Towards a multicultural Sri Lankan identity | Sunday Observer

Towards a multicultural Sri Lankan identity

 Archbishop Welby meets with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Archbishop Welby meets with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Archbishop Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Communion whose membership is over 50 million worldwide, is in Sri Lanka on a pastoral visit. He calls to offer strength and solidarity to Christians in Sri Lanka, and to all its peoples, after the horrific and senseless Easter Sunday bombings which left over 300, including Christians and foreign nationals dead and many more injured. A Muslim extremist group has been identified and arrests made.

Last Thursday, I attended a lovely trilingual service, at which the good Archbishop preached a meaningful sermon, emphasizing that his visit was to bring a message of peace and to show solidarity with Christians and others in our land, who have suffered so much - and to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ to all. A lovely message from the heart.

At a time when a resurgence of ‘Religious Nationalism’ is becoming increasingly evident – fuelled by extremists both political and religious, this goodwill visit by Archbishop Welby - bringing a sincere message of peace and reconciliation, is timely and welcome.

In this scenario, it is opportune to study the contents of the recent ‘Deo Gloria Trust Lecture’ delivered by him at the Lambeth Palace, in the UK, in March. The title of the lecture was ‘Is Evangelism really good news for every one –and especially for those of other faiths?’

The Archbishop explained that the starting point of any form of evangelism must be based on two fundamental principles - “…the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the universal offer of salvation through Christ.”

He said “I speak as someone who made a very personal decision to respond to God’s free gift of salvation. He testified that through all the ups and downs of life it was the best decision he ever made. Following Jesus Christ would be the “business of public truth”.

He observed the unsavoury practices which can happen under the label ‘evangelism’, which translated from the Greek means ‘good news’.

The Archbishop identified five challenges we need to think about in witness and evangelism in the current context of religious diversity.

Ethical evangelism is the first challenge. Evangelism needs to be governed by the ‘Golden rule’ in the Bible (Mathew 7:12), wherein Jesus exhorts his followers “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Archbishop JW cited the example of Sadhu Sunder Singh an Indian mystic, remembered in the Anglican Church calendar. Sunder Singh, a Sikh, accepted Jesus into his life - after seeing a clear vision of Jesus calling him to discipleship. He became a devoted itinerant missionary for Christ and has visited Sri Lanka.

The second challenge is to truly listen to others. Evangelism needs to be a dialogue. We need to witness to our hope in Christ Jesus and the gift of salvation and be willing to listen to others even if that is about colonialism and its ills. The third challenge – Be conscious of history. The Archbishop highlighted the connection between the Empire and the spread of Christianity. The memory of unsavoury incidents, even massacres that took place. He cited the example of the horrific ‘Jallianwalla Massacre’ in India. He bemoaned that such took place in name of “Christian Society. It is not good news. It’s not of God…..... This atrocity and so many others was perpetrated by Christians and done in the name of Christian society. It’s not good news It’s not Christ like. …..”

The fourth challenge –Be prepared to learn from someone else of another faith. “We may find our understanding challenged and enriched.” He cited the story of the Good Samaritan …“a person outside the fold of faith who reveals something of the love of God. … Evangelism in this spirit … can be a humble journey of giving and receiving”

The fifth and challenge; Building relationships not power. “In our world today people are crying out for unconditional love – to be accepted …Witnessing to the claims of Christ, sharing what we know of the salvation story, comes in the midst of everyday stuff, where we are called to speak and where our deeds are meant to back up our words,” he said.

The Archbishop refered to work and ministry amidst refugee communities in Britain. He reminded us of the ethical challenge of not offering inducements with evangelism. It is …about confident yet humble witnessing to good news to all; Jesus Christ is good news.

In the ‘Lions Handbook of World’s Religions’ Christopher Lamb states - “The Christian claim is that Christ is unique: Christianity is not.”

Some may argue that “…equality of all cultures means the equality of all religions, often one senses an underlying guilt about the imperialist exploitation of the past, and the devaluation of Asian cultures which went with it. A new tolerance of faiths is often reckoned to be part of the reparation due to the East from the West.” He cites examples – in the Middle East and also in Sri Lanka - of who do not share these attitudes.

He states “A Bishop in Sri Lanka, noted in 1979 that British Christians were unwilling ‘to make critical evaluation of the experience and truth claims of other religions and warned them that this stemmed in part from the general loss of self-confidence among many in the Western world in a post colonial era … Bishop Wickremesinghe went on to describe how people of different faiths - Buddhist, Hindu Muslim and Christian –lived and worked together in the same national culture of SL, trying to establish justice, peace and prosperity, yet never losing sight of the fact that their respective understandings of truth were in the end irreconcilable.”

“He talked of what will surely be the experience of many Western nations in the future - how other religions ‘are always present before us as alternative explanations of the mysteries of life and death and especially about suffering. In our region comparative religion is not confined to university faculties or small groups... It is a facet of our normal experience.”

The author is referring to the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe – Godly man and a good friend... His words in retrospect seem prophetic and have relevance to what was stated above by the Archbishop.

As one born during the colonial era in the1940s and who had his university education in the UK in the 1960s, I have watched developments in our country, as also within the Church, with concern.

It is 70 long years since our independence. It is time both the colonizer and colonised, as also both Christian and non-Christian, lose their preoccupation of the colonial past – and move forward with mutual respect for our respective histories and cultures, while safeguarding our values. Britain is only now really coming to grips with ‘multiculturalism’, what the late Bishop Wickremesinghe observed in 1979.

Both sides within the church and outside however need to look at the many ‘positives’, left behind by what is perceived to be a ‘Christian empire’ We need to have a sense of balance.

In particular I would cite the Anglican, Roman Catholic and other Christian schools - as truly multicultural educational institutions - making a major contribution to foster national harmony and reconciliation in our land. This is part of our National Heritage. We need to recognize this and be proud – in a spirit of humility.

This writer remains confident that we as a nation can build a truly tolerant, value-driven society - guided by the true teachings of our great religions and based on a common ‘Sri Lankan’ identity – which can be an example in our troubled post-modern world. That is my humble prayer. Let us learn to live and let live.

The visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury is most timely and welcome – to help promote true peace and reconciliation in our much blessed land. May God continue to bless and guide us all.

The writer is an Anglican Civil Engineer