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What should Christian unity week really be about?

Let's have less focus on doctrinal debate, more on social justice

  • Ivan Fernandes, Hyderabad
  • India
  • January 20, 2014
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It is that time of the year when Christians make the right noises praying and professing their quest for union during the January 18-25 Christian unity week.

This year Indian Christians ought to do more than what is customary. They should forget about achieving any sort of doctrinal unity but instead form a consolidated bloc in the fight for peace, social justice and equal human dignity.

India in the coming months will be moving toward general elections and in all likelihood it will be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that will form the federal government after an absence of 10 years.

The party has a track record of stoking sectarianism and anti-minority religion sentiments and looking the other way when their storm troopers unleash violence as part of an unwritten diktat to making secular India a pan-Hindu theocracy.

The last time the BJP was in power, there were an unprecedented number of attacks on Christians and church institutions by Hindu fundamentalists under the political auspices of the BJP. I reported and covered many of those incidents in northern India.

Narendra Modi, the party’s firebrand prime ministerial candidate, already has blood on his hands from a pogrom against Muslims in his Gujarat state where he is chief minister. So pivotal was his inaction in stopping the premeditated massacre of some 2,000 Muslims in 2002 that the United States has since banned him from entry.

With a change in government likely, Indian Christians should brace themselves for another wave of attacks by Hindu fundamentalists.

Christians are considered a soft target because they turn the other cheek more out of numerical necessity, being just about two percent of the 1.2 billion Indians, 80 percent or more being Hindus.

During the earlier attack on the community, there was a banding together of church dignitaries and ordinary Christians who felt they were harassed just for being followers of Christ and not because of their particular doctrinal position on the Christian faith.

In a show of unity, they spoke in one voice publically to denounce the violence perpetrated on them.

They lobbied together educating people that, although Christians make up just a miniscule percentage in India, their good works in the field of education and health care is not only sought after but constitutes half of such facilities available in the country and serves a majority of other faiths. 

They managed to convince people that it was their faith that motivated them to be of service and not an underhand agenda of converting others to join their religion.

It was this that largely stopped the violence, not their coming together on a basis of a doctrinal consensus.

A week of prayer for Christian unity has its origins in a small movement that began in 1908. If unity has not yet been achieved, I doubt it ever will be. I don’t see for example how the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church or any other church dropping its emphasis of holding the correct doctrinal position and of others joining them as terms for achieving unity. 

The historical evolution of each standpoint has gone far beyond a unifying consensus where each can give up its own identity to fuse with another.

The schisms that divide Christian denominations are not only in doctrinal teachings but also social teachings like divorce and homosexuality. More importantly, there is an inherent mistrust among denominations.

A Protestant bishop told me he blamed Catholics - the largest of all Christian denominations in India - for the lack of ecumenism. It was this Catholic flirting with Hinduism and all this nonsense about inculturation and infusing local culture and religion into Christianity that has its own tenets that impedes unity, he said.

Another oft reported grouse among denominations is sheep stealing. Recently, a pastor from a mainstream Protestant denomination visited me in Hyderabad. He wanted to tell me about Jesus. I told him it would be far more profitable to preach to non-Christian neighbors who might not know about Jesus than to a Catholic. 

He replied that as a Catholic I had already received the faith but an erroneous one and that it was more profitable to convince me to change my ways and see the true form of Christianity than to begin anew with those from other religions.

Catholics also are not without their own prejudice. A Catholic priest friend of mine in rural India for example hates Pentecostals. Sometime ago a Pentecostal preacher had come to his village, put up a one-day Jesus convention and converted some local bystanders by dipping them in a vat full of water, speaking against Hindu gods and burning some Hindu holy pictures before departing.

Days later a mob not knowing the difference between Catholics and other denominations came to his church, vandalized property and trashed him for the incident of which he had no knowledge. My priest friend remains furious for that fly-by-night preacher giving Christianity a bad name.

All said and done, Indian Christians will have to do more than just pray, sign joint statements and share a common dais for the once in a year coming together in a show of unity.

It would be far more profitable for them to stop this charade of pursuing the holy grail of doctrinal unity and fortifying themselves with their own brand of faith because in the coming months, if the BJP comes to power, things are not going to be easy.

Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Hyderabad.

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