Monday, November 29, 2010

The theology and spirituality of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in India

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church or the Syrian Orthodox church in India is a church which is entwined in the spiritual-cultural spectrum of India for centuries now. As churches in India are in the process of understanding and even re-discovering their place in the new India, the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church will also have to travel the same direction at some point of time or the other. The new India is not just the India of progress but also the India of discrepancies and discriminations. As the diverse country tries to understand itself, it will also look at the various religious groups in the hope of learning things from them which will help it evolve towards a common good.

What does the church have to say about the equality of humankind, sexuality, poverty, the environment, rights deprivation and economic disparity? There may be a notion among the people of India that this church is an old, strict, limited and wasted communion of people. But there is also a notion that this very church can offer through its theology, spirituality and practice a different message for an India which wants to go full blast along the high road of development. This variance in opinion may even exist inside the church itself. There are those who say that church tradition means that which is unchanging and those who say that tradition evolves with time and therefore does not stand still in the time gone by.

What could be some of the aspects we could learn from? The church gains understanding from the Trinitarian relationship of God, is energised by the communitarian essence of worship which is an unending spiritual and practical expression of believers, is aware of the unseen and unheard which brings about humility into the essence of living, brings in a special concoction of the body and the being and keeps in living memory the special relationship of God, humans and creation. These cannot be explained by members of the church. They can only be lived out. This brings out the need for the Syrian Orthodox church to live out their faith in India. The actual living will express itself in various ways and it would be dangerous to give a hard and fast ruling on this.

The church will have to include others in India in this living out of its faith. This will bring out the struggle to include others into a so far exclusive circle which we have created by the non-living of our faith. Better still we may have to do away with the circle all together or make it a flexible circle which includes all, in opposition to excluding all. The church thus has to be an inclusive, creative and life affirming community of believers. There has to be a coming together of the old and the new. This is the meeting point which the church has to affirm to the people of India. This could be the development model which seeks to conserve for many, rather than destruct in the pursuit of happiness for the few.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The religiosity of an Indian Syrian Christian when faced with atrocity

The news of the massacre of Christians in Iraq still hits me hard. Several of my sisters and brothers being murdered in cold blood is not a pleasant sight or thought. My feelings go in the range of the Old Testament eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth only to subside with the different range of readings on love your neighbour also shining bright from within my holy scripture. I cannot settle down to one clear reaction though and my senses sweep the universe for an answer to this injustice on my people, even though I do not know them personally and my relationship with them is rooted to my historical and hierarchical connection with Antioch and the Syrians.

I felt a deep attachment to the protest organised by the Syrians in the U.N. in New York which members of the Malayali Syrian community also participated in. The world wide protest is not limited to the injustice in Iraq but also against a growing intolerance of fundamentalist Muslim groups all over the world. The hate speeches (sermons) delivered to young Muslims incite a growing flame of a jihad or war that has to be won at any cost. The Christian world and especially the Syrian Christian world are also reacting to this.

In India the Muslims comprise a larger group than the Christians but are not the majority group nevertheless. In Middle Eastern countries this is not the case, with a Christian minority existing among an overwhelming majority of Muslims belonging to different sects of Islam. This over riding presence in conflict zones even goes to the extent of ethnic and religious cleansing. The feeling there is therefore of survival and a day to day existence rather than arguing on a basis of equal terms.

Indian Syrian Christians including my church the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in India is at a position of advantage and has not suffered the enduring hardship of Syrian Christians in the Middle East starting from Turkey and extending to other places and ending in a systematic and concerted effort at wiping out an entire community. This story has been largely untold and the Syrian community in India has also not understood this historical context of our Syrian sisters and brothers in the Middle East. We have sought to be attached to the Syrian heritage but we have not had to endure the hardship that they have endured. Our hardships have been due to schisms which have divided us into various denominations, all laying claim to the same history and heritage.

The situation in India for the Syrian Christians has been different. Minority politics and political parties favouring Christians as a whole have meant that we have by and large not been put to such tests by the majority of this land. It is therefore a different experience for us. The Indian Muslim has struggled on two fronts. On the one hand they have had to prove their love to their country India and on the other hand they have had to prove their love and allegiance to their religion Islam. They have been called traitors from within and outside India. Their existence in India is therefore a difficult one and also one where they try to understand themselves. They have also suffered ethnic and religious cleansing battles by Hindu fundamentalist groups.

As an Indian Syrian Christian, what does one say to the atrocities against Christians in Iraq? A sizable population of Muslims in India will condemn the killings as much as we do. But the protests in the U.S. and Europe will have a totally different colour to it because of the support it will get from various groups. What has the Syrian Christian community in India done when children have been robbed of their childhood and education, women have been battered at home, dalits have been burnt alive, adivasis and tribals have been buried alive and branded as anti-state, and people with disabilities have been shunned into a corner? There have been occasional voices of protest but as a community we have not voiced our protest as we are still unaware of what happens in our own country.

Can this be a problem of illiteracy? It is unfortunately not possible to hide behind that argument as the community has a good literacy rate. The problem could then be a selective literacy which has been followed for decades by different Syrian churches in India. This selective literacy has also blinded our eyes to the sufferings of our Syrian sisters and brothers in Iraq and elsewhere. We therefore have to learn about our sisters and brothers everywhere, India included. It would be harsh and immature to jump at Muslims in India for what a certain sect of Muslims is doing in Iraq. But we also have to protest what a certain sect in Iraq is doing to Syrians there, as the right to live, the right to worship and the right to belong is intrinsic to one’s existence as a human being. We also have to join protests which are off line and online in different parts of the world to affirm the humanity of all. This is what we have been offered at the garden of Eden. And no one has the right to take it away.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The youth space and the church

Politics in India has come to the era of being youth-i-fied. Different parties are claiming that the youth are not only their future but present as well. With the youth being lured to join various political dispensations, youth lobbyists are asking for more seats and representation in the political decision making and the running of the country. But the seniors are not willing to let go. Understandably so, because they have themselves burnt out their youthful fire before being handed the reins of power! In the midst of this deadlock and power mongering, the debate should perhaps be about power sharing.

The church in India reflects the same predicament. The youth are demanding their share and the older generation refuses to let go of what they have themselves just received. One way of ending this impasse is to locate spaces within the political and spiritual landscape of India. Spaces where all can be included and all can participate in a worth while manner!

The youth in India are taking to the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in a big way. The internet in its various forms is helping bring about a revolution which is creating a space for youngsters in this country. The church also through interactive web sites, chat rooms, online forums and blogs is being challenged to hear what the youth have to say. A clamp down on such forums and online activity would not fare well for the traditionalists as that would bring the battle on to the streets.

The time has come for the church to claim its youth and its online community. There will be cross overs from the older generation who are still young at heart and that should be welcomed as no one can lay claim to the term youth in an exclusive manner. It would bid well for the church to allow such alternative spaces which are in a way outside the physical church but in all aspects part and parcel of the church.

The concerns about social networking sites like facebook and orkut obviously remain, with prime concerns on whether the youth are being misled into a pseudo-spiritual life rather than one based on reality and real experiences. But one cannot write away such sites without discussing the pros and cons of it. The popularity of these sites seeks a discussion on them. The discussion could also go in the direction of how the church can be a part of these spaces which the youth have made their own and how the church can take them seriously and not just write them off as technological gizmos fit only for gamers and the laptop generation.

Churches in India need to go a step further. They have to discuss the possibility of having a spirituality which fits the demands of the online generation. Is online counselling possible, can video conferencing be held between the leadership and the youth to avoid red tapism and hierarchical high handedness, can the youth meet online and discuss everyday concerns, and can the priest be available online to the youth? The non-involvement of the church will make the youth space a churchless space!

Friday, November 19, 2010

What does corruption in India mean?

Three big corruption scandals have hit India over the past two months. The Commonwealth games is being investigated with skeletons coming out of the closet. The 2g scam involving spectrum Raja has been given the tag of being India’s biggest corruption scandal post independence. The amount runs into 1.76 lakh crores of loss to the state exchequer, unimaginable in a country like India. Even the Kargil martyrs haven’t been spared. The politician-army nexus has snatched flats meant for those who sacrificed their lives for the nation. The Adarsh housing scam has brought down a chief minister. The Congress led UPA (United Progressive Front) is being cornered by the opposition which itself is not any better when it comes to corruption. Two cases involve the BJP in a 500 crore land scam in Karnataka and the CPM in the Lavlin case in Kerala.

As the media have a field day with various scams the citizens of India have to understand the concept of corruption in India. India is ranked 87 in the corruption index. Why do people take money below the table? Existence, survival, security and the like may be the initial reasons of doing this. Once we enter this world, one cannot realistically come out of it. Life in India is undervalued. It is therefore not acceptable to take money over the table but everything is possible in the dark and undisclosed India. The same mentality makes us do anything and everything as soon as we feel that no one is noticing. This is the after 6 way of life.

The church is also at fault for encouraging and not fighting corruption itself. Despite countless sermons on the topic of God and mammon, Christians simply do not stop paying and accepting bribes. The act of not paying the salaries that the priests deserve and instead wishing to pay for ‘services rendered’ brings about a culture of dependence which is similar to bribing. Any discussion to introduce proper salaries for priests will bring about an explanation that priesthood is social work and therefore does not deserve a salary. This light of the day denial is accepted as the need of the hour in the dark of night. What this does is to bring in various categories of priests. There are the ones who will struggle for their day to day living expenses, the ones who will look for weddings and programmes to attend to make that little extra money, the ones who will sell insurance policies and do real estate and the ones who will try to go for a stint abroad or even better settle somewhere outside India.

The M.P.’s in parliament crossed party lines and came together to increase their own salaries by an unprecedented amount. But the list of scams is not showing any sign of decreasing. Power is seen as the single most effective way of getting what one wants. This power is attainable through money, both black and white. Money is used to get white, red and black robes and money is used to further violence from the confines and the safety of these robes. A poor Jesus is only for sermons which happen to be inside richly decorated and huge churches. Jesus is even twisted to include the God of prosperity who gives us whatever we ask. Black or white! It does not matter.

Corruption in India will not end any time soon. This is because it happens because of us the people and our dual natures at dawn and dusk. Even though the space to come together and prevent corruption exists we will never do so because we will never stand together on such issues. The only thing we are going to do is to watch TV, whine about the sorry state of affairs in India and then go to sleep. Jesus on the cross has a definite meaning for our lives. But are we willing to speak up for what he died for? Or are we just going to have Jesus stay on the cross, as a decoration for our churches and homes?