Rethinking Mission in India

Anational symposium titled Breaking New Ground in Mission was held in Shillong, India, from July 5 to 9, 2001, in which leading missiologists, pastors and experts participated. At the symposium the conviction was widespread that we cannot have any meaningful discourse on mission evangelization without reference to the context of the people to whom it is directed, and that it is not a one-directional movement of announcing the good news.

As Felix Wilfred, head of the department of Christian studies at the University of Madras, points out in Beyond Settled Foundationsthe Journey of Indian Theology, an Indian theology of evangelization carries with it a historical burden of the past and cannot start from zero. The outright condemnation of Hindu religious tradition by missionaries in the past and the movement of revivalism and fundamentalism it has generated cannot be swept under the carpet. Hindus perceive the church as a powerful institution with international links that in the past benefited from colonial rule. Today, with the power of its institution and money, the church is perceived as involved in the work of conversion. They see its way of life and worship as something alien to the culture of the people. The work of mission and conversion as practiced by Christianity is seen as containing explicitly or implicitly a negative judgment about what is most precious to Hindustheir religious and cultural heritage. According to Wilfred, Hindus today critically question the meaning of proclaiming the good news while the traditionally Christian countries of the West are engaged in the destruction of life, the plundering of wealth and the selling of lethal arms to poor countries. Christianity is also seen as a religion that is a spent force in the traditionally Christian countries of the West but is now being imported into India.


Wilfred’s reflections are in line with the deepened understanding of mission that followed the spirit and teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Thus Indian theology today tries to understand mission in relation to the eschatological fulfilment of God’s plan toward which all people moveanimated, sustained and guided by the Spirit present among them in their history. The non-Christians, therefore, are not simply objects of mission on the part of the Christian community; they themselves are moving toward the goal of the kingdom and the ultimate eschatological unity of humankind toward which mission itself is directed.

The process of dialogue between Christians and other religions stresses the fact that we are co-pilgrims on the way to fulfilment. Dialogue is not simply an instrument or means of mission. Dr. A. Pushparajan, speaking at the symposium, underlined the crisis in which dialogue finds itself in India today as a result of the encounter between Hindu fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. He emphasized that one way to steer a course through the crisis would be by showing a readiness to reinterpret past values in light of the needs of the present, being open to the signs of the times even though rooted in the past, showing an appreciation of what others are, even if we consider that what they have is not unique and showing a willingness to accept legitimate plurality.

Another speaker, Dr. James Thoppil, stressed that meaningful dialogue requires an attitudinal change: a shift from superiority to mutuality, honesty and sensitivity to the feelings of others and a deep love for God and one’s partners in dialogue.

Another development in Indian theology has been to correct an overtly exteriorized understanding of mission. Indian theology now highlights the depth dimension of the Gospel message and sees evangelization as indissolubly linked to contemplation. This is because in India, contemplative experience of God and God’s immanent presence in one’s self have been central to discovering and transmitting truth. Eschewing a path of aggressive proselytizing through displays of power and money, Indian theology lays emphasis now on mission as something that happens through love and beauty, which by their inner value draw people.

Mahatma Gandhi articulated this when he said to missionaries: Let your life speak to us, even as the rose needs no speech, but simply spreads its perfume. Even the blind who do not see the rose, perceive its fragrance. That is the secret of the Gospel of the rose. But the Gospel that Jesus preached is much more subtle and fragrant than the Gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agent, much less does the Gospel of Christ need any agent.

Indian missiological theology today is also linked to solidarity with the poor, participation in their experience and involvement in their struggles for liberation. Because of the domination in India today by the higher castes and classes of the social, political, cultural and economic fields, and the marginalization of the lower classes and castes, Indian liberation theology is today centering its attention on the liberation of dalits, the most oppressed group of people. Indian theology today is drawing inspiration from the movement for liberation by the dalits and so attempting to make its own contribution to the dalit struggle for liberation. Attempts have been made to read the Old Testament and the New Testament from the perspective of the dalits. Since a major concern of the dalit movement for liberation has been to reinterpret history and to create a counterculture, Christian theology has been trying to resonate with these concerns.

Wilfred distinguished two strands of tradition and religiosity in India. One is the so-called Sanskrit tradition, or the great tradition, represented by the higher-caste Hindus, especially the Brahmins, on which much work has already been done in the church. The other is the non-Sanskrit, or little tradition, represented by the powerless and the oppressed. Popular religiousness of the oppressed masses finds expression in many stories, myths and symbols that have been almost totally neglected. It is this latter type of religiosity that expresses the yearnings, hopes and struggles of the marginalized. Wilfred believes that any theological reflection that is firmly rooted in the experience of the downtrodden, especially the dalits, will reflect the religious world of the little tradition.

Archbishop Dominic Jala of Shillong (a tribal person) thus stressed the need for a mission approach in the tribal context. For this a better understanding of the inner world of tribal cultures is essential, in order to develop theology in the light of the role spirits play in tribal religions and the need to reach out to the poor with a preferential love.

The context of India calls for a rethinking of mission in relation to religious pluralism, massive poverty, oppression and injustice. These issues were very much to the fore at the national symposium and show that Indian missiological theology is indeed breaking new ground in preaching the good news. Thus Jose Chumapura said: Any claims to superiority are damaging. Religions need not be compared. All we are expected to do is to serve man by revealing to him the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

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