T. Jacob Thomas
Starting with a Critique
I was recently reading the STM Thesis written by Juhanon Thirumeni while he was a student at the Union Theological Seminary, New York, in 1930. The thesis was titled, “The Christian Church in India and the Need for Changed Missionary Objectives in the light of a Better Appreciation of Hinduism.” He starts with some important observations:
“From the start foreign denominations came to India bearing a Church and not Christ…..The church idea and not the Christ idea dominated the Christian movements” (p.3).
About the Kerala church he notes: “The word ‘Syrian’ was and is a millstone hung on the Christians of Malabar. This prevented them from being an active missionary church; this made them into a caste community; this was the source of various internecine quarrels and this prevents them from becoming the nucleus of an indigenous Indian Church….For the future the sooner it throws away its ‘Syrian’ outlook, the earlier it begins to look at things from an Indian point of view, the better will it be fitted to play its part in christianisation of the great and ancient land to which it, by right, belongs” (pp.3-4). Further he observes that the result of Robert de Nobile’s work “was the formal recognition of caste in the Church” (4).
Thirumeni points out that “the destruction of Hinduism and the promoting of a Church would seem to have been the definite aim of some at least of the missionaries” (p.8). Thirumeni quotes Bishop Heber who had a very low opinion of Hinduism: “But of all idolatries which I have ever read or heard of, the religion of the Hindoos, in which I have taken some pains to inform myself, really appears to me the worst, both in the degrading notions which it gives of the Diety; in the endless rounds of its burdensome ceremonies, which occupy the time and detract the thoughts, without either instructing or interesting its votaries; in the filthy acts of uncleanness and cruelty, not only permitted but also enjoined and inseparably interwoven with those ceremonies; in the system of caste – a system which tends more than anything else, the devil has yet invented, to destroy the feelings of general benevolence and to make nine-tenths of mankind the hopeless slaves of the remainder; and in the total absence of any popular system of morals or any single lesson which the people at large ever hear , to live virtuously and do good to each other. ”( p. 9).
Another American missionary has suggested a course of action: “Their deities must be changed ere their moral condition can be materially and generally improved. The Bible must supplant narratives of their false divinities; their temples covered now with sculptures and paintings which crimson[s] the face of modesty even to glance at, must be demolished; the vile lingam must be leveled to the ground; the festivals in which are reenacted shameless events in the life of Krishna and others like him, must be abolished; the scenes now passing before the eyes of that nation sanctioned by divine example must cease. Then will India rise from her moral depresssion” (quote from India and the Hindus, pp. 256-7).
Thirumeni gives his reason for being critical more of Christianity than of Hinduism in his thesis: “… it is a highly Christian quality to be ever willing to turn the search light against oneself. Self-examination and confession of sins are as much necessary for Christian progress as looking forward into the glory of the future” (p.81). Against the missionary critique Thirumeni’s observation of Hinduism has been, “That the corruption was not inherent in Hinduism as such, and that it was capable of a reform in rituals and morals, is proved by its having withstood the attacks of Christianity and in having evolved a new and modern Hinduism”( p.12). In spite of all the wrong things one finds in Hinduism like casteism some inner strength has been noted by Thirumeni. That strength is the ability to renew itself which has helped Hinduism to adapt itself to all modern challenges. The point he makes is that the missionary objective should not be destruction of Hinduism but its renewal and witness to that renewal in the light of Christ’s work in the world, an approach which was highlighted later by M.M. Thomas.
Witness: A soft but powerful word than mission
Samuel Jayakumar, in his Mission Reader: Historical models for holistic mission in the Indian Context, (Delhi: ISPCK, 2002) distinguishes four models of mission: mission as rescue, mission as light, mission as transformation and mission as witness. He says that the idea of mission as witness is particularly Johannine. The Greek noun marturia translated as witness is used fourteen times in John, while not once in Matthew. Mark has three references and Luke has one only. John has used the verb marturew 33 times while Matthew and Luke used it once and Mark never. The Greek word, martyreo is translated as “ to witness,” “to bear witness,” a “witness,” “to testify” and “testimony.” Witness is a martyr, ready to bear testimony even at the cost of death. John the Baptist came primarily to witness Christ and for nothing else (John 1:7,8,15,19,32,34,3:26).
John has seven references to bearing witness to Christ: the Father (5: 31-37), Christ himself (8:14,18), Holy Spirit (15:26), works of Jesus (5:36,10:25) and the scripture(5:39). Several witnesses follow the ministry of Jesus – disciples (15:27), the Samaritan woman (4:39), the multitude (12:17).Those who witnessed were committed to Christ, which is very important to the job of witness. ”Unless you commit yourself, unless you stake everything on the truth what you say, you cannot be a witness.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p.89). Jesus said to his disciples, You are my witnesses to these things (Luke 24:48; cf. John 15:27) of what Jesus has done in Palestine. They were called to be his witnesses among the nations. Instead of wishful thinking or apocalyptic speculations they were charged to witness. For that “ You will be empowered when the Holy Spirit….. earth (Acts 1: 6-8). First thing is to be empowered by the Spirit. It was at Pentecost that the witnessing mission of the church started. They were not asked to accomplish anything, but to point to what God has done and is going to give testimony to what they have seen, heard and touched (1John 1:1). Witness is a legal term. They have to give evidence of what they have seen. Witness is a saktchi. They have to testify with their blood, they are martyrs. Mark says that the resurrected Jesus has directed the disciples to meet him in Galilee “just as he told you” (16:7). The promise of Jesus is that wherever they go he will be there already; “and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That includes India also where disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit would witness to what Jesus is doing. When M.M. Thomas perceived revelation of God in the Asian revolution, people’s struggle for self-determination and justice, several missiologists found it difficult to understand and accused him of heresy. Juhanon Mar Thoma, then C.M. John, was ready to be accused of the heresy of Adoptianism in his demonstration of Christ viewed by Hinduism as “the perfect ‘Bhakta (one who has attained perfection in devotion to God), the perfect ‘jnanin’ (one who has had perfect of oneness with God), and the perfect ‘Karma Margi’ (one who has attained perfection through right deeds)” (p.84). It is enlightening to note that Bishop V S. Azariah interpreted witness as the experience of love, equality, and freedom in Christ. To him witnessing refers to a transformed life style. Witnessing is powerful but not intimidating and overpowering word as mission.
David Bosch, the foremost modern missiologist, interpreted mission is primarily transformation of the community (Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis 1991). He introduced the concept of paradigm shift to explain the contemporary crisis in Christian Theology and Mission. This paradigm shift has also evoked new opportunities to Christian witness. Agreeing with scholars like Spindler 1967:10; Kasting 1969:132; Rutti 1972:113f; Kramm 1979:215 also Frankemolle 1982:94f he says that in the New Testament we find theologies of mission and not one theology of mission. New Testament uses words such as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on a hill, to define mission. In the postmodern period the truth is not placed in any single theory, but in the multiplicity of relationship. Today we need theologies that witness to the revelation of truth in the web of our experiences, in the network of theories. So we need to have doctrine of salvations, missions, revelations, divine experiences.
Following Hans Kung’s (1984:25; 1987:157) paradigms Bosch has highlighted the following missiological paradigms.
1) The Apocalyptic paradigm of primitive Christianity
2) The Hellenistic paradigm of the patristic period
3) The medieval Roman Catholic paradigm
4) The Protestant Reformation paradigm
5) The modern Enlightenment paradigm
6) The emerging ecumenical paradigm.
These different periods have affected various ways of looking at the text and doing theology, which is further influenced by our ecclesiastical tradition, personal context (sex, age, marital status, education), social position (social class, profession, wealth, environment), personality and culture (world view, language, etc) (182). Bosch points out that James Martin, another mission theologian, has classified Christian mission into three methodological constructions: “pre-critical (vitalistic, symbolic), the critical (analytical, mechanistic), and the post-critical (Holistic, ecumenical). (188).
Bosch (Pp 5), with the help of missiologists like Verkuyl (1978a: 168-75; cf. Durr 1951:2-10) deconstructs mission motives and identifies some impure streams such as:
ii) Cultural domination
iii) Romantic experience in far away exotic countries
iv) Ecclesiastical colonialism (export confession and church order to other countries).
Other motives listed were theological such as:
i) Desire to convert people’s souls to God.
ii) The desire for people to enter the future, eschatological Kingdom of God.
iii) Church planting
iv) To seek God’s justice and that God’s reign would improve life in the society (Bosch quoting cf. Freytag 1961:201-17; Verkuyl 1978a: 164-68).
Bosch concludes that within this combination of motives there is a dying Christian triumphalism against other religions and therefore questions its uniqueness and truth claims.
Bosch points out that there is no mission in the Old Testament in the way we see mission today and therefore the decisive difference between the Old and the New Testament is mission. However, he admits that there is a missionary element in the Old Testament but there he says it is God who is the missionary (p.19), because it is God who will bring all nations to worship together with Israel (Isa 51:5; 40:5; 45:22; 42:6; 49:6 etc) placing Israel, the chosen, as the third (Isa 19:22-25). For the eunuchs God offers “a monument that will be better than sons and daughters. I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain. (Isa.56:5). God promises them happiness and acceptance: I will bring them to my holy mountain; I will make them happy . Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray” (56:7). This promise is to all who search after God, foreigners, the dispersed and all the marginalized
Jesus’ mission has been to breakdown boundaries and to include all, even those who were seen as enemies, he forgives them. God invites all and it is those who respond who are accepted. The Gentiles in the Jewish tradition seem to be seen as outside, and unredeemable, but according to the New Testament, through Christ, (the earthly Jesus) all those who repent are redeemable. So mission starts with Jesus Himself and at this point, Bosch calls Jesus, “the primal missionary”(p.31). Bosch then goes on to point out some of Jesus’ own self-definitions, which implied his negation towards Judaism’s exclusiveness.
The reign of God is “malkuth Yahweh/ basileia tou Theou). Bosch looks at the Old Testament background and the New Testament development of this concept, and building it towards Jesus’ own understanding of his own mission in relation to this concept. Bosch sees this concept as, “a starting point and context for mission” (Bosch: p 32 quoting Senior and Stuhmueller 1983:144).
Bosch then points out three main weaknesses, which he sees as having been threats of undoing this new shift of mission paradigm (from the Old to the New Testament).
1) Although Jesus had no intention of starting a new religion, Christianity later became a new religion. Jesus’ movement was to announce the Kingdom of God and the church came into being.
2) Instead of Christianity being a movement, it became an institution. Instead of being progressive it became conservative. He draws the contrast between the church in Jerusalem and that of Antioch and points out the dichotomies between–Mission and consolidation; grace and law; crossing frontiers and fixing them; life and doctrine; movement and institution. This led to the settled ministry of the bishops (elders) and deacons on the one hand and the mobile ministry of the apostles, prophets and evangelists on the other. This led to a creative tension.
3) The church failed to make Jews feel at home, especially on issues of circumcision and the inclusion of the Gentiles.
Bosch sees Matthew’s main purpose as being to make his community aware of its calling and mission, in that case it was pastoral with reference to the Old Testament helping them in seeing their identity and connection to the law, and it was missionary, by giving them the awareness of seeing opportunities for witness and service, led by the Holy Spirit. Bosch sees a contradiction in this gospel, that in some places it has a strong sense of support to Judaism and in some places it has a strong gentile bias. Through this contradiction he guides his readers towards mission to the gentiles, although he shows that it is the gentiles who came to Jesus and not vice versa.
Bosch sees Luke 24:46-49 as being a replacement of the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28, and points out the focus of Luke’s attention, the poor.
There is no mission text in Paul but we see the whole of his theology as mission focused. As the church became less of a movement and more of an institution, it began to adopt aspects of the Hellenistic culture. While the Jews emphasised on hearing, the Greek emphasised on seeing, and knowledge, “gnosis”. The development of doctrinal definitions and dogma entered the church. Salvation was to be found in knowledge and ideas, and a lot of Greek philosophers became influential in the process. Bosch lists seven areas, which he sees as a challenge to contemporary mission.
1) The rise of Christianity in the non-western world to the point of acceding that of the West.
2) The rise of challenge towards exploitative and oppressive structures (eg. racism and sexism).
3) Progress as the god of the enlightenment is now seen as a false god.
4) The danger of damaging the environment and exhausting the resources.
5) Risk of the nuclear holocaust.
6) Western theology is no longer able to claim superiority over non-western theology.
175th Anniversary of Reformation – celebration
Mandalam Study book 2009( Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church Mandalam-2009 Study: Christian Witness: Rethinking the Mission of the Church), Published by the Sabha Council and translated into English by the North American Diocese) acknowledges the present the condition of the Church: ”We have become a decrepit ancient monument with inability to respond meaningfully to today’s issues/Samasiyas, challenges and realities; it is a symbol of degeneration and hopelessness; a symbol of the inability to provide a challenge and a vision for a new social order. As a result, nobody is taking the church seriously; church has become irrelevant and decadent. Those who are called out to be different, those who are called out to reform the world through them being different have been transformed into nothingness or meaninglessness [emphasis added]; they have lost their savour” (p.30). Church has come to this pathetic condition as it has failed to critique itself or listen to its thoughtful leaders like Juhanon Thirumeni. Thirumeni’s findings need to be addressed by the Mar Thoma Church as it observes the 175th Anniversary of Reformation in 2010. Even eighty years back Thirumeni saw the “decrepit” condition and raised questions to our preconceived notions of theology and missiology: “Christ is not the possession of the West or of the existing Church. Christianity, as the religion of Jesus, is a world religion and Christ belongs to humanity at large…..Mahatma Ganhi calls God ‘Daridra Narayana’ (God of poverty or God who is poor) and who but Christ can fulfil his idea? Would the Christians allow that name to Christ?” (p.84). The reformation has to reclaim its indigenous roots, which was the aim of Abraham Malpan who translated the Liturgy into Malayalam. Now the liturgy has to focus on the Daridra Narayan, theGod of the poor, the other rather than celebrating the translation of an imperialistic, cultural nostalgia, along the lines of Juhanon Thiryumeni’s thinking.
The Church has no monopoly of Christ, no monopoly of truth, no monopoly of culture. It has to accept the fact that it has nothing more or above other religions and it is one among many other relgions. It searches truth along with others and it may have resources which is different from others . That is its uniqueness as every other religion is unique in their own way as each and every member of God’s creation is unique. Just as the prophets wanted the Israel to accept the third place among nations the Church is also challenged to accept to shed its, triumphalistic, superiority complex and accept itself as the light and salt that dissolves in the community. Today the Church’s effort to preserve itself, rather than to preserve the society, through its money and power, institutions and moral claims has thrown the Church to the condition the Mandalam study has pointed out. This is what the prophets wanted to teach Judaism, that it is only third among other countries, which Israel found it difficult to accept. This is the bitter pill Christianity has to swallow as it is the only way for renewing, re-creating its self-understanding, its swathvam, shedding its pretensions of superiority, uniqueness and tall, baseless claims of morality. Christians are people who are in search of Christ’s way. In this search others may join on their own, when they realize that it is a common search for truth and freedom, just as the Israelites returning from Egypt were joined by a large mixed crowds of similar seekers (Exodus 12: 38).
M. M. Thomas contemplated Christian witness as recognizing other people’s spirituality in relation to Christ’s sacrificial love. Wherever Christ’s sacrificial love for others is present there is Christ, whether it is Church, faith, ideologies or movements. Christian mission is not Christians’ mission, rather it is recognizing, witnessing to, Christ’s mission of God in the world’s many cultures, religions or ideologies. Christian mission today need to be understood in terms of the last judgement where religion, spirituality, divinity and humanity all are understood in terms of what is done to the needy in the world. Jesus, Paul and all the prophets and Gurus of this world teach that love is ultimate criterion of justice and that love cannot be reduced to some criterion as it is over and above any criterion. Christian witness is nothing but witnessing to the love of Christ that never absolutizes itself, always going before and beyond, giving place to the other.