Faithing the Native Soil: Dilemmas and Aspirations of Post-Colonial Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka. By Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi. (Colombo: Centre for Society and Religion, 2012.)
Reviewed by Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar
In a comprehensive manner he provides the reader with exhaustive overviews of Sri Lankan religious and ecclesial historiography, delving into areas such as: the forging of a post-colonial Sinhalese Buddhist self-hood in a manner which was contingent upon “majoritarian” and “nativistic” claims; the development of the missiological positions of the Roman Catholic as well as the Protestant churches and their ongoing impact on the churches; the emergence of and responses to Evangelical Christian presence in Sri Lanka; the reconstruction of the “native status” for Christianity through de-colonisation; the transformation of traditional roles for both Christians and Buddhists; and the call to
redefine Christian identity. Adopting an inter-disciplinary approach which combines interreligious theology, a history of Christian mission and post-colonial political analysis, Hettiarachchi skilfully derives significant nuances that bring to the fore the contestable nature of contemporary identity-forging categories. What characterizes an appropriate missional praxis for the churches, according to the book, is cultivating an “ecclesiastical willingness and the theological readiness to recast the churches’ function (mission) and praxis so that it becomes a faith of the land and gains the respect of their religious neighbours” (209). The book breaks fresh ground in proposing an intra-religious roadmap as the way forward in mission for Christian churches. The call to engage in intra-religious dialogue on the contentious issue of conversions and for common recognition of the civic responsibility seems appropriate in a context of divisions between churches. The importance of intra-religious dialogue is increasingly being recognized, and touching upon this dimension adds value to the book.
However, what strikes me about the book is the omission of any reference to the Sri Lankan Tamils in the discourse on Christian mission where the main religious partner of Christianity is portrayed as an ethnically identified form of Buddhism, i.e., Sinhala Buddhism. Rendering the Sinhala Buddhists as a monolithic category does not help. In my opinion, the integrity of Christian mission in Sri Lanka cannot only be tested in terms of Christianity’s attempts to assuage the fears of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, but also in critically recognizing the concomitant results of such a posture on Sri Lankan Tamils (both Buddhists and Christians). To resort exclusively to the former would render mission susceptible to the vagaries of majoritarian politics and lend itself to be interpreted as intentional indifference to the ethnic minorities. Therefore, though the author emphasizes the need “to look beyond the popular and dominant discourse of the ‘Sinhala Tamil conflict’ which has been elevated during the last twenty five years” (236), this also seems to be the book’s undoing. Conceiving the missional accountability of Sri Lankan Christianity in isolation from the Tamils divests Christian “hospitality” of its prophetic dimension and the new road map could lead Sri Lankan mission to new alignments, the political dividends of which may be contentious. This aside, the book remains informative, timely and engaging. Born out of experience and expertise it bears testimony to an author who, while being passionate about interreligious relations, is nevertheless provocative in style and daring in deciphering the signs of his times.