Midweek Review
Ethnic conflict – a Christian perspective

by (Fr.) Siri Oscar Abayaratne
In 1983 Sinhala extremists murdered hundreds of Tamils (I’ve seen what happened. I risked my life to protect a group in a face to face confrontation). I ask the question, are only those who directly perpetrated the crime, the guilty. I wouldn’t hesitate to state that the Sinhala people as a whole (including me) stand accused of murder - arson. I ask the Tamils to forgive us. The L.T.T.E. killed hundreds of the Sinhala (including my brother-in-law an innocent non-combatant). The Tamils I maintain stand charged for murder and brutality, both groups stand indicted. Both the Sinhala and Tamil people are guilty of a heinous crime against each other.

Some Christians may not go along with me, but I would be doing wrong to my Catholic convictions if I at this juncture, refuse to do so when ideologies of various hue and colour are vying with each other to proffer supposedly certain solutions to what is happening to our country today. What I hold as a Christian perspective may be looked down upon condescendingly as yet another ideological position. Be that as it may, I would like to maintain, that a genuinely Christian position must transcend the limitations of current ideologies and base itself on what the religions specifically in our country consider as foundational for the well-being of all people.

Let me begin with a few words from the inaugural sermon on Christianity by Peter the chief apostle of Jesus Christ in the Book of Acts of the apostles ‘(Chapter 2/23 sq.)"You crucified Jesus of Nazareth , God raised Him up................... Repent."

The people heard Peter blaming them for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Some 3000 Jews present did not hammer nails into the hands and feet of Jesus. All of these could not have been present to join the chorus in the court of Pilate "Crucify Him" Yet Peter shouts out the accusation: "You crucified Him. "The listeners were Jews who had, presumably, not heard the challenging good news preached by Jesus, nor had anything to do with the crime. They however belonged to the people who killed Jesus. They too are guilty of the murder.

In 1983 Sinhala extremists murdered hundreds of Tamils (I’ve seen what happened. I risked my life to protect a group in a face to face confrontation). I ask the question, are only those who directly perpetrated the crime, the guilty. I wouldn’t hesitate to state that the Sinhala people as a whole (including me) stand accused of murder - arson. I ask the Tamils to forgive us. The L.T.T.E. killed hundreds of the Sinhala (including my brother-in-law an innocent non-combatant). The Tamils I maintain stand charged for murder and brutality, both groups stand indicted. Both the Sinhala and Tamil people are guilty of a heinous crime against each other.

I presume that there will be many on both sides of the ethnic divide, who will not agree with me. They would marshal out facts, figures, year, month and day to prove that one party is more guilty than the other or that the guilty ones are the fanatics of both sides. Nonetheless, I hold on to the contention that the Sinhala and the Tamil people are equally guilty. I would perhaps add that the elite of both camps are the real culprits very much like the priests, the sadducees, the pharisees, the lawyers, who engineered the murder of Jesus. Whoever be in a penetrating and objective analysis the really - really guilty of the tragedy, that has befallen our beautiful land i.e. the Britisher, the English educated middle class, the vellalas, the goigamas, the karawas, there is the urgent cry for a resolution of our ills.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I wish that attention be paid to the radical message of Jesus Christ when He spoke of the Kingdom of God. He didn’t speak of rights, He did not speak of racial aspirations - Jewish or gentile. If He did, He spoke of the rights of God, and this is interpreted to mean the rights of the poor and the oppressed. For the Christian, He is the Risen Lord. He is alive. He speaks today. He said and, says today, "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." Would not the word ‘self" imply not only the individual self but also the collective communal self? Would the Sinhalas and the Tamils, who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ turn around to the life teachings, deeds, death and resurrection of Jesus and be challenged to stop talking of "our people", "their people" our rights, our aspirations, homelands, Sinhala country, unitary state, federal state, confederation and take inspiration from Jesus’ life of forgiveness to begin with?.

Could we take note of the Johannine version of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of love on the very day of the resurrection of Jesus: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you", and when He had said this He breathed on them and said to them,"Receive the Holy spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Peace, desired by Jesus is not primarily the result of political solutions, but a surrender to God in a spirit of love, and mutual forgiveness. Thereafter, there should be the removal of all psychological barriers "fear" for instance and then a working out of a political, social and economic structures for the benefit of all, very specially the poor and the oppressed, exploited and the underprivileged.

The kingdom of God spoken of by Christ finds resonance in the vision of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi. "There can be no Rama Rajya in the present state of inequalities he said, because a few roll in riches and the masses do not even get enough to eat....."(Harijan June,1947). When people asked him whether Rama Rajya in fact stands for Hindu Raj," To these" he replied, "By Rama Rajya I do not mean Hindu Raj... I must say that the independence of my dream, means Rama Rajya that is the kingdom of God on earth. I do not know what it will be like in heaven. I have no desire to know the distant scene If the present is attractive enough , the future cannot be very unlike." (Harijan 5th May 1946).

Now, I, as a Christian should proceed to gaze in wonder at the Enlightened One. I would see much of the aspirations of my Christian faith being given verbal expression in the discourses of the Buddha. Should not the desire of the followers of Christ be to see His Teachings come alive in this country over which He has had centuries of sheer heart warming influence?. Further, I should hasten to ask forgiveness from the Buddhists for the damage done to that which they held as sacred for long, by the colonialists, despite the Christian garb they wore have been false to almost everything that Jesus Christ stood for.

What the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British have done should make us shy away at the very name Christian but for all that Jesus Christ as a person, His life, His teachings, His death and resurrection have done in our lives. Having said this, may I with equal pain and disgust pin the blame on the erstwhile local feudal overlords who in the maintenance of their status quo and their quest for power, prestige, and possessions joined hands with the foreign powers. What is most disturbing to me are the descendants of those traitors carrying on regardless even to this day heaping tragedy upon tragedy on the poor folk of this land. They stand condemned. However the "Kingdom of God‘ Jesus spoke of should make them too the beneficiaries of our forgiveness. Besides, the cry of Jesus from the cross - "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do." should evoke a positive response from all his followers in this blood-soaked land - Sri- Lanka. Let the Spirit of forgiveness be the beginning of a movement towards genuine peace or reconciliation.

The movement must gather momentum to reach out to remove one of the most intractable of barriers FEAR. Fear stalks the land in the hearts of the Sinhala and Tamil communities. It finds expression in a stance of self-defence that get translated to a way of life that bespeaks avenging brutality or criminality. We have seen this happening at our door-step.

The Sinhala people have been led willy- nilly to fear that their cherished culture or civilisation is under threat. The Judeo-Christian civilisation is said to be on the aggressive march towards the annihilation of all civilisations. Buddhist civilisation in Sri Lanka, built over the centuries is believed to be a targeted victim. Pan Tamil nationalism is a menacing threat not only to Sri Lanka but even to large country like India. Muslims have lived in absolute harmony with the Sinhalese, Tamils and other minorities. At the moment Islamic-militancy is directed primarily at the ugly face of American hegemony. Yet, militancy once started can find new hosts against which it will be directed. A case in point is the LTTE harassment of Muslims in the east. This will add another dimension to the violence already spreading its tentacles in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala people are possessed by fear of the imminent threat of annihilation. Being a fear of the severest kind, they have re-acted to it in various ways in the past. They fear it is happening in the present and will continue to happen in the future, unless the liberating power of the Dharma of our religions are brought to play for the good of all.

These fears have been further aggravated a fifty, sixty and a hundred fold with a part of the hill country been taken over by the Indian Tamils of recent origin, to the detriment of the poor Sinhala villages. Fear that is personal and collective has to be reckoned with in the quest for genuine reconciliation. I am persuaded that, however good-willed peace marches and the much published Madhu pilgrimages are, they will do nothing to remove the fear that lurks ominously in the hearts of the Sinhala Buddhist. The love that Christ enjoins on his followers is much more than the cosmetic application of peace panaceas.

Add to the bargain, the militant evangelistic thrust of the fundamentalist Christians is adding fuel to the fire, so much so that initiatives for the social welfare of the people, devoid of ulterior motives of proselitization as for instance the project in Bible not long ago by the Catholic Church are seen as monsters out to gobble the poverty-stricken helpless poor among the Buddhists. The question must necessarily be posed why this negative re-action from the Buddhists today when in the decades past Christians, Muslims, Hindus could plant a church, a mosque a kovil without a whimper of protest from the Buddhists, and very often with the blessings of the Buddhist clergy and fraternity.

And on the Tamil side, one could see the fear that haunts their lives. Tamils once upon spread out into all parts of the country living secure peaceful lives, now crowding in to the south cluster like for reasons of safety. Regining from the incipient fear of being elbowed out from participation in the political and economic life of the country and fear of their identity being lost in the crowd and their culture, language being completely side-tracked and trod upon, make them re-act vociferously and shout their fear in terms of equal rights, homelands, self determination and aspirations. Memories of what happened in 1983 may be more and more promotive of fear doubled and re-doubled with every encounter with the security forces and there could have been one too many. A Christian approach to this problem would demand that this fear be completely wiped out and they feel secure in the matters of their lives, culture, language and well-being. Also the fears of the muslim community, very specially of those of the North and the East who have been hounded out and displaced, longing to get back to their lands. We have seen, heard or read about the happenings in Udathalawinna, Mutur and Valaichenai, and lot more. "Love casts out fear" (1 John 4/18). The Hindu Gandhi would present a vision that removes fear. The Christian and the Hindu should join hands to meet with the Buddhist to root out not only ‘fear’ but all sufferings we are subject to.

I see that mouthing religious platitudes would not suffice, not even the spirit of forgiveness and the dispelling of fear, in the present day context of political solutions that seem to be drawing out the worst in power-politics, treachery, betrayals, cunning, opportunism and venom. There is need for concrete steps to draw in the best of the religious sentiments of the majority of our people to touch on political action. No change of an enduring nature, that assure not only permanence but also the elimination of communal hatred for all time will take place, unless there is appropriate action in the political field. Pope Paul VI th would say: "Politics is the vastest field of charity" Gandhi would say: "for me, politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt, even to be shunned. Politics concerns nations and that which concerns nations must be one of the concerns of man who is religiously inclined, in other words a seeker of God and Truth..... Therefore also in politics, we have to establish the kingdom of heaven." (The Mind of Gandhi p.102) Politics became for Gandhi the domain of spirituality or Dharma.

If this country is to be salvaged, religious people (spiritual men and women) must enter the field of politics (not necessarily into the legislature). Is this country bereft of men/women of deep spirituality, drawn from the treasure houses of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity who could band themselves together to give lead to a new way of legislating, governing and administrating the land we are blessed with? An example – Take the sphere of education in our schools. Such a group of people would be able to provide a corrective to counter the high-powered individualism it promotes and the tearing apart of time-honoured value-system of communal living. They could spearhead the practice of mindfulness, pranayama and yoga. These practices should take precedence over the mere cramping of minds with truths of religion or ethical codes. Such a body of people would draw attention to the serious lack of the experiential dimension of religion and insist on "Practice" that’s promotive of religious living alongside studies on social analysis for social renewal. Would the Hindus, the Muslims and the Christians take objection if it be suggested that the foundational principles for a new political constitution be drawn from Buddhism of universal validity as the primary source,while Hinduism, Islam and Christianity can make their own contribution.

I should think with the appreciative love perspective of a Christian, that Buddhism be accorded the preference, for the reason that it has been at the source of the beautiful way of life of this land for well over 2300 years, and not because it is the religion of the majority. Besides if India can be considered a Hindu country, the West Christian and the middle East Islamic, - why not a small country like Sri Lanka be proudly hailed as Buddhist even by the Hindus Muslims and Christians. There is of course the other valid option of making the liberative core of all our religions be the foundation for a new political constitution and a new way of life. Such a stance will make the minorities comfortable - May Truth and Love prevail.

May I venture to suggest that the aforesaid body be preferably drawn not from the official representatives of religion, but from those among lay people as Gandhi was a lay person. Once such a basic structure is established there could be initiated a mass movement that will bring all communities together under the banner of Truth, Love, Communion, Maitriya, Karuna. Let the other structures follow. It is my firm belief and conviction that those who have not made gods of their ideological positions or deified their political parties or leaders will opt for a country that can be called in its best sense "The Dharma Dveepa." It could be said that the good people are in the overwhelming majority. Once we are grounded on solid religious Truth, let us expect ideological battles to cease as also the hegemony of one race over the other. Words like majoritarianism and minoritarianism would come to be deleted from our vocabulary.

Let me quote from Gandhi again: "The world is moving towards universal brotherhood when mankind will be one nation. Neither you nor I can stop the march towards our common destiny." Gandhi knew his limitations. He sought the help of Hindus, Muslims,Parsis, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and the British as well. He said: "I know that all this combined assistance is worthless if I have no other assistance, that is from God. All is vain without His help and if He is with this struggle, no other help is necessary." (Collected works vol. 43 p. 125) As a Christian, I am with him in relying on divine assistance. The Buddhist would say that there is power available to us in the Dhamma.

In the transition from British rule to independence, if only Gandhi was in and Nehru and Jinnah out. one would say that we would have seen a different India today - A beacon light to all nations.

"Gamal Abdel Nasser’s notion of a pan-Arabic state was based on a thoroughly Western and secular model of socialist development, a dream that collapsed in corruption and despotism. The Shah of Iran provoked the Iranian revolution by thrusting not the Koran but modernity as he saw it down the throats of his people. (Wade Davis - Island 8th July 2002) I would like to go back to Stanley Jayaweera. He writes in his article: "Persons who are convinced Buddhists cannot subscribe to a Sinhala consciousness which is assertive and aggressive at the expense of the non-Sinhala." Indeed they will not call themselves Sinhala or by any other label that leads to fragmentation. There are many Sinhalese who value and love the Sinhala language and culture in which they grew, many who are acknowledged authorities on Sinhala literature, art, and Buddhism who have no trace of such a Sinhala consciousness.

The late Dr. Adikaram was one such person. His knowledge of the Sinhala language and Buddhism was profound. In the manner in which he lived he proved that the Sinhalese could identify themselves as Sinhalese and Buddhist without being, anti-Tamil or anti-Christian. What was important for him was the message of the Dhamma and the enlightenment that it brought to humanity. I go along with all that he has to say about our ethnic conflict. May I call upon the likes of him to please come forward, give lead to the good, religious voiceless, masses of our country. We would give them all the support from the rear. We would then not need a Pongu Thamil or Sinha Udanaya but something very, very different A Dharma Udanaya - A Dharmam Pongal. I grant that this whole proposition sounds idealistic and utopian. The reasons are many. Globalization, free market economy, profit motive - the engine of growth, and individualism of the foulest kind is one. Then, there are the powerful nations in the name of democracy and human rights planning the future of the world on their own terms, while ethics or morals are so shaped to serve their own agenda. Blatant hypocrisy is not seen for what it is. Religions are mere tools in the hands of powerful manipulators. We are trapped inextricably in ideologies red, green, blue, white and the colourless. One can be a prophet of doom and say that total disaster is around the corner.

Cannot one be a prophet of hope? Cannot religions go back to their roots, their sources and their founders? Could we not give God, Transcendent Truth, unadulterated Love primacy of place? I would go that far as to say, close our churches, temples, kovils and mosques if they remain mere symbols serving ends other than provide for ultimate freedom and meaning. From a Christian perspective, I would say that the liberative core of our religions - The Dharma - is the really real that can spell the good of and for all, very specially the good of the poor, the oppressed and marginalized, in all departments of human life. A Dharma based political, social and economic life will draw the best be it from the liberal, socialist or marxist philosophies and even from the way of life that a global village can offer. It may be said that what might be called secular spirituality will emerge, that would make us see the spiritual inherent in the gross material or fleeting events, and humanization becomes the gateway to divinisation. The Christians would pray that the redemptive power of God’s love descend with greater and greater intensity upon all beings and the whole of creation.

As a follower of Christ, I should say that the crucifixion of Jesus on a cross would lose its power if superficial considerations of mere success or failure or pragmatism over-ride the Truth it conveys. It is my firm conviction that a Christian perspective cannot be otherwise.