Jesudas M Athyal

Public Mission of the Church

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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
Contact Me




with special reference to the Indian context



The Need


This study aims at identifying the major currents that shape the public mission of the church in pluralistic societies - especially India (While in the modern period, most societies can be described as ‘pluralistic’, the term here refers to traditionally pluralistic societies in which Christianity exists within a minority group in the midst of a variety of religions and ideologies). The study stems from an understanding that while the public mission of the church – often articulated as, ‘political theology’ - today is discussed largely within the Christian - majority societies, there is the need to recognize the ‘practical political theology’ that shapes the life and witness of the church in pluralistic contexts. While the theological-theoretical framework of the academic discussions in the West hold valuable lessons for the churches and faith communities elsewhere, the challenges of the pluralistic societies call for a different mandarin for discussing the public mission of the church. The third world challenge wherein the church finds itself in transition from a cultural Eurocentricism to a polycentric universal church summons us to radically redefine our paradigms of political theology. This study aims at identifying the major currents that shape the mission of the church in such contexts.


Theological Basis:


During the last half a century, political theology, often articulating the faith affirmations of people struggling for justice, has emerged as one of the most influential theological movements. Jurgen Moltmann put it aptly when he said: “Political theology became the starting point for a whole series of mediating theologies….: the theology of revolution, the theology of liberation, black theology, feminist theology and other regionally conditioned ‘contextual’ theologies in Africa and Asia.”[i] The roots of political theology in the modern period go back to the tradition of the Confessing Church and the theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth where the lordship of Christ was affirmed over ‘the principalities and powers.’  Moltmann summed this up by saying: ‘The crucified Christ was never a good identification figure for rulers and the powerful.’[ii] He goes on to distinguish between ‘civil religion’ and faith communities. While civil religion is often the means for political states to legitimize and stabilize themselves, the universal mission of the faith community is not bound by any society or nation and represents something universal within individual communities.


The   breadth and sweep of liberation theology in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s underscored the positive role the church can play in struggles for justice. The efforts of contemporary scholars such as Johann Baptist Metz and Moltmann too were channelised to positively meeting the challenges of modernity, characterized by industrialization, urbanization, market economy and a growing state and its various ideological backbones in liberalism and socialism, with the tools of theological reflection and social analysis. In his Chairman’s Address at the 1966 World Conference on Church and Society in Geneva, M. M. Thomas stated: “When the Geneva World Conference says that ‘the discernment by Christian of what is just and unjust, human and inhuman in the complexities of political and economic change is a discipline exercised in continual dialogue with biblical resources, the mind of the church through history and today and the best insights of social scientific analysis’, it is not looking at the complexities of political and economic change as a new revelation but as part of a continuing work of the living Christ to awaken man to his true humanity, promised in Christ and needing the discipline of the gospel for its fulfillment.”[iii] This remains a brilliant summing up of the theological basis of the public mission of the church in pluralistic societies.


‘Political theology,’ addressing specifically questions of our political order, has emerged in recent decades as a specific area in theology. At the outset itself, however, we need to concede that Political theology as a discipline and as distinct from ‘civil religion’, is discussed today largely within the broad framework of the Christian - majority societies.[iv] The present study stems from an understanding that there is today the urgent need to recognize and re-articulate the ‘practical political theology’ that shapes the public mission of the church in pluralistic contexts.


While the theological-theoretical framework of the academic discussions in the West hold valuable lessons for the churches and faith communities elsewhere, the challenges of the pluralistic societies call for a different mandarin for discussing the public mission of the church. The third world challenge wherein the church finds itself in transition from a cultural Eurocentricism to a polycentric universal church summons us to radically redefine our paradigms of political theology. This study aims at identifying the major currents that shape the public mission of the church in pluralistic societies.


The Indian context


Far removed from Christian - majority contexts, churches in pluralistic societies too have been struggling to witness to the public mission of the Christian faith. The contribution of Indian Christianity in the social and political transformation of independent India has been ambiguous and varied. The churches in India have been primarily geared towards social service rather than social action, charitable diakonia within the framework and patronage of the status quo powers rather than social diakonia involving participation in revolutionary ideological and political movements.[v] Within the Christian community, the traditional attitudes and customs have persisted or reasserted themselves. There have been instances in the past where the Indian churches and Christian leaders attempted to transcend the ‘minority consciousness’ of the community by getting involved in prophetic social mission. The courageous protest of a few church leaders in India to the human rights violations inherent in the National Emergency (1975-77) is an instance of prophetic participation in the life of the wider society. What was implied in such a stance was the affirmation that social welfare of the people is not a matter of charity; it is a matter of human rights and social justice. The larger issue involved here was the effort to raise the Christian community from the level of an ‘insecure and protected minority group’ to be responsible citizens who participate fully in the life of the nation. However, on the whole, such actions remained the response of a few progressive elements in the leadership of the Indian church. The vast majority of the Indian Christians failed to own such prophetic positions. 


The present period necessitates an urgent review of the theological position of the Indian church on public mission. India today is passing through an unprecedented crisis - a critical juncture where the destructive forces of religious fundamentalism and separatism are posing a serious threat to freedom, unity and social justice. The climate of violence unleashed by religious fundamentalists and the regional divisive forces in various arts of the country have alarmed and shocked the conscience of the sensitive people who believe in the greatness of India’s future. We are already witnessing the emergence of divisive, fragmented and fractured consciousness. [vi]


This proposal seeks to articulate the public mission of the church by focusing on three areas that have a major bearing on contemporary life in pluralistic societies, namely, a secular framework, the struggles of the people for justice and the context of globalization.


Secular Framework:


What are the roots of the present religious bigotry and how can they be overcome? Most traditional societies have a religious basis while modernity has been based largely on a secularist worldview. There were great expectations in the past that under the impact of modernization, characterized by urbanization, market economy and the explosion of information, the influence of religion will gradually decline, especially in non-western and traditional societies. These predictions have proved to be wrong. ‘A new age that some call “post-modern” has begun to appear. Rather than an era of rampant secularization and religious decline, it appears to be more of an era of religious revival and the return of the sacred’ (Harvey Cox). The resurgence of religious fundamentalism that accompanied this process in most traditional societies has considerable significance for pluralistic societies with their fragile inter-communal framework.


While academic notions about the retreat of religion and the universalisation of secularization were highly exaggerated, it is important to note that most traditional societies had a religious basis rooted largely in a secularist worldview. The modern secular state emerged from such a societal identity. Secular state does not imply that the religious view of life has no significance for public life or politics. Gandhi has shown that reformed religion can be, and perhaps is, the only basis for building secular nationalism that recognizes the unity of humanity, which transcends religious, communal and secular ideological divisions in the nation. Any viable expression of political theology in pluralistic contexts needs to relate the Christian public mission to the secular context informed by renascent religious movements.


India has the tradition of having an organic relationship between secular, democratic and social movements on the one hand and reformed religious thought on the other, an interaction that informed and shaped the socio-political and cultural life of the state and society. This dialogue has become weak or dormant in recent years. The position of some secular political forces that, in a pluralistic context, any public role for religion will lead to conflict and therefore, religion should be confined to one’s home, would reveal a lack of proper understanding of the progressive and life-affirming aspects of all religions. Theologians fear that it was 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 pubic realm, along with the slackening and marginalising of religious and social reform movement that have created the spiritual vacuum which is now sought to be filled religious fundamentalism and communalism.[vii] This is one thesis that can be examined in the course of our study.


Struggles for Justice:


One of the characteristics of most pluralistic societies is the vigorous awakening among the subaltern sections of the society. The church, though often in a privileged position in comparison to the society around it, too, is not untouched by the struggles for justice around it. In India, however, with the tools of modern analysis, the marginalized sections such as the Dalits have been challenging the church to play a vanguard role in the struggles for justice. Reflecting on the story of Cain and Abel, V. Devasahayam notes:


God fails to give Cain self confirmation and turns Cain’s scale of values upside down. God refuses to stand with the first born, the great ones but goes after the weak ones, the “younger brothers”. It has been true in the experience of Dalits in India that in spite of Christian missionaries targeting upper caste people, God in Christ has chosen mostly the weak, the illiterate, untouchables to constitute the Indian Church and has chosen to touch India through the hands and minds of the untouchables.[viii]


There is the need to recover the authentic subaltern theological thoughts, so that Dalit, Tribal and other theologies can take their rightful place in social life without losing their own distinctive identity. The prophetic role of the church would demand the strengthening of secular and liberative forces involved in the struggle for justice. The political mission of the church in such contexts is to proclaim God’s judgement on forces that deny basic human rights, and to affirm the presence of God in the midst of people involved in the struggles for justice.


The context of globalization:


Globalization too is often understood and experienced by people in the traditionally pluralistic societies differently from people of the Western world. The process of globalization has brought about significant changes in the national scene, in the process marginalizing the relevance of national boundaries. Globalization has thrown up new challenges before the church, requiring a re-articulation of the theological basis of our economic life. While accepting that there is today no proper teaching in the church on the use of money, the mission of the church would demand the equipping of people to participate critically and prophetically in all aspects of life including globalization. The public mission of the church, in the ultimate analysis, is to challenge, in the name of God, the structures that perpetuate exclusive and non-communitarian relationships.




It is in this historical context that the public mission of the church is sought to be re-articulated today. In countries such as India, when at the threshold of national independence itself, the Christian leaders decided to forgo any special electoral safeguards and give up ‘communal’ politics, they affirmed their basic belief in secularism as the framework for a pluralistic society. As we noted earlier, one reason for the revival of fundamentalist forces in recent years is that, the non-sectarian aspect of the public mission of the church has become marginalized in recent years. It is therefore important to strengthen the movements within the church that are struggling to re-capture the public mission of the church.


God as suffering and renunciation is a theme that easily finds echo in contexts such as India where the religious ethos centres around these themes. In the struggles for national independence, Mahatma Gandhi could easily draw sustenance from ‘the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died.’ The cross of Jesus has continued to be interpreted in India, not only by Christian theologians but by many others - religious Hindus, Indian artists and poets and even Indian’s secular politicians as the symbol of God’s identification with the suffering and oppressed humanity.[ix] The cross is therefore the most pertinent form of the church’s public mission in contexts such as India. Such an insight would involve a paradigm shift in our understanding of mission – a shift from the messianism of the crusading and triumphant God to the suffering servant.


This shift is a universal phenomenon, as much true in the Christian-majority western nations as it is in the pluralistic context of the third world. Moltmann who, in 1964 spoke of the Theology of Hope, wrote, eight years later, The Crucified God. Here the point of reference is not so much hope as the cross. ‘If God in the former book was the power of future, God is now experienced in suffering. God involves himself in the suffering of history and carries the history forward through suffering love.’[x] Lesslie Newbigin carries this theme forward when he says: ‘The victory of God is finally accomplished in the rejection and death of Jesus. The king reigns from the tree.’[xi] A God who shares the pathos of the people is a theme with which the marginalized and oppressed people of the pluralistic contexts can easily identify with.


What we have witnessed in recent times in most pluralistic societies, is, in the words of Moltmann, ‘the creative return of religion to politics and the dangerous return of politics to religion.’ This statement is ominously true in the communally surcharged situation of India. Herein, however, lies the challenge before the church. As M. M. Thomas puts it: ‘If religion is part of the problem in India, religion must also be part of the solution.’ What is being affirmed here, on the one hand, is the rejection of all forms of ‘dogmatic secularism’ that deny any role to religion in public life, and on the other, underscoring the alliance of the faith communities, especially for the promotion of peace and justice concerns, as an anti-dote to the danger of religious fundamentalism and communalism. Religion must be relevant to political life without being co-opted by it. In other words, the public mission of the church cannot be confined to the Christian framework, not even to the other religions, but shares with all religions and secular ideologies, the life-affirming values and therefore, should emerge in dialogue with the religious as well as secular sections. In the ultimate analysis, political theology, in pluralistic societies such as India, is not aimed at politicising theology or developing a theology of politics, but to analyse the political implications of actual Christian theology, practice and institutions, as well as of the Christian Gospel. The mission of the church in such contexts is understood as opening politics and society to the influence of the search for the ultimate meaning of being human and the ethics of human relations as expressed in the role of the Christian faith in pooling together the liberative and life-affirming resources from the various religious and ideological backgrounds.





[i] Rasmusson, Arne, The Church as Polis: From Political Theology to Theological Politics as Exemplified by Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas, University of Notre Dame Press, USA, p. 14

[ii] Rouner, Leroy S. (Ed.) Civil Religion and Political Theology, University of Notre Dame Press, USA, 1986, p. 54

[iii] Koshy, Ninan, A Note on Pursuing the thought and concerns of M. M. Thomas (Unpublished paper)

[iv] In his book, ‘Civil Religion and Political Theology’, Leroy S. Rouner distinguishes between civil religion and political theology. “John William introduces the idea of common religion as distinct from both civil religion and political theology. He defines civil religion as, “specific social and cultural beliefs, behaviours, and institutions (which) constitute a positive religion concerned with civil order in the society. Political theology, on the other hand, “is a specifically theological program concerned to place questions of the political order in more universal perspectives.” (p. 10)

[v] Mathew, George (Ed.), Towards Christian Humanism: An Indian Perspective, Juhanon Mar Thoma Memorial Committee, New Delhi, 1993, p. 9

[vi] Yesurathnam, R., Religions as Instruments of National Unity: A Christian Perspective (Unpublished paper), p. 1

[vii] John, J. & Athyal, Jesudas, Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection, Christian Conference of Asia, Madras, 1995,  p. 14

[viii] Devasahayam, V., Turn to God – Rejoice in God (Reflections from the Dalit Perspective), NCC Review, Nagpur, November, 1998, p. 832

[ix] Mathew, George (Ed.), op.cit.,  p. 4

[x] Rasmusson, op.cit., p. 51

[xi] Newbigin, op.cit., p. 99