Colombo Telegraph

“And They Also Come For The Christians” – With Apologies To Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –

Professor A.N.I. Ekanayaka

Amidst the widespread condemnation of recent attacks  on Muslims by hostile Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka, it is fair to say that Christians in Sri Lanka though saddened and outraged by these incidents are probably not surprised. That is because they have in many ways been  getting  a bigger beating  and over a much longer period of time, than their recently beleaguered  Muslim counterparts. Considering incident reports many in the public domain during 11 years from 2002 -2013 there seem to have been at least 250 hostile incidents against Christian churches, Christian pastors and Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka – and still counting. They constitute a depressing tale of  beatings, insults, verbal abuse, stoning, stabbings, destruction of property, desecration, arson, mob violence, death threats, attempted murder, disruption of worship, obstruction of funerals, defiling people and places with human excreta, as well as framing up victims with fake charges. In one of the most recent incidents it would appear that at Meegoda in the Colombo district a Christian prayer meeting was disrupted by a mob led by some monks who forcibly entered the premises destroying musical instruments and damaging furniture and glass windows. Evidently the pastor was assaulted by a monk who hit him over the head with a guitar until it broke and the pastor fell unconscious to the floor.The recent attack on people who were taking refuge inside a church in the Weliweriya massacre ( an  act of desecration strongly condemned by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjit himself ) also deserves mention here, since it points to the seeming disregard of the government itself towards the sensibilities of Christians. We may speculate that if  provocations even fractionally as serious as these had been directed against the Muslim community in the nature of things there might have been grievous repercussions.

By comparison the persistent harassment of Christians has proceeded with relative impunity, amidst frequent police inaction if not seeming partiality towards the culprits, overall government apathy , the sanguine indifference of a predominantly Buddhist public and the complacency of a predominantly Buddhist media for whom this is not a priority. Moreover being a longsuffering placid non violent community, Christians in Sri Lanka have been restrained in the face of these humiliations rather than attract public attention by raising a hue and cry.

It is of course important to emphasise that these violations though perpetrated in the name of Buddhism are an unspeakable contradiction of the teachings of the dhamma. Such hate crimes are the very antithesis of Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha. Sadly the upsurge of violence in defence of Buddhism shows that the pristine Buddha dhamma of its compassionate founder has virtually disappeared in Sri Lanka. It seems that what passes for Buddhism nowadays is a hideous distortion  that might more aptly be titled  ‘militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism” ( a curious jingoistic religiosity) where ironically the dhamma instead of promoting detachment from the world – itself becomes a focus of insecurity, obsessive protectionism, and craving. Any true Buddhist with ‘right understanding’ would find this situation deeply distressing.

There is obviously  no provocation that can even remotely justify the kind of violence documented  in the various reports on any legal, moral or spiritual perspective. However it is a fact that historically allegations of so called ‘unethical conversions’ and agitation for anti conversion legislation, have formed the backdrop to such violence and a back handed excuse for it . Consequently while not wishing to disgrace themselves by openly condoning such violence, it would not be surprising if chauvinistic Buddhist political parties, some religious organisations, and individual diehards ( even including some otherwise respectable intellectuals ), may silently gloat over the plight of the Christian victims  on the grounds that they “got what was coming to them” for engaging in ‘unethical conversions’. However this article is not about the vexed issue of ‘unethical conversions’. Indeed, it is even possible to argue that on any logical reasoning the whole concept of unethical conversions is a meaningless contradiction because a so called ‘forced conversion’ is by its very nature a ‘no conversion’ – but that is not the point.  Nor is it that the occurrence of such activities  in Sri Lanka if at all has been  grossly and maliciously exaggerated to the point of paranoia by interested parties. The point is that whatever our opinions about such matters decent peace loving Sri Lankans who have a proper understanding of the core teachings of their religion ought to draw the line at violence and have a zero tolerance towards it, because violence in any form, at any time, against anybody, for any cause, is a gratuitous violation of both religion and the law.

Having said that one must concede that Christians in Sri Lanka find themselves in a somewhat more difficult position than their Muslim counterparts. Recent attacks on mosques and Muslim business premises may not have been dominantly motivated by the paranoid fear that large numbers of Buddhists might somehow be attracted to Islam, become intellectually convinced of its truth, and convert to it.  By comparison attacks on Christians may have an added dimension reflecting the anger and bitterness of those who feel threatened by the potential for the purely voluntary conversion of individuals to Christianity. Indeed amidst the manifold  trials tribulations and uncertainties of life on earth, the inexorable advance of death, and the awful fear of what may lie beyond – it is not surprising that ordinary people should be attracted and excited by the simple Christian Gospel.  It is a Gospel that proclaims the incredible love of God who came down to earth in the form of Jesus,  in every way shared our human experience, suffered the horror of crucifixion as a propitiation for human sin, and triumphantly rose from the dead, so that  those who put their faith in Christ may forgiven of their sins, enjoy peace and joy for the remainder of their earthly existence, and confidently look forward to the absolute guarantee of eternal life beyond the grave. It is not surprising that people should find such extraordinary “good news” irresistible, and it is intolerable and unfair that they should be beaten up for it along with those who introduce them to it.

To complicate things further the Christian Church lives under the inescapable imperative of the “great commission” where Jesus unequivocally exhorted his disciples to “ Go forth to every part of the world, and proclaim the good news to the whole creation . . .” . Accordingly Christians all over the world are called to peacefully respond to this divine imperative by preaching and teaching, respectful dialogue and charitable service carried out with love tolerance and sensitivity. Their response to those who want them to stop doing this is the same today as that of the apostle St Peter 2000 years ago who on being arrested, put in prison and produced in court  for preaching the Gospel answered “ Is it right in God’s eyes for us to obey you rather than God ? . . . We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard”

It is well known that throughout history millions of Christians who have been faithful to this calling have suffered much and endured great persecution.  One of the more horrible examples from our own time and region is the case of the Australian missionary Graham Staines who was serving amongst socially outcast lepers in Orissa India. In 1999 he and his two little sons were ambushed by frenzied Hindu activists with flaming torches, and burnt alive while sleeping in their station wagon. His wife Gladys Staines has since forgiven the killers saying that she had no bitterness towards them.  In Sri Lanka the numerous attacks against Christians during the past 12 years though not as bad, nevertheless reflect a similar mindset in the attackers. It is this mindset that is responsible for much intolerance towards religious minorities in all cultures.

It is a mindset characterised by a  fundamental  fallacy that has been around for so long that everyone, even the so called educated classes,  tends to take it for granted.  As William James the father of modern Psychology is supposed to have said  “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”. In this case wherever in the world religious minorities are harassed the underlying driving ethos is the notion  that the majority religion has territorial sovereignty and enjoys an intrinsic hegemony in a  specific geographic zone.  But the assumption that this or that religion has a unique incontrovertible claim on this or that geographic region in perpetuity, constitutes a dangerous and irrational ideology that is utterly obsolete in a 21st century globalised world.  It is a springboard to much violence against religious minorities, for the implication is that other faiths may exist in such regions on sufferance, only for their own followers, within strictly defined limits at the will and pleasure of the majority community which of course holds the whip hand. No wonder  fanatics in such a society will extrapolate that if in their view a religious minority ‘steps out of line’ they can take the law into their hands, and beat them up ! Alas, in Sri Lanka Article 9 which gives to Buddhism “the foremost place . .”  unfortunately enshrines this inimical notion of territorial religious sovereignty  in the constitution.

But the truth is that such exclusivity diminishes the very religion that it is intended to foster. If one subscribes to a religious faith believing it to be truth, then one must believe that it’s truth  is true for all  people everywhere. It follows that one is duty bound to try and evangelize the world with its truth. To settle for anything less is to undermine the validity of a religion and diminish its relevance. Each religion represents a unique and mutually exclusive spiritual perspective on such critical matters as life, death, sin, suffering, salvation, happiness  and eternity.  Notwithstanding the manifold theological contortions of religious pluralists and their wishful thinking, the reality is that there are irreconcilable differences in what the different religions say about such things.  Notwithstanding such differences true religion does not consist in jealously guarding its traditional dominance in one corner of the world where it has a majority and aggressively fighting off the competition. Nor does it mean harassing adherents who think better of it and convert to another faith. All that sounds too much like a shopkeeper desperately trying to retain his customers by hook or by crook. Indeed such obsessive protectionism is a dis-service to a religion for it is a sign of weakness and an admission that the truth of that religion is not convincing enough to retain its followers.

The reality is that religious faith is one dimension of human ideology amongst many – political, economic, scientific, social and moral. In a democracy all such beliefs including religious beliefs are ( in a manner of speaking) a freely marketable commodity. In the free market of human ideology those that are more convincing, stand the test of time in the furnace of human experience, and are of greater immediate value in coping with the problems of life will inevitably win the day and attract more converts. Religion is no exception to this process where additionally its attractiveness will also be strongly influenced by the practical witness to holiness and loving kindness, of its professed adherents .

Such are the fundamental changes in mindset on the part of both society and government  required for the permanent eradication of violence against religious minorities anywhere. Wherever in the world irrational and outmoded concepts of  inherent territorial religious supremacy persist, minority faiths will always be resented, tolerated on sufferance, and potentially persecuted. However, whatever the imperative for such a fundamental  attitude change, there is little doubt that in Sri Lanka the government can stop attacks on Christians by appropriate measures provided it has the political will. The principled exclusion of any chauvinistic quasi-religious political party from the government and prohibiting ( instead of appearing to sympathise with ) the known militant religious groups that are openly running riot harassing religious minorities, are amongst the measures that will restore  the confidence of religious minorities, and demonstrate the intention of the State to  enforce the rule of law without fear or favour. Such measures would also be in the best interests of Buddhism, by sending a strong message to  ugly rampaging militants who try to bring Buddhism into disrepute by the display of hate and violence in complete violation of the teachings of the dhamma. As to why the government hesitates to take such action is puzzling considering that the President having vanquished terrorism is widely perceived as a national hero whose impeccable Sinhala Buddhist credentials are beyond reproach however firmly he may deal with religious militants who are a disgrace to Buddhism.  As the old adage states “where there is a will there is a way”.  In the meantime Christians wherever in the world they are besieged will echo the heartfelt prayer of the ancient Psalmist who many centuries BC complained “ O Lord how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult ? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage . .”

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