Spirit of Easter defies political opportunism | Sunday Observer

Spirit of Easter defies political opportunism

For Christians the triumph of Easter is the triumph of an incipient religious movement over the repressive efforts of political power. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ symbolises the realisation and affirmation that human death does not nullify human endeavour.

Their Teacher’s arrest and execution, the scattering of His followers and the accompanying demoralisation proved to be only momentary, for “…by the third day, He rose again…”. The ensuing biblical story has served to inspire countless generations of Christians to persevere in their faith and in their faith-based labours to fulfil their role and duty as Believers. Other, parallel human spiritual endeavours have similarly experienced such challenges and victories.

The Gospels provide sparse information about the life of Jesus after His crucifixion. Instead, the Biblical narrative proceeds to describe in detail the striving of His followers to emulate their Teacher and, to systematically build a spiritual-social movement that aims to reform human behaviour and transform human society for the better.

Easter, then, celebrates that victory over demoralised inaction and apathy and, the launching of what was to become the Jesus movement and, later, the worldwide Church. From those small beginnings in ‘the upper room’ to the missionary endeavour, to the consolidation of the Christian community and, to the flourishing of parishes and cathedrals, one can observe the steady – if agonised – struggle of a religious movement. The agonies and tragedies of growth is something experienced by all religions at their inception and, continues to punctuate their evolution as well as their life as a religious community.

Buddhists in this country can well appreciate the terrors of religious repression as described in the Bible and also take heart from the like-minded unity of all Believers and faith practitioners within our nation. The suppression and disruption of indigenous religions by the occupying colonial powers yet rings a bell even if such colonial depredations are now over a century in the past.

It was this historical experience of suppression of religions that prompted Sri Lankan citizens to emphasise the need for a multicultural approach toward nation building. It was the awareness of such suppression and enforced inequality that prompted the growth of a national culture that cherishes the basic rights of the freedom of religion and freedom of thought.

In the aftermath of decades of bitter internal war, such a pluralistic approach has assumed a new vigour as we continue to re-imagine our Republic and its political-cultural ethos. After successive regimes that sowed political and social intolerance, in recent years, the nation has repeatedly exercised its franchise to ensure resistance to intolerance and the strengthening of the institutional fabric that enables harmonious socio-cultural co-existence.

In an ethnic conflict-ridden Sri Lanka it is not surprising that inter-religious tensions and conflict arise periodically. However, we would expect the country’s political and social leadership and, the clergy in particular, to take the lead in managing inter-religious tensions. But clerical and political opportunism and the manipulation of people’s beliefs persist despite our claims to ‘civilisation’.

Reports from the Anuradhapura district last week of a crowd of hooligans aggressively blocking the conduct of church worship resonate painfully with the larger national ambience of Avurudu and the national camaraderie that it is supposed to engender. The crowd of threatening demonstrators, led seemingly by local politicians and some junior clergy, went as far as physically intimidating the worshippers and even forcibly locking them up inside the church building.

Those pseudo-religious agitators in Anuradhapura seemed impervious to the joyous sharing of rasakevili and the welcoming throb of rabaana. For them it was a moment to spread religious and cultural hatred, something their leaders made sure would reverberate throughout the otherwise peaceful rural locality. In the forefront of the agitators was a local politician of the SLPP presumably bent on following the same agitational and manipulative practices of his political masters.

The leadership of the SLPP, principally the Mahinda Rajapaksa clan and its allies, are veritable ‘veterans’ of manipulation of ethnic and religious tensions. Sri Lankans are, by now, quite familiar with their modus operandi.

For the Rajapaksa clan, it is a simple strategy of picking out the fault lines of ethno-religious mistrust and fear and crudely whipping up tensions using impressionable novice monks and, some politically entrepreneurial clergy, as rabble rousers. The Tamil youth rebellion was the first convenient whipping dog to mask the machinations of autocracy, nepotism and massive corruption.

Predictably, no sooner that rebellion was crushed, than the Rajapaksa regime quite transparently encouraged those small elements of clergy ever ready to benefit from demagoguery to target the Muslim community. We all know what has happened – the human casualties, social trauma and direct economic losses – since that first ‘campaign’ against the practice of Halal.

After ‘Halal’, the next phase was actual violent rioting in Aluthgama with robed clerics providing the emotional impetus for the anger and hatred that wreaked destruction. Then came the so-called ‘vanda pethi’ ruse that sparked rioting in Amparai and Kandy. Aside from the social trauma and damage to shops and homes, the tourism industry suffered hundreds of millions of rupees in lost customers.

Logically, the next minority to be made targets are the Christians and we see this latest phase of Rajapaksa-style ethno-politics now under way. The coincidence of such ethnic and religious hate mobilisations with up-coming election cycles is noteworthy.

It is tragic that some political leaders refuse to learn from past experience and, the factual realities of the immense negative repercussions for people and polity. Let us hope that the true weight of religious belief and piety will ultimately prevail.