness to discussions and action on justice – peace concerns. A major milestone in evangelical social thought was undoubtedly the 1975 Lausanne Conference on World Evangelisation and its lingering impact in the form of the Lausanne Continuing Committee. The Lausanne covenant (1974) laid the theological foundation and framework for evangelisation by affirming "the authority and power of the Bible" (art. 2), "the uniqueness and universality of Christ" who is "the only mediator" (3), and "the return of Christ" (15).4 The central concern of the Lausanne Committee was "the evangelisation of the world". In response to the term, "mission" preferred by the ecumenical movement, the Lausanne Committee chose "evangelism" as "the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and to be reconciled with God" (4).

Though the evangelicals continued to affirm the primacy of verbal proclamation over social and political activism, a renewed focus on social transformation was visible within the evangelical movement. Jacob Thomas, in his significant study on models of mission and the social relevance of the gospel5, points to a clear paradigm shift in the position of the evangelicals in recent decades. The evangelicals who have "sometimes been characterised by a preoccupation with personal salvation rather than with involvement in social action", are becoming increasingly concerned about the problems and struggles of the social life. As he further puts it,

Since the early 1970s evangelical social thought has increasingly sought to come to grips with the struggles of the poor of the world. In the wake of the challenges posed by these victims of society, a clearer understanding of the nature of the society and of its culture, and history has been called for. Traditional pietistic individualism has been called into serious question. The struggle between good and evil has become recognised more clearly as not just a matter of the heart but also of structures. This has raised several more pressing issues.(6)

Several historical and ecclesiastical factors contributed to this missiological shift within the evangelical movement. Even before the book of Jacob Thomas came out, there were other studies focusing on an evangelical perspective of social action. Sherwood Wirt's The Social Conscience of the Evangelical and several of the works of Carl Henry had encouraged Reformed Evangelicals to work actively in the world around them. However, Donald Dayton in his book,(7) went deeper and argued that the evangelical tradition had originally seen itself as essentially quite radical (although not novel), socially and theologically. Dayton and the others argued that the new evangelical focus on doctrinal orthodoxy "cannot produce a historically and theologically consistent definition of "evangelicalism."(8 ) In their opinion, the challenge before the evangelical movement today is to draw inspiration from the 19th century evangelicalism with its "institutionalising of revivalism and its insistence on a grace given experience of redemption at the heart of all true Christianity."

Paradigm Shift in Ecumenical Missiology

How did the ecumenical movement respond to the increasing focus of the evangelicals on social and political issues? Following the CWME Bangkok Conference and the Lausanne World Conference - both held in the early 1970s - a certain degree of convergence between the evangelicals and the ecumenists appeared, reaching a high point in the statement "Confessing Christ Today" of the WCC Nairobi Assembly, 1975, and in the 1982 WCC landmark document, Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation. The emphatic use of the incarnational imagery combining proclamation in the document was an indication of the genuine theological and spiritual struggles within the ecumenical movement towards affirming a holistic missional direction. The publication of the 1982 document, "was a signal event for the theology and practice of mission. It represented a broad consensus of Christian thought on the church’s evangelistic mission."(9)

Thus, during the 1970s and 80s, a great deal of convergence in evangelistic concerns as well as the Christian mission in relation to socio-political structures were clearly visible. The traditional barriers and hostility between the evangelicals and the ecumenists having been broken down, there was increased participation and association in discussions and conferences between the two. The most recent instance for such common gathering was the World Mission Conference held recently in Athens. Several who participated at the Athens Conference felt that a clear paradigm shift was visible there and therefore, we are perhaps justified in considering briefly this great world conference and the direction in which ecumenical missiology is moving.

The theme of the WCC's Athens Mission Conference, held in May 2005 was, Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile: Called in Christ to be Reconciling and Healing Communities. The Athens Conference was unique in several respects. This was the first major ecumenical meeting to be held in a predominantly Orthodox context. Apart from the rich and visible participation of the various Orthodox churches from around the globe, the meeting was further enriched by the official participation of the Roman Catholic and the sizable presence of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. By all accounts, the conference perhaps provided a platform for the broadest gathering of all Christian confessional groups.

Such a large gathering, however, brings with it certain challenges too. One key question here is, how can the widening participation in the ecumenical movement enrich the distinct direction the movement has attained during the last half a century - direction in terms of the visible unity of the churches, inter-faith relations, focus on justice-peace concerns, an increased and just participation of women in the life of the church and other such concerns. For the very survival of the ecumenical movement in a meaningful way, it is crucial that we maintain, in our journey forward, the dialectical tension between participation and direction.

There are other specific questions that emerge from the Athens Conference. The Conference was the first major ecumenical mission gathering to choose a theme focusing on healing and reconciliation. At the weeklong Conference attended by a large number of medical practitioners, theologians and church leaders, there were, however, no sessions on the larger social and political questions that affect healing and reconciliation. Could the theme have been dealt with at a level deeper than was seen at Athens? With all the potential for wider ecumenical participation initiated at Athens, what was lacking at the Conference seemed a keen theological and social analysis of the various mission challenges before us today. In its efforts to be everything to everyone, the ecumenical movement seems to be running the risk of losing its direction. Commenting on the lack of seriousness in addressing the theme and a clear shift from justice-peace concerns at Athens, Namsoon Kang said:

Healing and Reconciliation do not happen just because we proclaim, "Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile." If the conference is a site for conversion and transformation so that we, both as individual Christians and collective churches, can join in the work of God for healing and reconciliation, we need to sharpen and broaden our understanding of the reality of injustice, violence, conflict, war, oppression and domination, and our own complicity in the realm of different forms of injustices that have created scars, wounds, chasms, and schisms that need genuine healing and reconciliation. Without knowing what to heal and reconcile, and why such things happen, our proclamation for healing and reconciliation would become just an abstract act.(10)

It would be erroneous to judge the future direction of ecumenical missiology based on the deliberations of just one conference. What was discernable at Athens, however, was a paradigm shift, at least in certain areas of the ecumenical movement today. The vanguard role played by the movement in justice and peace concerns in the past is significant. Such involvements have had their impact far beyond the confines of the churches. Several examples can be cited in this regard. It is widely acknowledged that the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) played a crucial role in the ultimate victory of the struggles against apartheid in South Africa. The WCC also set the agenda for the 'Community of Women and Men' and Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) which were initiatives taken up enthusiastically by churches around the world. It is in this context that we need to discern the indications of a definite tilt by which the ecumenical movement is seemingly withdrawing from its traditional areas of justice concerns and a bold prophetic witness in relation to "the principalities and powers."

It is tempting to say that the changing direction of the ecumenical movement also indicates a certain dilution in the traditional participation of the movement in justice-peace concerns and therefore, the evangelical movement with its renewed focus on socio-political issues should carry forth this unfinished ecumenical agenda. That would not only be too hasty a judgement but even an over-simplification of a complex phenomenon. It is a fact that even on recent issues such as ecological concerns, global warming and the Iraq war, WCC and the regional ecumenical bodies have taken bold and unambiguous positions on the side of the marginalized and the dispossessed. What is important, therefore, is to welcome the broadening of the ecumenical movement with this increased participation - along with the traditional ecumenists - of the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals and the Pentecostals (as was visible at the Athens Conference) and to use this enlarged Christian space to prod the movement forward towards a greater participation in all areas of mission including justice and peace concerns.


II

We argued so far in this paper that the divide between the ecumenists and the evangelicals emerged in a definite historical - theological framework of the past and that even during the past quarter century or so, there were developments that narrowed down this divide, culminating in the 2005 Athens Mission Conference where the Evangelicals and the Pentecostals contributed richly to the conference’s deliberations and outcome, along with the Protestant churches as well as the Roman Catholics. The traditional paradigms of mission are seemingly breaking down giving way to new challenges. This section will try to briefly summarize a few such emerging missional challenges that await our enhanced ecumenical constituency.

1. Permeation and Plurality

Our Christian mandate, the evangelicals have rightly affirmed, is to "let the earth hear His voice." The basic question in a pluralistic context, however is, how do we understand this mandate in a situation of multiple religions, faiths and cultures? What is the meaning of Christian witness in a pluralistic society such as that of India? Is our context a hindrance or an aid for Christian witness? Is there a distinctly evangelical understanding of plurality?

When we turn to the history of Christianity, we see that religious pluralism was the identity of the early church. The mandate of the church was that, "you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1: 8). The early church understood this mandate in relation to Greco-Roman philosophies and cultures. During the early centuries, the church retained this organic link between faith and context. When however the church moved westward, the society of western Christianity was different and the church developed an imperial, expansionistic and crusading ethos. This was a detour from the more authentic tradition of Christian self-understanding.(10) The identity of the church as an arm of the crusading western culture has lingered on in most parts of the world, even long after the collapse of colonialism.

Coming to the Indian context, some theologians have argued that 'permeation' is the traditional pattern of Christian witness here. Philipose Mar Chrysostom notes: "The Christian witness of our ancestors was not preaching but permeation. They went and lived with the people. That is the incarnation principle."(11) He goes on to say that while this was our pattern of Christian witness till recently, today, "the missionary work follows an efficiency method, where we have strategies and targets." The impression that mission is the programme of a specific department of the church assigned that task, emerged from this "efficiency method." The early form of evangelism, at least in India, was by permeation.

While Bishop Chrysostom is referring to the model of 'Permeation as mission' practised by the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala, during the period of Indian renaissance in the 19th and 20th centuries too, there was a tradition in India of permeation at the deeply spiritual level of relating faith in Christ to the pluralistic context. M. M. Thomas, while tracing the Christian understanding of the Indian renaissance, says that in the history of the modern neo-Hindu movements, the person of Jesus was a strong component. There were many Hindus who kept themselves in spiritual fellowship with other Christians without joining the church by baptism. Kandasamy Chetty of the Madras Christian College, who was one such, stated:

There is nothing essentially sinful in Hindu society any more than there is anything essentially pure in the Christian society - for that is what the Christian church amounts to - so that one should hasten from the one to the other. So long as the believer's testimony for Christ is open and as long as his attitude towards the Hindu society in general is critical, and his attitude towards social and religious practices inconsistent with the spirit of Christ is protestant and practically protestant, I would allow him to struggle his way to the light with some failure here and some failure there perhaps, but with progress and success on the whole'.(12)

There were several other forms of Christian witness, by individuals and local worshipping and witnessing communities, outside the established churches. Sattampillai, a man of high intellectual calibre and extraordinary qualities, founded the Hindu-Christian Church of Lord Jesus at Prakasapuram near Tirunelveli in 1857. He evolved the agenda of the Hindu-Christian Church to negotiate the contradictory impacts of conversion by developing at one level a critique of western Christianity as practised by the missionaries, in the context raising questions such as "What is real Christianity?" Roger Hedlund, in his study,13 identifies and describes several such "little traditions" of Indian Christianity - movements largely unstudied and unknown.

Within the framework of the traditional churches too, there were small, yet definite, attempts at exploring the options of permeation as a form of Christian mission. The search for relevant forms of church and patterns of witness is not only a theological discussion of the last generation but a pertinent question in our current context. The religiously polarized and communally surcharged situation of India today would require a method of Christian witness sensitive to the context.

2. Neo-Pentecostalism

It has been widely accepted since the mid 20th century that there is a certain "crisis" in the traditionally mainline churches. This crisis has variously been described as emerging from a stagnation in pastoral care, over-ritualism in worship service, inability to offer spiritual and emotional support to the young and the old - a situation that can loosely be described as the inability of the church to change with the times.

This "crisis" has thrown up a wide range of alternatives. While in the early part of the 20th century, there was a flow from the traditional churches to the Pentecostal churches which were viewed as holding up a viable and holistic alternative, this trend seems to have become minimized, partly because of the realization that the Pentecostal churches too have become, to a certain extent, institutionalised, in the process demonstrating at least some aspects of the "crisis" that had gripped the traditional churches. It is in this context that the phenomenon of what is often described as "Neo-Pentecostalism" becomes important.

From the Charismatic Movement that functions parallel to the traditional churches, to the rapidly emerging "para-churches" in our cities that provide soft-rock, just-love-Jesus type of religiosity to the youth, there is a wide range of Neo-Pentecostalism today that has emerged as alternatives to both the traditional as well as the Pentecostal churches. These developments throw up significant theological and sociological questions, most of which are beyond the scope of this paper. What is being attempted here is to highlight certain aspects of Neo-Pentecostalism, which are important in our discussion on a holistic understanding of mission in our times.

The phenomenon of the charismatic groups and para churches need to be seen in the context of the crisis in the pastoral ministry in terms of "dead ritualism and institutional authority" in the traditional churches. The spiritual alternatives that people seek range from the "supplementary role" played by the charismatic movement in relation to the churches to the "alternative spiritual communities" of the para churches. At a dialogue between some theologians from the Pentecostal and traditional churches held in Bangalore a few years ago, the participants tried to look at the question of "the crisis of pastoral ministry and the search for holistic spirituality."(14) Participating in these discussions, K. C. Abraham acknowledged the positive role played by the charismatic and related groups in providing "comfort and consolation" to the marginalized sections, especially the youth. These groups provide people an opportunity to have intimate fellowship and prayer. They also emphasize lay participation and leadership. While it is easy to dismiss such groups as "emotional and sensational", the fact remains that they are widely popular among large sections of Christians and is perhaps the fastest growing Christian trend today.

The Bangalore meeting, however, also noted that the phenomenon of Neo-Pentecostalism throws up more questions than provides answers. Several of the "alternatives" to traditional spirituality emerging today too manifest maladies old and new. While being appreciative of the sense of fellowship of these movements, Abraham notes that the alternatives emerging should be holistic, not escapist.

In our search for alternatives away from "dead ritualism and institutional authority" on the one hand and the individualistic and escapist spirituality of the alternatives, where do we look for authentic communities? Do the Church Base Communities (CBCs) of Latin America hold the key? The CBCs emerged in the 1960s as a protest against both the institutional church as well as social injustice and inequality. CBCs consisted of lay people - generally the poor - who met regularly in private houses to hear and ponder over the Word of God and to nourish a spirit of fraternal community. These communities were also the springboards for struggles for justice across the continent. CBCs represented an alternative spirituality that was at once a participatory and liberative model. It can safely be argued that today, as country after country in Latin America is rejecting the path of capitalistic development and American hegemony in the region in favour of the Socialist and egalitarian model of development, the spiritual and social ferment kindled by the Christian Base Communities played a significant role in this peaceful and democratic revolution.

The socio-cultural context of Latin America and India are vastly different and it would be naive to maintain that one model can be replicated in the other. India with its pluralistic context where the Christians are a small minority makes it impossible for the church to play the vanguard role in social transformation like in Latin America. Yet there are similarities. As Aloysius Peres of Sri Lanka has pointed out, intense religiosity and abject poverty are common factors for most Asian, African and Latin American countries. Cutting across the religious divide, there is a spiritual tradition in India that responds positively to tapping the roots of the spiritual resources that respond to human need. It is this tradition that made India welcome so warmly the spirituality of Mother Teresa which responded to human need.

The question is, while the Christian tradition in Latin America provided the spiritual and social ferment for a revolution there, whether the Christian tradition of India can strengthen a spiritually informed pluralistic ethos that responds to the social and religious need of this land. Several theologians and social scientists have maintained that one reason for the wide spread of communalism in India was because the inter-religious dialogue - vibrant during the 19th and early 20th centuries and which had been the ferment for social transformation - had become dormant in recent decades. It has also been pointed out that dogmatic secularism that rejects all religious initiatives, cannot be a viable transformative force in India. It is neither communal religiosity nor dogmatic secularism but a spirituality that takes seriously the pluralistic ethos and is responsive to human need, which can be a force for transformation in India.

3. Holy Spirit in a Pluralistic context

An important theological category, along with the Bible, for all Christians is our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit; but just as in Biblical studies, what has been lacking is a serious study in pneumatology. Often our statements on the Holy Spirit remain dogmatic affirmations framed by the church "fathers" (almost exclusively a male domain!). It is in this context that the recent study of Kirsteen Kim(15) becomes important. In the context of inter-religious discourse, Kim focuses on the Holy Spirit in dialogue, inculturation and liberation in India by comparing the theologies of three Indians - Samuel Rayan, Sister Vandana and Stanley Samartha. She affirms that these theologians find in pneumatology the theological tools needed for entering into dialogue with people of other faiths.

In the context of Kim's focus on the Holy Spirit, we need to take a fresh look at changing trends in the ecumenical movement. The focus on the Holy Spirit in the theme of the 2005 Athens Mission Conference could have had the potential to provide for a deeper discussion on the understanding of mission in the context of religions and cultures. The other major ecumenical gathering that had invoked the Holy Spirit to 'renew the whole creation' - the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1991 - related the Holy Spirit to the spirits of all those who have laid down their lives for the cause of freedom and liberation throughout history and affirmed: "Without hearing the cries of these spirits, we cannot hear the voice of the Holy Spirit."(16) Many Christians present at Canberra were greatly disturbed by 'a tendency to substitute a "private" spirit, the spirit of the world or other spirits for the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son.' What was seen at Athens, however, was an apparent swing to the other extreme where the work of the Holy Spirit was identified with 'the healing that takes place through prayer, ascetical practices and the charisms of healing, through sacraments and healing services, through a combination of medical and spiritual approaches, and through sensing the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit, even when we accept and continue to struggle with illness and traumas.'(17)

Such an intensely personal and liturgical understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit is an integral part of several Christian traditions including the Orthodox and Pentecostal churches but leaves unattended the role of the Holy Spirit in our pluralistic context. Our present context is not merely pluralistic in the traditional sense of the term as being multi-religious and multi-cultural; the phenomenon today is a volatile situation of growing fundamentalist forces in most religions. The resurgence of religious fundamentalism that accompanied 'the return of the sacred' in most traditional societies has considerable significance for mission and dialogue today and for our understanding of the healing and reconciling role of the Holy Spirit in a pluralistic context. The dominant Christian confessional groups have traditionally understood the Holy Spirit in relation to the church and her evangelistic work. Today there is perhaps the need to discern ecclesiology, pneumatology and kerygma in relation to our multi-religious context.

III

Mission as Protest

We began this paper with the question why Christians often feel the need to establish the supremacy of their faith by posing it against commonly held notions in science and reason. Amartya Sen in his recent book, The Argumentative Indian, points out that the cultivation of doubts and the sharpening of questions lie at the root of most scientific inquiries. He points out that India has had a truly exceptional heritage of being doubtful and sceptical. But this legacy tended to be fairly comprehensively neglected both by traditionalists who emphasize faith (particularly religious faith) rather than doubt, and by modernists who have tended to attribute the origin of Indian scepticism to Western, particularly British influence.

Christian Faith certainly goes beyond reason and science but not necessarily contrary to them. In a context where blind faith, passivity and obedience to the authorities are the norm, what needs to be emphasised is a mission of protest, dissent and ultimately, subversion.18 Several of our churches and ecumenical-evangelical-Pentecostal movements emerged in the past in protest against dead ritualism and institutionalisation. Protest and dissent against status quo did not remain mere negative features but kindled the emergence of new insights and original contributions in not only theological - ecclesiastical matters but also in the fields of science, arts and literature.(19)

It is this tradition that has become virtually dormant in the traditional mainline Indian churches in recent decades. A characteristic of our post-modern era of relativism is a retreat from protest and dissent. For most clergy, there are no longer any clearly held positions other than the official dogmas of the churches or institutions. The reluctance of the official church to question and dissent could be in deference to the prevailing consumerist culture and the need to maintain status quo. With reference to the pastors who distance themselves from the prophetic tradition, Hans Kung says,

The pastors of the Church who do not want to listen to the Church's prophets, who can indeed no longer hear them because in the midst of all their governing they have lost the knack of listening, may indeed quote the prophets of the past, now dangerous no longer, as saints in their sermons, but they will be so certain of possessing the Spirit themselves, that they will boast of him rather than listen to him, and will give out their decrees, their regulations and commands as coming from the Spirit.(20)

Earlier in this paper, we had talked about 'permeation' as a pattern of mission in India, especially during the early centuries of Christianity and the 19th-20th centuries of Indian renaissance. Permeation was understood as both the preference for the "lived experience" over verbal proclamation as well as the preference for upholding "Christian values" over proselytisation in a largely Hindu culture where the ethos of inter-religious conversion is absent. There is no doubt that permeation was and continues to be a mode of Christian witness that has a definite place in the history and praxis of Christian mission in India. However, we also need to take seriously the criticism to permeation that has come especially from the Dalit Christian perspective. Over a century before B. R. Ambedkar employed religious conversion as an effective weapon for the liberation of the oppressed and the marginalized people, the Dalits and the Adivasis, by converting to Christianity, had found "a place under the sun".

The Christian Mass Movements that brought the Dalits in large numbers to the Church were luminous instances of the universal and liberative character of the gospel. In the "mainline" Christian tradition of India, it was accepted at the theological level that the invitation of the gospel is open for all; socially, however, the rigid caste structures continued to have their sway, even within the Church.(21) This is the context in which the Dalit theologians differed with the position of the ecumenical and inter-religious theologians of India who pleaded for "permeation" as the mode of Christian witness relevant in India and who also argued that while the Constitution of India permits inter-religious conversion, in the context of the volatile communal situation in India, there should be a voluntary agreement on the part of Christians not to resort to conversions.

Reacting sharply to this position, V. Devasahayam argued that the traditional and mainline society in India is in effect a casteist society with which Christianity can never associate. He added:

After all, what is a church? To me the church is a place where we celebrate our identities in Christ as the primary identity. If we still want to hold on to our social and cultural identities, I do not know how it will become a church of the Christ where the primary identities need be withdrawn in terms of our relations, in terms of our faith to Jesus Christ. So to me the sin of the church is not that it has isolated itself from the social and cultural community but precisely it has failed to isolate itself to come out of this cultural and social community and it has failed to evolve a new social order.(22)

It is the affirmation of "protest over permeation" as a pattern of Christian witness that distinguishes Dalit theology from the "mainline" theologies of India. The protest of Dalit theology is against both a caste ridden social structure as well as a theology and ecclesiology that legitimised the situation of the downtrodden people. Protest, in fact, is not confined to the Dalits alone but is a common characteristic of all subaltern theologies. The Tribals and the Adivasis, in their re-reading of the history of mission and colonialism and its impact on the indigenous people too, have developed a theological framework distinct from the dominant theological trend.

Protest in the Christian sense, is not the negative and destructive act of the frustrated mind but, in a context of injustice and violence, is a responsible act of obedience to God. While delivering the Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture in Bangalore recently on the theme 'Courage for Dialogue', Philipose Mar Chrysostom said: "Courage is to get out of the popular and propagate the unpopular. Disobedience in a constructive way forms the core of courage. It is disobedience to include the others that we need today in an atmosphere of exclusivity."(23)

The "atmosphere of exclusivity" would also include the prevailing consumerist culture that excludes the vast majority of our people. According to Namsoon Kang, "it is a significant task of Christian mission today to discern what to refuse, not only personally but also socially, and not only locally but also globally, which requires a profound sensitivity to justice in all forms."(24) Protest, in the ultimate analysis, is the prophetic mission for a time like ours.

- - - - - -

(Note: This paper was presented at the Centre of Mission Studies Consultation held at the Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India in January 2006)


1 Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC, 2002), 444
2 Ibid.
3 Daryl L. Guder, Incarnation and the Church's Evangelistic Mission, International Review of Mission (Vol. LXXXIII, No. 330), 417-418
4 Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC, 2002), 438
5 Jacob Thomas, From Lausanne to Manila: Models of Mission and the Social Relevance of the Gospel (Delhi: ISPCK, 2003)
6 Ibid., xiii-xiv
7 D. W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, 1976)
8 Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC, 2002), 445
9 Ibid., 418
10 International Review of Mission (Geneva: WCC), Vol. 94, No. 374, July 2005, 380
10 Turn Around (Hong Kong: CCA, 1994), 15
11 Jesudas M. Athyal & John J. Thatamanil (ed.) Metropolitan Chrysostom on Mission in the Market Place (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2002), 80
12 Prasanna Kumari, Liberating Witness (Chennai: Gurukul, 1995), 11-12
13 Roger E. Hedlund (ed.), Christianity is Indian: The Emergence of an Indigenous Community (Delhi: ISPCK, 2000)
14 Jesudas M. Athyal, The Community We Seek: Perspectives on Mission (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2003), 104
15 Kirsteen Kim, Mission in the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Indian Christian Theologies (Delhi: ISPCK, 2003)
16 T. V. Philip, Edinburgh to Salvador - Twentieth Century Ecumenical Missiology: A Historical Study of the Ecumenical Discussions on Mission (Tiruvalla & Delhi: CSS & ISPCK, 1999), 215
17 A Letter from Athens, p. 2
18 Ched Meyers in his Binding the Strong Man, argues that the task of "reading" subversive and legitimating ideological discourse to discern the concrete social strategies they represent, constitutes the fundamental premise of a political approach to Mark's gospel (Page-19)
19 It may not be accidental that the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky is also perhaps the most celebrated protester in North America.
20 Hans Kung, The Church (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1967), 433-434
21It needs to be noted that in Kerala, "permeation" was primarily practiced by the upper caste Syrian Christians; the Dalits and the Adivasis were largely excluded from this process.
22 J. John & Jesudas Athyal, Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection (Hong Kong: Christian Conference of Asia, 1995), 112
23 People's Reporter (Vol. 18, Issue 20)
24 International Review of Mission (Geneva: WCC), Vol. 94, No. 374, July 2005, 381-382

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