Jesudas M Athyal

Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society

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The Lost Tribes of Andaman
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Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
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Gospel And Cultures: A Subaltern reading of the history of Christian Mission in India
Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens
Gospel and Cultures: An Indian Perspective
New Challenges for Dalit Theology
Diaconal Ministry of the Church
Public Mission of the Church
Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society
The Return of the Sacred
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Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society



Wesley Ariarajah, the well known ecumenical theologian, used to say about the Christian mandate in the pluralistic context of Asia: “The Christian task is to witness, not to convert.’ About his experience as a missionary in the Karnataka area in the 1930s and 40s, Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom says: ‘In Karnataka, there were several who would join us in the church for our worship, but we did not make a conscious effort to convert people. In fact, I did not try to persuade anyone to convert. My primary concern was to be with the people. I understood my work with the people as a work of liberation. That was the time of the independence movement when, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others, the freedom struggle was being waged. I understood such movements as liberation movements. I could see the liberating work of Christ in history’ (Mission in the Market Place, p. 73).


In the highly pluralistic context of India, the search for relevant patterns of Christian witness in most cases is also an encounter between the Christian faith and other faiths, raising questions of gospel and culture at the theological level. What is the meaning and scope of witness in a pluralistic context? While we recognize that the Christian mission is to respond creatively to the ‘Great Commission’ - to go and make disciples (St. Matthew 28: 18-20), we also recognize that the mandate is not given in a vacuum, but in a context - a specific context. The question before us therefore is, how do we relate the mandate (the text - Bible) to the context? We recognize that there is a tension between the text and the context and it is in this tension that we find the cutting edge of the gospel - the gospel of Christ that judges, transforms and redeems - in a context.  


The topic, ‘The Christian witness in Pluralistic India’ has emerged as one of the key issues debated in ecumenical and theological circles these days. To facilitate a meaningful discussion, we need to consider the factors that led to a renewed interest in this topic in today’s India. There are specific historical factors in our country, especially those that occurred during the last decade, that compel us to initiate a process of reviewing the existing patterns of Christian witness and also, 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 these factors:


One is, the wave of communalism and religious fundamentalism sweeping across the country (Communalism is understood in India as the mixing of religion and politics, often for sectarian political ends). Communalism and religious fundamentalism have always been a part of the Indian society, but following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the fundamentalist forces shed their tactical inhibitions and assumed a centre-stage role in the socio-political life of the nation. The momentum created by the demolition and its aftermath has pushed the communal and fundamentalist forces to the forefront. Today the very secular and social fabric of the country is under threat.


What is the Christian response to this situation? There is a secular position, represented by the liberal and left sections, to the rise of communalism and religious fundamentalism. The secular response is to separate religion and politics and confine religion to the private realm of the people. It is of course neither practicable nor feasible to thus privatise religion, but what is significant is that the secular forces have recognized the threat of the fundamentalist forces and the need urgently to respond to them. What however has been the church’s response?


Paradoxically speaking, the same period - the last decade - saw a vigorous drive on the part of the Indian churches, towards ‘the evangelisation of India’. Indigenous (Indian) missionaries, often from the churches in the south and in North East India, targeted the huge non-Christian society of North India.  These missionaries, though often well meaning, were grossly out of tune with the socio-cultural realities of the ‘mission fields’. Insensitive and occasionally aggressive evangelistic campaigns characterize the recent missionary upheavals. It is significant to note that the recent consolidation of fundamentalist Hinduism, and its popularity in the political scene, is also largely in north India. It is not clear whether aggressive evangelistic campaigns by the churches contributed to a Hindu backlash: what is important is that the missionary work of the churches seldom emerged from a theological study of the complexities of pluralistic India.


The second issue before us is the rapid changes in our society, especially the globalisation of the economy. 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.


Lastly, the awakening of the marginalized people: the Dalits, tribals, women, fisherfolk etc., is an important factor. As a result of the social reform movements that were a part of the political upheavals in the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a marked change in the lives of the marginalized people. There was a pronounced awakening among the oppressed sections of the society, especially in the western Indian state of Maharashtra and the southern states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 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.


The marginalized people are the subjects of history and are involved in the struggle for survival. From the perspective of Christian mission, it is also important that they are often the objects of evangelism and conversion. The people who were ‘no people’, assumed a centre-stage role in the socio-political process. They are today seeking their place under the sun.


These are some aspects of our context - the context where we seek relevant patterns of Christian witness. The question before us is, how does the Christian faith become meaningful to our neighbours - Hindus, Muslims, Marxists - yes, also to our Dalit, tribal, women, fisherfolk neighbours - inviting them to be disciples of Jesus Christ? 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 (conversion) 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?


The Indian Church


  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 the faith and the 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. 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.


In India, the course Christianity took was a little more complex.  The St. Thomas Christians who were in Kerala from the early centuries were inherently a part of the larger social milieu here. The advent of the western missionaries - Catholic and Protestant – however, drastically altered the character and content of the Christian presence in Kerala. The 16th and the 17th centuries that saw the heyday of Portuguese power in India, were also periods of great missionary activity. The inward looking samudhayam (clan-community) consciousness of the largely upper class and upper caste Syrian Christian community was challenged by the missionaries. According to Mathias Mundadan, 'It is the coming of the Portuguese and the first contact with them in the early sixteenth century which helped the ancient Christians of India to break through their traditional pattern of life and enter into a meaningful communication with world Christianity. The initial encounter with western Christianity set the pace for their history in succeeding decades and centuries' (A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India (Vol. 1), Church History Association of India, 1984, p. 1).


Conversion & Baptism


Among all the topics associated with the church in India, theologically and sociologically the most explosive ones are conversion and baptism. Conversion is the turning to God and baptism symbolizes a radical break with one’s past and participation in the new humanity offered in Christ Jesus. In India, conversion and baptism also involve a radical break with one’s social and cultural past and identification with a new social community as well. In the traditional, organic societies of India, conversion and baptism raise serious questions. Is it possible to accept the lordship of Christ and remain culturally as Hindus? Can Christ-centred fellowships within other religions be a substitute for the organized church? Easy answers to these questions are not possible, but it is in wrestling with these questions alone that authentic patterns of Christian witness emerge in the Indian context.


We also need to concede that in the pluralistic context of our country, the sacraments of the church are often exclusive in nature. The insistence on baptism as a pre-requisite for joining the church demands from the new believers a shift from their cultural and social communities to the rigidity of a church structure alien to their culture and language.


In India, these questions have more than academic relevance. The presence of Christ-centred fellowships that transcend the present communal identity of the church is essentially part of the history of Christian witness in India. In a survey of the Gurukul Lutheran Theological Seminary some years ago, it came to light that about ten percent of the population in Chennai accepted Jesus Christ as their personal saviour but had chosen to continue in their own religious, cultural and caste communities without formally becoming a part of the Christian community. Among them there are those who maintain close spiritual fellowships with other Christians, and others, ‘who pursue their devotion to Christ without such support’.


Mar Thoma Church


The search for relevant patterns of Christian witness has a special significance for the Mar Thoma Church which has been involved in mission and evangelistic work for almost a century. Several of the early diaspora communities (Palghat, Ankola, Sihora etc.) were mission communities. What should be the language, culture and ethos of the churches in the diaspora and the mission fields? Should they be an imitation of the church in the ‘home land’ or can they take local roots? Is the ethos of the church conducive for the evolution of local expressions of faith and witness? Will the diaspora and missionary communities ever become the local communities? It is in wrestling with these questions that we seek relevant patterns of Christian witness today.


Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom’s views on permeation as a viable mode of evangelism too are important. Permeation, he feels, is the traditional pattern of Christian witness in the Indian church. ‘The Christian witness of our ancestors was not preaching but permeation. They went and lived with the people. That is the incarnation principle. The outside society will often say about our forefathers: ‘In business, he will be honest, because he is a Christian’. That was a form of witness. This was our missionary pattern till recently. Today, however, the missionary work follows an efficiency mode, where we have strategies and targets. The impression that mission is the programme of a specific department of the church assigned that task, is an understanding that followed this understanding of mission. Evangelism is possible only by permeation.


The search for viable patterns of Christian witness sensitive to the cultural and religious settings of India is not only a theological discussion of the last generation but a pertinent question in our current context. M. M. Thomas says: ‘The crucial question for evangelistic mission today is how in a changed post-colonial situation, the forms of church and its evangelistic proclamation of Christ, the call to conversion and invitation to join the fellowship of the church, may take place within the context of the recognition of religious and cultural plurality and common participation in building a new just society and state’ (M. M. Thomas, Issues in the Evangelistic Mission in the Present Indian context (Notes for a talk at UTC, Bangalore on 19 August, 1993, p. 2).


Paradigm Shift


Let us go back to perhaps the most compelling reason for a renewed interest in the current focus on the search for relevant patterns of Christian witness in India - the wave of communalism and religious fundamentalism sweeping across the country. Religion in modern India is invariably linked to secularism. Indian secularism is a product of modern Indian history, evolved mainly during the days of the struggle for independence and later, in nation building. 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. 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 in the country.


Several theologians and social scientists feel that one of reasons for the resurgence of communalism and religious fundamentalism is that this dialogue, vibrant during the last century, has become dormant in recent years. Over the years, the renascent elements 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 dogmatic. 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 privatisation 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 marginalizing of religious and social reform movements that have created the spiritual vacuum which is now sought to be filled by religious fundamentalism and communalism’ (Religion, State & Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection, CCA, 1995, p. 14). The hope for a secular India lays 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 Thomas’ own words: ‘If religion is part of the problem in India, religion must also be part of the solution’.




 Our societies today are experiencing changes that are unprecedented and historic. It is therefore important that the traditional patterns of Christian witness be drastically reviewed so that the ‘freshness of the gospel’ can be retained at all times. The presence of small Christ-inspired groups involved in the search for authentic patterns of Christian witness in today’s pluralistic context assumes significance in this context. Such groups exist within the churches as forums for reform as well as outside the church as people’s movements involved in struggles for a radical social transformation. They represent a spirituality that takes the world seriously. The relevance of such groups does not imply the rejection of the traditional church structures, but merely points towards the need for us to be open to the presence and work of God within the church and outside for, at the cutting edge of the Christian mission, the church meets the world.


In the final analysis, enabling various cultural expressions to be in dialogue with each other, thus bringing these diverse expressions into mutual accountability in Christ, becomes not only essential, but also 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 narrow walls of cultural and linguistic 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 that sends him/her, need to be open to the possibility of God’s presence and work among people of all religions and ideologies (Acts: 10, 11). The tension between our vulnerability as Christians in a pluralistic situation and our commitment to bear witness to the redemptive act of Christ in history 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 and our own commitment to bear witness to the lordship of the Jesus of Nazareth.


Our mission today is to discern how the gospel can be interpreted, proclaimed and celebrated, in the context of India. K. C. Abraham sums up the challenge before us when he says: ‘Our commitment to Christ does not give us the right to condemn others. This land, with all its diverse faiths, is also God’s creation’. In the multi faith context of India, we need to listen to the people’s fears and genuine questions. Pluralism in this context needs to be seen as God’s gift to humanity.