Question: John Mary Joe
How should the Church deal with and live with a fundamentalist government? What does the Church learn from history on this?
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
From the beginning of its life Church had to face Jewish fundamentalism and Roman political and religious persecution. It lived and proclaimed its faith valiantly in spite of all efforts of the powers that be to destroy it. Tyrants and totalitarian regimes tried to suppress the humanitarian and charitable activities of the Church as well as its proclamation of the good news of liberation and wholeness, killed priests, bishops and thousands of lay people. But ‘powers of hell’ could not destroy the Church. It continued and does continue to fulfil its mission. The Underground Church in China is flourishing in spite of the persecution by the government which believes in a fundamentalist political ideology. The Church continues to live its faith through the committed Christians in some Muslim fundamentalist states. But how should the Church deal with governments that are wedded to religious fundamentalism in general and particularly with governments in democratic countries like India?
The present government in India follows the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) which believes and proclaims that India must be converted to a Hindu Rashtra. All the Sangh Parivar outfits publicly claim that the majority Hindus of the country must do everything possible to establish a Hindu Rashtra. In their vision of the country, the minorities like Muslims and Christians are second class citizens as they do not profess the Hindu religion. The votaries of such fundamentalist ideology are covertly supported by parliamentarians, government officials and academicians who have sold themselves to fundamentalist ideologies for reasons best known to themselves. Myths are created and history books are re-written to support fundamentalist ideologies. Scientific temper and rational thinking are devalued. Lies and half-truths are presented as truths and spread through all means of mass-media communication repeatedly. Dissent is disallowed and those who persist in it are brutally eliminated. Democratic institutions are losing their credibility. Alexis de Trocqueville observed that the very definition of democracy is that the majority will not abuse its power to violate the basic rights of the minority. In fact, the strength of a democracy is defined by how all different minorities feel safe in a society.
In a recent article in Times of India, noted journalist Sagarika Ghose writes an open letter to Sangh Parivar (Aug 16, 2017) in which she challenges the suicidal programmes and policies of the fundamentalist group which thrives under the patronage of the present dispensation. She writes, “You hark to Hindu victimhood and depredations of Muslim invaders. You feel it is necessary to avenge those historical wrongs. But acts of historical vengeance have brought untold misery. Fratricidal wars between Islamic sects, driven by vengeance are tearing apart the ideals of Pan Islamism. Hitler’s supremacist ideas and desire for revenge destroyed Germany and almost all of Europe. Sectarian conflict has resulted in loss of thousands in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives…Vengeance only leads to spiritual decay and those wreaking it suffer most. Historical revenge is another concept that the Sangh needs to rethink.” Sagarika Ghose argues for an Indian Rashtra that is inclusive and that is in tune with Hindu Dharma. The author expresses the sentiments of hundreds of citizens who are not carried away by the fundamentalist propaganda that tries to polarize people and create hatred among them and thus destroy the harmonious life of the people of all religions and ideologies as well as the God-given gift of unity in diversity! A correct awareness and analysis of the socio-cultural, political and economic context of the country is important for us to respond to the question how the Church must respond to such situation.
The Dilemma of the Church
At the moment the Church lives in a difficult time. In those states where the Church has a good number of members it may not feel the consequences of the inimical attitude of a fundamentalist government. But where Christians are a small minority they would feel threatened, their legitimate rights delayed or denied and their attempts to serve the society according to the values of the gospel are construed as subtle and clever ways to convert people. What are the choices before the Church to deal with governments which thrive on fundamentalist ideologies? Indifference and toleration? Compromise and support? Opposition and resistance in solidarity with other like-minded groups? Pro-active positive attitude and actions based on the affirmation of human rights and dignity?
We don’t have a blue-print provided by the Church to deal with any fundamentalist government. However, there were always some members of the Church who tolerated as well as supported such fanatic governments and there were Christians who resisted them even by paying with their lives. We have heroic men of faith like John Fisher and Thomas More who could not be persuaded to support an autocratic ruler by giving up their Christian values. It is said that “both men believed, as does the Church, that there are certain rights that the State can never arrogate for itself, and that includes those matters which are matters of conscience.” Fisher and More embraced “their deaths for freedom of religion, and for the rights of the individual against those of the over-mighty state.” They were the victims of Tudor totalitarianism practised by Henry VIII.
The Christian response to the Nazi government of the cruel tyrant Hitler was not positive and at the same time not condemnatory. It tried to play safe though there were courageous priests and lay people who were tortured and killed for resisting the totalitarian regime of Hitler. Though in the beginning the bishops forbade the faithful from joining the Nazi party, when Hitler announced publicly that his party had “gospel values” as its foundation, they seemed to believe his words and stopped their resistance to his pernicious ideology which justified the killing of millions of Jewish people and others. Some tyrants use their flair for rhetoric to mesmerize people with lies and feed them with false hopes. Not only eternal vigilance is needed to preserve democracy but also timely action resisting fanatic and tyrannical governments. While the Catholic Church played safe under the regime of Hitler, the Confessing Church of the German Evangelical Church opposed it and suffered the consequences of their resistance. However, the “German Christians,” a group within the same German Evangelical Church “embraced many of the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazi ideology. Once the Nazis came to power, this group sought the creation of a national “Reich Church” and supported a “nazified” version of Christianity.” We may recall that in 2000 the RSS Chief K.S. Sudarshan, had asked the Indian Christians to agree to a proposal to form a national church.
The fascist governments give freedom of religion only to those who compromise their religious values and publicly support the ideology of the ruling regime. It may bring relative peace and economic benefits to the members of a particular religion but they have to pay a heavy price of sacrificing their foundational religious values and authenticity in practising their religion. Should the Church compromise its values to preserve itself when threatened with dire consequences? Silver pieces are always a temptation not only to Judas who betrayed his Master but also to other disciples of Jesus even in our own times. History has proved that.
No Compromise with Evil Powers
Any form of totalitarianism or fascism is evil. It uses people, violates human rights and feeds the uncritical and uneducated with lies, half-truths and false hopes. To compromise with such powers even for a temporary advantage is a negation of the sovereignty of God and the Kingdom values Jesus stood for, lived and died for. The Church will fail Christ and the poor if it actually supports or even a seem to be supporting those governments which do not respect human rights and dignity. History has shown that the fascist governments appeared benevolent in protecting the rights of the Church in the beginning but eventually destroyed the Church or forced it to live compromising its values and practices. If the Church supports those members of the Church who are co-opted by the fundamentalist governments by being offered some crumbs of power for whatever reasons may have to regret at the end because for fundamentalist and fascist governments the end justifies the means!! A Church that upholds its faith and values is in true identification with Christ. A triumphant Church that plays safe and compromises its values to please those in power even as a strategic move in difficult situations destroys the power of the Cross and the meaning of Christian existence!
Church: The Light of Truth
In any socio-political, cultural and economic situation, whether it is favourable for the life of the Church or unfavourable and even dangerous, the Church has its mission of being the light of that ‘Truth’ that sets everyone free. The Church must take seriously the affirmation of Jesus, “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) and fulfil its function as light, revealing, healing and giving hope. It must with prophetic courage fulfil its function of revealing the truth about persons, systems and structures which are opposed to God, humans and nature . It must denounce any form of stifling human rights and freedom, any political move to divide and polarize people of different religions and ideologies and any policies and programmes of unbridled development which destroy the lives of the poor and the nature. The Church cannot remain silent at the face of violence unleashed on defenceless people to make them live in fear. Its silence will be construed as its complicity in the sinful acts of those fundamentalist governments. It must join hands with those individuals and groups which resist any violation of human rights by the governments, if their principles are in harmony with the gospel values of justice, love, equality, peace, fellowship, reconciliation etc. The Church must go beyond its boundaries. It should not be pre-occupied only with concerns of its members but with the concerns of every human being whatever be her/his religion or ideology. It must proclaim and actualize healing and reconciliation among the people who are victims of division through the false propaganda of the fundamentalist forces. It must always remain a beacon of hope for all those who are marginalized, harassed, excluded, hunted by the fundamentalist and fascist governments and be a real light of Truth that sets everyone free to be and to unfold themselves as humans!