What it means to be a Christian in the Indian Context

by Rev. Dr A. George Ninan


Genesis 15:1- 5; 16:1- 6; 21:1-3, 14-20; and Luke 1:46-55

Sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, I greet you on behalf of over 25 million Christians in the vast land of India living as a minority in the midst of strong and polarized larger communities, trying to witness to the liberating and reconciling power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Particularly, I bring greetings from my own Church, The Church of North India, a united Church which brought together 6 major denominations in 1970, a Church which is trying to mobilise the entire membership of over 1.5 million people to participate in the Mission of God and to develop a Holistic Understanding of Mission.

It is my great privilege to be with you and to worship with you in this Church. I used to worship here from 1979 to 1985 when I was working with the Urban Rural Mission Department of CCA. My wife and I have enjoyed the fellowship in this Church and I am happy to be back here after many years.

The theme suggested for our meditation this morning is "What it means to be a Christian in the Indian context". While we all share common ideas and insights on what it means to be a Christian, the context of India may not be familiar to most of you. Gospel cannot be lived out in a vacuum. It can be lived out only in a specific context and I am happy that our focus this morning is India - a country which is poor economically, marginalised in global power equations, exploited by neo-colonial market forces and divided and weakened by extreme religious and linguistic polarisation, tension and conflicts. Yet India provides a beautiful and colourful scenario of diverse cultures, languages, food habits and variety of religious beliefs and practices.

To speak about the Indian context, I have chosen the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. Hagar stands as a symbol of victimization and projects in her life and struggle, the condition of the toiling masses of our country who form almost 85% of the total population. Hagar’s story is a remarkable one. As we heard in the Old Testament readings from the Book of Genesis Chapter 15, 16 and 21, God promised Abraham, the tribal leader, that his descendants would be a great nation, like the stars in the heavens, countless. But the fact was that both Abraham and Sarah were aging and for Sarah to deliver a child was not a practical proposition as per human understanding. Hence they schemed a way out to succeed in their dream of building up a nation of their own. Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl became the center or victim of their scheme. We are aware of the details - how she became a mistress to Abraham and became pregnant, subsequent conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Hagar running away from Abraham’s camp to the wilderness but returning to deliver Ishmail. Later on Sarah gets her own son Isaac and then there was no place for Hagar or Ishmail in the household of Abraham. Thrown out of the household, Hagar resorts to the desert, with the only hope of death to end her life and suffering. But God appears and provides for her needs and assures that her son Ishmail also would be a great leader and founder of a nation. This is the story of Hagar which has many lessons for us. Briefly I would like to mention a few.

1. Hagar was a slave and a woman. She did not belong to the household and had no rights. She had only responsibilities. To be a slave means to be powerless, particularly powerless in economic and political matters. Most of our Indian people are under bondage to economic forces and are marginalised politically, though we have a democratic system and a Constitution we are proud of. But the economic forces can manipulate the people and take advantage of them. In the International scene, India as a nation is under bondage to powerful nations and the market economy. Globalization has strengthened the neo-colonial forces against us. Our political system like Hagar, the woman in male dominated tribal society, is vulnerable before powerful governments, their clubs and their monetary institutions. We are like Hagar before Abrahams and Sarahs of the international scene. And we are a nation of Abrahams and Sarahs in our own country.

2. Hagar did not belong to the household of Abraham. She was a foreigner or belonged to a different tribe and worshiped a different God. Hence she was marginalised and treated differently by the powerful majority. She was a second class citizen in the camp of Abraham. In a country like India, religion, caste, sex etc are used to discriminate people and polarize them into different categories and communities. The stronger community tends to think of others as inferior or second class citizens. The suffering this has caused to innocent people are untold. We live in a world where identity and culture are of supreme importance. The racial prejudices and systems built on it are collapsing - like apartheid in South Africa and Caste system in India. However, the hangover from such prejudices are there still in the minds of the people. India is caught up in this internally and as a nation it belongs to the second class citizen status in the world. The first class still being dominant nations led by Anglo-Western countries. Hagar stands before us in solidarity as a victim of discrimination because she belonged to a different and powerless race, caste and tribe.

3. Hagar was taken by Abraham as a mistress, not as a wife like Sarah. The other day I was in an ecumenical gathering where some women objected to someone talking about "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" a common expression in a male dominated church. They insisted that we should talk about the "God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel." But even such progressive women voices did not speak for the inclusion of Hagar though she was very much a part of Abraham’s life and suffered more than Sarah did for the hOusehold. However the so called upper class culture and decency does not like to talk of Hagar in their circles or in their drawing rooms. She is socially, culturally and religiously not acceptable. Such hypocrisy is causing marginalisation of many in our own country. They are an embarrassment and inconvenience though they have become what they are not by their choice and have made sacrifices for the sake of the total society. Even in the international arena and among the nations the tendency is for the powerful to stick together. The poor nations are an embarrassment. They are termed lazy and unwise. Their sacrifice to maintain the interest of the dominant only make them further unlovable in the sight of those whom they serve. The vast majority of "Dalits" in India (oppressed untouchables) and the Indian nation itself along with other Asian, African and Latin American countries are Dalits among the so called affluent nations of the world and finds a solidarity with Hagar who was made a mistress. It is a question of human dignity, selfhood and basic human rights.

4. So far we talked about the nature and conditions of our people and my own nation within the global setting. Now I want to just mention how we find solidarity with Hagar in the way the majority are treated in our country. And as a nation how we are being treated by the affluent nations of the world. Due to lack of time, I will just mention a few, drawing examples from Hagar’s life.

  1. Hagar did not have any say in a matter affecting her own life. It was Sarah and Abraham who made the decision and carried it out. Just the same way decisions are made for our people by our leaders and for our nation by powerful nations.

  2. When Hagar starts enjoying her new found status as the mother of the heir to Abraham, Sarah could not stand that. This is a common phenomenon. We are so comfortable with the marginalised as they are, that any effort by them to affirm their humanity as persons, will not be tolerated. We are comfortable with giving charity but we do not want the poor to be empowered to affirm their selthood. In India, 85% of our people are born poor and die poor. Our nation itself was born poor in 1947 and still the dominant nations see that we remain poor to serve their interests.

5. Hagar is thrown out of the household. She is no more wanted, now that Isaac is there, the true descendant and heir. She was used against her will and her effort to enjoy selfhood was thwarted. Now she is banished into the desert to die. This is the experience of most of our workers in India. The wages given are just enough for them to eat, clothe and shelter themselves so that they would be available as able bodied workers the next day. Once they are sick or old or disabled, they are of no use. They are chased out to the desert to die and to be finished off.

6. The desert experiences ofHagar: She did not want to see her child dying. She is desperate and is in despair. It is in the midst of this hopelessness and despair when she meets God - the beginning of hope and the promise of a new day.

Many of our people are going through this experience of despair and hopelessness. This is our context. To be a Christian in this context means:

Firstly, to announce the good news that God is at work - as we heard in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). The promise that God is with us - Immanuel. He will change the power structures and once again uphold the sinned against, the victims of the wickedness of others. What our people need today is a hope and faith that righteousness and justice will prevail at the end. A hope in spite of the surrounding barren and hopeless desert of their lives.

Secondly, to be a Christian in Indian context is to join hands with all those who long for a just and creative society and work to affirm the self-hood of each person and all persons. To struggle against all dehumanizing forces and affirm the unity of human kind irrespective of caste, creed or sex or colour.

Thirdly, to be sensitive to our own dealings with people. Abraham and Sarah were very close to God and had tremendous faith in God. But their "human wisdom" advised them to take a short cut than to wait for God to act. That short cut put poor Hagar, Ishmail and generations after them into conflict and tension. As Christians we have to allow God to work out his promises and plans and not to go for easy and expedient solutions. Here Abraham and Sarah, good religious people, had no problem in using others to get what they wanted in life. This is because of the culture in which they lived. The culture and human wisdom took hold of them and they just used others and did not wait for God to work out His promises.

To be a Christian in the Indian context is both difficult and challenging. If we are able to see God on the side of the poor and marginalised and would be with them as they pass their desert experiences, then it is a challenging one. But culture and the so called practical wisdom to develop shortcuts is sometimes overpowering, and we end up doing harm to others. The journey is long for all ofus. Let us pray thatwe will as individuals, as families, as members ofthe church and as members of the society be able to discern God’s will and have patience to wait rather than find our own short cuts for expediency sake. To this end I pray for you as we request your prayers for us as we celebrate Immanuel - God with Us. Let the presence of God be a meaningful experience for us in this season. Amen.

(Sermon delivered 19 December 1993 at Kowloon Union Church, Hong Kong)