Colombo Telegraph

What Is The “The Church” ? – Misconceptions That May Bear On Current Tensions

By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka

Prof. A.N.I. Ekanayaka

The first half of 2014 has seen more incidents of Christian missions (“churches”)  in  various areas being harassed by rowdy mobs comprising belligerent monks and their gangs for whom a non violent peaceful Christian minority that consistently turns the ‘other cheek’ to its assailants, is obviously a soft target. In recent times such hostility has increasingly included pastors of churches being bullied by local government officials demanding proof of formal registration to worship as ‘church’, even though there is no such legal or constitutional requirement.  Accordingly this article is intended to correct a common misconception in the popular understanding of what constitutes the Christian “Church”. This is not a matter of semantics. Confusion on this point ie. what is or is not the “Church”, might be at least partly responsible not only for the impunity with which churches are attacked these days, but also the relative indifference of the moderate Sinhala Buddhist majority, the callous disregard of the authorities, and the somewhat lackadaisical  attitude of the media towards this problem.

Such attacks are of course not new. Considering incident reports many in the public domain during 12 years from 2002 -2014 there have been more than 330 hostile incidents against Christian churches, Christian pastors and Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka. 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.

These attacks seem to be driven by a conflicting ethos where although the use of violence is held to be utterly abhorrent to the dhamma in principle, its more militant proponents nevertheless consider violence to be justifiable ( and even meritorious ! ) when used in the cause of Buddhism against a real or imaginary threat. Moreover such attacks are carried out with impunity where the police and courts appear to be tardy about enforcing the law when it is flagrantly broken by Buddhist activists in the name of Buddhism. Peacefully demonstrating university students, and  political opponents can be mercilessly hammered with tear gas baton and water cannon, taken into custody and brutally assaulted without much compunction. But when  rowdy monks and hooligans on the rampage ( who are a disgrace to Buddhism) take to violence and show contempt for the rule of law, they seem to be treated with uncommon restraint by  dominantly Buddhist law enforcement agencies.

It is  surely odd that a government with the political will and military strength to annihilate the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world –  is seemingly unable to stop a relatively small group of religious fanatics running riot attacking Christians, in the process tarnishing the good name of Buddhism and  further damaging the already impaired international credibility of the country. How strange that a ‘strong’ government that otherwise rigorously enforces its will in most areas of public life and has a reputation for being fearfully intolerant of detractors  is seemingly unable to eliminate this particular irritation. It almost sounds like an old Chinese proverb to say that surely “ those who have thrashed a demonic tiger should be able to tame a domestic cat” !. So there is a strange contradiction about the seeming impotence of the state in dealing with this problem.  After all the offenders are known. They have formed into groups. They have given themselves a label. And they act in the open.  Nor does it look as if the majority Buddhist establishment including otherwise respectable professionals, academics, business people, and even the media are reacting to this outrage with the moral indignation it deserves.

This is not the place to analysis the reasons for the seeming indifference of Buddhist State and Buddhist society when Buddhist militants go on the rampage. However one reason underlying the apathy might be the patently false perception that it is not the established Christian church per se  that is being attacked, but  less formal nondescript denominations peripheral to the church rather than an integral part of it. Accordingly when people see Christians worshipping seemingly without let or hindrance in the imposing cathedrals and familiar church buildings of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other mainline denominations – they might wonder what all the fuss is about.  The outward appearance of normalcy where congregations in such churches appear to be worshipping peacefully may convey the misleading impression that by and large the church in Sri Lanka is enjoying religious freedom.  Where the Christian Church is identified narrowly in terms of such mainline Christian denominations – all visible and familiar citadels of organised religion and respectable religious formalism,  the false impression might be created that whoever is being harassed it is not the Christian church.

Sri Lankans by and large are surely not so insensitive as to be unmoved by a frontal attack on the Christian Church. The problem is that many people may not interpret what is happening as a frontal attack on the Christian Church. Those who are getting a hammering may not be seen as members of the church so much as fringe groups peripheral to it. For many non Christians that may be enough reason to look the other way.

That kind of false distinction in the popular mind tends to be augmented by two factors. Firstly, there  seems to be some reluctance on the part of certain leaders of the mainline churches ( especially Roman catholic including its  Cardinal ) to rise to the defense of their harassed non conformist counterparts  in other Christian denominations. Such indifference by the Christian hierarchy of  larger denominations towards the predicament of Christians in smaller denomination who worship the same God but with greater zeal and in a different style will not be discussed here.It is sufficient to say that influential Christian bishops and cardinals shirk a basic Christian duty when they fail to use their God given public position to vigorously  condemn attacks on Christians irrespective of their denomination and relentlessly demand that the government do something about it. They would do well to heed the awesome warning of Jesus whom they claim to follow “ . . for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more”.

Secondly  the Christian denominations peripheral to the mainline churches are commonly  labeled religious fundamentalists by people who don’t even know the meaning of the term. In a world where decent people are maliciously  labeled , caricatured, stigmatized, and demonized as a means of first discrediting them so as to create a climate of opinion  where attacking or even exterminating them  might be seen to have a vicarious justification it is not surprising that  harmless  Christian evangelists  who are peacefully preaching the good news of  God’s gracious offer of salvation to fallen humanity should be derisively labeled as fundamentalists  by their enemies, with connotations of radical Islamist fundamentalism that has given the word a bad name.

Not that even so there is anything wrong with being a  fundamentalist. On the contrary  the trouble with religion  throughout history is that  adherents have often compromised the fundamental teachings of the faith allowing pristine doctrine to be overwritten by monstrous distortions  where religion as originally conceived by its founders then becomes virtually unrecognisable. Indeed that is what has happened to Buddhism in Sri Lanka today. In this situation if Christian fundamentalism  means  a return to fundamentals  of faith, where Christianity is understood solely in terms of the supreme authority of scripture ( ie. the Bible ) and grounded in the apostolic foundations of the early church – then surely fundamentalism has much to recommend it ! Indeed the Compact Oxford Dictionary defines fundamentalism as a form of Christianity which promotes the belief that the Bible is literally true and also as the “ strict following of the fundamental doctrines of any religion or system of thought”. That is  the sense in which persecuted Christian evangelists in Sri Lanka are if at all “fundamentalist” .

So in the face of all this it becomes necessary to ask the question “ What is the church ? The simple answer is that the Church is the “ people of God” everywhere whose hearts have been renewed and now  acknowledge Christ Jesus as Lord. That is what the Bible says. The church is not to be circumscribed in terms of an institutionalized religious establishment  with the characteristic architecture of its physical facilities. Nor is it the  formal framework of a religious denomination  controlled by a portentous ecclesiastical hierarchy with pompous titles amidst much ceremony and ritual.

Instead the church is the universal community of believers that no man can number, drawn from every tribe and nation under the sun whose legitimacy derives from God not man. In every generation those who compose the church are chosen by God, known by God, set apart by God, and adopted as children of God. They have been called by God, empowered to have faith in God, justified by God and enjoy the guarantee of eternal life. It matters not  who they are, from what nation or social background, where they are, how many they are, what they look like or call themselves, or how long they have been resident in a particular area. It does not matter whether they congregate in a hut, house or cathedral. Nor is the style in which they worship God of much significance. The church of God is a spiritual community known to God which the Bible portrays as the very “body of Christ”  on earth. True some of its constituent members  might be found in one or other of the familiar Christian denominations eg. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist etc. To that extent these denominations may be seen as the ‘visible church’ . On the other hand many (sometimes even bishops and priests !) who are purely imitation Christians in such denominations are in reality not members of his Church as God would see them. Equally many millions of faithful Christians who are members of his church as God would see them have never been part of such denominations.

The implications of such an understanding of the church is that no government or local authority can presume to demarcate the limits of the Christian Church as if to say what is or what is not a legitimate church. The legitimacy of God’s church active in any village or town is determined by Almighty God not  by governments, constitutions, ordinances or gazette notifications. Indeed the growth of the church throughout history bears no  relationship to its  formal recognition by state or society. On the contrary down the ages the church has survived and expanded in the face of governments that far from recognising it have often been determined to destroy it.The church is simply what Jesus meant it to be when he said  “  for where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them”.

The obvious  implication for Sri Lanka is that  the manifold worshiping congregations throughout the country in all their diversity whether large or small, formal or informal,  new or old, whatever their denomination  mainline or marginal – they are all part of one universal church. To attack any part however small or humble is to attack the whole. The attackers can no longer  be under any illusion about the terrible implication of their actions. Surely they must know that it is futile to attack the indestructible, where Jesus himself has said of his Church that even “ the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” !

*Dr Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka – Professor Emeritus

Back to Home page