Towards a Faith Perspective of URM in India
by John Mohan Razu
(Ed. note: The author is the dean of field education at United Theological College in Bangalore, India. This paper was presented at the National Staff Conference of the National Council of Churches in India-Urban Industrial Rural Mission [NCCI-UIRM], May 1995, Bangalore.)
As I am about to write this paper, two incidents in which I have been involved come to mind. The first occurred in 1992 when I accompanied a Swedish student from Uppsala University on her field study with the Western Region Revival Program (WRRP), a program of the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC) that was jointly implemented in cooperation with and funded by the Church of Sweden Mission (CSM). The field study covered all of the 24 villages in and around the districts of Coimbatore and Pollachi in the state of Tamil Nadu in which WRRP was involved. The main objective of the program was to build and repair churches in these villages in order to sustain the people's faith. It was assumed that faith could be sustained among Christians in these villages by building and repairing churches.
Against this background, I had formulated a number of questions. One of the main questions I posed to the members of these village congregations was whether the newly built or renovated churches sustained their faith. The most common answer was the same: "We are Christians because our parents and grandparents were Christians, and we are being squeezed between the Church and contextual realities."
People have stopped looking to the Church for help as the government's benefits that are available to Hindus tempts many of these Christians to return to Hinduism. This causes an identity-faith crisis. Consequently, the WRRP object of sustaining the faith of Christians by constructing and repairing churches has encountered many obstacles.
For example, in the village of Nalligoundanpalayam where WRRP has built a church, a woman who had all of the qualifications applied for a job as a cook with a midday meal program of the government. After the preliminary scrutiny, the government officials came to her home located in the Christian cluster of the village - right next to the newly constructed church - for verification. There they found a Bible. It was too late to hide it as by then it had already been discovered. Immediately they told her that she belongs to a privileged community and could go to her church for help; but even in the church, she did not get a job.
After listening to her, I asked, "Why do you still remain a Christian?"
It turned out to be a very relevant question in this context; for without any hesitation, she retorted, "It is because of my faith in Jesus Christ who is the Lord and the Savior."
The second incident occurred when recently a friend and I visited a village called Kothooru located about 16 kilometers inland from Nellore in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Most of the villagers are dalit Christians and landless agricultural laborers. As we walked around the village, we saw a man with a Bible in his hand coming out of a hut. We were curious to know who that person was. As we entered the house, we saw that the hut was partially dilapidated. The woman who was living there was in her 50s. She had become a widow at a very young age and had no children.
Since she was known to my friend, I casually asked her who had just visited her home. She said that he is a pastor from a nearby church who visits her once a month. Whenever he visits, he reads from the Bible, prays, offers a blessing and leaves. I then inquired about the scripture that he had read, and she replied that it was from I Kings 17:8-16.
This passage tells the story of the prophet Elijah and a widow who fed him in Zarephath, a town where Yahweh had sent him near Sidon. As Elijah was entering Zarephath, he saw a widow who was gathering firewood and asked her to give him water to drink. As she was about to bring the water, Elijah called and asked her to bring a morsel of bread. In reply, she said, "I have nothing but only a handful of meal in a bowl and a little oil in a jar. I will prepare, share with my son and die." Having listened to the widow, Elijah tells her to prepare a meal and serve him first and afterwards make for them. "For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, the bowl of meal shall not be spent and the jar of oil shall not fail."
During her conversation, she also mentioned that, though the same pastor had been visiting her for the past 15 years, nothing had changed. In fact, the situation had worsened. She lives in poverty and hunger; but despite her miserable and hopeless condition, she has continued to affirm her faith, and that really moved me.
It was in this context that I asked her the following question: "Why do you want to remain a Christian?"
"My faith in Jesus Christ is unshakeable," she answered, "and I firmly believe that Jesus Christ will answer my prayers one day."
Both incidents mentioned above, by and large, tend to vividly portray one basic factor vis-a-vis faith. In their own way, the people above have articulated their faith. Their statement of faith is neither coherent nor comprehensive nor logically constructed. However, their articulation of day-to-day experiences by all means amplifies their belief or faith affirmation. Thus, these two incidents raise one basic question: "What is Christian faith?"
II. Christian Faith: Some Basic Clarifications
For Christians, faith has been, and is, the source, the driving force and the common goal of their being. Likewise, faith has also been, and is, the focal point of individuals and groups who are associated with urban rural mission (URM) at various levels. Therefore, faith does occupy center stage in the life and mission of URM. If this is the preamble, what then is Christian faith?
The Hebrew word for "faith" (emunah) echoes a fundamental trust in God's presence and care, guidance and sovereignty, as becomes clear from the faith of Abraham, Moses and the prophets (see Heb. 11).(1) To be more precise, the World Council of Churches (WCC) in its Faith and Order consultation in Rome in 1983 drafted a tentative definition of faith as follows:
"The term `faith' indicates at the same time a decisive act and a continuing attitude of believing (fides qua creditur) as well as a set of beliefs and convictions (fides quae creditur). The Old and New Testaments witness that faith in God is expressed by an existential, personal and communal act and attitude of acceptance, decision, trust, confidence, confessing, hope and obedience. This fides qua can never be without or separated from the content of faith (fides quae). Otherwise, the act of faith would be an empty or a purely self-generated act. The content of faith is determined by the one towards whom it is directed. This fides quae can be expressed in a great plurality of forms, ranging from the short Biblical affirmations, such as `Jesus is Lord,' to massive theological expositions."(2)
As mentioned in the above quotation, we need to take serious note of the content of faith. J. Russell Chandran reminds us that "we need to distinguish between the experience or the exercise of faith and the formulated content of faith, between an attitude of unconditional confidence, devotion and total commitment to trust, on one hand, and a proposition or verbal formulation describing that relationship on the other. Identifying faith with the formulation of faith is a serious mistake."(3) Therefore, according to Chandran, "Faith is an `experience' in which we respond to the Good News of God and acknowledge all that He does for our being and for our salvation."(4)
For M. M. Thomas, faith should really be concerned with the wider interests of the national community. Furthermore, faith should not be confined to the narrow self-interests of one's own community. In the traditional understanding, Thomas states:
"Faith is a very internal thing where the self surrenders to a reality called God. Thus, it is a self-God relationship. Faith is a total self-surrender to God - trust. Faith is concerned with the totality of self. We are surrendering our feeling, thinking and willing. It is surrender of the totality of self to God. Because it is total, there is no thinking in parts. It must express itself wholly in the totality of life. Therefore, faith itself is creed, cult and culture. Formulated beliefs are known as creed, and rituals of worship are referred to as cult. Faith is more than creed, more than cult. . . ."(5)
Thus, faith ought to be seen in toto and not in parts. Since faith is a total surrender of oneself to God, faith has to be expressed in one's total being. More importantly, faith is concerned with spiritual reality as well as the material conditions of people. It is in this context that James Cone succinctly points out that "Christian faith, in particular, is an imaginative and apocalyptic vision about the creation of a new humanity that is derived from the historical and political struggles of oppressed peoples."(6) Continuing further, he says, "The beginning and the end of Christian faith is found in the struggles for justice on behalf of the victims of oppressive societal structures."(7) In precise terms, Cone adds that "faith is that total commitment which gives a people their identity and, thus, determines what they must do in order to actualize in society what they believe necessary for the attainment of their peoplehood."(8)
Some of the persuasive definitions of Christian faith discussed in this section tend to converge. They undoubtedly seem to be converging at the core or at the very essence. Apparently the converging element that underlies all the definitions thus far discussed is "one's commitment to an ultimate concern." This obviously would mean that there can be no separation between faith and obedience because obedience determines faith. Therefore, faith is not by what you confess but by what you do.(9) This statement very clearly underlines that "the very nature of faith demands a practical activity commensurate with its confession."(10)
As expressed above, faith is a dialectic that entails the text and the context. It emphasizes one's involvement and commitment. "The dialectic is between action and reflection, between hearing the liberating word and doing the liberating deed, between the realization of truth and the fulfillment of promise."(11)
Furthermore, "this hermeneutical circle has its basis in the relationship between word and history and in the dialectical unity of theory and praxis and especially in a profound human commitment or conscious option and partiality to the oppressed and to their liberation."(12) In the ultimate analysis, faith will have to culminate in the form of practical activities. What does it mean by "practical activity"? What forms does practical activity take? If faith demands practical activity, one should be clear about his or her acts. For example,
"Acts of justice, struggles for freedom and the liberation of life from degradation and the celebration of life do constitute faith and hope and love in their concrete authenticity. Faith battles with sin, both individual and structural. Where there is battle with sin, there is faith, though inarticulate. Faith realizes itself historically as acts of service and love. Faith is good works and liberating practice. . . . It goes far beyond private conscience and the saving of one's soul. It engages in the political and the structural and understands human and life-respecting situations as the form and place of grace."(13)
These efforts and actions imply our faith affirmations about God and human beings, about the world in which we live and its ultimate meaning. Our practical activities and actions should involve the pursuit of people's liberation and expressions of solidarity. Our activities as well as our actions should participate in the battles for justice, the struggles for freedom and the emancipation of life from exploitation and dehumanization.
III. Christian Faith and URM
It is important at this juncture to ask a crucial question: What is URM? Though we have been associated with URM in various capacities for many years, our understanding and perception of URM tends to vary among ourselves. Therefore, we will have to face the fact that there are a number of views and shades of understanding regarding URM. Despite the diversity of views and polarity of understanding, all of us are bound together by one common factor that compels us to relate with URM. The understanding that we have in common with URM is aptly articulated in the following:
"Our understanding of global URM is that of an extended family. . . . Both words describe community and family as people bonded together by history, suffering, struggle and faith in God. As part of this kind of `extended family,' we accept our common priorities, procedures and guidelines as expressed in our perspective on mission, programs and mutual accountability. . . . Biblical, theological and faith reflection are a central dimension of our life together. We have been led through our common experiences to a compelling common vision. . . . Our history has taught us time and time again that faithfulness to any vision requires a common discipline, which eventually becomes self-discipline. `Discipline' springs from the word disciple, and true discipleship is at the heart of the vision to which we aspire.
Basically, it was as a result of the concerns, actions and experiences over three decades that URM agreed on the following self-description:
Out of this understanding, URM has emerged as a fellowship of individuals and groups committed to the call of the Gospel. It is this understanding that has brought communities and groups involved in actions for justice and human dignity to gradually become knit together in a loose fellowship of solidarity and common understanding. This common understanding is, by and large, influenced by escalating militarization and violence locally, nationally and globally, the increasing exploitation of people by governments and transnational corporations (TNCs) and the widespread denial of human rights and dignity.
Undoubtedly, it is these objective realities that has deepened the commitment of individuals and constituent groups of URM to become involved in organizing for the empowerment of the victims of oppression and marginalization in local communities, thus, enabling them to participate in the decision making processes which affect their lives. Such community-based actions from the micro-macro liberation perspectives undergirds the expression of faith. Therefore,
VI. The Essential Perspectives of Christian Faith
First and foremost, we, as Christians, must acknowledge the fact that this world belongs to God and not to us (Ps. 24). God created the world and humankind in His image out of nothing and in a pure act of <MI>agape<D> love. For God, humanity is a central concern. God is a God of life. In a world where demonic power and the presence of death has grown in the wake of maketization and globalization, the defense of life implies a faith perspective that can respond to societal realities. Therefore, a perspective that defends and sustains life is essential. This faith perspective is to affirm life, which is a gift of God who is the author of life, bringing it forth and nurturing it in the cosmos, in history and in and through us.
"The fundamental aspect of faith is to affirm that it is God who continues to create, liberate, sustain and preserve life. For example, the Old Testament faith in God is based on the historical event of emancipation where Israelite slaves became God's free people with the mandate of advocating freedom to all. Freedom is a gift of faith. The God of the Old Testament is the God of justice whose manifestation is identical with the liberation of the oppressed. Negation of this fundamental Biblical principle is tantamount to tilting God's created order. It is against God and His integrity of Creation. It is also against God's plan and intention. Whatever action directed against humanity that denies the basic rights and dignity of people through unjust political, economic, social, religious and cultural arrangements is directed against God. When the prophets, like Jeremiah and Amos, put forth God's demands before the kings and the priests of Israel, the demand is identical with justice and human dignity for the poor and the vulnerable. A faith that expresses itself either in words or in rituals is not enough:
The above passage vividly expounds that Israel will be sent back to servitude, not because of their failure in attending to religious services, but because of the economic oppression of the poor. Through this, we can discern that God calls and inspires a particular individual, group, community, to serve as witnesses, not only by their words, but also by their lives and relationships.
Similarly, we, as Christians, affirm our faith that God has revealed Himself in the form of a person sharing our miseries, that the Creator in His humility and love has been revealed in the personhood of Jesus. Furthermore, God's solidarity with the socially ostracized and peripherized is found in the New Testament, particularly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who identifies with the poor, the unemployed, in order to show God's judgment against socio-economic, politico-cultural systems that oppress and exploit the weak. Our faith, therefore, ought to be centered in the one who came in Christ for the liberation of the poor.
Jesus centered His witness on "Kingdom values," a transformation and fulfillment of life on earth "here and now," and commissioned us to be faithful to God's Kingdom, the "Good News." Thus, Christian faith offers a basis for living - a quality of relationships and human community that reflects God's creating nature. More importantly, the Kingdom values - justice, freedom, equality, peace and love - must not remain as mere abstractions but must be given concrete and genuine expression in the social, economic, political and cultural realms of life. These Kingdom values are never easily accepted by humankind in general but are found in conflict with the dominant and demonic powers-that-be of this world, either political, social or "structural" (of class, caste, gender and the economy).
The radical imperative of engaging in that polemic struggle is by giving our solidarity and priority, as Jesus so often did, to the victims of the powers-that-be (namely, fisherfolk, women, landless agricultural laborers, political refugees, slum dwellers and so many more) who are peripherized and marginalized by those who have power.
The term "praxis" is very closely related to the philosophy of Karl Marx. For Marx, "it is in human beings' purposeful transformation of the world that they create themselves as well as the world around them. To be sure, they cannot do it . . . arbitrarily but according to the laws of the material world (of which they are a part), not as a purely mechanical operation, but as human work, an intention through which one affirms one's freedom."<M^>17<D> In a broad sense,
To a larger extent, praxis is connected with the Christian faith. Some of the elements are as follows:
Christian praxis, by and large, is connected with the Christian idea of obedience. It also corresponds with the execution of the dimension of faith to be practiced in concrete situations. For example, in the New Testament, Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). This aspect was clearly elucidated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that "only he who believes in obedience and only he who is obedient believes."
Continuing further, he adds, "It is quite un-Biblical to hold the first proposition without the second. . . . Faith is only real when there is obedience - never without it - and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience." Therefore, he says that "only the obedient believe. . . . Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith is only a pious humbug and leads us to grace which is not costly."(20)
In India, "oppressed Christians'" perception of Biblical insights has enabled them to fuse faith with obedience. They have understood the ways and means by which religion is employed to domesticate them. For example, I have heard many preachers interpret the following verse: "Blessed are the poor who shall inherit the Kingdom of God." By using this passage, they subtly tend to indoctrinate and validate the existential realities. Usually congregation members listen to it and remain passive; but on one occasion, a minister's sermon on this text was interrupted by a poor villager with a question: "Will the poor be free only in heaven?" The preacher was stunned and bewildered. Usually Biblical passages are interpreted in order to maintain the status quo. People are indoctrinated with the "otherworldly" dimension in order to keep the poor passive and subdued. Because the oppressors would like to dominate, exploit and maintain the status quo, they tend to employ all kinds of mechanisms to control people. It is in this context that Marx is right in his contention that religion is the opiate of the people and, therefore, should be eliminated.
Praxis revolves around a specific social theory of reality or ideology in order to bring forth in society justice, which is inherent in faith. If faith is the belief that God created human beings in His image, then praxis is the social theory used to analyze the structures of injustice in order to establish a just society. By all means, we need to bring together faith and praxis because faith can only be expressed in concrete situations in order to establish a just world order. Thus, "the concretization of faith actualized through love can only be done by connecting faith with the praxis of justice."(21)
V. URM's Faith Response to India's Stark Realities
India is a portrait of poverty in which more than one-third of the world's absolute poor live. It is estimated that more than 400 million people live below the poverty line. About 216 million are without access to drinking water, and about 75 million children (of which 54 million are girls) do not go to school. Even 47 years after independence, only 52 percent of Indians are literate. With regard to females, only 39 percent can read and write. Nearly 47 million children under 5 are malnourished. Child marriage, although illegal, is still widely practiced. Official statistics as of 1991 report that one woman is molested every 26 minutes in the country. Sexist behavior culminating in sexual harassment has increased.
Furthermore, an analysis of the present situation of the country warrants a deep understanding of the circumstances that have led to the emergence of the present problems. Many factors have been instrumental in shaping the current complex problems which have economic, social and political dimensions.
The problem of the New Economic Policy (NEP), for example, is one of the particularly serious issues among the series of crises that has afflicted India in recent years. The NEP has opened the economy with an understanding that foreign capital led by TNCs will bring technology, the technical know-how to generate employment opportunities, increased exports, an acceleration of foreign exchange reserves and other benefits. More worrisome, however, the NEP has increased transnational involvement in the country's economy. In order to exploit the growing middle-class segment of 200 million people who constitute a potential mass of consumers, most of the world's leading TNCs have established their operations in India in all sectors.
Looking at this development, I wonder whether the ultimate objective of economic reforms is the welfare of all the people, especially the 400 million who live below the poverty line, or for only the growing middle-class and elite segments constituting about 200 million. One cannot trust the "market-driven economy" and "trickle-down theory" to provide all of the basic and essential needs of the masses. The State cannot leave the economy to market forces. An argument may be posed that in the "long term" the benefits of the market economy may seep through the labyrinth of social strata and percolate to the masses, but that will neither happen nor even be realized to those at the submarginal level of existence. As John Maynard Keynes put it, "In the long run, we are all dead."
Deteriorating economic conditions in India have brought catastrophic political and social consequences. With new development initiatives now in operation through the structural adjustment policy, continued reductions in the public sector are escalating unemployment problems and are giving rise to "grave consequences for social cohesion." The gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" continues to increase.
In addition, mounting inequalities have fueled "communal tensions." It is to be noted that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shiva Sena and other communal groups have succeeded in attracting primarily unemployed youth. Thus, unemployment has also contributed to the spread of communalism.
The problem of communalism must also be seen as a structural problem. This problem cannot be seen in isolation. Based on a study, Asgheer Ali Engineer says, "Many riots clearly establish that mainly unemployed youth participate in arson and looting. It gives them temporary relief from economic misery. It also fulfills their wish to possess consumer durables, like televisions and refrigerators. During the Bombay riots of December 1992 and January 1993, such items were looted."(22)
The new wave of liberalization has brought a tremendous change in consumer behavior. In the past few years, there has been a change in consumption patterns at all levels, and the capacity for consumption has increased considerably. The invasion from the skies through the multifarious television channels into average households has brought about a change in the attitudes of the middle-class consumer. This segment of the population has acquired a new status, and their wants are growing. They tend to imitate the Western standards of lifestyle, and TNCs are the only vehicles to cater to their wants.
Furthermore, two-thirds of the research in molecular biological work, which is capital-intensive and requires specialized skills, is being done by giant TNCs having interests in the seed, pesticide and chemical industries, and this valuable genetic information is becoming their exclusive property. The enormous amount of genetic resources from plants is being plundered by these transnationals for their future commercial interests. Similarly, TNCs have turned the country into a virtual dumping ground for toxic and plastic wastes. India is also now poised to become a major manufacturer of pesticides. Economic liberalization is attracting as well major international players seeking links with local partners, connecting production with trade.
Thus, the TNC phenomenon, as such, is the culmination of this modern industrial era, which is intertwined with a capitalistic value system. This system measures its advancement through quantification. For example, by what standard do we pace ourselves? By the quantity of goods produced and the number of times they are transferred from one to another? By the amount of energy consumed? How fast technology can conquer Nature? These are some of the dominant standards or parameters with which progress is measured by the industrial world. Furthermore, monetary measures, such as per capita income, gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product (GDP), etc., are also quantified.
Today we keep hearing abstract terms, such as "inflation," "civilized society," "market values," "shares," etc. We should ask the following questions: Who is gaining by these concepts, and whose livelihood is being ruined? Who is deciding for whom, and who is going to suffer the consequences? Obviously, those who are pushed back or peripherized - humble fisherfolk, poor women, slum dwellers, landless agricultural laborers, tribals and so many more - will be affected.
At this juncture, certain pertinent questions have to be directed at URM as well. In the prevailing scenario, what has been the role of URM? Did it struggle with the masses in realizing their dreams? Did it suffer with the suffering and comfort the crying? In its plans and programs, has there been a provision to counter the demonic powers that throttle peoples' lives? Have there been practical approaches to their problems? How did URM respond to the agonies of the oppressed? What are URM's priorities? We certainly do learn who are the dominant "powers of the age" and how they operate. It is in this context that Jesus is no less forthright: "No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve God and money" (Matt. 6:24).
As we discern the signs of the times in our country, we see that the whole country is full of dreams and struggles for liberation and freedom. We notice the growing yearning of humanity in general for a common life based on justice and human dignity. To all of these, what is URM's response based on faith? We also witness movements struggling and fighting for justice, for political and economic freedom. Those who initiate and support these movements come from various religious and ideological backgrounds. To these movements and struggles, what is URM's faith-praxis response?
(1) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: World Council of Churches [WCC], 1991), p. 408.
(2) Ibid., p. 407.
(3) See Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. 24 No. 3 and 4, September and December 1992, p. 3.
(5) M. M. Thomas, Faith, Communality and Community (Tiruvalla: Program for Social Action [PSA], 1987), p. 5.
(6) Bangalore Theological Forum, loc. cit., p. 39.
(7) Ibid., p. 42.
(8) Ibid., p. 43.
(9) Ibid., p. 40.
(11) Third World Theologians in Dialogue, J. Russell Chandran (ed.) (Bangalore: Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians [EATWOT], 1991), p. 59.
(13) Clodovis Boff, Theology and Praxis (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), pp. 102-103.
(14) See URM Reflections 93 (Geneva: WCC, 1994), p. 9.
(15) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, op. cit., p. 1,051.
(16) Theology and Theology in Asian People's Struggle, George Ninan (ed.) (Hong Kong: Christian Conference of Asia [CCA], 1985), p. 5.
(17) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, op. cit., p. 815.
(19) Ibid., pp. 815-816.
(20) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961), pp. 54-55.
(21) Bangalore Theological Forum, loc. cit., p. 50.
(22) The Hindu, Feb. 14, 1995, p. 12.