David Cowling (Emeritus Coordinator, GRASSROOTS)
Southampton, United Kingdom
“What hope does a nation have if religion, which is a path for social transformation, has degenerated and this very degeneration and corruption are devotionally pursued like religious beliefs?”
Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi ( p.291)
Shanthi provides a very helpful and interesting analysis of the specific situation in Sri Lanka but it has wider significance. The relationships between minority and majority communities, and between those of different faiths are relevant to the British context. The tendency for majority communities to ignore the unfair access to power and privilege and even consider it legitimate always generates conflict. The difficulty of all faiths to respect and value those of different faiths always devalues one faith at the expense of another.
The fears of the voiceless
Attention is drawn to the negative consequences of majority/minority relationships in communities. Northern Ireland relationships between Catholic and Protestant have many similarities to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Ethnic identities are linked with religious allegiance. Perceptions of the other community are fostered by myths perpetuated by each community. Abuse of power by the majority community provokes anger and violence from the minority community. Both communities are imprisoned in the past and lack the ability to build a future. It required the skills of a third party to enable the communities to overcome the past and begin to work together for the future. A key element was addressing the abuse of power.
It would be interesting to learn more of the present understandings of the Tamil and Hindu communities and how they might also be part of a re routing.
The risks of dialogue
A prominent British Muslim has sought to engage the founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, in a dialogue over the past eighteen months. www.theguardian.com/…/2013/oct/19/my-journey-with-edl-tommy-robinson
Mohammed is a member of the Southampton Council of Faiths and was invited to a television debate with Tommy on whether far right organisations like EDL should be banned. Both made strong arguments and at the end of the debate, Mohammed invited Tommy for a meal with his family so that they could meet together as humans and establish a better relationship. That invitation led to Mohammed and Tommy engaging in a journey together. Mohammed was the first Muslim to address an EDL meeting, and Tommy was the first member of EDL to meet with Muslim scholars.
Tommy has now resigned from EDL.The whole process may unravel but Mohammed genuinely tried to create a common space where the two men could meet as humans. Both are now under threat from their own communities for betrayal and require police protection.
This has been part of the story of Sri Lanka in that some of the most destructive violence has been within communities rather than between communities. Michael Rodrigo was assassinated and many moderate Tamil leaders have met a similar fate. Thankaraj’s Christ the guru is a profound insight. If Christians recognise they follow Christ the suffering servant then dialogue is not just polite discussions around non controversial issues but sharing faith journeys together so that all can see more clearly the threats to our societies and struggle together to witness to the truth.
The theological challenge
The new reality of fundamentalist evangelical groups operating independently of the established churches resonates with the British situation. The crucial division is not between denominations but between evangelicals and all established churches. Theological debate is difficult when faced with a shallow, individualistic, church centred theology of mission which dismisses a kingdom theology rooted in society and open to all people as compromised and failing in building the church. Shanthi draws attention to those distinguished Christians in Sri Lanka who have chosen to move to the margins of their churches so that they have the freedom to articulate a theology which speaks to all people and is rooted in the multi faith and multi ethnic society of Sri Lanka. The faith debates can be inward looking and preoccupied with religious structures and power. In both Sri Lanka and Britain there are larger issues and challenges which need to be faced.
There is an erosion of democracy as government withdraws from responsibility for education and health for example and hands over to private organisations. These private organisations have become so big that the government cannot manage without them eg G4S. The government has not learned from 2008 about the dangers of the neo liberal unregulated system of greed. We no longer have a value led society but a consumer led society. There is in every person of whatever faith or creed a commitment to basic values of cooperation, fairness, compassion. These are deliberately being crushed and it is surely a challenge and opportunity for all people of faith to respond to these challenges with a vision of society that is life fulfilling rather than life destroying.