Saturday, August 9, 2008

The church as a public sphere

The word church has been troubling and testing my thinking faculties for quite some time now. Why? The reasons are two. One, how can the church be discriminatory against the poor, the one's without power (Money and political), women, youth, children and the differently abled? Two, did Jesus practise a discriminatory ministry in which he favoured a few and if he did, who did he favour? Can the church, the congregation of believers, be unified in this huge diversity of existence?
My thoughts go in the direction of Jurgen Habermas who wrote of the public sphere. The public sphere is a space of dialogue between the people in society. The dialogue takes place in coffee houses and pubs, basically places frequented by people. I am also reminded of my colleague Johnson Peter Kunnampally's Master of Theology thesis, "Tea shop communication", in which he describes how ordinary people in Kerala come together in tea shops to discuss the day's news over a small glass or two of tea. This has been almost been wiped out now of the Kerala scene save for a few villages.
The criticism of the public sphere has been that women and the lesser privileged were kept out of the dialogue process. I cant help but think of the church as a public sphere. A place where people get together to get into dialogue about God, the society and what can be done about the injustices that happen. The church unfortunately reflects a gross misunderstanding of the sphere of the church. Women are largely kept out of the decision making process and the young and differently abled are conveniently ignored. Thus the place which should be above all injustice and discrimination itself becomes a place holding both.
Jesus appeared to be in constant dialogue with those at the lower strata of society. Every landscape became a church, every problem became a discussion. Jesus then may have taken sides, but it was definitely for the down trodden, the women, children and the sick.
What could be an ideal church, however utopian it may sound? The priest/pastor should initiate the dialogue but should not prevent others from entering the dialogue. He/she should help the process of dialogue to thrive among different age groups but not based on different socio-economic levels. Discrimination based on sex, caste and class should be done away with and people should enjoy the process of free and uninhibited communication. The global way of life is doing away with a sense of community and dialogue. Lets hope that the church and other places of worship bring this back.

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