Incarnational Theology of Fr. S. J. Emmanuel

by Amuthu Joseph Vaz Chandrakanthan

( February 6, 2015, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) Faith, unlike dogma and other popular religious beliefs is a dynamic personal encounter with the God of revelation and salvation. Like any human relationship, the God-man relationship is open to growth; it can change for the better or for the worse. In the person of Jesus, we believe, that God’s eternal Word became Flesh, visible and tangible. The God of Jesus Christ, a compassionate Father ceaselessly invites all his people with the entirety of creation to experience his saving grace, love and fullness of life. In the book of scriptures, the faithfulness of God constantly induces a deeper sense of faith because it is God who takes the initiative of reconciliation, salvation, forgiveness and redemption. Despair and pelessness leading to death and destruction can only be caused by the inhumanity of some human beings to other men, women and children. If faith is God’s gift to humanity then hope is the gift that a person and can give to other persons who are forced to live and survive in man-made despair. It is human beings that can cause despair and it is human beings that can also instill the power of hope as an antidote to despair.

Nurturing of hope to dispel despair is integral to Christian faith and more so priestly ministry especially to those people and communities that are unjustly subjugated to live under tyrannical regimes just because these people happen to be numerically smaller in size than the ruling majoritarian ethnic communities with numerical or military strength. Numerical and armed strength can never be a source of political or religious justification for the unjust and illegitimate oppression and subjugation of the weaker and the smaller sections of any society.

Tamils and Sinhalese have historically been the founding races of two independent nations in the island of Ceylon for over two millennia. In the post-colonial period from 1948 onward as a nation, Tamils of Ceylon have to eke out an existence in despair and hopelessness, endure the denial of equality as citizens of Ceylon, denial of opportunities for education and employment, denial of their freedom of expression, of movement and association. Even the very name of the whole island of Ceylon was Sinhalasized without the consent or approval of the Tamil nation. A Sinhala constitution in 1972 rendered a fragile democracy based purely on a form of numerical superiority into a form of Buddhocracy. In political

parlance, democracy as a system of governance is based on “political” majority and not on a numerical headcount which turns democracy into a majoritarian numerocracy. In Ceylon such a system reduced non-Sinhala races and non-Buddhist religions to a secondary position. Elevating Buddhism as the State religion made Sri Lanka into a form of theocracy and not as a viable democracy.

It is against this context of a spineless, garbled and corroded form of a broken- back Sinhala democracy that Fr. Emmanuel raised his prophet to voice. His call was essentially a cry directed to all Sri Lankans to re-examine the direction where successive Sinhala governments were taking the masses. He saw a political system which in the name of race and religion was systematically diffusing hopelessness and powerlessness, social indignity and political segregation to a large section to Tamil and Moslem nationalities. Fr. Emmanuel vocally exercised his prophetic mission and priestly ministry to re-instill hope and confidence, dignity and freedom. For the past four decades or so he relentlessly sought to contextualize his calling as a theologian and priest, scholar and servant by challenging the demonic principles of inequality, injustice and untruth that defined the Sinhala State and its political, religious and even sections of the ecclesial officialdom.

In the past forty years or so he engaged himself in a struggle to understand as much to be understood. He strongly planted his feet in the crimson and muddy soil of the North and East of Sri Lanka that was made perpetually wet by the blood of hundred and thousands of Tamils who were killed just because they were Tamils or they were in their Tamil motherland. There were many priests from Fr. Mary Bastian in Mannar to Jim Brown in Jaffna; and from Chandra Fernando to the American Jesuit Fr. Herbert in Batticaloa who had to lay down their life for their sheep when brigands and bandits came to snatch the sheep away to be slaughtered. It is within this bloody context of murder and mayhem, man-made starvation and malnutrition that Fr. Emmanuel sought to illustrate and proclaim the evangelical values of freedom, dignity, truth, justice and peace.

This prophetic struggle is neatly reflected in the research papers he presented at various international Theological or other major academic conferences, the books he wrote with such titles as Let my People Go, and the public lectures he delivered. His concerted theological reflection on socio-political and other issues of human rights, and the fundamental human/Christian values are not to be seen as fanciful topics chosen by an armchair theoretician but he was standing amidst a people for whom crucifixion was made a daily reality.

He therefore endeavored to spell out the central issue of hope in a world that was made brutal and dangerous to God’s people by the sheer greed of humans including some Church men to remain in and retain political/ religious power in the name of majority and promote an ethno-religious hegemony leading to large scale death and decimation of the Tamil nation. Unfortunately there were those clergymen in higher pedestals who wielded religious power only to use it to condone oppression and justify subjugation by collaborating with murderous and criminal regimes to milk out a few cheap personal favours and privilege

Fr. Emmanuel relentlessly reflected on the human condition of Sri Lanka in theprophetic tradition and the language of Christian faith. He courageously sought to give a faith-based expression to the reality in which he was called to live and exercise his priestly ministry and train priests for the future. He looked deeply into the past and wrote a great deal about the future. He was radically conscious that the opposite of the past is not the future but the denial of the future, denial of the future to God’s creation denial of the future to children, men and women and to God’s sacred creation in all forms and shapes.

Since 1996, both Fr. Emmanuel and I chose to be self-exiled and we reluctantly left our motherland almost on the same day nearly an year after our exodus from Jaffna in October 1995. It was not an easy decision by any means. Amidst untold hardships imposed particularly on the people living in the North of Sri Lanka with innumerable military and governmental restrictions of all modes of transport, fuel, electricity, food, medicine, etc. between the years 1990 to 1995 we both took it a s a challenge as travelled together and spoken at several international theological, human rights and peace-building conferences seeking a solution based on the principles of freedom and justice, peace and integrity. We also spoke at Conferences convened by such organizations as International Alert, Conciliation Resources, Refugee Studies programme of the University of Oxford, Annual Conferences of the Institute of Missiology in Aachen, Germany to discern ways to address the growing humanitarian crisis in Jaffna, Mannar and the and the Vanni district where many children, men and women were passing into premature death of illnesses that are treatable and curable.

Having listened to Fr. Emmanuel at many of this conference I always felt that it in order to understand his faith based convictions one should not dissociate the person called Emmanuel, from his thought and theological or evangelical convictions. To evaluate his thinking and critique as a form of political discourse is to do serious damage both to his person and to his theology. Emmanuel was unwilling to join any particular bandwagon to promote any personal agenda or ideology; rather he was from head to toe a determined Christian leader who always felt that he has a message which is not a private revelation but a public prophetic proclamation.

His theology did have a socio-political content but it evolved out of the locus of his own Christian existence. It was partly prompted by his reading and reflection on men like the late Ignacio Ellacuria or such exemplary Christian as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. While some used the label of faith to climb to higher positions in the ecclesiastical ladder, Emmanuel sought to live his faith in dynamic ways even to the extent of being counted as an outsider. It is a painful paradox in contemporary Sinhala history that while the ecclesiastical officialdom played politics by securing their position and prestige, the two Sinhala theologians who have made a mark for themselves in the theological world outside of Sri Lanka chose to ignore the cry of the Tamil poor living under the institutional injustice of the Sinhala State system that tehse two men of chose to ignore and totally indifferent. Aloysius Pieris, a Sinhala Jesuit theologian is known in the liberal western theological circles for his liberal views and as an advocate of Asian theology of liberation. He has also been a vocal exponent of the Sri Lankan brand of Theravada Buddhism and as well as Buddhism in general. He has been promoting dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity maintaining that Buddhism as a religion and philosophy contains powerful elements of emancipation from all forms of greed and attachments. While extolling Buddhism, he hardly ever challenged the Sinhala –Buddhist greed for land and ethno-racial hegemony sustained by the Buddhist religious fundamentalism which caused, supported and fuelled the anti-Tamil war leading to mass deaths and destruction caused in purely in name of Buddhism. Instead he heaped up high praises on Walpola Rahula Thero one of the most politicized monks. He was the Chief Adviser to the infamous President J. R. Jayawarnedene who was responsible for expanding the military repression of Tamils already in 1979.

Father Emanual 3A close scrutiny of his well couched legitimating justification of Sri Lankan Buddhism with all its failures and follies will confirm the fact that Aloysius Pieris who carefully fully avoids the word Tamil from any of his writings indirectly sought to condone all forms of Sihala-Buddhist extremism with its aggressive and unbuddhist political agenda. As a Buddhist apologist and a Sinhala nationalist, he never visited nor did he seek to understand the catastrophic consequences in terms of the loss of life and limb of thousands of Tamils as a consequence of this Sinhala-Buddhist war that he passively accepted. His approval of the actions of the Sinhala-Buddhist religious leadership would reveal the fact that Pieris did not wish to see the gun-wielding Buddhist monks with their greed for land, power and authority are serious a violation of some of the fundamental Buddhist principles. But Pieris’ hermeneutics is essentially based on a form of Sinhala nationalist propaganda that can turn and twist Buddhist philosophy to suit the political greed of the Sinhala nationalists.

A close reading of Tissa Balasuriya’s approach to the Tamil national question will equally reveal a similar attitude. Inspire of his loud proclamations in the 1980s and 90s regarding the conflicts in Nicaragua, the Apartheid in South Africa and the exploitation of the African States in by the colonial masters in Africa, his voice is very feeble when it came to assess the Sinhala institutional atrocities perpetrated by his comrades on the helpless Tamils especially on the poor masses. This form of duplicity clearly divided the Sri Lankan church into Sinhala and Tamil camps. Neither the prophetic voice of the theologians nor the institutional utterance of the Catholic and Christian ecclesial officialdom said anything in substance to challenge or change the spiralling of the inhuman situation inflicted on the Tamil community for over thirty years. Herein lies the value of the incarnational and prophetic critique of Emmanuel with its realistic relevance, rootedness in people and a determined cry for change.

Above article taken from, Voice of a Prophet, published recently in Canada.Click here to read the full text of the book)

( The writer is an Associate Professor, University of Toronto )