At a gathering of young multi-cultural people in Melbourne recently, we chanced upon a very intimate discussion on what is happening to God, given the context of a significant rise in the people who opted for “no religion” in the just concluded census. There was a deep decline in the numbers of people who professed any faith.
We were working on a celebration around Christmas and the self-introduction had a question: how did you end up in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city? Well, there were many (who came as students) convinced at the educational credentials of the universities, but there were several who said they were there not by choice but by circumstantial compulsion. “We are here because we could not be at home,” was the refrain. “We have made this wonderful city our home because our parents had to take refuge here, having been forced out of our own nations.” There was quite a lot of discussion happening on the contemporary refugee crisis. So, when the question arose of whether to let in more refugees, one person sighed: “Well, it is all in the name of God”. That is the saddest part. That one statement resounded with the pain of a collective consciousness of generations of people who were victims of war and violence in the name of God.
One aboriginal youngster, in rage, stood up and said, “They looted our land, killed our ancestors, destroyed our culture, annihilated a people—all in the name of God.” Another youngster, from South Sudan, ventured to ask: “When will they spare God from their own selfish and clandestine designs?” A young person from India brought up the Padmavati row. It had, interestingly, a Sri Lankan touch—and led to an intimate discourse on how religious fanaticism and fascism use the image of God for political gains and how cleverly people use even art to further self-interest. Therein a youth from Pakistan quipped how even the media is used to foster the enemy image, subtly pointing at how religion was used in the breaking up of the Indian subcontinent and how it is still used to nourish vested interests. A Karen youngster (from Myanmar) said all the killing fields in the world—whether subject to terrorism or state oppression—would have both the blood of the people and the tears of God. A local youngster, more in angst than in anger, said “even without bloodshed, a lot of pain has been inflicted on children and women” in the name of God—and referred to the abuses that unfold by the day.
If our God is a God of love, how can that God also be a God of hatred and war? How can we justify wars by saying they expressed the will of God? There was no doubt in any of their minds that it was a deep faith in God that helped them wade over very tough patches in their lives. It was irrefutable: they enjoyed worshipping God and experiencing the bliss and joy of fellowship. They spent considerable time in personal and corporate prayers and went the extra mile to bring a smile to several others around them. They gave to people in need much more than they could afford to. They were all appreciative of the great contributions of missionaries in the field of education and healthcare in several nations in the world. They would all want the freedom to profess their faith without fear or favour, but at the same breath they were all sad about the blame the faith communities had to shoulder— because of the “ruthlessness of people who profess the same faith in the name of God”.
We must draw up a litany of confessions acknowledging the sins of our generations and suggest a code of conduct for the religious-minded ones. “Inter-faith harmonious living together would be the panacea to most of the conflicts in the world today” was a comment endorsed in agreement.
At Rome, 1633—an oil-on-canvas painting by the Italian School
The hope is that the faith community will continue to live out the fruit of the holy spirit: love, joy, kindness, patience....
“O God You are LOVE, the source and sustainer of all LIFE. We thank you for Christ who was the epitome of LOVE and SACRIFICE, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The litany began with an affirmation of faith and they asked a very simple yet poignant and significant question at that point.
If you could turn over the wheel of time again, what aspects of your faith would you like not to be made part of the story? “We would want to make a prayer of confession, and hope we would be the channels of a new Reformation as we celebrate 500 years of another,” they said. It was indeed not an attempt to find fault with the past with a ‘holier than thou’ mindset, but it was a genuine interest in the future of the faith communities.
Hostility towards the ‘other’
The theology of divine selection was seriously misconstrued to mean that God is a God of favouritism—one who approves of only those who follow the way. Though that argument limited the limitless love of God, it found favour in the view of those who sought to confine God-talk to their clannish worldview. The other became excluded. The Salvation story was fine as long as it assured a heaven to those who followed the teaching, but it raised eyebrows when it went on to say that everything else other than mine is destined to hellfire. When killing the other was justified in the name of God—be it jehad or terror attack—Christendom was traversing dangerous terrain. The hostility towards the other took various forms and ways of expression, none of which reflected the love of God that was fundamental to the humility of Jesus Christ—something basic to the nature of faith expressions.
Christianity, which began as a movement of people who chose “the way” willing to pay the price for the faith they held dear, was gradually usurped by the powers of the world. In the catacombs and amidst persecution the faith flourished and people who were genuinely attracted to the way kept adding to the flock. But, when in the 4th century, Constantine the Roman Emperor got on board, most of the Romans also followed suit, at least for name’s sake. Religious decisions became political decisions and this intertwining of religion and political interests became a bane to the faith movement. It caused deep schisms in the Church. The subtle differences between heresies and schisms, and the various divisions that happened within the faith communities had more political reasons than theological. The one whose desire was ‘they all may be one’ had, in the blackest of ironies, spawned followers riven into factions. Conversions were seen as a political tool and a weapon of subjugation. Several social reformations that could have been achieved without thrusting anything else onto it became religiously coloured. The “other” kept getting distanced.
By severing links with cultural traditions that were part of people’s psyche, by asking them to have no social contacts with those who still profess ‘paganism’, and by letting them be drawn into observances that were alien made several people culturally ostracised without they themselves realising it. This hostility towards the other needs a ‘conversion experience’ before it can be transformed.
At the stake, May 30, 1431—an 1861 work by Frederic Legrip
Say over temporal matters
Not that there should be a secular, sacred divide separating the mundane and the profane, but history is replete with stories where the faith communities intervened and engaged in realms beyond their own. Galileo, for instance, was tried by the Inquisition and sentenced to prison for propounding a scientific theory not in tune with the understanding of the scriptures of the people who mattered at that point. The scientific renaissance that led to a cognitive revolution was seen as a threat to authority rather than a great possibility to temper faith with scientific advancement. When the faith community took upon itself the role of moral policing—a reality that took different shades and forms at different points in time, right from extreme leftists who propounded a radical liberation theology to the liberal right-wingers who decide the political climates of superpowers—there were indeed transgressions into territories that could and should have been avoided. At the root of the arms race, it would not be surprising to note that religion was the most potent weapon used. All wars fought had political and economic interests, but ‘faith’ was cynically used as a tool.
The Sale of Indulgences could be seen as a symbol of the endemic corruption that crept into the system. It continues to gnaw at the very fabric of credibility of the institutionalised faith communities in several parts of the world. Even high offices are being bought and sold. The Inquisition, where faith entered the terrain of judiciary (despite claims that the system was fair), executed people. It is immaterial whether the numbers of those whom corrupt secular systems executed are higher. There is a moral parity. Even the most ardent and devout follower cannot be blind to the reality of corrupt practices—all in the name of God.
A painting of Jerusalem after its capture by the Christians
Crusades and Colonial Expansion
When the pilgrims fought the holy wars, the word ‘crusade’ did not exist. Its etymology points at two varying possibilities. Primarily, the root word could have meant ‘crossing over’. Or it could also have meant ‘marking with a cross’. Though the seven campaigns aimed at defending the faith are referred to with the rise of imperialism, it metaphorically points to several instances of crossing over to the territories of others and making that mark indelible. This crossing over was not just a geographical or political intervention, but a much more powerful cultural invasion. All that was local was branded as “pagan”, all that did not sit well with the powers that mattered was termed “heresy”. And the pagan and the heretic were seen as targets to be annihilated. Local customs, traditions and cultural values were forcefully replaced with those of the invaders.
War inflicted unbearable pain and shame on all the vulnerable ones. Right from “holy land” to the farthest corners of the trade routes of colonialism, empire and expansionism used religion and God, divesting both of all the positive meanings and colours of life-giving possibilities they had. Territorial aggression took the form of a combined mental, spiritual, cultural, emotional and economic assault—a wholesale redefinition of identities that caused mayhem in several communities, most of whom have not yet recovered from the tremors. ‘Christianity’ remained a potted plant in several colonised lands. While the essence and person of Christ was presented in the form of the coloniser, the colonised, who were objects of mission, had to wait for a post-colonial deconstruction to understand their Christ as local, beyond limits and universal, who can and would only champion peace and harmony.
Women fighters dressed like men to join the Crusades (1095-1291) sanctioned by the Latin Church to chiefly take control of Jerusalem. In 1212, there was a Children’s Crusade where a French and a German child led thousands of children to the Holy Land.
Joan of Arc spoke with conviction and authority, and she was burnt at the stake—so goes the legend. That was in a context when several of the male-domineering figures refused to speak, lest they pay a price. While several of the acts in the name of God need be looked with a critical eye, more devastating is the silence of the faith community in contexts where they should have been prophetic voices. They claim to be the voice of the voiceless, but end up robbing them of whatever little mumbles that are left. When biblical illiteracy is celebrated and, in the name of God, crusaders keep lashing harangues at the neighbour, the appalling silence of the faith communities is deafening. So is it when digital distancing makes real-time people-to-people interaction lesser and lesser, when marriage and sexuality are being constantly redefined, where hyper and pseudo intellectualisms are being defined by strange allegiances that blind people to harsh life realities around, where creation, care and wiping the tear of the neighbour become lesser and lesser of a priority. This silence becomes unbearably painful when the evil of caste still makes itself manifest within the structures and systems of faith, when gender discrimination, exclusivity and injustice continue to be the order of the day, when violence of the elderly and violations of the vulnerable become rampant, when economic injustice and power dynamics make life harsher and harder for the poor and the marginalised.
The Hope for the Future
The Hope is that the faith community will truly continue to live out the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The mind and fragrance of Christ revealed in and emanating from the lived-out faith experience would draw people to the beauty and essence of redemption, sanctification, justification, adoption and glorification that faith signifies. Once people start obeying the golden commandment—Love your God and Love your neighbour as yourself—then people would begin loving the people in the faith communities too. This love that is manifest in several parts of the world today would find fullness in the journey from the already to the not-yet. That will leave lesser and lesser of space for the misuse in the name of God.
Vinod Victor is the Vicar of Ashburton in Melbourne that comprises the St Matthews Anglican Church and the Melbourne CSI Church