Jesus, God has become my poor neighbour
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
summary of recent political history
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.
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.
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
-Courtesy University of Adelaide Forum News