In Jesus, God has become my poor neighbour
Beyond the razzle-dazzle, a deep look at the shattering realities of Christmas
Away from the swirl of a commercialized and now politicized festive season, where most things appear to be going on ding-dong merrily, Christmas provides a time for silent and holy reflection on what the coming of Jesus, his life and his message would mean for people of all religions and races - especially the millions or billions of dispossessed or marginalized people. They probably don't even know that it is Christmas time.

One of Asia's most widely respected thinkers, Fr. Aloysius Pieris in this article -excerpts from a landmark message he gave recently - examines the issues and answers, pointing to the foundation where all could come together for the common good.

I wish to focus here on a life-long concern which is also a vital need of the hour - that of forging a broad consensus in the churches about the way we should allow the Scriptures to spur us towards an inter-church ecumenism of such a kind that would compel us, Christians, to join hands with other religions in working for inter-human justice.

The fundamentalist threat to ecumenism
Our search for this species of ecumenism has to contend, today, with three broad approaches to the understanding of Scriptures:- the fundamentalist, the liberal-critical and the liberationist. A word about each would make it easier for us to make our own option clear.

The fundamentalism prevalent among sections of the Reformed Christians is known as "bibliolatry" or worship of the Bible. Its slogan is 'no revelation outside the Bible'. The Roman Catholic brand of fundamentalism has earned the name "ecclesiolatry" or worship of the church. Its slogan is 'no salvation outside the church'. Thus, certain hard-core members of the Reformed and Roman churches were polarized into the two intransigent positions of sola scriptura and sola ecclesia.

The Catholic Fundamentalists fear to allow the Scriptures to question the unexamined assumptions lurking beneath some of their church practices. For instance the Catholic scholars who studied the scriptural position with regard to the women and ordained ministry, at the request of the Pope, came out with an open verdict; but according to the official declaration the question is closed by the will of Christ! Ecclesiolatry goes hand in hand with bibliophobia.

On the Protestant side, we have mushrooming break-away groups with an evangelistic zeal for converting the pagans (and among these pagans, they include Roman Catholics). Their biblical fundamentalism originated as an Anglo-American Protestant reaction partly to the Catholic hierachy's claims of infallibility and party to the liberal critical approach of certain Protestant Scripture scholars, as the American Presbyterain Theologian, Dr. Robert Traer, has rightly observed. These fundamentalists have, in the first place, equated the Bible with the word of God whereas the Bible is a privileged locus where the word is heard. Secondly, they think that the Bible can produce a church, when in reality, the Bible was conceived of the Spirit and born of the Church. Besides, both the Bible and the Church trace back their origin to the Saving and Revealing Word of God whose Salvific Power is not restricted to the church and whose Revelatory Power is not confined to the Bible. For, the Bible does not exhaust revelation and the Church does not exhaust salvation.

Therefore, a major function of both the Bible and the Church is to educate the Christians to familiarize themselves with that Word spoken within the Scriptures and testified within the Church, so that he or she may learn to recognize that same voice in other religious histories and in other religious communities, and above all, in the poor or the victims of injustice, where the Word of God is heard loudest and clearest. This way of relativising the Bible as well as the Church before the Word of God, which alone is the Absolute, should be the basis of our ecumenism.

Option for the poor, as a principle of exegesis
Catholic fundamentalism and the claims of infallibility for Catholic Hierarchy were not the sole reason for driving certain Protestants to bibliolatry. As I mentioned a while ago, quoting Dr. Robert Traer, it was also an over-reaction to the methods of historical and literary criticism of the Bible which were gaining acceptance within the Protestant denominations.

We would wish that the fundamentalists remain open to the use of modern exegetical tools lest the human words in the Bible be so divinized and absolutized as to submerge the Divine Word that is conveyed through them. On the other hand, we also maintain that the liberal-critical school which discovered and popularized these methods of historical and literary criticism, is not as objective as it claims to be. This is the stance adopted by the liberation theologians as well as the feminist theologians, be they Catholic or Protestant, since these treat the Bible primarily as a religious text with a soteriological message. In the words of John Barton, the editor of The Oxford Bible Commentary and Oriel and Laing Professor of Interpretation of Scripture at Oxford University, the liberationists and feminists among the theologians characteristically argue that the neutrality claimed by historical critics was always a front for a deep unacknowledged commitment, usually, to conservative religious and political positions. It would be better, they maintain, to be candid about one's commitments, and best of all for it to be a commitment to the liberation of the oppressed: only those who understand God's preferential option for the poor and commitment to human equality across the sexes will be able to read the Bible aright. What matters, they contend, is not scholarly expertise, but openness to God's transforming power. For this task, many poor people across the world are better equipped than most professors of theology. [The Tablet, 27 Oct. 2001, p 1524].

I think this statement of Barton's needs to be nuanced by the following comment. Neither liberation nor feminist theologians are opposed to modern methods of criticism as do the fundamentalists.They only question the feigned neutrality of such biblical scholars, because to be neutral, that is to say, not to take a stand for the Poor as the God of the Bible certainly does, is to take a stand against that Very God.

On the other hand, today we see among the liberation and feminist theologians a galaxy of scholarly experts in Scripture, superlatively equipped with modern methods of biblical criticism, and, at the same time, living in solidarity with the victims of injustice and biased towards the Poor just as the God of the Bible is.

Their blending of theory with praxis, biblical scholarship with social involvement, has convinced us that our commitment to the freedom of the captives, empowerment of the weak, restoration of justice and restitution of rights should be the basic hermeneutical key that allows the Bible to guide us in every Christian conversation or collaboration with the adherents of other religions. In other words, it is the Word heard in the Bible and witnessed to in that part of the Church which is poor and/or committed to the poor, that should be the spiritual foundation of an authentic ecumenism. Such biblically based inter-church ecumenism is bound to situate all inter-religious dialogue in the context of our option for the socially alienated, and on our solidarity with the dispossessed.

Jesus Christ as the principal point of our faith
For the sake of establishing this common ecumenical basis, let me take refuge in the excellent wording of the Scots Confession of 1560.

We dare not receive or admit any interpretation of the bible which is contrary to any principal point of our faith or to any other plain text of scripture, or to the rule of love (Emphasis added by me).

Let me spell out this exegetical principle as our common ecumenical foundation for an inter-religious commitment to inter-human justice. Let us first determine not just any but the principal point of our faith not a but the plain text of scripture, and finally not what but who the Rule of Love is. This procedure will highlight something that is so commonplace as to elude our attention.

I am actually referring to two ways recapitulating the scriptures, two ways of summing up the whole of biblical revelation, two ways that ultimately converge on Jesus, the Christ, who is not only the Word of God but also the interpreter of that Word. The first way of summing up the scriptures is the principal point of our faith, and the second is the rule of love. They are both, as I said a while ago, synonymous with Christ Jesus, our Lord.

The principal point of our faith is enucleated in the very name by which we designate the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: the Old and the New testament or Covenant. This familiar expression, testament or covenant sums the entire axis of revelation in the bible. Everything revolves round it. However to understand this principal point of faith, we must ask ourselves a crucial question about this covenant: 'Who are the signatories of this Covenant?'

In the Old Covenant forming the Hebrew Scriptures, the signatories are Yahweh and the run-away slaves who rose against oppression. Can you cite for me a single instance in the Bible wherein Yahweh is recorded to have signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with the Dominant class? The Covenant, which is the principle point of our faith, is God's defense pact with the Powerless. The powerless are the non-persons who, on entering this covenant with God, learn to recognize themselves as persons; a non-people who acquire a dignified peoplelhood. That is why Yahweh is essentially a God of People and Israel is essentially, though not exclusively, a People of God.

In the books of the New Covenant, we see the composition of this Pact further summed up in one single person. There we see the two Covenant Partners, "God and the Powerless" becoming one flesh in Jesus, who therefore is himself the New Covenant. God becomes the Lowly One (tapeinos) in Jesus. As Paul puts it (Philip. 2:5-11), Jesus is the Divine One who, in becoming human, not only emptied himself of his equality with God (ekenosen) but also descended the social ladder in human society (etapeinosen eauton), opting for a death on a cross, a death reserved for the slaves, the scum of the Roman Empire.

In Jesus, therefore, we can meet both partners of the Covenant; he puts us in touch with both God and the oppressed. This Jesus, therefore imposes upon us two responsibilities, a yoke that is sweet and a burden that is light. His yoke is that we associate ourselves with the lowly ones or tapeinoi (as St Paul advises in Rom 12:16), for that association with the lowly ones is a guarantee that we may also associate ourselves with God; and the burden he lays upon us is that we serve the poor in order to worship God worthily. Let us take these two covenantal responsibilities for a closer examination. For, we cannot enter the Covenant, that is, bear this yoke and this burden without being meek and lowly of heart, as Jesus was (Mt 11:29).

(a) The NGO mentality, according to which, we serve the poor without living in solidarity with poor is a violation of the covenant. Such form of giving aid to the poor is the business of the rich. For, the poor become the means by which the dispensers of aid acquire power. Unless we are one with the poor, we cannot claim to be God's covenant partner. Both Mr Neville Jayaweera and Fr. Jeffrey Abeysekara (two Christians who preach from two entirely different pulpits), in their written interventions at a seminar held in the Marga Institute of Colombo recently, have agreed on this point: they have both expressed the fear that sometimes the Church's work for the victims of injustice could become a scandalous counter-witness in the way the resources are handled. I hope it is not a lament on the past or on the present situation but only a warning about a future danger. For, we have a yoke to carry.

(b) The second responsibility of the Covenant, the burden that is light, is even more precious. Whoever declares to be a follower of Jesus and claims to have experienced him cannot worship and praise God without loving and serving the poor. To raise one's voice and give public testimony to having experienced the Lord in worship-assemblies is highly suspicious unless that same experience is publicly testified in and through an active solidarity with the oppressed. My testimony before the church that God has got involved with me personally is incomplete and anti-covenant, if it does not allow that same God's inseparable partner, the victim of injustice, to be involved with me. The acid test of my covenantal liaison with God is the way I express in action my covenantal responsibility towards the poor. This is the burden that is light, which I undertake when I proclaim that Jesus is the Lord,that He is the New Covenant!

This twofold covenantal responsibility, this yoke and this burden,constitute the Principal point of our faith which recapitulates the Scriptures around Jesus, the defense pact between God and the victims of our sinful social structures, Jesus who, in his person, represents the interests of both God and the Powerless.

Jesus Christ as the 'Rule of Love'
Let us now move on to the second way of recapitulating the Scriptures namely, the Rule of Love which the Scots Confession mentions as a criterion of correct exegesis. It was Jesus himself who summed up the Law and the Prophets in the twofold Rule of Love: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself (Mt.22:40). Note however that by recapitulating the whole scriptural revelation in this love-command, Jesus introduces two major emphases which throws us back to the principal point of our faith just discussed, namely to Jesus, as the covenant between God and the poor. Let us reflect briefly over these two emphases in the Rule of Love.

(a) In his first emphasis, Jesus practically telescopes the love of God into the love of neighbour(Mt.7:12),a position that Paul(Rom. 1 3 :8- 1 O), James (2: 8ff ) and John (passim) have also taken up in their writings. The implication is that, in Jesus, God has become my neighbour. I cannot have a saving knowledge of God except through my love for my neighbour(I Jn4:7-12).

(b) The second emphasis is noted in the story of the Good Samaritan. where, Jesus defines my neighbour as the victim of injustice i. e., the victim of robbery and violence, who confronts me in my life's journey, interrupts my pre-arranged time-table. claiming my time, my money, my resources, my hospitality, my healing activity and also my future commitment to his or her further needs (Lk. 10:29-3 7) in exchange for eternal life. The Levite and the Priest, two fundamentalists who literally followed the purity laws of the Scripture without subordinating them to the Rule of Love, missed the offer of eternal life which the victim of injustice, God's Covenant Partner, provided for them. The love of neighbour, Jesus seems to emphasize, has its purest expression in one's selfless availability to the victims of robbery and violence.

Jesus, the Rule of Love that recapitulates the whole of revelation, remains the fundamental ecumenical principle of hermaneutics that should guide us when reading the scriptures together in our churches so that we may together face the poor in every kind of inter-religious activity. For, any Christian dialogue with the adherents of other religions, which tactically excludes inter-human justice, is a luxury we Christians cannot afford specially at this moment of history in our country. This brings me to the final stage of my discussion, namely the paradigm shift required of us if we must revolve all our inter-religious collaboration around our covenantal commitment to inter-human justice.

A summary of recent political history
Book review
Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy By James Jupp, Reviewed by Michael Roberts, Department of Anthropology, The University of Adelaide

This book eschews grand political theory and concentrates upon solid descriptive analysis. In presenting an ordered summary of the recent political history of Sri Lanka from the 1930's to the 1970's, the author is not forgetful of the social and economic background and is not afraid to lace the description with his own interpretations. He highlights several trends: an erosion of the influence of the Anglicised elite which did not, however, extend to their displacement; the movement "from the British notion of 'good government' to a notion of popular government" catering more to mass prejudices (p.349); a rhetorical and ideological emphasis on indigenisation and cultural and economic decolonisation which obscures the fact that the opposed political persuasions have been of Western, if not British inspiration; and the gradual concentration of political opinion in the Sinhalese dominated districts around Bandaranaike's Middle Way, which was democratic, socialist, and Sinhala Buddhist. The author prefers a pragmatic understanding of the concept 'democracy' rather than an ideal type, and in these terms he concludes that Sri Lanka "was highly successful in adapting and developing democratic practices and attitudes" (p.327). The relative stability of "participatory democracy" is attributed not only to a strict and well managed electoral system and the electorate's inclination: towards turning out governing parties at each election. It has been supported by the emergence of a two bloc system within the Sinhalese districts between 1956 and 1970, by the readiness of parties to accept defeat, and by the "high degree of policy consensus among major parties" (p.332). The evolution of a consensus around the middle ground of democratic socialism was occasioned by movements towards the SLFP position by both the UNP and the Old Left after 1956. All these trends in turn are said to be rooted in "the political system" and "the electoral situation" (p.333). In other words, Jupp's analysis would implicitly place Sri Lanka within that select band of countries which are said to possess "consociational democracy". These conclusions are qualified by an insistence that the consensus is fragile and that participatory democracy is "continuously at risk" because of the island's intractable economic problems (pp. 334, 358). See that Sri Lanka's main problem at present remains that of preserving social democracy and social welfarism in the context of an economy that is both poor and dependent on international capitalism.

This background is employed by the author to draw out the limited utility of modernisation theory in Sri Lanka's case and to cogently pinpoint the disjunctures between development theory and the recent history of Sri Lanka (pp. 347-362). These findings are hardly surprising in the light of the severe mauling which modernisation theory has received since the 1960's, but one must remain grateful to James Jupp for his succinct and long overdue review of the Sri Lankan case in the light of these theories. We must now move towards more fruitful theoretical frameworks. It is doubtful if the globally conceived dependency theory can provide the specificity and fineness of differentiation which we require, though there might be scope for someone to achieve for political analysis in Sri Lanka what Oxaal, Barnett and Booth secured for dependency theory in Latin America and Africa. Perhaps Jupp's book will serve as a call to arms.

The more particular strengths of this book lie in (i) the perceptive presentation of the social backcloth in one of the preparatory chapters (chapter two) so that one is prepared for the argument that the social base of the political system was not conductive to certain aspects of modernisation and westernisation; (ii) its consistent attention to what might be called patronage politics; (iii) an intelligently conceived grouping of constituencies for the presentation of electoral results in Appendix II, though the chapter which surveys electoral politics is, notwithstanding several insights, rather disappointing; and (iv) the analysis and commentary on the history of Marxist forces in the island, both the old Left and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna which attempted a revolutionary seizure of power in one single blow in 1971. Indeed, his chapter on the J.V.P. is a clinical and judicious analysis that avoids the perils of romanticism and becomes the best article length survey of the subject to date though one that was made possible by several scholarly publications that preceded it.

The book could profit from greater attention to the way in which politics has become a major channel of social mobility and to the changing role of political notables. The linear model of political ideology which permeates the book in terms of a continum from "revolution" to "conservatism" (p.126) could be fruitfully replaced by a triangular model, which would make the passage of individuals from Marxism to Fascism shorter and more comprehensible. Despite the author's provisoes relating to the persistence of "democratic practices and attitudes" during the period surveyed, one can surely question the emphasis which he has attached to this conclusion. The lengthy periods of emergency rule, the position of the Tamil minorities, the government control of the major newspapers from the early 1970's, the recent extensions in the repressive apparatus, and, above all, the alacrity with which political leaders from all the parties indulge in punitive acts whenever the situation permits, all these features call for a more substantial modification of this argument.

Finally, both author and readers must face upto the fact that the value of this book as a window to contemporary Sri Lanka is undermined by the march of events. Several perceptive insights (but not all) are rendered obsolete by the radical re-structuring of the constitution and the electoral system effected by the UNP government elected in 1977; while the implications of such events as the break-up of the SLFP/Old Left coalition in 1975 and 1977, and the release of the JVP leadership from jail by the UNP in 1977 will, undoubtedly work themselves out in ways that re-shape the political scene. Indeed, it is in depicting trends during the 1970's that the book is at its weakest. Inadequate attention is paid to the reconstitution of the social base of the UNP since 1973 and the role of the Wahumpura caste within it. The festering dissatisfaction of the Ceylon Tamils, evident enough in the early 1970's, is lightly treated: so that readers are ill prepared for the recent upsurge of a terrorist group devoted to a Tamil separatist state; and as a result of which the author can, incorrectly conclude that the move towards "communal adjustment" demanded by the decolonisation had been satisfactorily (by force!!) achieved by 1962 (pp. 340-341).

But this deterioration in the review of events in the mid 1970's is surely understandable. In sum, this is a judicious and readable political history. It does not serve the uninitiated alone. There is much within it for the aficionados.
-Courtesy University of Adelaide Forum News

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