Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Mary John Akhouri burial: An opportunity to discuss religion in public for the benefit of the masses

Mary John Akhouri (aka Madhu Jyotsana Akhouri) was denied a burial in her mother church, the St. John's Attamangalam Jacobite Church, Kumarakom because the church argued that she did not possess a membership which she had forfeited due to her marriage to Dr. Akhouri, a Hindu. She was then buried in another church. Mary Akhouri is the grand mother of Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra and this was one of the main reasons of the story being reported in the mainline media. Priyanka herself called it an unfortunate incident while the Jacobite bishop of the Kottayam diocese H. G. Thomas Themotheos called it inhuman and unchristian. The church in question through its vicar and committee stood their ground and said that this was what any church under the Jacobite fold would do and a burial was denied not just because of Ms. Akhouri’s intercaste marriage but because she had never renewed her membership in the church. Her relative though from the same church said that Ms. Akhouri had confessed to a priest and had communion from the same church two years ago.

It is easy to point fingers at this moment but we should also be understanding on several fronts. We should be understanding to Ms. Mary Akhouri who was a hard working person, a freedom fighter and a member of the legislative assembly in Bihar. We should also be understanding to Ms. Priyanka Chopra because it is not fair to come down heavily on her because she is a famous actor and she is rich. In many ways even though it is easy to criticize the church we should also try and understand the policies of the church, irrespective of whether they are good or bad.

Was the priest correct to say no to a burial in a church under his leadership? Did he also refuse to conduct the service despite a directive from his own bishop? The priest must have in all probability used his experience, the church tradition and the collective wisdom of the church committee to come to an understanding. Was he wrong in doing so? I don’t think so and I will explain why. A priest is taught in a regional seminary to follow the rules and traditions of the church that he is pastoring in. In this case the marriage of Mary John to a person from a different religion must have disqualified her from church membership. Whether the church actually did follow any procedure in intimating Ms. Akhouri or her family in Kerala about the cancellation of the membership is not known to us. The priest only followed instructions which he learnt. Which religion teaches priests to be compassionate or humane? Which priest is given permission to follow his heart and not the rules? If that was the case would so many people die in the name of religion in India? Wouldn’t India be absolutely inter religious and unified in diversity? So if at all, the church, religions and the society has to be questioned as to what their roles are? Is it to unify people or to create discord among people? Priests in all religions end up being spokespersons of their own community and don’t go beyond that. It is true that the bishop seems to have sent the priest a directive. One way forward was for everyone to meet and sort out the issue. But aren’t there deeper issues which cannot be sorted out with one directive from the bishop?

What are the issues that come to the forefront through this? What is the policy of religions to inter caste marriage? What is the belief of religions with regard to people of other religions coming to their sacred space and partaking of their blessings? Are people of all castes allowed in all temples, are Hindus allowed in mosques, are all people from all religions and other denominations given communion in churches, are women allowed in the holy of holies of religious spaces? There are many underlying issues in the issue of denying a decent burial. Are we ready to talk about them?

Couples who opt for inter caste weddings are killed and brutalized for falling in love and this is justified by politicians, religious leaders and high caste families. Why don’t people come together against this? Women in the Syrian churches are married out of the church. They join the church of the husband and then severe ties with their mother church. Why should it be this way and why can’t women still be part of their own church? Mary Roy created history by fighting for the rights to her ancestral property and through that came into the bad books of her Syrian church and interestingly all of this happened in Kottayam. Mary Roy, the illustrious mother of Arundathi Roy fought for and got a judgement from the court granting equal rights to ancestral property for women. The church was uncomfortable with Mary Roy and the verdict, and this continues even now because Mary Roy has not been felicitated for the great work that she has done. This has been the context of the priests and how they have experienced ministry in the church.

The humanity and Christian values that they have to show in the church they are ministering in also gives second priority to women in almost all things. This is so for burial as well when the face of the deceased is preferably covered during the last rites by the son or another male member of the family and not a woman. Recently I also observed some priests insisting that when a woman was buried the church should not use a silver plated cross but a wooden cross because the husband was still alive! This has been the context in which a priest has come up. Any reaction to a new situation is only based on what he has experienced right from childhood up till becoming a priest. In many cases priests do not completely agree with what is being followed in church. An example of this is that girl babies are not taken to the altar after baptism while male babies are taken, creating a clear division between boys and girls. Many priests now do not agree with this but keep quiet knowing not what to do.

As I mentioned before it is not fair to come down heavily on Priyanka Chopra or her family for what has happened. So we can consider Mary John Akhouri as our own grand mother. What else should we have done to make her memory live on and for her last wish to come true? We should for starters try and understand the system of the church and debate and seek change of any archaic and wrong traditions followed in the church which are beneficial only for a certain section. Why are women treated as second class citizens in the church even though the theology of the church says that God has created man and woman in God’s image and likeness? Can’t we question caste based traditions still followed, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes with clear cut intentions? People inside and outside the church approach the church mainly for baptism, marriage and burial. But shouldn’t we also be approaching the church at other times and debate with the church about the culture of the land and about a society which is very multi lingual and multi cultural? Any loss of a family member is sad but that is the case for all families. When other people and families are discriminated against on the basis of caste, class, gender and religion why do we keep quiet and maintain a status quo? It is time to debate and time to change.

But again it is not to say that we have to do something new in the context of new challenges but to also see what are the corruptions that have come into the church because of cultural pressures and thus go back to the bible and read what it says. The concept of a cemetery is new and is not mentioned in the bible though having a tomb for people is. In John 11:38 it says “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.” There is no suggestion that this was a cemetery. In Genesis 23:9 Abraham seeks a place to bury Sarah and the verse says “That he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.” In the Old Testament as well we read about tombs and not cemeteries. In John 19:38-42 Jesus is also placed in a tomb after his crucifixion. “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” So even Jesus was not buried in a cemetery. But then Jesus showed us the importance of his resurrection over his death.

It is important that the church and civil society work together and that the church should be a corrective for civil society and when necessary civil society should also be critical of the church. One should not get into the narrative of church vs civil society or church vs the media but should look ahead at what can be done so that all who live and all who pass on are equally honored because they are a creation of God. Why is it that people in the church and people belonging to civil society keep quiet or are not expressive enough when people who died were not given a decent and honorable burial because of church feuds? Why weren’t the people involved including priests then not questioned enough about the inhuman and unchristian approach to dead persons? Was that person not a human being? Why don’t we pose enough questions when the funeral rites are done two times, one each by different denominations wanting to assert their supremacy through such acts? Why do we remain quiet when the pulpit is used for preaching hatred, caste supremacy and gender difference?

We have in numerous ways humiliated various living persons and dead persons by our actions in the religious sphere. Mary John Akhouri was not singled out for discrimination but that does not mean that she did not deserve better. It is time that various religions and denominations got together to look at their similarities rather than preach their differences. It is an opportunity to talk about topics usually not encouraged to be discussed in the open. It is also a space for us to gather in public and openly express our religious beliefs including and not excluding the other. If we can do this in the name of Mary John Akhouri and other women and men before her then we will end up respecting them forever. Anything less than that will only lead to the disrespect and humiliation of the soul of Mary John Akhouri. May God guide us.


George C Kuriakose said...

Dear Achan, a well written post. But the question still remains, who will lead the change in the church. As you mentioned most are practices that are not documented but observed. Hence some of the priest do take the initiative to change the practice. One I know is that of taking baby girls to the altars during baptism. I would say that we should ask for suggestions from the people on the practices that needs to be stopped / changed and decision be taken at the right forums for the public to follow. (But is always easier to current system to follow than to make changes)
On the particular issue of burial of Mary John, on of the Manogunapravarthinkkal mentioned in our prayer book is to "bury the dead". It is unfortunate that the priest forgot that in midst of rules, regulations and practices


Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Thanks for commenting George. There are many things that need discussion in the church. These include liturgy, practices and mission work, specially among the youth. The question always has been "who will bell the cat?" and "who will rock the boat?" The present generation needs to engage priests and bishops in fruitful discussions which will lead to the benefit and enrichment of the church.