Saturday, December 31, 2011

From the municipality with love: A few loads of waste for new year

The town of Thiruvalla is sandwiched between the important towns of Chengannur and Changanachery. Its importance can be attributed to a high NRI population and a railway station which caters to small villages outside the railway corridor. The past two decades have seen enormous activity in terms of big apartments and new shopping malls. The mad rush was kick started by the gulf war and the fleeing workers of the oil rich state of Kuwait. Now people see Thiruvalla as a town which has all basic facilities and is conveniently placed.

The speedy construction and new buildings has also given rise to a serious problem which no one knows how to solve. The town is producing huge amounts of waste and the municipality does not know what to do with the piles coming up each day. The public stadium was seen in the eighties as the pride of the people, leading to the hosting of state level football matches and inter-state level cricket matches. But that image of the stadium changed with huge piles of waste being disposed all around the stadium. Early morning walkers and sports lovers were forced to retreat because of the unbearable stench of the waste.

This forced the authorities to shift the waste disposal to a private plot near the stadium and then to the area next to the private bus stand. All the while people have been protesting this haphazard outlook of the municipality whereby people are not able to wait for buses without covering their nose and getting nauseated. Every time some event comes up near the stadium the authorities shift gears to transport the waste to other areas. One such area is the vacant municipal plot next to the temporary KSRTC bus stand on the railway station YMCA road. Residents of the area were woken out of their sleep by the unbearable stench of the waste.

A similar attempt was prevented by the public a couple of years ago which may be the reason of the night attempt this time. The health official present had a few things to say. One, that this waste is produced by the people and therefore there is nothing wrong in disposing it in a residential/town area, two, don’t stop the authorities from doing their work (The official even took photos of the people present in a overt attempt to scare off those assembled.), three, disposing waste and putting mud on top is scientific and the municipality usually fills land with waste and this can then be made use of for the public. The public on the other hand had their version. One, the huge amount of waste is produced by hotels and other institutions. They then pay money for this to be disposed by the municipal workers. Two, mud is not put properly on top of the waste and this leads to crows and dogs scavenging the remains and spreading it all over. The sparsely covered waste will then start smelling and people start falling sick and the water table is polluted by the authorities themselves. Three, money changes hands over mud filling and dispensing of waste and there is an unholy alliance between the authorities and private players. Four, history has shown that the authorities have failed big time in waste managements and all they do is to pollute the soil and the air.

The options in front of the public are two. One, file a complaint with the municipal authorities and two, file a writ in the honourable High Court seeking stopping of the waste disposal in areas where people live. The municipal chairperson has already assured that the waste will not smell and that this is a one time affair. For some reason the public refuse to believe this.

As I sit writing New Year wishes to people, my mind simply won’t function the way I want it to. I can’t help drawing parallels with the municipal authorities and church authorities. Both are called to serve and both end up serving themselves and threatening the people of dire consequences if they show the courage to speak out. What is the common woman/man supposed to do? Approach the political leaders, approach the court or take to violence? As I think about my local experience I realise that this is what happens in my country as well. Why should 2012 be any different? All statistics show that corruption has increased, high handedness is the norm and the public are the least everywhere. The words public servant and service are a joke. Is something going to change? Will the people get what is rightfully theirs? Will we still bend our backs and tie our towels around our waste and say ‘yes, yes’ to our authorities or will we demand service? As a servant myself, will I be able to serve others rather than rule and boss over them in 2012? Let the small expectant sparks (if any) be the fireworks of 2012. Happy new year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Those who give freely, receive freely

Christian discipleship is important in understanding how to conduct oneself as an adherer to Christian faith. The essence of an act can only be understood in how it impacts others. Christian discipleship similarly can be only understood based on how it impacts others.

In John 13: 1-16 (“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”) Jesus sets an example for his disciples to follow. By washing their feet he calls for servitude and humility as essential to Christian faith.

Washing feet is profound in the symbolism it offers. Feet can only be submerged as much as it does not remain too long in water and lose colour. But by washing feet we are also becoming close with those who are away. What could for some be humiliation, in this case becomes the point of breaking forth all that holds us back. Washing feet thus becomes very important.

The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India are engaged in a conflict over a dam and the water it contains. The fear of one state is of being submerged if the dam breaks and the need of the other state is of water, to bring life and offer food to its people. In a single country we are divided into various regions and each region then addresses to the needs of the region. That leads to walls being constructed and boundaries being defined.

The imagery of washing the feet, the dam and the water with people on two sides brings about much to think about. How is one to make sense of it? Will anyone seriously think about washing away an entire people just to save themselves? I don't think so. The water in the dam then becomes too holy to touch. The fight for the water and the dam smells of religious overtones of holiness which the other is not supposed to touch and meddle with.

Religions cannot be so narrow in their outlook. The existence of religion is for conflict resolution and not conflict arousal. Jesus' call for washing of the feet should resonate amidst this conflict over water. The neighbours should wash each others feet with the Mullaperiyar water and not turn this into a holy turf war. Our religiousness should make us give and not take.

Christians also have an important role to play. It cannot just be naive support for anti-regional feelings but should be a resolve to serve those who are in need. A believer of Jesus should sense the feeling of déjà vu wherein Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples should come alive again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why this kolaveri di?

The stand off between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the Mulaperiyar dam issue is continuing unabated. Both sides are not willing to stand down. Kerala is concerned over the safety of the dam and the risk it poses to thousands of the people inhabiting the area close to the dam and those who could come under the impact of the water in the event of something happening to the dam. On the other side we have Tamil Nadu which gets water for its farmers from this dam and therefore gets its food security taken care of to a great extend by the dam holding the water. It is also interesting that Kerala gets vegetables and other food items from Tamil Nadu!

The issue has been getting headlines on and off with both sides not willing to budge an inch. Tamil Nadu has made sure that it is well represented and that its concerns are taken up in the appropriate tribunals. The allegation that the politicians in Kerala are soft pedalling on this issue could be public emotion more than actual facts.

The release of a movie Dam 999 has also provided lots of fodder for controversy. The images of what could happen if such a dam broke are likely to affect the minds of people to great lengths. A specific documentary on Mullaperiyar has also been doing the rounds.

Youngsters in Kerala are circulating and posting different versions of Armageddon (read Mullaperiyar) and what could happen if a new dam is not constructed. Some of it is fact and some jumping the gun for Indian standards. All religious communities are also joining the protest because this is going violent in its own terms and there is no scope for the sanity of sitting and talking about what this really is.

Classic examples of protests and struggles don’t just involve bringing a lot of people together but brings to the fore the timing of such struggles. Could this not be a way of deflecting interest from real issues and bring all the people together in the name of a dam? The same goes with Tamil Nadu. Water politics can never fail. Could it then be possible to sit at the table and discuss this important issue rather than staging a protest which is funded and motivated by a few?

The other problem lies with the need for a Union (National) government. If we have to decide things based on our local divisions and pay taxes in each and every state and fight each other based on our local identities, what is the need for a national identity? Is it only for the purpose of showing a passport stating that “I am an Indian” while travelling to another country? If we are going to be in constant conflict with one another, why should we call ourselves Indians? The Mullaperiyar standoff is already creating problems on the road. People will be attacked when any sign to identify them will be on show. Vehicles on the road will come under attack based on the registration number and regional identification in terms of language will also be asked for.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu have several similarities in language, culture and food. But I will be damned if a dam is going to make us fight on the roads. Why this Kolaveri di is a song sung by Tamil star Dhanush and is a Tanglish version of the conversation between a boy and a girl, the boy heart broken at being left in the cold. The “why did you do this to me, why you dumped me?” could be translated in the dam context as “why did you dam(n) me?” Why this kolaveri di(a)?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The games we play: The musical chair rhapsody

James and John to the amazement of the other disciples go for the permission to sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus (Mark 10:35-45). What was till then a silent competition for the ‘seat’ becomes an open secret. Before the scene gets messy, Jesus intervenes and says that these things are not his to decide and he does not even know whether such a chair exists. The absence of a chair makes the others chide the brother duo for their eye on power. Jesus explains further and says that the one who wants to be master must serve and that the son of man has come to serve and not to be served.

The society we live in is full of open and veiled attempts made at getting the chair. Once the chair is occupied the occupant never lets go. Children at a young age are taught the intricacies of power (chair) grabbing. As the music is played they are supposed to be interested in only one thing…the chair. In the quest for the chair, those on the right and the left are pushed away, to land spot on into the chair that matters. The symbolism looks like Jesus pushing away James and John to land in the chair. But this is far from what actually happened.

Everyone is after the chair. It could be the Prime Minister’s chair, the Chief Minister’s chair and even the bishop’s chair. The fight for the chair dominated all others even during the assembly elections in Kerala. Achuthanandan on the one hand refusing to give up his chair and Oommen Chandy on the other hand trying everything to gain the chair. It is interesting that Achuthanandan found opposition from within and Oommen Chandy found that he cannot leave his chair unattended even for a few minutes.

Sitting on the chair will make one very comfortable with the chair and it is interesting that Jesus never sat in a chair in that sense. His death is also in a standing position and serving others is a clear message that comes out of it. It is difficult to serve others while we are seated in the comfort of our powerful chairs. Maybe it is time to re-invent the musical chair game and draw new lessons from it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fuelling dissent

The past year has seen several fuel hikes in India because of the deregulation of fuel prices, especially of petrol. This has brought about unprecedented fuel prices in the country. As people try to cope with food inflation and burgeoning expenses, the recent hike should obviously make us think as to where we are headed.

Fuel prices have traditionally been subsidized in India and diesel and LPG continue to be subsidized by the government. The reasoning behind this is that diesel is used to transport food and other essential products and LPG is the common persons cooking option. So any increase in this would bring about mass protest and unrest in the country. By increasing petrol prices, the government hopes it will not be faced by violent protest.

UPA II has been disappointing by all standards. A silent Prime Minister, quarrelling ministers, lack of a defined leadership, corruption charges, Lokpal agitation, and a haphazard running of affairs has brought down public confidence to an all time low.

The oil companies have been hasty to increase prices whenever there has been a slight change in international crude prices but have not shown the same eagerness to reduce prices when prices have fallen in the international market. In the name of subsidy, rich SUV owners and profit oriented businesses have grown and bled the very meaning of subsidy. Car companies have joined the trend by manufacturing diesel cars to fit the price schedules prevalent. Every car company worth their name now manufactures diesel car units, many of them made specifically for the Indian market.

But such a skewed system of pricing will only lead to a skewed diesel based economy. What the government could think of could be de-regulating diesel prices for domestic consumers and profit oriented organizations. There is a plan in the pipeline to introducing a new tax for new diesel vehicle purchase. But this will not solve the problem. When other countries have a much more equal pricing with regard to fuel we have these anomalies which divide fuel and play fuel politics.

Who does the lower price in diesel benefit? The actual benefit sadly is not for the ordinary in the country but for those who thrive out of the ordinary. One would expect the government to bring about cleaner energy options and subsidize such options so that they benefit the ordinary people by giving them a cleaner, cheaper fuel and also a cleaner environment to stay in.

Such fuel politics will eventually lead to fuel protests. The Kerala High Court passed an interesting observation by saying that people should protest fuel hikes by the government. The lack of transparency by the government when it comes to openly discussing the fuel policy will bring about an anti-government, transparent drive for making natural resources more affordable for the common person in the country.

Monday, October 31, 2011


The need for communication in theological education can be strongly felt when we look at the bible passages from the perspective of our media rich lives today. The real does not only exist in person but in the virtual as well. Words used speak differently today.

The healing of the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10) is a very popular gospel story. The narrative of the centurion sending people to ask Jesus to visit his house and heal his servant then shifts to the power of the word and the twist in the tale offered by the centurion by his words go, come and do. Jesus is very impressed by this immense faith which was rare in those times.

The knowledge and power that belonged to Jesus usually was asked to be transferred in person by people who found him special. But in the centurion’s case a virtual miracle is what he asks for. Do not trouble yourself with this, but just say the word. The go, come and do mentioned by him are the send, click and like of today. In essence this is a dissemination of information horizontally.

Jesus was informed about the centurion by certain elders and they recommend the centurion to Jesus. But the message from the centurion does away with this peculiar mediation and puts the message in the public domain for everyone to see and comment on. This is the need of the hour now. Words captured in books and publications should then become free to share and distributed online. Send-click-like.

(Excerpt from the meditation preached for the BTESSC-UTC programme for librarians)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The politicizing of protest

Protest has always been associated with those in the margins, those who have no one to speak for them and those who have no one who cares. So much that the word itself has been an anathema for those in power. The simple usage of the word brings about a feeling of enmity and dissociation with what is constructed to be true and right. The word protest has not been in the media dictionary for a number of years simply because it would bring about uneasy and uncomfortable questions for those associated with power, including the various media. The revolution in the Arab world changed all that. The protest there was seen as beneficial to all involved in the quelling of protest till then. From then on the Indian media has also been fascinated with the word protest.

India’s revolution came in the form of Anna Hazare and his media savvy team. Protest in India is clubbed with fasting and non-violence. Both though have attained new meanings. What does fasting mean? No food, no liquids, no non-veg? What does non-violence mean? No manhandling, no physical touch, no destruction to public property? Even as fasting and non-violent protest has gained new meaning, there also has been a change in those who are associated with it. While till yesterday, the powerless protested and where beaten into submission, today the powerful protest and are treated as state guests and fed with public money. Protest has been taken over by the rich and the powerful and Narendra Modi’s fast is another example of that. He maintains that he fasted for the bright future of Gujarat and the good of India. There is no doubt that Modi is a good orator and his speech yesterday would even put seasoned orators and film actors to shame. But does that absolve him of the significant acts of omission and commission that happened during his tenure as chief minister of the state where communal violence led to the killing of many people and brought about a culture of fear in the minds of people?

Will protest and fasting wash away the sins of the powerful? Can these token protests change the skewed system and society that we are a part of? The Jesus of the gospels appears to be a simple man with a simple band of followers, who travelled and traversed, met people, offered them respect, dialogued with them, gave them hope and remained a simple man till his death on the cross. But hasn’t the church and the so called band of followers now hijacked Jesus and put on his clothes of protest and fasting? But does this make us Jesus? The grounding for Jesus to lead mass protest during his time was not that he was a powerful man but that he associated himself with the ordinary people and that gave him the mandate to protest. Protest is not for the powerful. Protest is for the ordinary people. It is their right. A few protests here and there which are held by those who have immense power at their disposal, cannot and will not be considered as true protest because it lacks the main ingredient of protest and that is the helplessness of the people who see protest as their only cross of hope. But we will have to identify true and false protest and make out the sheep in wolves skin. Till then this new found mass (media) hysteria for powerful instead of powerless protest will continue.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

St. Mary and the mystery of the people friendly lent

The church through its decision making and teaching brings out a policy which its members should adhere to. The following of these written and un-written rules is important for one to be accepted amongst the church hierarchy and those associated with it. One of the rules among many to be followed in some cases is the lent and fasts during various times and for various reasons. This becomes a requirement which has to be completed, as otherwise the concerned person will be held accountable by the church.

Among the various lents and fasts that the church requires and asks for are also the ‘nothing official about it’ L&F’s. The eight days lent ending in the celebration of the birthday of St. Mary is perhaps the best example of this. Even though it is not an official lent of the church, people in Kerala and elsewhere find a sense of achievement and attachment in going through the lent. When otherwise people will fast to fulfil their requirements to the church, in this case the fasting is out of one’s own free will.

In an age of Anna Hazare, Jayalalitha, Mamata, Sonia, Katrina, Aishwarya, et all, there is this one woman who time and again manages to make people cry, mend, fast and transform. When we attach ourselves to people who are strong, powerful, educated, and glamorous here is a woman who is none of these in one glance and yet commands the respect and the adherence of millions of people. It may be true that women in the church identify more with St. Mary but that does not mean that men are far away.

Would Mary get so much attention by virtue of being the mother of Jesus? There must be something else which is much more than being the selected womb. Her life in a way suggests the anti thesis of what is right and correct. She was born to her parents in their old age, she starting serving the church in a tender young age, she was betrothed to Joseph who was much older than her, she became pregnant before she was married and had any relationship with Joseph, she saw the future with an older cousin Elizabeth, and she identified the special Jesus at the wedding in Cana. Truly, whatever she did, she did different.

When was the last time we ever followed someone as different as this? Or is it that we don’t know that Mary is so different and radical because she has been dressed up by the church? In the midst of the official, the dressed up, and the hierarchical there lies somewhere the non-official, free and people friendly Mary who the people have accepted as their saint and for whom they are willing to starve and mend their ways. Somewhere lying hidden in the need for personal gains is also the concern for the unseen and the unheard. This is the true people’s St. Mary, offering something new every year.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What is the programme Anna?

The national capital is brimming with large crowds and police personel. Lots of people from several parts of the country are congregating to Delhi to be part of the anti-corruption movement. A Jan Lokpal bill is still being sought even though the government has promised that this will be discussed in parliament. The crowd post April is still there but there are also voices of cynicism about what is happening.

What on earth is attracting people, even if it is only a cross section of people in India? Is it only the anti-corruption drive and the call asking for people to spill on to the streets that is bringing out people or is it that this has become an event and a programme which needs to be attended for several reasons? Why do people attend television talk shows and debates? Some will genuinely be interested to talk on the issues on offer, others will be there for the media exposure (part of the 15 minutes of fame) and a big number will be there for the event or the programme! Is the anti-corruption protest also something like this with thousands of people actually there to be a part of the programme?

Those who are there for the programme need not know the entire sequence of events and what are the deep rooted things which surround it. They are there for the atmosphere, the feeling and the identification with people who have something in common with them. The middle class and upper middle class will definitely be comfortable to be together and corruption is such a common affecting factor that it will in all regards bring in the numbers. This could be the reason why India has seen several protests over the years but they never had the numbers. Every state has had tribal protests, dalit protests, and women’s group’s protests which would hardly even get a passing glance from passers by. Does this mean that their concerns were not concerns and did not warrant even a glance? It rather means that the people did not identify with their problems because they did not see it as a problem. In many cases these passers by would have been the perpetrators of the problem. But corruption is different. The same people who did not bother to look when genuine protests were held have suddenly become very active protestors.

This is a programme which has the likelihood to succeed not because it is a ‘just’ protest but because it is a well staged protest. In countries like India it is strange that true protests are never taken seriously, whereas well directed, managed and staged protests will mostly succeed. In this way, this is not a protest but this is a celebration of how people can be mobilized using the media, social networking sites and other traditional media forms.

A well directed programme is like a well produced movie. One has to follow the crowd. No one will have the courage to say that the movie is not well made when those others we are in contact with will say it is excellent. The anti-corruption movement I fear is also such. We can either say that it is a super duper hit or we can risk being made out into un-patriotic, submissive, stupid and slavish people. Now who would want that? I always like off beat movies and in this case too I feel this is too mainline Bollywood style and therefore likely to be lapped up by the affordable masses.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Having a referendum for protest

Anna Hazare and his team, as the media term them, have been arrested. The government represented by a few ministers are into damage control mode to make sure that the situation does not go out of control. Anna is obviously much needed as an instrument for the media to keep things going. One man surrounded by dedicated followers is a time tested formula for success. The government cites rules and security as why this protest cannot take place in the capital of the country.

Country after country has gone back to the people to earn the right for change. Change from the top cannot be a representation of the mood and feelings of the people, be it the government position or the movement of a certain section of civil society. Many referendums have given the mandate to people representatives to go ahead with ground breaking reforms and changes.

Why not ask the people of India on what they feel about corruption in the country and what they would like to be done? This could include a variety of issues, including salaries of parliamentarians, the work they should do, how government offices should function, what action should be taken against corruption and so on. Elections should not just be to elect candidates but should also be for charting the future course of the country. Who should decide that? Some politician from the top exclusively or the people of this country for whom these policies are being charted out?

The present protest is confusing. How many are in favour and how many not? Is this what the people of this country want or is protest being imposed upon them, making it a word which the government detests and treats negatively? A referendum should of course involve seeking the opinion of each and every citizen and person in this country. The media which are quick to do opinion polls and exit polls come election time are not seeking to know the public mood in the country at this time. The public does not only include the affluent middle class, middle class and those who have access and the opportunity to travel to the national capital.

One should appreciate to an extend what is happening in Delhi. People are coming together for something. Is this right or wrong and are people practising selective protest needs to be looked at again? Is it too difficult to do a sampling of the opinions of the people across the country? If we are serious about democracy this should not be too difficult an exercise. 64 years after independence this is indeed a good thing to happen in India. But it is also something which should happen more often and for all community concerns and not just as part of small conspiracies and political equations

Friday, July 29, 2011

India in the grip of 3G: What an idea?!!

The Idea 3G advertisement sums up the way technology has gripped the Indian middle class. People to people contact is a thing of the past and the coming together of phone, mobile, internet and wireless technology is seen as the power of the finger. So much that technology is seen as the answer to problems that plague society in India. But 2G or 3G, can this be true?

Many people in India know 2G because of the Raja spectrum scam and the 1.76 lakh crore apparently being lost in the haphazard sale of the spectrum space during the 2G spectrum space allotment to companies. On the other hand the 3G sale brought in huge amounts of money to the government. As 4G waits to come in, companies are trying their best to sell 3G in big volumes to make up the amount they have invested in this technology. As part of this, 3G is being made into the common human’s core accessory without which nothing is possible. The integration of internet into our lives is fast and furious.

Idea mobile has become famous for its advertisements which are seen to evoke serious thoughts of nature conservation and public good. The latest in a series of advertisements is the “Ab biwi se 3G” (Now, from wife to 3G) advertisement doing the rounds in a variety of TV channels. The plot involves Abhishek Bachchan (a Bollywood actor and son of Amitabh Bachchan) and a friend, watching city life and wondering why we have such a large population in India. Their conclusion is that when electricity fails, couples get into the act of child making! As a solution to this, the actor offers Idea 3G. Now whenever electricity fails, the wife and husband in each house can still watch TV through the 3G enabled mobile which gives strong video streaming for uninterrupted watching of cricket matches and serials, chatting with parents and playing games. This in his opinion will solve the problem of population explosion in India. It is shown with the image of a dusty closed down vasectomy clinic.

As in many previous Idea ads this one is also naïve in its presentation of facts in a different way. The other day I heard two groups debating whether technology could do away with physical classrooms and buildings and make online learning stronger. The same argument of how technology would save resources came up. But the resources needed to keep technology up and going is relegated to the background. The same takes place in the Idea ad which seems to suggest that when electricity fails, technology will save the day. But 3G obviously does not run on solar or wind power. This means that more electricity is drained to keep the show running!

The Idea ad can be debated in the church while we rue the fact of lesser people to people contact, lesser numbers in church, lack of interest in public programmes and such. It also leads us to think how technology is changing and will change us further in the future. The culture of fun and frolic will replace serious discussions which should take place in church and society. TV viewing which was a family ritual in itself will be replaced by individual bed viewing which will challenge our ability to think and act in a responsible and sane manner. We will place technology between relationships and facebook each other instead of sitting and talking over the table. Technology and companies that make use of it will be seen as the new saviour in our lives and in the future of our country. Guess this is where the church can help by formulating a policy on technology and the church and how people should use technology in their lives.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Willful blindness: The lies of the empire

Empires are built on the lives of an unsuspecting public. People are spied on, privacy is intruded upon and reputations are battered. Every once in a while, however rare that may be, the empire gets to taste its own concoction. It will taste so bitter that the very empire that manufactured it will wonder at the ruthless content of the mixture. Rupert Murdoch and his media empire are facing the heat. The hacking of phones and the subsequent investigations has led to the closing down of one of U.K.’s oldest newspapers, the News of the World. On July 19 in a rigorous exercise by the Parliamentary Committee in the House of Commons in the U.K., the father and son duo were made to answer some hard questions. One interesting thing which came out of the much publicized affair was the term “willful blindness.” As through the entire questioning, the media baron sought to hide behind the term itself.

Margaret Heffernan in her upcoming book “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril” tries to explore this term. She explains “examining examples of willful blindness in the Catholic Church, the SEC, Nazi Germany, Bernard Madoff's investors, BP's safety record, the military in Afghanistan and the dog-eat-dog world of subprime mortgage lenders” how we fail to see and admit certain things. In an article on Rupert Murdoch himself she identifies some characteristics of willful blindness which come out of the News of the World episode. They include “ideology, obedience, conformity, money, power and affirmation”.

Rupert Murdoch’s net worth is $7.6 billion. Yet with all this money he still had to undergo the unsettling questions of the parliamentary committee in the U.K. For the first time the media baron was made to answer questions which he looked like evading most of the time. The event, broadcast live even in India brought out his importance and the fact that other media houses for once could get back at the person who threatened to take away readers and viewers from them. In India it also brought forward a debate on whether it would be possible to bring powerful media owners to task in this country and have a parliamentary committee asking them uncomfortable questions. The predominant argument that came out was that this would not be possible as Indian politicians are themselves so corrupt that they cannot question the corrupt practices of the media here.

What this debate has done is to bring out the importance of the usage willful blindness. This is an important point of discussion for the church as the church may also fall into the same wrong of willful blindness saying that ‘ we did not know.’ But the question of ‘did we not seek to know or want to know’ is also pertinent. Whenever the church is faced with allegations of wrong doing it could be that the church leaders may feign ignorance and say we were blind to the happenings. Wrong doing could include not only the now popular topic of corruption but also the centuries old wrong doing of gender and caste related atrocities and wrongs. Discussing this more openly could bring more responsibility, accountability and the addressing of wrong doing in the church and society at large.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Religion and mobile number portability (MNP)

India introduced the mobile number portability (MNP) option for mobile phone consumers in January, 2011. Ever since, 8.54 million customers have made use of this service till April, 2011. The convenience of changing one's network provider with an SMS and continuing with one's existing number is the attraction of MNP.

Till now many people have opted out of changing their network provider because they didn't want to change their numbers as that would mean informing their numerous contacts of the change and maybe even losing friends and associates in the process. Faced with a highly competitive environment, the government has still managed to bring about this landmark change in policy with the recommendations of TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India).

Even as several service providers are sulking against the move, it has led to better services and an effort to please the consumer and prevent her/him from shifting loyalties.

One has to wonder whether religions can do the same? Many don't shift loyalties because they fear they could lose what they have and this includes family and friends. But if they could indeed shift, it could lead to a change in the percentage divisions of religions in India. This would maybe also bring about more sincerity, service and transperancy in the administration of various religions leading to satisfied followers.

A drastic change in society has seen technology leading to more egalitarian perspectives, whereas religion is leading to more authoritarian perspectives. It would thus help for us to think and practise that a religious conviction is based on the strong foundation of freedom and the freedom to choose.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My vote is losing its sting

The beauty of a democracy is the power of the finger and ability of the mind to cast a vote in favour of what is deemed good. Protest movements in several Arab states have come about as a result of the absence of democratic practices and governance. The protests which have been helped by online mobilization have spread from one country to the other bringing fear to the minds of autocratic leaders from relative unknowns carrying their laptops through the country. The protests hit India in April in a different way with the Anna Hazare led movement against corruption in the country. Now Baba Ramdev is using the same mechanism in the name of bringing back illegally stashed away (black) money back to India. The difference in the protest movements is that India prides itself as a country which has a working democratic set up and a way for its citizens to show their displeasure with the political party in power. Are these two incidents stray happenings and do they mean nothing in the larger picture, has the media given undue importance to two individuals and the groups that support them, or has the citizen of India lost her/his most significant power of casting the all important vote in this jamboree of anti-corruption stake outs?

The various news channels are discussing whether a spiritual guru should indulge in politics, whether political parties are all corrupt and therefore not trust worthy, and whether Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev are representatives of the people of India? But this can be left to the channels and the panellists. What worries me rather is that the ordinary citizen of India has been robbed of her/his importance in the scheme of things in this country. The ordinary citizens of this country have been given the all important power to vote every five years and determine the course that the country and the various states have to take. Every election shows that the voter is knowledgeable, determined and will vote out anyone who takes them and this country for granted.

But what do we see now? Our voted representatives are hurrying to the airport to see spiritual gurus and political parties are pledging their support to anyone who comes forward with an anti-corruption formula. What on earth is their job then? With fatter pay cheques (courtesy themselves), wide ranging facilities, interns researching facts and a parliament building to debate the best course of action, all they can do is run from airport to airport. One should not be swayed by my argument here. I am not saying that the government should not listen to its people. But what is obvious is that the government is now listening to a few people who may not represent the diversity of this country, and the democratic process which is supposed to be running like a well oiled machine is now in limbo.

Why do I then need my state assembly representative and my member of parliament to talk for me if Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev are the ones who are calling the shots? Why did I have to go through the enormous exercise of voting and having my finger inked when those I voted for won’t represent me (us)? If we don’t trust our elected representatives, why are we wasting crores of rupees on this farce of an election? I do not wish to go deep into the intentions of Hazare and Ramdev but they are playing with the simple faith of the people of India just like other religious leaders. My vote is definitely losing its sting and I wonder what I can do about it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Vulnerability in the midst of climate change

1. I’m scared dear mother, because of what we’ve done
The trees have been cut and the birds have no place to go
The land has been ravaged and the seeds cannot grow
The valleys have been filled and the waters keep rising

Chorus: Don’t leave me mother, don’t leave me in the dark
I have no place to go, no place that will be home

2. I’m scared dear mother, because of what we’ve done
Our cars are polluting and we can’t breathe anymore
Our climate is changing and famine threatening
Our waste is choking and fumes rising

Chorus: Don’t leave me mother, don’t leave me in the dark
I have no place to go, no place that will be home

3. I’m scared dear mother, because of what we’ve done
Governments are greedy and selling our resources
People are needy but their voices silenced
Creation is losing its habitat but the signs are being ignored

Chorus: Don’t leave me mother, don’t leave me in the dark
I have no place to go, no place that will be home

4. I’m scared dear mother, because of what we’ve done
The poor are asked to leave, the rich take their place
Justice takes a back seat, oppression rules the day
The mighty rob the earth and we are asked to pay

Chorus: Don’t leave me mother, don’t leave me in the dark
I have no place to go, no place that will be home

Friday, May 27, 2011

Why dislike the left?

Conformity is the biggest global rule master in all forms of governance, be it national governments, organisations, religious groups and society. Thinking out of the basket is therefore seen as abnormal and absurd. When one does that, he/she is categorised as a difficult person and one who wants to rock the boat. Therefore education, training, advice is all given to make one conform to the constructed majority opinion and way of things. This being the case one cannot question, differ, and disagree. The church goes through the same framework of constructing those who conform.

One of the stand-out symbols of closeness and fellowship that a Christian priest performs is the drawing of the cross towards the congregation and praying for another, placing the hand on the forehead. This is invariably done with the right hand. But why the right hand one may ask? Why not the left? Some priests I know are left handed and yet they have to train themselves to be right handed. Children who are normally left handed are made to change themselves and use their right hand by their parents. The parents are worried about how their daughter/son would survive in a world of right handed people! This clear discrimination is conformed to by the church as well.

The recent assembly polls in Kerala leaves one asking whether it was a victory for the Congress led UDF (United Democratic Front) or the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI (M)) led LDF (Left Democratic Front). A wafer thin margin managed by the UDF is already giving the Congress a severe headache courtesy their strong allies. This time the various church leaders in Kerala except a few did not openly canvas for a particular front. But churches have largely been on the defensive over the open vibes put forth by influential members of the Left. Even recently a youth wing leader asked the church leaders to keep to the spiritual upkeep of their flock rather than interfering in things which should be left to the government of the state. Today the CPI (M) party secretary talked of the loss of votes due to the interference of religious and caste based groups in Kerala.

What should people look for when they vote? Should it be good governance, policies for the betterment of the poor and security for all or should it be based on the basis of left, right and centre? Can’t a religious person vote for the left because it is the left just like not drawing the cross with the left hand or can one take a decision based on one’s own right not to conform? This does not mean that the left is on the other hand devoid of all that is bad. If that was the case Bengal would not have voted against the left after 34 long years!

There are two things to remember. One, religious groups should refrain from pressuring its people to vote for one particular party and two, religious groups should not allow any political party to influence people based on lies and withholding of facts. This calls for the true freedom of the people to exercise their right to decide. Right or left, let it be left to the people to choose and live with.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

St. George the martyr in the aftermath of the Osama killing

All forms of media the world over have had it easy for the past week as they have managed to fill up valuable spaces of print offline and substantial volume of pages online in the days following the killing of Osama bin Laden. As scores of people have hailed the assassination as a closure for 9/11, voices spread over the world have asked for sanity to be followed, over and against celebration and victory parades. But one thing is for sure. Small and big media enterprises, blogs and social networking sites have given Osama the space otherwise reserved for other things, and that too free of cost! What does one have to be to get coverage in the media? Good, bad or ugly?

A small review of various forms of media these days suggest that one needs to be bad or ugly, in reality or in perception, to be given space. The good no longer matters. No one is interested in that. Churches the world over are going about celebrating the festival of St. George. The officer in full gear is seen slaying the dragon and hundreds of thousands of people sport St. George as their personal slayer in chief.

The account of St. George is that of a soldier who slays the dragon and saves the princess in distress and the people of the community from the deadly enemy. The dragon is seen as a symbol of all that is evil and bad. St. George comes across as a natural saver for people in distress, suffering from evil forces.

But what goes into the background usually is the martyrdom of St. George who chooses death over life, refusing to let go of his beliefs. His strength is not his spear but rather the lack of his spear. Coming after the passion week observation of the crucifixion of Christ, this is a similar account of the master disarming himself for the sake of others. But instead of grasping the sacrifice we are fixated on the destruction of the dragon, which anyway is much more than what we think of.

The media is also fixated on the bad and the ugly. It first goes on to make Osama the number one enemy of the world and then celebrates his death at the hands of Obama and his soldiers. But is Obama (the U.S.) willing to disarm itself like St. George did? Is he (it) willing to die for the sake of humanity? The answer is no. Of course, no offence to Obama I guess. He just happens to be at the head of the self ascertained supreme power, the U.S. at the moment.

One has to struggle to understand why the U.S. first supported someone like Osama, armed him and then hunted him down. It’s just like fattening the cow before killing it. Power and the capability to kill are being celebrated here. It is not the death of Osama. The media goes along. Construct and build someone, kill him/her and then report it. This formula is the single most important driving point of many media houses these days. I wonder whether Osama will be elevated to the position of a saint because of the way he died. One also has to see whether there were internal plots within the Al-Qaeda to do away with Osama because he is better dead than alive to them.

Churches these days go through the same struggle. How much it has to arm itself and who has to be shot down. The picture of a spear less St. George would be unthinkable I guess. The need to construct various Osamas will be pushed through and we will buy it. The spear of St. George rather than the cross he bore will be given more importance. We are as guilty of slaying Osama as the U.S.! Let the sinless one among us throw the first stone!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Let us fast and protest against corruption this lent

There is just above two weeks remaining for the great lent to end. We have fasted, prayed, helped and grown spiritually. But have we really grown spiritually? Or are we fooling ourselves that we have? What really should lent and fasting lead to? Should it only lead to personal benefit or should it lead to a much larger social justice and equality in society? Anna Hazare has been fasting now for four days in Jantar Mantar in Delhi for more active involvement of civil society in the Jan Lokpal bill against corruption. Other people are joining the fast in many other parts of the country and they include people from all religions and walks of life in India.

The people who are joining the fast and more importantly joining Anna Hazare are children, women, people from the oppressed communities, and the middle class. In effect they are all people in India affected most by corruption. The UPA government in essence is not against such a bill but may be going safe on how much it should give to the people especially after the experience of the RTI bill which has been a big success and a weapon in the hands of the otherwise powerless Indian to hold the government accountable.

Anna Hazare is not asking for too much. How can a very important group for the bill which has to tackle corruption be constituted without any active participation of civil society? When the politicians themselves are under the scanner for scams and bribes how can they make this bill meaningful and who knows whether they won’t stall this bill for ever?

Different churches are also behind and are offering support for this movement as well. The media have been largely covering the unrest in various Arab countries including Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. Huge protests by the people of these countries have led to great change. Egypt has been rid of its dictator Hosni Mubarak while Libya is fighting for change from Gadaffi. Little did we know that this unrest could reach India as well. Kashmir has always been a place where people protested against the government along with the North East but other states have been quiet. This fast by Anna Hazare has activated and brought alive the people of India in Jantar Mantar, different states in the North, South, East and West and even in the internet.

It would be appropriate at this point to take this fast very seriously. We are all thinking about the outcome of elections in different states and also preparing for passion week in various churches. This lent we could raise the bar a bit. We could make our fasting and make lent count for the millions in this country. As we congregate in different churches and places of worship we could bring about the feeling that we are fighting for something. This is not against one political party or a few individuals but against the very evil which resides in each and every one of us. This evil of corruption and nepotism should be rooted out of the country and also the church. But for that it should also be rooted out of each one of us.

This thus is a time when the whole country is observing lent. A great fast for a great thing. We are here going beyond religion, caste and social status. We are thus enacting the fast of Jesus to prepare him against the evil in society. If we have observed fasting and lent soberly till now, we have to observe fasting and lent with excitement and with the strength to protest. Thus it is indeed the time for being one with our brothers and sisters in India for the fight against corruption. If ever our lent needed to be counted, it is now.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why the church is far from winning a cricket world cup?!

India has won the cricket world cup 2011. The euphoria has not settled down and state governments are competing with one another in offering rewards to its cricketers. We are all now part of a great cycle of celebration which no one can really neglect. The Indian cricketers have out done themselves. They have tamed the ghosts who have prevented major tournament victories. The Indian media on its part is leaving no stone unturned to bring the lives of the cricketers to the living rooms of the Indian public.

The church in India has never been very sport friendly. Seminarians will be fortunate if they find a piece of land to play a sport that they are familiar with. Churches will have elaborate parking spaces but no open spaces for sports. What little land was available as part of schools and colleges under the management of the church is also coming down and being replaced with buildings. Sports will be the last thing on the minds of Christian managements which are overly money minded these days.

What the church is usually used to is to play games on a totally different level. These don’t involve physical exertion but rather have to do with the mind. What could come close to a cricket match is the sledging that happens between teams during matches. This intimidation between denominations is done regularly. But cricket matches are not about intimidation and sledging and hurting each other anymore.

A great highlight of this world cup was that India basically played matches that were in a cordial atmosphere. If one analyses the quarterfinal, semi final and final with Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka respectively one will observe this atmosphere of deep respect and cordiality. Usually cricket matches don’t have this atmosphere. But the Indian team may have shown us a way of winning and making dreams come true without attacking and hurting anyone in the traditional sense. Even though the media loves to compare cricket matches with war, this cricket world cup did not necessarily bring out that adage.

Churches in India for some reason also imagine that they live in a war zone and are in constant tension with each other. This is given credence by the foot soldiers of denominations led by blood hungry generals. We are asked to give our best, to fight as if our lives depended on it and accept nothing short of victory. Sledging, cheating, and doing whatever it takes is the name of the game.

More interaction between cricketers these days mean that they know each other better and this has led to better respect. Even though a game is meant to be won it is not done at the expense of the friendship of one’s opponent. One would question this quoting the case of Sreesanth. But even Sreesanth in reality may only be using aggression as a way of marketing himself. It does not mean that he is not on good terms with other players.

One may challenge whether the church needs to compete in and win a world cup. Obviously there is no need for that. The analogy of a cricket world cup is rather one which gives insights to the church on how things have changed in this world. Aggression has given way to respect, non acceptance to understanding, and suspicion to trust. The world cup winning team should be seen in this perspective. The church need not accept cricket but the church can accept the new strategy of the Indian team. Till then a world cup win for the church will remain in all respects, a dream.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cricket is not about being perfect

A majority of people in India are counting minutes and seconds as they continue to hope that their cricket team will win the final of the cricket world cup between India and Sri Lanka. The media have whipped up a frenzy in India with all English news channels having full length pre and post analysis of the match that is yet to be played. Prayers are being said in different languages and in different ways, all seeking divine intervention for the team. Will India win another world cup after its maiden and only triumph 28 years ago? That is the question on everyone’s lips. The expectation is so big and one wonders what the fuss is all about.

In a cricket mad nation there are other voices too. Those who say that after all cricket is but a sport like any other, that spending a whole day in front of the television is a waste of time, what is special in cricket when the national game in India is hockey and other sports and games are neglected by the government?, what has the cash rich Indian cricket board done for other cash strapped associations and the poor in this country?, and aren’t cricketers pampered brats who by and large enjoy life and play with the emotions of a billion people?

On the other hand cricket has become close to what is a religion in India which brings people together, gives hope for a people who otherwise don’t have much to hope for, gives a sense of purpose and confidence seeing India beat top teams in at least one game, and is very lucrative and attractive as youngsters see it as a way to become successful even if you are from a small time town.

The very supporters who are completely behind their famous players are the same ones who have attacked the houses of cricketers when they made early exists from earlier world cups and lost to Pakistan. The over the top belief in the players brings about extreme reactions on winning and losing. From promising to go nude to not eating food during the entire match, people have different ways of parting with something to make their team win. More than the players, it is the supporters who are trying almost everything to ensure a win.

But cricket is not about perfection and neither are cricketers perfect. This obsession we have brings about impractical and unbelievable acts. But the cricket world cup final is after all just a match like any other. The thrill of having India play is of course there but it should not make one crazy. Some points we could consider while watching the game are

1. Cricket is part of an industry. This includes different brands, merchandising, advertisement, and lots of money at stake. An industry always has its own compulsions and wants. Cricket then becomes a part of these and the game goes into the back ground.
2. Cricketers are human beings. The usage cricket God is only a usage. Cricketers are as vulnerable and susceptible to failure as any other human being. Putting someone on a pedestal puts unwarranted pressure on him/her.
3. A sport or game should not have nationalist overtures. The greatness of sport is that it can bring people together and break boundaries. When it is used to further nationalist ambitions, it loses the very purpose for which it exists.
4. Cricket means money and betting. A sport like cricket means a lot of money in a place like the subcontinent. Money brings in the possibility of betting and betting brings in the pressure of fixing matches. There have been a lot of allegations and no team is free from such allegations.
5. Cricket is entertainment. When we are able to detach cricket from nationalism, patriotism, diplomacy and pride, we end up with cricket as entertainment. Cricketers are entertainers. And we see cricket to relax and entertain ourselves. The IPL itself is a concept which has caught on to entertainment as its unique selling proposition (USP). When we see it this way we will be entertained thoroughly.
6. Cricket should give back what it receives. The cricket governing body the BCCI (The Board of Control for cricket in India) is a cash rich body which spends under 10% of its revenues on development of cricket. Then what does it spend its money on? As spectators we should pressurise the BCCI to give back what it receives from the people of this country. The pay back could be in the way of scholarships for youngsters from poor backgrounds, building housing for the poor, adopting whole villages and offering its money for building facilities there, providing health care to poor cricketers and their family and so on.

So, let the match begin. No pressure, no dreams. Only entertainment!!!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An India-Pakistan cricket match: A perfect detour for a corruption ridden country

India is under a mass hysteria. It is not only young teenagers, youngsters and the youthful work force but also the 40-ish and 50-ish voters as well as the above 60 crowd termed as senior citizens. If ever there was a common factor that brought all of the above together, it must be cricket. The match between India and Pakistan has started. The media has been salivating for days at the prospect and then outcome of such a match. Not to be left behind, the prime minister of India has entered the fray with his invitation to the Pakistan prime minister and the match is being termed as being a great chance for cricket diplomacy between the two countries.

Every now and then the people of a country need a detour, a distraction from all the problems they usually face. This could be in the form of many things but sport does play a good role. Cricket in India would win hands down against other sports and therefore would also provide the best detour for us to relax for a while and take our minds off the hundreds of things which otherwise are taking our time. The Congress led UPA government has been attacked from all directions because of one scam after the other. The 2 g Raja scam, the Adarsh building scam, the Lok Sabha cash for votes scam. Parliament has been held up again and again in the name of scam after scam. The main opposition party, the BJP, has attacked the government time after time only to find itself in other scandals and scams in Karnataka and at the centre as well. Using the wiki leaks against the UPA and then questioning it when its own members were found wanting have been the script of things here. In all ways, a detour, a distraction could be good for everyone, especially for the government and the main opposition party.

The India-Pakistan match is being seen as a great opportunity for the two countries to come together. The media doesn’t know what to concentrate on, the match, the two prime ministers or the traditional rivalry between the two teams. It is funny that both countries have many things in common and are culturally same than many other countries. If ever India could consider coming together with another country, Pakistan could be considered one of the front runners. But a horrendous partition encouraged by the British in all probability, divided the countries beyond repair. This also speaks as to why a cricket match between the two countries becomes so charged up.

Now cricket is being talked of as a wonderful way to bring these two countries together. How on earth can this happen when so much competition and build up goes into these matches? The British must be laughing. After doing nothing against the partition, they have managed to keep the two countries going at each others throats by teaching them a game they invented. It is another thing that the two countries have now made the game their own and even play it better than the British. Let us keep the British aside for now. We are by now aware of what they did and now need to concentrate on what we are doing. Or rather what certain sections of both countries are doing by giving too much importance to a cricket match! By doing so they are also putting too much pressure on the players of both countries.

If India and Pakistan are really serious about diplomacy they can give visas to the people of the other country to visit their relatives, give citizenship to those who have been living in one country or the other for several years, treat minorities in both countries better, release war and political prisoners, exchange information on terror suspects, and realise that people in both countries have a shared history. This could be the real match that both countries have to play. Leave the cricketers alone. They can’t carry such a heavy weight on their shoulders. Both countries have to work on their internal issues rather than hoping that a cricket match is going to change things. A cricket match is after all a cricket match. As spectators it just helps us to forget our problems and tensions for a little while. Any thing more is a political detour from the truth. I don’t think we need that and I hope the Indian and Pakistani spectators are smart enough to know that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I am thirsty

John 19:28-30
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Today is world water day. Water, the main constituent of the human body is in scarcity and not available to the poor and dispossessed in the world. What may seem as something which is free for all has become a commodity which is exchanged at a cost. Water sources are being filled up and destroyed in a mad rush for money. What can be seen is not good for drinking, with the common human being sighing “water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink."

World bodies like the United Nations have understood that the most common and life giving source called water could start wars and lead to the flowing of blood in the various lands of water. And while local and natural sources of water are being contaminated, bottled water is sold to the unsuspecting public much like every other bottled liquid. Multinational corporations which advertise big initiatives to save water sources are themselves the stealers and stain-ers of water. The United Nations therefore in 1992 decided to have the world water day on March 22 every year to remember and reiterate the importance of water and how it should be available for all. The Ecumenical Water Network has decided to have seven weeks of water in 2011. It is focussing on water, conflict and just peace, examining the links between access to water, water struggles, and building just peace.

Water has this healing property and many a time we are refurbished and replenished by the soothing effects of water. But water which is contaminated by so called human development acts is like the water given to Jesus at the cross. It stinks of intimidation, selfishness, humiliation and violence. An unholy mix will turn out to be a deadly combination which will sniff out the remnants of life in us. Jesus utters the fundamental words, “I am thirsty.” They are the same words uttered by the poor of the land, “we are thirsty.” On world water day it is not enough to give the poor our mixes and our manufactured water. We have to rather ensure water for all as it is the most essential of things.

It would also help if the church understood the need for water for all and water in abundance. This loud call of “I am thirsty” cannot be ignored. As the church is also part of the system which loots water and makes it expensive and off bounds for the poor, we have to accept our collective sin during this lent. Water, the most simple and taken for granted of things in life like the air we breathe. Let us make it available for all.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The church and elections in Kerala

There is less than a month to go for the assembly elections in Kerala. The results usually depend on the vote of an undecided 15-20% of the electorate. That is the swing which gives the winning coalition the final boost to tip the scales. The steady voters usually vote for their party which belongs to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) or the United Democratic Front (UDF). The undecided voters wait and then decide largely influenced by the anti-incumbency factor against the outgoing government. Even as the LDF has momentarily tided over the Achuthanandan factor, the UDF is still waiting to release its list of candidates because of the scuffle for seats both within and outside the Congress party.

The Christian church in Kerala comprising of many denominations has in the past kept out of politics by and large. The past decade has seen the church reverse this trend with keen interest being shown to ensure that the church gets a good deal from the government in power. This has now developed into a masked and open demand for candidates from respective churches to be selected from the two alliances. Christians in Kerala are divided into two groups. One group which says that the church should not involve in politics and the other group which says that the church should whole heartedly involve itself in politics and even determine the direction of politics in the state.

Bishop letters are being read in churches and church members are openly being asked to vote for a particular party/candidate. The Kerala populace is being divided further on the basis of religion and caste. Bishops are openly canvassing in front of television cameras and in church pulpits urging and even forcing the people to vote for a particular candidate. The ‘vote for our man’ usage betrays in a way what the church stands for.

Is the church political? It is in as much as its members belong to various political dispensations. Can a bishop or priest have political leanings? He can as long as he does not force a church member to follow those leanings. As an ordinary member of the church respects a church leader he/she will listen to the church leader in various ways. Some may blindly listen while others will follow their own discretion. A church leader thus may preach that people should vote against corruption, injustice and social evils. But he should also give a balanced view while going about this. What otherwise happens is that the entire church suffers the consequence of the decisions of one or two leaders, as bad political acumen may bring about irreparable differences with a particular political party.

The politics of the cross is that Jesus forfeits his power for the sake of humanity. How then can his followers urge capturing power and seeking seats saying that it reflects their strength in Kerala society? One can understand if churches in Kerala join others in rooting out corrupt politicians for the good of all in the state. But how can one come to terms with pressurising political parties to offer seats for the sake of seeking power? The power of the church lies in its powerlessness. So threatening and pressurising is far from what the church should be involved in. As good citizens all church members can use their vote for the good of the state/country and this good may be differently seen by people. Jesus would never stand for elections, never campaign and never pressurise anyone. If we start doing it, it is a time for a vote. A vote for change in the churches of Kerala!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The essence of Lent: Learning and struggling to bend our knees, mend our hearts, and lend our hands.

Lent is observed in almost all Christian traditions in various forms whereby some abstain from meat, dairy products and fish, some from meat and dairy products and some by not eating an entire meal or two the whole day. There are others who abstain from something they otherwise do the entire year round. This could include abstaining from drinking alcohol, not watching T.V., and not doing any leisurely activity. Abstinence from something or the other forms the back bone of lent this way. The aim of lent is to make the body starve from something which in some way or the other is perceived as a luxury to the self or which is unavailable to someone else.

Lent is also seen as a way to discipline the self and also as a way to gain something by denying oneself something or the other. Many Christian denominations also see lent as a time when we abstain to help others by providing food and other essentials through what is saved as a result of the abstinence. Lent also has not so visible, but never the less inherent meanings of slowing down the pace of life and using the time to meditate and take stock of one’s life and to define what it means to live.

Lent in the Orthodox Christian tradition
The Orthodox Christian tradition follows a strict regimen of following a fifty day lent which is a commemoration of the forty day fast of Jesus in the desert. The ten extra days are the days which include Sundays and other days when qurbana or worship is not followed up by fasting in the morning. In India many other Christian denominations along with the various Orthodox churches abstain from meat, fish and dairy products during this season of lent.

The Orthodox churches have prayers for at least three times a day and these include prostrating or kneeling and then getting up and continuing this pattern forty times for each prayer. The forty prostrations in the Syriac churches are divided into sets of ten with the worshipper saying ‘kurielaison’ (Lord have mercy) for the first ten, then ‘Moran Esrahemelain’ (Our Lord, show (do) mercy on us), followed by ‘Moran Husrahemelain’ (Our Lord, show compassion, and have mercy on us) and finally ‘Moran Aninurahemelain’ (Our Lord, answer (accept our prayers) and have mercy on us). The continuous kneeling and getting up patterns require mental as well as physical toughness which can be achieved only by a strict diet during lent. The constant repetition of exhortations to God require a proper breathing technique and are a strain to the knees, wind pipe, thigh muscles, arms and the knuckles of the hands. The strain on many parts of the body at the same time brings in the duality of pain along with abstinence while calling onto God to show mercy.

Bending our knees
But this is not the entire essence of lent. The theme of lent as bend, mend and lend rather suggests what lent should really be. The prayers during lent also suggest the same. Bending our knees in itself is not enough as they leave out the very essential mending of our hearts and the lending of our hands! Rather, bending of our knees should go along with the mending of our hearts and the lending of our hands. The reformed Christian tradition in India does ask us to not just express our spirituality through acts but live out this spirituality by reforming ourselves and being of help to others. On the other hand it could also be that in the haste to complete the act we forget the meaning of the act itself!

The act of bending is an outward expression of the inward piety and humility one should feel. Whenever we bend, we are going back to the roots of where we come from and where we belong, the ground or earth itself. Indian culture reflects this theme when the young bend to touch the feet of elders and teachers. The act of humility cannot be missed and brings us to the essence of lent. We are to humble ourselves just as Jesus humbled himself for us. The death on the cross is a reversal of power and its affiliations. Our life becomes meaningful when we humble ourselves before God and others. An Edessan woman tells St. Ephrem, the 4th century church father that he should look to the earth as it was from the earth that he was created. The wisdom of the woman opens Ephrem’s mind. Bending thus makes us see who we really are and keeps us in touch with reality. It initiates the process of thinking about and understanding ourselves.

Mending our hearts
The prayers during lent remind us that there is no use of observing lent if we do not change inside. No amount of abstinence from food and other things will help us in any way if we do not bring about a renewal inside us. Lent is thus a time to mend our hearts. We thus use this time of lent to mend our hearts and thereby our thoughts, our ways, our relationships and our actions. In this way lent performs the cleaning and changing of what is unjust to the ordinary people of God. Every individual thus comes under the responsibility of mending his/her heart so that God’s just plans are initiated in the world and continued for the benefit of all. ‘One for all and all for one’ sounds very much how lent should be. Each one strives for change just as all strive for the change of status of one. Christian denominations thus should experience the healing qualities of lent and how it works to bring people together instead of dividing people on the basis of different dispensations. The power of lent is beautifully reflected in this concept of one for all and all for one. Just as Jesus stayed hungry for the benefit of all of us, we continue that model and choose to remain hungry for the benefit of others. This single initiative turns into a collective movement whereby the needs of even a single person are collectively thought of, considered and managed by many.

Mending our hearts then calls for a change of what we usually call the fast life. Our lives are built around the irresponsible destruction of our resources, which indeed are a part of our existence. But due to various reasons we have lost the link with our roots literally and change the face of the earth for our profit and our wants. The prayers for lent clearly state that the body and the being or soul have to fast or observe lent equally. When the body abstains from food, the being or soul should abstain from wrongs and sins. A lent which only abstains from food is a waste and one should not just waste oneself like this. In these times many are looking towards Orthodox theology and the system of lent in the church to suggest that this is a way of life which can be followed to receive health benefits. But is lent just about health benefits and regulating our diet? If that was the case Jesus would just be our gym trainer! Whatever Christian denomination we belong to, we should remember that mending our minds means that we should change the way we look at and behave with others. We should change our total way of life. This involves questioning the very life that we are living. Lent becomes a time to slow down and take stock of our lives. Fasting does not mean power fasts and individual glory but fasting means slowing down during the great fast.

Lending our hands
Lending what we have acquired and saved and what we have set apart completes the great lent. Blessed are those who clothe the naked and blessed are those who satisfy the hungry from their own table says another prayer during the great lent. Those who give do not just give alms by opening their hands but lend their luxuries and their life. The sacrifice is finally made to count and this is not just giving a man/woman fish but also does not just involve in teaching them to fish. Rather what happens is that they are given rights to the same river or sea from which everyone else has been fishing for so long. The great lent lends much and much more. Churches try their best to educate people to set apart and share what they have saved with those who do not possess even the ordinary needs in life. This community commitment encourages community goodness apart from individual goodness. Churches even collect rice and other essentials and distribute it to those in need. Others lend their expertise, their learning and their positions to initiate larger projects which help the poor. Thus the lent becomes a time for people to do good and even becomes mandatory and more important than just abstinence from food.

Lent helps the church to remember that it has been fortunate in many ways and that there are others who are not so fortunate. The reasons for this are many and churches try to involve themselves in the various hunger pangs of the people who live in the surroundings of the church. Lent this way truly becomes a time when the church becomes a place where Jesus and his great fast is reflected. The fast that Jesus undergoes does not only help him to overcome the temptation of satan but goes on to help him to realise the actual infirmities that affected the society of his time. His life then helps us to realise that it is not enough to lend certain food items to the poor but to go on to fight the injustices that have led to the starvation and the deprivation that the poor in this country experience. It calls for fighting systemic evils that exist in our society and calls for the rooting out of these evils through our fast and lent.

Lent in this sense strengthens us to garner the energy to fight against corruption, caste disparity, gender disparity and other social evils. This is the temptation that we all have to fight against. By lending our hands we share our favourable destinies with those who have been experiencing skewed destinies because of the luxurious lives that we live. Our sacrifice thus is not a sacrifice but a just sharing of the resources we have all received freely and graciously from God.

Let this lent be a time when we bend, mend and lend for our brothers and sisters to live a life which goes along with the will of God. This is not a forced decision but a decision taken freely to ensure that we correct the wrongs we have done in our lives. May God be with us in this struggle to fulfil a meaningful lenten season. Let this be a lenten engagement which strives for the betterment of humanity, the world and its inhabitants. Let us accordingly bend, mend and lend. Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The woman and Jesus on Valentine’s day

Another Valentine’s day is coming to an end with lots of flower sales and card exchanges. Lovers and couples are made to believe that they have to buy each other something to make the cut this Valentine’s. Love and sex will be most on the minds of the young and the old. But the modern day love and sex don’t need true arousal as they are ready made five minute mixes which are over even before they start. Relationships could also follow the same pattern. Luke 7: 36-50 could be interpreted as the valentine expression of a woman who is perceived as a sinner. She brings in a new notion to Valentine’s day as not just a ready mix day but one which explores the various senses of a human being.

Worship involves the activation and constant interpolation of the five senses of a human being. The senses include touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We obviously do not give much thought to the activation and the coherent expression of these five senses and many a time maybe even forget about their existence. Nevertheless these senses when used in various combinations bring forth very effective interaction. Two of the important senses are touch and smell.

1. Touch is one of the most active steps of sense activation that we can undertake. In many of Jesus’ miracle acts what he does goes beyond the miracle because it involves touching those who were not touched. This is not just a spiritual and inward touch but a clear physical touch which involved challenging the prevalent system of untouchability which was practised in various forms. When Jesus arrives at the Pharisee’s house there seems to be no indication that anyone received him with an introductory touch. Rather what we see is a woman referred to as a sinner who comes with an alabaster jar of perfume. She wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them and pours perfume on them. As we usually concentrate on the woman who lived a sinful life in the town what we ignore is the woman who touched Jesus with her physical and sensual touch. Our feet are one of our most sensitive yet most ignored body parts. The sense we feel when we are touched by someone at the feet is indeed very arousing. Yet we usually refer to the touching of the feet as a mark of respect (as is done in Indian culture) and forget that it also has a very distinct and clear meaning which goes beyond just mere respect. In the church the main part of touching is the kiss of peace, which again should have been a kiss but is now a shake of both hands and even that is done half heartedly. At times members of the opposite sex try to avoid touching each other in this otherwise very meaningful ritual practised in church. The washing of the feet during passion week also becomes an act of service and is never seen as anything beyond that. The kissing of the feet by the woman adds to this sensual awakening. How can then a woman who had led a sinful life bring about a sensual awakening? Her love as mentioned by Jesus covers any sin that she may have been accused of. So what for many may seem as a passage of servitude, discipleship, and confession may very well also be seen as a passage of love, passion and sensuality. When everybody goes for Jesus’ upper body, the woman goes for his feet. The church is always seen as shying away from touch. We refuse to touch the untouchable, we refuse to acknowledge that touch is sensual and we in the mean time run the business of touching souls, while the bodies wither away. Maybe we need to look at scriptures more publicly and sensually for us to come to a different understanding of touch. Valentine’s day is a perfect punching bag for different religious groups and I wonder whether it is only because of the commercialisation of Valentine’s day or it is because of the refusal to acknowledge that expressing one’s sensuality is not religiously acceptable?
2. Smell is another of the senses which can arouse our feelings. Aromatherapy is now marketed in India as a spiritual and mental well being that we can feel when we use certain products which arouse and bring out our sense of smell. In India we live amidst the dichotomy of smell. We have what we can call the rich produced smell and what is the poor natural smell. The woman in the passage has a strange mix of both! She wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and then pours perfume on them. Her tears are her own and they are as therapeutic for her as for Jesus. The drops which fall on Jesus’ feet may have caused a second arousal. She wipes off the tears with her own hair and then puts perfume. The base smell which she provides is her own. This is followed by the constructed smell of the perfume. The perfume adds to the olfactory delight that Jesus was being put through. Truly a great experience! The church more or less relies on incense to provide for the awakening of the sense of smell. This is complimented by the hundreds of smells emanating from the bodies of the congregation. If we care to take a dig into the variety of smells we will be aroused into action in church. What actually happens is that we turn off our smell sense and in our aim to attain holiness we keep away from everything which may awaken our minds. But think of using the smell as a welcome arousal of our senses to function better and to espouse this great feeling of love just like the woman who toyed with the feet of Jesus? In essence what happens in church is that we take away the senses of people or we try to numb them. This keeps our bodies in a state of non-orgasmic existence while our spirits are taken into ecstasy. The woman in the passage arouses us to our senses just like she may have aroused Jesus. Are we ashamed by our arousal or are we tickled to action? As others ignore Jesus, the woman welcomes him by arousing him and Jesus likes it! This Valentine’s the usual debate will continue. But Valentine’s or no Valentine’s are we willing to accept the closeness that people feel towards one another. Are we willing to allow others to be aroused? The flowers are only one particular way of doing this but there are other smells as well. This rounds up as the smell of love and warmth felt towards one another as well as the smell of passion which couples will sense and feel towards one another. Who are we to prevent this? The Pharisee tries to unlike the touch of the woman but Jesus reminds him of the woman’s love which refuses to subside. I am aroused, are you?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sedition as the biggest addiction in a growing democracy

India and China are two countries which are growing the fastest in the world today. The two countries have several things which separate them but also have some similarities. All similarities surprisingly are anti-human and un-democratic. They include cheap labour, corrupt government agencies, anti-people policies and the latest to the list is sedition charges to silence their own people. The bible also has several instances of sedition being used as a weapon to silence those who basically talk for the justice and equality of people.

China did not cheer the Nobel prize for Liu Xiaobo and saw the prize as an infringement upon the internal policies of the country. Similarly India could not prevent a questionable court judgement jailing Dr. Binayak Sen for life on a case which is actually no case at all. Sedition is a big charge and is basically used to quell all discontent in a country. Or so it seems as in both cases there seems to be no better explanation.

Acts 6: 8-15 relives the arrest of St. Stephen on charges that he shook some of the traditional beliefs of the synagogue. Even though he tries to explain his stand he is then stoned to death without a proper trial. His last words “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” shows that his fight was against the wrongs that he saw and not against any individual.

What then does this mean for the church? Does it augur well for the church to remain quiet while those who work for the poor are put in jail? Does it mean that the church leaders also practise the same and removes its perceived enemies in the name of false sedition charges? Do we remember the lives of our saints and forget the inspiring leaders of present who remind us of our saints? Or are we waiting for them to die to then remember them as saints?

A government is of the people, by the people and for the people. How can a government then allege sedition on its own people? India has come to the point of practising a punishing democracy where everyone who is against the official line is punished and brought into line. Why doesn’t the government give medical help to the poor? Why doesn’t the government address the freedom issues of its citizens? Can fear keep people from raising their voices against injustice and wrong doing?

The government in India is trying its best to put a stop to all sorts of addictions but when will it review its own addiction to sedition? The all is well reply will not keep a true democracy in silence. If India is truly a democracy we will over throw this addiction. Till then, Lord, do not hold this sin against them!!!