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.