Feb. 10, 1987,
Reflection I:


Set free to struggle for freedom

"Truth and Freedom"

Rev. Dr. A. George Ninan


Text: John 8:31-46


I was in Geneva last week for a meeting, planning for another consultation. And I heard many people talking about the need to make the whole consultation, a worshipping one. They were saying worship should not only be at the beginning or at the end of an activity. The whole process must be a worshipping one.

The ecumenical world has talked so much (and rightly so I underline the need to talk) about the structures, systems and macro-analysis and strategies, etc. It is important for us also to look into our own hearts, into the life of the church, to look into our own self-righteousness. Many of us say, the churches are wrong, we are the ones who are right. I mean we criticise the fundamentalists, but a lot of URM people behave like intolerable fundamentalists too.

We have to recapture spirituality. In the struggle itself there is spirituality. But it is also important for us to be humble, to be a worshipping community, a studying community, a community that follows Jesus Christ as closely as possible.

These are some of the contexts in which I will be looking at the passages of the Bible as we reflect on our faith this morning.

For our credal reflection this morning, I have chosen the theme: "Set free to struggle for freedom."

Some of you attended the CCA-URM theological reflection in Bangkok which was arranged as a preparation and a URM contribution to the CCA assembly on the theme: "Jesus Christ Sets Free to Serve" And from our experiences we drew the following formulation about the CCA theme. For us this meant, we are "Set free to struggle for freedom." Between freedom and struggle one finds a dialectical relation in the sense that unless you struggle for freedom for all humanity and for God’s creation, you cannot be free. The more you participate in the struggle for freedom, for all, the more the process makes you free.

This is where we differ with traditional Christian feeling which says: "I will just believe in Jesus Christ, and I am free." It does not happen that way. You have to struggle for the freedom of all God’s creation.

I have divided this theme into three parts.

For today, the theme is "Truth and Freedom" taken from John 8:31-46. The second study tomorrow will be on "People — SIZE="2">carriers of truth and initiators of freedom" taken from John 9:1.27; and then the last one "Costly way to freedom" from John 10 and Hebrews 5.

I hope we will be able to enter into a common spirit of seeking, searching for truth and humbling ourselves before God as he speaks to us. So today our text is John 8:31-46.

We are very familiar with the teachings of Jesus Christ particularly in the context of the temple setting. This is part of his ministry within the temple. He had his own natural links there — the Jews, Pharisees and those hanging around the temple. This was the setting where Jesus made this proclamation: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."

He was speaking to a group of religious people, maybe like all of us, and they all had something in common. They all longed for freedom. They were at that time under Roman rule and the Jews generally believed that one day, God is going to liberate them. But unlike the Zealots, we find that the Jews were not thinking of a political struggle for freedom. But they were all expectant. The Bible clearly says in the opening verse: "Turning to the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said." In other words, they were not hostile to him. They were wanting to know a little more about him. They had some kind of a favorable attitude toward him.

There are two or three things I would like to mention about the process to freedom. I find Jesus affirming that freedom is a process. It is not a single process. It reminds me of a common mistake of preaching the Gospel in order to produce instant Christians. Like you preach at the pulpit and then you ask people to take a few steps forward and presto, you have Christians. This kind of preaching must be a product of modern "instant" culture. You have instant coffee, instant pain-killers, etc. This is not the way. There is a process involved in freedom. There are personal, historical, structural processes to freedom. I would like to propose three steps in the process of gaining freedom:

1. The first step is an encounter with truth.

If we look at human history, specifically Asian history, we find Asian people having encountered truth constantly in their history. Asians may understand God as a spirit who reflects in him the power to create, promoting the values of justice, love, beauty and freedom. God has been confronting human beings with truth for a long time.

I come from India where many religions were born and where new ones are being accepted. India is predominantly Hindu. But there are Buddhists and believers of Jainism, which spun from Hindu. We also have Christianity and Islam. No one can say that God has not been confronting our people with truth till the Western missionaries came. Truth has been confronting our people and our people have encountered truth. They have known God of justice, the God of love, the God of righteousness, of beauty and freedom. God is a He or She, and whatever form he took, he has been confronting people with truth.

But in Jesus Christ we find a uniqueness, in the sense we find in him an authentic human being, in the middle of the life situation of people, confronting his fellow people with truth. And as we see in Gospel stories, Christ preached the good news to all and the truth was more readily accepted by the poor rather than by the rich. Jesus spoke the truth which was often contrary to what temple leaders were saying. While multitudes of poor and a sprinkling of rich people followed Jesus, the Pharisees on the whole called him an impostor and rejected him.

And so on in history. God actively makes his presence felt and confronts his people with the truth using non-traditional sources. God has been active through ordinary people, confronting the powerful with the themes of justice, love and freedom. He has spoken through rebels and through the least in society to the great confusion of all professional theologians and church people, who had thought that God only speaks through them.

You see we cannot own God. We cannot predict and declare that God only speaks through the church. Nobody singly owns the truth. Nobody owns God.

2. The second step is to dwell in truth.

The Jesus story tells us that God became human and chose to be born in a manger in the company of shepherds and farm animals. To the traditional temple leaders who had expected a royal king, the birth of the Messiah in a manger must have been the most galling thought.

Was God saying something in choosing Jesus’ birth place? Is God pointing to where truth dwells in Jesus’ birth, or is it a mere accident? I think that the birth and the life of Jesus point to a consistent and more fundamental truth. God wishes humanity to focus their attention on his oppressed and exploited creation. Jesus walked among the poor, the sick, the outcastes, all who in Jewish society would be considered the sinners. And by speaking about their situation, their suffering and aspiration for liberation, God was directing humanity to the unfinished task of rescuing creation from its bondage.

God is directing us to where his central concern is — his suffering people. This is where truth dwells and where his followers are called to preach the good news — SIZE="2">the urban poor, the slum areas, the peasant communities.

Furthermore, more than to direct us to the poor, God commands us to dwell in truth. It is not enough to encounter truth. We must dwell among the poor, and like the rich young ruler, deny ourselves, give up our wealth and power and struggle with the poor in the process of gaining freedom. Even among us who profess to be struggling with people, the need to struggle against the corrupting influence of power, must be recognized and fought against.

3. The third step is to struggle.

One of the things that truth does is to confront you with the question — what are you going to do about it? Truth makes you struggle. If truth does not make you struggle, then you probably have not seen or dwelt in truth, at all.

So this is the process towards freedom. You encounter truth. You dwell in truth and struggle for truth and consequently for freedom.

The second point I would like to make in the relationship between truth and freedom is that there is a need to identify the bondages which hold us, and from which we seek to be liberated.

In analysing the text this morning, we see the first bondage as the inability of people to go beyond their traditional way of thinking. In reply to Jesus pronouncement, the people said: "We are Abraham’s descendants; we have never been in slavery to any man. What do you mean we will become free men?" This is the bondage of having a traditional understanding of the structures and systems of truth.

I dare say that this does not exclude URM people who are content with their systems of structural analysis. When we make our ideas fixed, unchanging and almost an idol in itself, we are tied down to a new bondage. When we are unaware of the need to change our views, how then can we be free? Freedom entails constant analysis and self-criticism, in order to understand changing conditions and situations.

A second bondage is related to the first — a sense of exclusiveness within the church or any community. In this morning’s text, we find the people reacting to the accusation that they are not the chosen people. They said, "We are not base-born; God is our father and God alone." The second bondage is a kind of exclusiveness. People forget the fact that they have been and still are in bondage.

So Jesus tells them: "You are children of the Devil." I mean, he is not sparing any words. If you look at the last verse, Jesus comes up with a sharp attack on their basic faith and feelings.

You know, one of the emerging concerns in many Asian countries especially in India, but also in Malaysia (somebody was mentioning it to me yesterday) and Pakistan, is this religious fundamentalism and communalism. I received a letter from a friend from India who has been fighting with the oppressed Dalit (outcaste) community. And he said, "we are now going to fight against religious fundamentalism and communalism." He is a Christian. In this case he is not fighting against Hindus or Muslims. He feels that there is a growing religious fundamentalism in the Christian churches.

There was a big issue in one part of India. I do not know all the details, but it is related to the sixth or so temptation of Jesus. A Marxist-motivated group wanted to put up a play saying that Jesus had some kind of an affair going on with a woman, and all the rest of it. Upon hearing of this, the bishops and church leaders all got out into the street and made demonstrations and processions and so, the government, in the name of Peace and Order, had to prevent the showing of the play.

One Indian bishop said, "why should we think that Jesus needs to be defended? This means you think so little of Jesus. He can defend himself. Why is the church so nervous?" And I have found that whenever the church institution is touched, then all the bishops, the clergy and the faithful are on the road, protesting it. And the question is, why is it that when certain other issues like Justice and Peace come, hardly can we find any church participants?

So then there is this whole feeling in many parts of Asia, whether related to Islam or Christianity, of religious fundamentalism, preserving one’s own faith and wanting to protect it against real or imagined attackers. And as one religion becomes fundamentalistic, the other religions follow the trend, resulting in intolerance. This is a form of bondage which can only create more exclusiveness and self-righteousness which prevents truth from shining through.

Christians have much theological bondage. Most of us are products of the Western missionary movements. And we find it difficult to move away from the missionary framework. I am not blaming the missionaries. They had their understanding of what the Gospel meant, which they passed on to us. But we have come of age. The missionary framework can be a bondage. The Maoris are doing something worthwhile about it. Dalit communities are also trying to do something about it. I wish URM can do more to break this bondage.

I am concerned that even we in URM talk a lot of radicalism in our theological discussions but we use Latin American expressions and seem unable to draw from Asian experiences in order to create a new framework. Of course, there have been people like M.M. Thomas and others, but they are few. We are still largely using old or ageing frameworks.

Going back to the text. The people said: "We have never been slaves." In other words, they are not aware of their own state of bondage. They think that they are already free, so why should we be challenged to change? This is bondage of a kind.

So Jesus shocks them: "If God is your father, why are you not listening to me." Why can’t you see the truth? The answer is, of course, people cannot recognize the truth or having recognised it, cannot struggle for the truth because struggling means moving away from comfort and taking sacrifices.

The third point is "Truth sets free."

Once again we have to affirm that God is truth. I mentioned earlier that the Pharisees who were waiting for a "miracle" on one hand, and the Zealots, who thought of Jesus as a political leader, on the other hand, both failed to see the truth. Jesus failed the expectations of both the Pharisees and the Zealots. Eventually, both went against or disowned Jesus.

I would like to emphasize that there is a need to combine both spiritual and political movements in our struggles. Many of the present movements in the world today, if they are not failing today, and many are moving in that direction, if they are failing the hopes and aspirations of the people today, it is because the combination has not been made.

Either the movements have anchored themselves on mere political programs or their movements have left it entirely to "divine guidance." We cannot be entirely dependent on our knowledge, our strategies, our methodologies, we should also grasp the truth "God seeks to be on our side." We are not alone.

Radical people exclusively use Marxist analysis (I have no problem in that) but there is a danger in absolutizing ideology. It is only in the Philippines where I find some discussion of faith in relation to ideology. Participation in political struggles is needed but what is the particular contribution we have to make to these political movements? How do we function as salt of the revolution, so that the beauty, the taste comes out? Unless we are able to affirm God is truth and say, as we engage in struggle: "When I fight for truth, I am not merely fighting for a particular goal, I am fighting for truth, and that is God and truth is in God," then I do not see any contribution.

Another aspect of this struggle as far as Christian participation is concerned is, we are living in a world where experience is the Word. How can you get the job done? I find it more and more unbearable that the ecumenical movement is moving in the direction of being B.T.O. (big-time operator) as far as solidarity to people’s struggle is concerned.

We have to put God in the center of this search, this struggle. We have to put truth, the truth of Jesus Christ in all our efforts.

The other point I want to make is "Truth brings conflict." In this stanza, Jesus says: "Why are you trying to kill me? I am offering you freedom. I am telling you the truth. I am truth itself" But what did they want to do with him? They wanted to kill him.

When I was in Bombay, a supportive bishop once told me, there are three complaints about the organization I was leading at that time. One is, we were supposed to believe in conflict. So I told the bishop, conflict does not mean that I will take a stone and throw it to a window. We are talking about conflict the way Mahatma Gandhi defined it, when he stood up to the British colonial power and said "Quit India!" And to say that without having any weapons, calls for tremendous spiritual power. So I told the bishop, conflict is a spiritual matter, it is not simply physical violence, it could be a part of it, I don’t know. Conflict is a necessary process in moving towards freedom and in searching for truth.

That is why I believe that we should challenge each other. We must have tension between us. And I have no respect for people who withdraw from conflict.

The final point I want to say is that, we move from the status of slaves to the status of being children. The text says, "The slave has no permanent standing in the household, but the son belongs to it forever. If then the son sets you free, you will indeed be free."

In other words, when you are free you move from the status of being a slave to that of a son and the whole relationship changes — SIZE="2">between us and God, but also between each of us. That relationship is a fuller one, with brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, sharing resources among each other and becoming responsible one to the other. Freedom brings about a new worldview of caring and responsibility.

A master/slave relationship is not oppressive to the slave only in the sense that he is regarded as an animal without rights, but also because it makes the slave uncaring towards himself and without any responsibility to others. When you have become a son or daughter, the relationship is changed. You are a new creature, having rights to your humanity and having responsibility to others. That is why we believe that poverty is not a question of lack of food, it is a question of justice. When there is justice you have people wanting to be responsible members of society.

And finally, if we have become children, we should be able to reflect in our lives the values of justice and freedom. Otherwise, we are not children but still slaves.

So friends, here I must stop.

[This Bible Study is one of three that was presented at the URM Committee Consultation held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 9-12 February 1987]