There was a time when – in polite circles, at least, and for the sake of good company – two subjects were delicately avoided by dint of being unsuited as topics of discussion: politics and religion. Politics, however, has been cannon fodder for as long as one can remember in our conversations. Be it in [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Let not another battle brew war


There was a time when – in polite circles, at least, and for the sake of good company – two subjects were delicately avoided by dint of being unsuited as topics of discussion: politics and religion. Politics, however, has been cannon fodder for as long as one can remember in our conversations. Be it in the bedrooms of ordinary citizens or on the cocktail circuit, in corporate boardrooms and clubhouses as much as homes across the country, we talk about it so much… Maybe because there is a lot we can say and little we can do about it (save vote). On the other hand, religion has recently generated a hot topic of debate – violent chauvinistic intolerance – that has required anyone involved even obliquely to air a view, or adopt a stance (even if only of indifference, apathy, or neutrality).
For the burning question of religious intolerance to have ended its career as an (albeit controversial) conversation piece would have been a consummation devoutly to be wished. But of late – and increasingly so, it seems – some earnest individuals have taken the law into their own hands by attacking churches: both property and people. By the looks of it, some zealous and powerful forces seek to take it a step farther than simply shaping laws that will pre-empt, if not punish, ‘unethical conversions’. They seem to want to rid their respective areas of any ‘alien’ presence and every ‘foreign’ influence that has not entered the religious mainstream – yet. That’s their reason, or excuse. It doesn’t make the attacks palatable, but it gives the establishment a thin veneer of plausibility from which to pontificate, or remain silent and uncommitted to maintaining the peace; to say nothing of ensuring that law and order ensures that the vandals are brought to book…

Be that as it may, there are two aspects of immediate concern worth examining in the present context. The first is in retrospective. Looking back with the 20-20 vision that hindsight brings, one might suggest that the ‘unethical conversions’ in question (which first gave rise to violent opposition from the faith or folk religion endemic to the land) should not have been a casus belli at all. Then, as now, the citizens of our nation (bar a few, apparently) have experienced enough conflict for an entire generation, if not a lifetime, to attempt to solve religious problems by violent resort. Live and let live could have been the charitable, sensible, approach for a peaceful philosophy (such as it claims to be) to have taken. For some reason, though – and many motives have been adduced and attributed to the rampaging monk-led mobs (intolerance, insecurity, insidious hidden hands) – this is the very thing they can’t do.
The second issue is prospective: the introduction of an act or regulation to stem the rising tide of what is seen as a violation of the individual’s fundamental right of freedom to choose (and practise) one’s religion. This cuts both ways. In the past, when the issue of unethical conversions was the cause for concern, such a law would have protected the religion of the majority. Now, when the issue of religious violence is a growing cause for concern for state and citizenry, such a law will protect the rights of the minority. No longer can certain (small?) segments of the dominant race or religion be a majority with a minority complex. It behooves them to grow up.
On looking back, it appears that the reason such ‘unethical conversions’ caused such controversy at all is because the Christian community is divided in terms of dogma and doctrine. It also often acts arbitrarily in not recognizing communicants of other denominations. Some sects can be insensitive to the truth that their religion is still seen (despite a historical presence, arguably as old as 14 centuries – though the history-books say five) as an interloper or invader in a largely non-Christian nation. And as long as long as ‘ministry’, ‘evangelism’, ‘witness’, ‘testimony’, and ‘mission’ is in the hands of individuals who consider themselves accountable “only to God”, things will remain volatile. There will be accusations of unethical conversion and resultant action that threatens not only the safety of persons, but the unity of the body of Christ (the ‘Church’ en bloc as a spiritual entity) in Sri Lanka. (Today, 19th January, is ‘Unity Sunday’ for many – tellingly, not all – churches.) Worse still, the spiritual condition of the proselytes subject to fire and brimstone sermonizing – admittedly made more palatable by worldly rewards held out as a carrot – and required to ‘do church’ as a condition for continued fiduciary assistance – will be no better than their previously (‘unconverted’) state.

In looking forward, one senses impending danger for the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the practice of religion to many. This is a certainty if legislation to prevent any religion from practically exercising its rights as much as its beliefs is not carefully considered prior to being ratified. For example, if the framers of such a proposed new law do not take into consideration that one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is to share the gospel (the good news that they believe Christ brings to all people everywhere), there is going to be more trouble in paradise – to put it mildly. Militant Buddhism and missionary Christianity make for a volatile mix. Moderates of both faiths must negotiate peace.

If the Christian community does not take cognizance of the fact that its own actions will be subject to finer scrutiny than ever before, it will have failed the crucial tests of unity in plurality. The Church as it is in Sri Lanka exists in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, community. For Christians of many generations in many ages, diversity (the Church in a multi-religious milieu) and adversity (the Church under oppression and even persecution) have gone hand in hand. Is it not the case that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”? If true believers – both individual and corporate – do not act in a manner that dutifully encompassesaccountability to itself, sensitivity towards others, and grace and peace to all (in its biblically mandated role of being a faithful witness to the nations), it will then, perhaps, ‘deserve’ the persecution that is bound to come…

Of course, to judge by what happened in Hikkaduwa, those beaten and bruised by mob violence by no means deserved what they got. Therefore, the incident and its ramifications must now be reported freely, investigated fairly, and prosecuted fully. This, if nothing else, will prove the bona fides of the powers that be who are ostensibly in favour of peace and justice.

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