Putting Justice at the Heart of Faith: Reflecting on Ecumenism from an Asian Perspective

Introduction: This presentation seeks to answer the question, what does it mean to speak of faith and justice from an Asian perspective? What is uniquely Asian about an Asian Faith? And to perhaps reflect on how Asians have imagined faith and contributed to the larger ecumenical discourse. If one were to speak about Asian ecumenism though one would have to first consider what is unique about the Asian continent itself.

Asian Continental Uniqueness

Ambiguity: If one were to read the relevant literature there could no denying that Asia is an ambiguous continent. Geographically the boundaries of Asia remain ambiguous and several continue to debate whether or not countries such as Russia and Turkey belong to Asia. Further, unlike Europe that has constructed a history, with extremely violent consequences, that have claimed a common cultural (and sometimes racial) root, while at the same time accounting for difference, both linguistic and cultural, Asia has not imagined such a past. Although, and perhaps also because, Asia has played a pivotal role in the European construction of itself, ‘Asia’, in the modern discourse has been constructed as the ambiguous ‘other’, as perhaps Edward Said would suggest[1]. While I would not deny that this has also been the experience of both Latin American and Africa, it has not happened to the extent that it has in Asia. Moreover While there have been efforts to create a pan-Asian identity politically, economically and perhaps even within the context of theology, it is my assessment that these have not succeeded in creating an ‘Asian consciousness’ as perhaps have similar attempts within the context of Africa or South America.

Diversity: Related to the issue of Asian ambiguity is the experience of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Asia is a continent that occupies around 30% of the land mass of the world and hosts around 60% of the world’s population that is extremely diverse culturally, ethnically, politically and religiously.

There are a number of different ethnic groups that live within Asia, like in other continents Asia has its own multiplicity of ethnic groups that are further divided along lines of language and dialect. However what is important to note is that because of the size and the population of the continent, this diversity is probably more than elsewhere. Likewise there is also a diversity of political systems and processes that range from multi-party democracies on the one end to monarchies and dictatorships on the other.

Culturally it is difficult to speak of an overarching Asian culture. This is particularly true while speaking of traditional cultural practice, food, myths, rituals etc. Within the context of Asia there lies an extreme diversity of culture. Of course one must not exaggerate this cultural diversity. Living in a globalized world it would be naïve to suggest that there is little similarity between the culture of West Asia and East Asia, for example. After all cultural globalization has meant the proliferation of homogenized cultural artefacts across the globe, Dubai does not look or act, or tries not to look or act any different from Seoul or Tokyo or even New York or Frankfurt for that matter. However what is important for us to note is that the elements of this homogenous culture are not essentially Asian but are reflective of a global market system which has become the driving force of culture today. Interestingly many of the cultural artefacts of modernity are literally produced in sweatshops around Asia[2].

Most importantly for our purposes however, is the multiplicity of religious expressions that are to be found in Asia, Asia is after all home to several major world religions. The list would include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. This would perhaps take us to our last important factor, namely minority.

Minority: While Christianity was founded in Asia, and the name Christian first used in Asia, one would have to admit that the church in Asia is a minority, with the Philippines being the only exception. In most countries in Asia, Christianity is the minority religion which I believe is one important factor for us to consider when we speak of the significance of the Accra confession for Asia.

The Accra Confession is a foundational document for the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the organization I work for. Arising out of the experience of apartheid the Accra Confession was first proposed by the African churches who wanted the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (what the World Communion of Reformed Churches used to be called) to respond in faith to the global economic situation. The confession, accepted at the 2004 General Council in Accra, named neo-liberal capitalism as destroying life and denying its flourishing. It further called for the covenanting for justice in the economy and for the earth. The confession goes on to make the following three points, firstly that Justice is a matter of faith, secondly that the church stands in solidarity with persons who are struggling and suffering and thirdly the unity of the church is critical and it cannot be separated from justice.

While one would acknowledge a wide diversity in Asia, I would believe that there is a certain commonality of experience among the people of Asia. We shall make some attempt to speak of the commonality of this experience by mapping the Asian context.

Mapping the Asian Context

The struggle against colonialism:

If there is a common experience in Asia it would probably lie in its experience of colonialism. Colonialism has had a deep and devastating impact on Asia the effects of which continue to be seen even today. While Asia and Europe probably began the transition into modernity at the same time, the both of them did this in entirely different ways, one as the colonizer and the other as the colonized. Colonialism impacted Asia economically, politically, socially and psychologically. On the economic front colonialism meant nothing but the raw extraction from Asia for the wealth creation of the west. This extraction was devastating to local economies who, as a result of colonialism, were overturned to become producers of raw materials for consumers in Europe.

On the political front, for the colonized, colonialism meant the loss of the right to self-rule and self-determination. In the latter part of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century the opposition to colonial imperialism took on the form of the rise of nationalism which attempted to confront empire using the western entity of the nation state. The process was not without its own issues and new studies on nationalism are discovering that it often served to crystallize the dominance of the local elite that colluded with colonial interests and colonial ideology for their own purposes even if they opposed colonial imperialism[3]. The end of imperialism therefore for several powerless groups across Asia merely meant the handing over of reins to new masters.

On the social front what often happened was that the colonial powers colluded with local dominant communities that either served to ratify ancient hierarchies, re-create them in new ways or to create altogether new ones. Essentially colonialism meant that more vulnerable groups, particularly women, peasants, small artisans, indigenous people and those who lay on at the bottom of social hierarchies became even more vulnerable.

On the psychological front colonialism was constructed and imagined as a sense of loss, defeat and even emasculation of the colonized. Colonialism was after all not just the extraction of wealth but was also the contestation of ideas within which certain ideologies, scientific rationalism, for example were privileged over all others. This sense of loss and emasculation continues to exhibit itself in various ways including the glorification of violence, colonial constructions of knowledge and imagination of a glorious past that has its own problematic today. There is of course significant work being done by Asians today in the field of post-colonialism that is seeking to deconstruct some of this[4].

The struggle against poverty: Another common experience across Asia would be the experience of poverty. In India,  official statistics tell us that 29% of the population lie below the poverty line. The question however is how is that line drawn? What defines the poverty line? In India the poverty line is defined as the amount of money required to purchase 1200 calories of food – the minimum daily requirement of an adult. To put it in another way, in a conservative estimate 29% of the population are starving. The numbers of those who are malnourished are far worse. Dietrich and Wielenga remind us that “Poverty is not just the lack of cash to buy minimum food but it manifests itself in malnutrition, poor environment (polluted air and water) poor clothing, poor housing or no housing at all, lack of space, poor health, poor education and so on. Poverty means hunger, disease and despair. It means children dying of malnutrition. It means child labour, bonded labour and unhealthy work at low wages. It means dependency and abuse. It means the break-up of families in search of work.[5]

It would be naïve for us to suggest that poverty in Asia is the result of colonialism; such a view is too simplistic and mono-causal. However what we must also realize is that the logic of the present economic order that places value on profit over people has only served to worsen poverty. The situation is made worse by state and non-state actors such as international financial bodies and Transnational Corporations pressing for a particular economic model that would benefit the powerful but would wreak havoc on the lives of the powerless. This neo-liberal agenda is being pushed through structural adjustment programmes that seek to privatize, liberalize and globalize the economy subsuming all things to the logic of profit making. Unemployment, reduction of workers’ rights and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor is the result of this.  

Curiously capitalism has taken on two specific forms in Asia, the first is what can be referred to as authoritarian capitalism, where through state interference a capitalistic agenda is being pushed. This either takes the extreme form of China who pushes the agenda of capitalism with military power, or the example of India where the state openly acts in favour of the corporations and against the rights of the people as has been amply been witnessed to in the rulings in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case as well as in the Vedanta and POSCO corporations case in Orissa in India. Interestingly capitalism envisages the reduction of the role of the state leaving the economic system to the invisible hand.

The second form of Capitalism found in Asia is what Naomi Klein would refer to as disaster capitalism where corporations and governments move into areas devastated by natural or human made calamities to introduce a neo-liberal agenda. Examples of this can be witnessed to in the war torn areas of Iraq and Afghanistan or in the Tsunami struck areas of Indonesia or Sri Lanka[6]!

The struggle against environmental degradation: Linked to the struggle against poverty is also the struggle against environmental degradation. Reliance on a growth based economic system has meant an increasing pressure on the environment. Climate change has affected several parts of Asia in different ways including increasingly extreme weather, floods and drought, loss of species and rising sea levels. While the debate between the developed and developing countries of the world continue over carbon emissions, fact is that Asia has not only suffered because of climate change but in as much as it also continues with its economies of phenomenal growth it also continues to contribute to the problem!

The struggle against violence: Another common feature that can be found around Asia is the levels of violence. Whether it is war, armed conflict, state violence, terrorism, insurgency movements, human right violations, structural violence or gender based violence, violence is endemic in Asia. Of particular significance for Asia is religious violence whether it is between sects of the same religion or between two religious groups.

The struggle against internal hierarchies: While we speak of the context of Asia we must also not forget the presence of internal hierarchies that exist among Asian communities. Structures like caste and patriarchy continue to discriminate against and cause violence towards millions of Asians.

While we have looked at the Asian context by raising several specific issues it is important for us to note the connections that exist between these various elements, all of them working together in certain places to further the systems of injustice that exist. In the next section we shall be looking at the relevance of the Accra confession for Asia

Issues in Asian Ecumenism

The ecumenical movement in Asia has charted a very specific course, particularly in the way it sought to engage Church with society. Because of its largely minority status across Asia, the Church as a unique position vis-a vis the state and the national question. This of course places Asian Christians, Churches and the Asian Ecumenical Movement in the possible position of having a prophetic voice.

Calling the faithful to engage with the world: Asian Ecumenism is a call to the faithful to engage with the world, by doing so it firmly locates itself within the tradition of the prophets! Biblically there are two kinds of prophets, the first is those who were court prophets who excelled in offering a theology that was in support of the status Quo. There is also an alternative tradition of the prophets who opposed power and questioned the structure. These prophets often lost their lives in the process. The Asian Ecumenical tradition has consistently called people into the latter prophetic tradition, particularly in relation to the economic and political system. Asian Ecumenism has encouraged us to engage with economic systems contextually and pastorally from the perspective of justice ensuring that our economies serve the interests of people and not the large multinational companies[7]. This is perhaps evidenced in the work of the Christian Conference in Asia that has worked for economic justice, particularly through an inter-faith lens. Other examples can be found in the liberation theology of Sebastian Kappen, the Minjung Theology that emerged out of the Korean Peninsula and in the life and witness of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines.

In the Asian context however the gospel came to the people as part of the colonial enterprise and was in many ways used as a tool of subjugation. In this sense the gospel that was presented was a depoliticized gospel that called people to disengage with the world and not question the violence of the system. Therefore an otherworldly faith was encouraged and cultivated. This understanding of the gospel still continues in Asia with many believing that being a believer necessitates withdrawal from the world.

The struggle of the Asian Ecumenical movement however is to call the attention of the faithful to the real crisis of the world and sees engagement with it as the legitimate act of faith. It calls the believer to understand that justice is the very substance of faith. And this takes us to our second point that the Asian Ecumenical movement calls us to faith based stands for justice.

Asian Ecumenism calls us to faith based stands for justice: For Asian Christians justice is very often reduced to a question of ethics. Acts of justice are seen as what one should do because one is a Christian. Therefore it is not uncommon for Asian Christians to get involved with charity work. Several churches take on many different projects in which they try to find the right thing to do. Asian Ecumenism calls us to understand that justice is a matter of faith, it is a matter of confession. It is the very heart of God. To put it in other words, it is not Christians who should be involved with acts of justice, rather it is doing acts of justice that make us Christian. This has perhaps been the legacy of the global ecumenical movement. That faith and Order is disconnected and distinguished from life and work. Faith is seen to be the work of the first and ethics the work of the second. Yet the distinctive contribution of Asian Ecumenism is that it has called us to understand that justice is not delinked from faith. Rather it is justice that lies at the very heart of what we do as Christians.

Resistance to Empire: At the present moment there has been a lot of work done ecumenically regarding the question of Empire, yet this is not something which is necessarily new to Asian Ecumenism. Though the word Empire was not always used, resistance to forces of imperialism has been significant for Asian Ecumenism and indeed to faith traditions in Asia, this is both Christians and those belonging to other faiths to. Having been brutalized by colonialism and neo-colonialism, Asians have a real experience of what Empire is. Many, many Asians see the word Empire as a legitimate nomenclature for all that has been destroying their lives, livelihood, community and environment. However Asians also realize that in the modern world Empire cannot be embodied by a single nation, however powerful. The feature of modernity is that power cannot be found in individuals or organizations, but rather in systems. Asians would define Empire as systems that accumulate power to serve the interests of a few at the cost of many, as greatly increased distance between those who make the decisions and those who have to suffer them.

While we have spoken about how Christians in Asia are a minority, what we should also mention here is that in many countries in Asia they are the powerless minority. Christians in Asia are poor, dispossessed, women, Dalits, Minjung, Indigenous. They are not the ones who discern the signs of the times, they are those who experience them. They are the voices that the Accra confession calls us to hear. It is Asian Christians, whether it is the sweatshop worker in Indonesia, the sweeper in Pakistan, the Dalit in India, the indigenous person in the Philippines… who have experienced the violence of Empire.

The Many Poor and the Many Faiths: Asian Ecumenism also recognizes that global ecumenism does not pay adequate attention to the reality of religious pluralism. That there is the question of the many living faith traditions that our sisters and brothers draw from while they seek to make meaning of the world and transform it into a space that offers justice and peace for all. While it is necessary for us to speak of justice as being a matter of faith for those of us in Asia that live in a multi-religious context, we have realized that we cannot reduce justice to being a Christian project[8]. The difficulties of seeing justice as a matter of faith is that  it becomes a barrier to joining hands with secular movements for justice, and if we are to create another world then this joining of hands is a necessity. The need for us in Asia is also to open up spaces by which we can relate to other faiths and work together for the sake of justice. This openness calls us to be able to listen to the voices of those that lie outside the walls of what is traditionally called the church. We as a church have the notion that we have all the answers that we know how to we are to transform the world. And we are fantastic preachers always telling others what to do, rather being able to learn from others. A theology and a spirituality that is directed towards the other is not one that tells the other what to do, but rather is one which is willing to listen to the other, to hear and learn from the other. While it is true that what Paul is speaking of in prophesy is that the church be willing to speak truth to power, to name and to dismantle the structures of power that oppressed others. Perhaps we cannot do the same today without understanding our own location in the midst of power. The Global Church is no longer a minority who is being hunted down by Empire, but that the church today is Empire. We are powerful and are responsible for much exclusionary violence around the world While this may not be the immediate experience of the Asian church, in as much as the Asian church also connects to the global church and is part of global initiatives, it also becomes true for us. Fact is that we have privilege and we have to be able to unlearn our privilege. In fact I would argue that we have to unlearn our privilege and actually be able to see our privilege as our loss. That precisely because we as a church are in positions of power we can no longer speak the truth that we are losing out on salvation as a result. We need to defamiliarize and unlearn our notions of power as individuals and as institutions as well. What we have to do is to learn some humility and set out to learn from the very people we intend to teach.

The way forward

Perhaps the Asian Ecumenical movement can learn from what we confess in the creed as being the marks of the church. And though the creeds sought to ‘fix’ doctrine a process which had the stamp of imperialism on it, it was also an ecumenical effort which underlined the idea of finding unity through the creeds. What is perhaps required then is a radical re-interpretation of the these creeds. That a radical reinterpretation of this could possibly enable us to chart a way forward.

One: The first word of the creed regarding the Church is that the Church is one. This of course means that when we speak of the Church we are referring to a united Church, a Church that is one body of whom Christ is the head. This of course means that the church has to be a united Church. But the question that must be answered is what kind of unity are we aspiring towards. If we look around the world today we would of course realize that unity in itself is not necessarily a good thing. For after all there can be a unity for evil and injustice. The G7 nations for example are united in their forcing of a market economy on the rest of the world. Likewise the coalition of the willing is again united for the sake of war. In India we have the Sangh Parivar that is united again for parochial interest. The point being made here is that unity is not an end in itself but rather we must always question the ends that unity is serving. When we claim that the Church is one we are claiming a unity of which Christ is the head. This of course implies that the unity of the Church is directed to the ends that Christ himself taught us. That is to say that we are united not for exerting power but rather for the sake of powerlessness. Again we are not united for the sake of evil and injustice but rather for the sake of justice. The unity that the church is called into is the unity of and for the sake of the oppressed and the marginalized of the world.

When we speak of unity there are two metaphors that we can think of, one is of course the metaphor of the ladder, a unity which moves upwards. No doubt this is the metaphor that is sometimes conceived of by the Church, a unity that is upheld by the hierarchy of the Church. This is a hierarchical sense of unity, but we can also conceive of unity in the sense of a circle, this is a unity in the sense of equality. The metaphor of the circle lets us see the unity of the Church in an open and inclusive way, after all a circle can always expand itself to let people in a circle can grow in a non-hierarchical way. More importantly however, is that when we stand in a circle we are always on the peripheries and not at the centre. The united Church is a church which should be on the boundaries of society, not a powerful church but a church of the marginalized. A church of those who are on the peripheries of society.

Lastly the idea of being One church leads us to consider the reconciling ministry of the Church. We are called to be peacemakers in the world (Matthew 59). The role of the Church as being one is to call those who are divided, those who are separated, those who are warring to be one.

Holy: The second affirmation we make about the church in the creed is that the church should be a holy church. There are two senses in which the term holy can be used. The first is the sense of being separated. It is the sense of the church being separated from the world in the sense that the systems of the world cannot prevail in the church. Therefore being holy means rethinking hierarchy, caste, patriarchy, class system. This means that these unholy practices cannot find their place within the church nor can the true members of the church partake in such systems. Rather we are called to be separate from such things of the world.

The other sense of being holy is a creative holiness. It is the Church that is in the world and not of it, the stranger and the alien church that challenges the world to move from imperialism to shalom, from the acquisitiveness of global capitalism to the simplicity of sharing and living in community, from the ravages of occupying colonialism to the spirit of participatory democracy. Being holy means rooting out and challenging all that is unholy – all that denies humans from full participation in the fullness of life and pulling out all that destroys or prevents the image of god in us. In this sense holiness also means upholding all that promotes the wholeness of life.

Catholic: The third affirmation of the creed is that the Church is to be a catholic church. The word catholic refers to the universality of the church. This means that we as being members of the church cannot draw lines that determine who is or who is not a member of the true Church of Christ. Our Lord has told us that there are other sheep and therefore we must understand that when we speak of the Church as being catholic we are referring to the mystery of the Church, we cannot speak of who is a part of it and who is not, this is not for us to decide for we cannot know who Christ has called his own.

This means of course that the Church is an inclusive community, it means that we cannot exclude anyone from the fellowship of the church – not on basis of race, colour, gender or belief. But the Church is not only called into this manner of passive inclusivism where all are welcomed into the fellowship of the Church. But rather we are called into an active inclusivism where it should be seen as the mission of the Church to make heard those voices that have hither to been unheard or have been intentionally been kept silent. This means that when we affirm that the Church is catholic we affirm our solidarity with God’s work of liberation in the world. It means that we stand in solidarity with all those who are kept silent and enable these silenced voices to be heard. Therefore the Church should make heard the silent screams of women suffering under domestic violence, of Dalits who are being crushed by their landlords, of tribals who are having their lands snatched from them and their culture destroyed.

Apostolic: The last affirmation that we make about the Church is that the Church is an apostolic Church. This means that we are a sent church – a Church with a radical mission to turn upside down, look at things in a different way and turn the world upside down as well. This means challenging hierarchies and letting the first be last and the last be first. A church that is called to serve the world and not a church that is to be served (Mark 1045). We must question however, who it is that we are called to serve and what we must understand is that we are not called to server the interests of the rich and the powerful of the world. It is here that the church must ask the serious question, whose interests does the mission of the church serve, whose interests do our educational institutions and hospitals serve are we just helping the rich get richer? Are we committed to upholding the Status Quo or challenging it?

By way of Conclusion: Ecumenism across the world, as in Asia perhaps should not be seen either as a programme or even as a project but as a process which is continually evolving and changing. Yet the question arises of how should ecumenism change? It should change contextually, arising to meet the challenges of each age. Asian Ecumenism, because of its specific locations outside of both Christendom as well as Christian majoritism, located in a multi-faith context and arising out of the struggles of people, is particularly enabled to offer something to the wider ecumenical community as well. A way of engaging with word and the world!

[1] Geography is Politics! Edward Said quite well explicates this in his introduction to “Orientalism’ also Cf. Edward Said Orientalism Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin Books, 1991) P. 49 ff.

[2] Naomi Klein No Logo (Great Britain: Flamingo Books, 2000) p. 95 also see pp. 139 ff

[3] G. Aloysius Nationalism without a Nation in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 41

[4] Kwok Pui-Lan Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2005) p. 61

[5] Gabriele Dietrich and Bas Wielenga Towards Understanding Indian Society (CSS: Tiruvalla, 2003) pp. 118-119

[6] Cf. Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2007) p. 288 ff

[7] This is particularly noticed in and distinctive of the work of the CCA and reflected in its assembly themes. E.g. Jesus Christ in Asian Suffering and Hope (1977), Christ our Peace: Building a Justice Society (1990) and Hope in God in a Changing Asia (1995)

[8] Cf. Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation,( Maryknoll: Orbis books, 1986

Rev. Philip Vinod Peacock is an ordained minister in the Church of North India. He was previously the Associate Professor in the Department of Theology, Ethics and Social Analysis at Bishops College, A Theological College belonging to the Church of North India. He currently serves as the Executive Secretary for Justice and Witness for the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

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