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D. T. Niles Lecture I:

Time for Fullness of Life for All

by S. Wesley Ariarajah

 

Tribute to D. T. Niles

It gives me great pleasure to speak at this Eleventh General Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia. My joy is doubled because this is also the first of the three Niles Memorial Lectures to be given at this assembly. Some of you may be aware that this year is the 30th Anniversary of the passing away of D.T. Niles. The newer generations of the CCA may not be aware that Niles played the key role in founding the East Asia Christian Conference (EACC) which later became the CCA. D.T, as he was called by his friends, was the first General Secretary of the EACC and did much to shape what later became the CCA. At the time of his death, DT was the President of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka, the President of the CCA and one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches. It is significant that he held these three positions at the same time because DT was absolutely convinced that the One Ecumenical Movement has its local, regional and global expressions and that any true ecumenist must be committed to its expressions at all three levels. His own life had been a powerful demonstration of this three-fold commitment.

I also have personal reasons why I wish to begin my talk with special reference to D.T. Niles. I was both Confirmed as a church member and later Ordained into the ministry of the church by D.T. He was pastor of my church in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, for six years and was for a time principal of the high school where I studied. Each time he mounted the pulpit in Jaffna he made scripture come alive. It is said that preaching is the art of "takings the words once spoken and making them speak again". Whenever DT opened the Bible the words did speak again and we were led to discern the God who stood in and behind them. In my 30 years of continuous involvement in the ecumenical movement I am yet to come across a preacher who had the charisma, command, resourcefulness, and authority that D.T. Niles had as a preacher.

He was also one of the great ecumenist and missiologist of his time, not only in the region but on the world stage. He commanded so much respect and admiration of church leaders in all parts of the world that the late Willem Visser't Hooft, the first General Secretary of the WCC, is quoted to have said: "When DT speaks, the world listens".

In this thirtieth anniversary of his death we pay homage to his memory, and thank God for all ecumenical pioneers like him who had the faith, vision, courage, and hope to found the CCA as a Christian fellowship of this region.

Time for Fullness of Life for All

Our assembly theme is "Time for Fullness of Life for All". It is rarely that you come across a formulation of a theme in which each of the words is so pregnant with meaning, both scripturally and for the times in which we live. "Time", "Fullness", "Life", "All" - each of these words pulsate with meaning for the Asian continent and for the churches in Asia. All I hope to do in this presentation is to point, primarily using the scripture, to some directions in which we might look as we open up this theme in the coming days in worship, study and deliberations.

I. "Time": God's Time - the kairos

No one can begin a reflection on 'time' in the Bible without being reminded of the well known and much quoted reflections of the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes:

For every thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;.............
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.. (Eccl. 3. 1-4, 6-8).

A profound reflection indeed. But, what is it time for? Now! In the history of each of our churches, councils, and movements? What is it time for in the history of the CCA? What is it time for in the history of our continent? To break down, or to build up? To keep, or to throw away? To keep silent, or to speak out? To love, or to hate?

I am sure that many of us would say with me: "I wish I knew".

And yet, discerning the times and making appropriate responses is part of the calling to be God's people. In the biblical narratives we come across many moments when the servant of God had to discern the challenge of the moment, the kairos, in which decisions had to be made.

Choose you this day.....

In the Old Testament, one such crucial moment in the history of the Israelites was when they settled down in land of Canaan. The Exodus from Egypt, the Covenant at Sinai, the wanderings in the desert, and the attempt to conquer Canaan had both it's high and low moments. On the one hand, there was liberation from slavery and the bonding of a slave people into a nation through the covenant with Yahweh. On the other, there were also times when the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron and even rising up in revolt against them, preferring the "flesh pots of Egypt" to the hardships of the wilderness. The Old Testament scholars tell us that both the Exodus and the sojourn leading to the settled life in agricultural land were much more complex and difficult that what the narratives portray. And yet the Israelites faced the most grueling challenge when they tried to settle down in the fertile land of Canaan. And the troubling question, interestingly enough, was a theological one.

Thus far they had been a desert people worshiping Yahweh, the Lord of the mountain of Sinai, who led them through the wilderness. But now they are no longer a nomadic people of the desert but agricultural people. And the agricultural people had their own gods, Baals, who were believed to give fertility to the land so that there would be bountiful harvest. Is Yahweh, the God of hears the cry of the oppressed, who brings people out of bondage, who demands justice and righteousness in all our dealings, good and important as has been until now, still the relevant God for us? Or should we not, as settled people, faced with new realities and challenges, adopt the gods of the Canaanite so that our vats would be full and the harvests plentiful?

Israel was at cross roads. The temptation to be realistic, pragmatic and relevant to the situation was so strong that many began to advocate and even simply switch to the God of prosperity.

And, Joshua, who had the burden of leading the people, saw that the time was ripe and the moment had come to challenge the people:

"Choose you this day whom you would serve.....; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24.15).

Whom would we choose?

The churches, councils, indeed the whole Ecumenical Movement in Asia, is today at crossroads, not unlike the one that the Israelites were faced with in coming to terms with the culture, ethos and realities of the life in Canaan.

We, as Christians communities, enjoyed enormous powers during the colonial days. We have also been able to run for another 50 years on the "colonial steam" generated during the missionary period.. We are now running out of steam. We not only realize that we are but a tiny minority in many Asian countries, but we are being strongly reminded of that status by others, both in words and deeds.

We had pioneered in the field of education, health, poverty alleviation, in defending human rights, the rights of women, children and ethnic minorities. While we decry the arrogance, insensitivity, and the moral blindness that has been part of several aspects of the missionary movement, we also celebrate that this all too human activity had been used by God to implant the seeds of the Gospel into our hearts and lives, and the church had indeed been at the forefront of making life more humane in this continent. We had been introduced to God as one who liberates and demands justice.

But today there are other 'gospels' and even other 'Baals', like international financial institutions and global corporations that promise both fertility and prosperity - if only we would worship them. The Canaan of the global ethos has a different culture, principles and rules. What does realism demand? Is there still a place for a God who brings people out of bondage; a God who take sides with the poor and suffers with them; a God who demands above all justice and righteousness in all human dealings?

Doesn't the God, to whom Jesus witnessed to on the cross, look rather pale in the midst of the Asian tiger economies? Doesn't the God who was so powerless at the foot of the cross, , appear quite out place in comparison to the real economic and political power needed to bring about the desired changes in all our societies?

The temptation to cross over to Baals has never been stronger.

Let me be quick to point out that the Baals here are not the names in which God is worshiped by millions of our neighbors of other faith traditions; nor do they refer to those religious traditions that do not see Reality in terms of a personal God but seek to struggle to live out a righteous life.

No, Baal worship in the Bible is a fertility cult, at the heart of which lie the quest for prosperity - for its own sake. It is what Jesus called the temptation to worship Mammon. It is significant that Jesus, in order to be able to be the carrier of the message of the Kingdom, was not tempted with the what we call the carnal sins. No, he had to face the real temptations related to the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom he was to proclaimed. Having tempted Jesus to use God for his own benefit (to make bread of stones), to demonstrate power (to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and go unhurt, impressing people and getting a following), Satan gets to the heart of the matter. He showed all the kingdoms of the earth and promised them to Jesus. It was all his; he only had to change allegiance! It was so practical, so realistic and so simple, so tempting! And it was an attractive alternative to walking the unknown and uncharted path in which lies conflict, suffering, and the cross.

Yes it was time, said Joshua to his people, to choose whom you would worship - the Baals that promise prosperity or the Lord who demands justice. "As for me and my household we will serve the Lord".

It is important to note that the Israelites had no option but to move into the new form of life before them. They were not to run back into the desert to escape the ambiguities of settled life; nor could they return to slavery. In the ecumenical movement we meet many who long for the "good old days" when the issues were clear, the advocacy was direct, and we knew what constituted the "ecumenical ideology". But regretfully those days are in deed gone. We are in the context of economic and financial globalization, we are in the process of profound political changes with new and more powerful actors in the scene, also in Asia. There is also a new equation in interfaith relationships, and mission as we have known at one time is at the beginning of its end. The challenge to settle down in the new and highly ambiguous environment of Canaan, ironically for the Israelites, was the fulfillment of the promise made to its ancestors!

The question then was not whether they should settle down in the new environment. On this, they had no choice. But they did have a different choice: What values they would stand for? As people who had at one time been slaves, how would they treat their own workers? Would they worship those that would bring benefits to them, or the one who makes demands on them? The Lord, or the Baals?
It was a "time" for decision.

II. Time for "Fullness of Life"

But what does serving the Lord means? Did it mean an antagonistic attitude to agricultural life? A flight to the monasticism of the desert? A close examination of the Biblical vision of life would show that neither Judaism nor Christianity are basically ascetic religions, even though both have been blessed with stories of persons who had taken to asceticism. The Gospel demands the denial of the self but it promises life in all its fullness. What can this fullness of life mean in the context of Asia. I would like to highlight four areas in which "fullness of life" must find its expression.

a) Food, the basis of life.....

First, the fullness of life has to do with rice and water, shelter and clothing, schools and hospitals. It is unfortunate that to many Christians these matters of life do not come to mind when they read the Johannine passage "The thief comes only steal, kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10.10). It is important to recognize that our lives, yes the very lives that we live, which requires eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, learning and working, living and dying is the gift of God. Let us not forget that both creation stories in Genesis hold up the view that this earthly life, and this mortal body, are God's own creation. "Let us make humankind in our image, and according to our likeness" says God in the first narrative (Gen. 1.26). "Then the Lord God made man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.." says the second (Gen. 2.7). This earthly existence is something that God intended and created.

Hunger and poverty are an affront to God's creation. That millions of people go hungry each day, that millions of children in our world die of starvation or malnutrition, that there are homeless peoples, that there are people who for generations live in refugee camps are blatant denial of the "fullness of life" that the Gospel offers. It is a travesty of the Gospel to think that it has to do with some spiritual fullness and has little to do with rice and water. Sri Lankan theologian, Aloysius Pieris has done a good service to us to make the distinction between "voluntary poverty" and "enforced poverty". Poverty and depravation are denials of the Kingdom.

Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying the "To a hungry man, God comes in the form of a loaf of bread". True. But Jesus was even more radical. He said that to the ones who have, God comes in the form of the hungry, thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned (Matt. 25). None of us in Asia, not least the Christians, can have fullness of life until every one in Asia has had the basic needs of life. Fullness of Life has to do with food.

b) Dignity, the gift of life

Much discussion has gone on the meaning of humankind being created in the image and likeness of God. It is of course difficult to understand it fully but it is unfortunate that traditional theology has moved too quickly to interpret it in terms of sin and fall. For me one of the key meanings of being created in God's image and likeness is that in so doing God conferred on humankind a special dignity that contributed to fullness of life.

Every time the dignity of humankind is trampled upon, one tramples on the image and likeness of God. What many sections of the people of Asia are asking for is to be given their human dignity.

The late Arvind P. Nirmal from India talks about the "unparallel depth of pathos" that accompanies peoples whose dignities are trampled upon.

My dalit ancestors did not enjoy the nomadic freedom of the wandering Aramean. As an outcaste, he is also caste out of his/her village. The dalit bastis (localities) were always and are always in the outskirts of the Indian village. When my dalit ancestors walked the dust roads of his village, the Sa Varnas (those of high caste) tied a tree-branch around his waist so that he would not leave any unclean foot-prints and pollute the roads........If ever my dalit ancestors tried to learn Sanskrit or some other sophisticated language, the oppressors gagged him permanently by pouring down molted lead down his throat. My dalit mothers and sisters were forbidden to bear any blouses and the Sa Varnas feasted their eyes on their bare bosoms. The Sa Varnas denied my dalit ancestors any access tp public wells and reservoirs. They denied him entry into temples and places of worship....
That, my friend, (concludes Nirmal ) was my ancestor - a man from Maharashtra. My dalit consciousness, therefore, has an unparallel depth of pathos and misery.

Nirmal speaks of a "wounded psyche" that comes about when people are dehumanized and made into "no people"; a wound so deep as to breed self-hate and self despise.

This is only one instance. Stories of dehumanization abound in Asia: Women treated as objects and property, children abused and sold into prostitution at eight years of age, tribals, aboriginals, ethnic, religious and racial minorities suppressed by majority communities - you know the list; the list that we have recalled at many meetings!

Restoration of the human dignity is the second dimension of the fullness of life. In the passage of John's Gospel from where we draw our theme, the Shepherd never runs away in times of danger, and if needed would defend the life of the sheep with his own life, because he attaches "worth" to each of his sheep. In the parable of the hundred sheep, Jesus claims that despite the ninety-nine that have come home, the Shepard would go out and look for the one lost sheep until he finds it. Such is the dignity and worth that God gives to humankind in creating them in God's image and likeness.

Justice, the rule of life

Bible is an amazing book! Having set the stage of human history in the creation stories, it puts two questions into the mouth of God which sets the tone of the whole of the rest of the Bible.

Adam, where are you? - the accountability of all human life to God.
Cain, where is your brother Abel? - the accountability of humans to God of how they deal with their neighbors.

I find the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4) one of the most powerful stories in the Bible. It relates to the conflict within the early Israelite society between the pastoral way of life (signified by Abel, the keeper of the sheep) and agricultural way of life (Cain, who tilled the land). In the dispute that ensued, Cain decides to take matters into his hand and to bring about a settlement to the dispute, even as so many governments of our day are tempted to do- through violence and murder..
"Silence them" the dictators say, "The dead don't speak!".

The point of the Cain and Abel story is that dead, the murdered, do speak, if it needs be from under the ground, and that God hears their cry and come down with the question "Where is your brother/sister?" The victor, Cain, becomes the victim, "a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth" with the cry, "My punishment is greater than I can bear" (Gen. 4. 12-13).

The Korean minjung theology has done much to show that the han, the accumulated bitterness, resentment, frustration, pain and pathos of the sinned against, the victims of oppression and subjugation is one of the hindrances to the fullness of life in Asia. The resolution of the han through the genuine repentance of the sinner and the forgiveness offered by the sinned against is at the heart of reconciliation and life.

Shalom, the goal of life

It is fascinating that in the Old Testament the ultimate goal of life neither abundant prosperity nor a bliss in the eternal paradise or heaven, but shalom. As we are aware, shalom is not peace in the sense of absence of conflict, but a state of reconciliation that encompasses the personal, social and cosmic dimensions peace and harmony.

It is significant that the glorious vision of the fullness of life in the future, in the 65th chapter of Isaiah, opens with the promise of nothing short of "a new heaven and a new earth" (v. 17). But it is spelt out in very concrete realities of daily life:

No more shall be the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person that does  not live out a life time.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat;
For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Vs. 20-22)

Look at this text! What does it ask for? There in not yet a call for world peace or harmony among nations. Shalom, for many peoples in Asia, is very concrete: Guard our children from hunger, prostitution and crime; protect our men from dying early in senseless wars; don't drive us away from our homes and lands as refugees; don't take our farms and give it away to corporations. Do not give us the indignity of making make shoes, dresses, shirts and pants for people in other parts of the world, which we can never hope to wear.

When there is shalom, the text says, "....my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands."

During the Bosnian war I was watching an interview with a refugee woman who had fled to Albania. "What do you need most?" asked the television interviewer, hoping to get a list of immediate needs. "I don't want anything," answered the woman without having to think about it. "I want to be able to go home!." I was reminded of this Isaiah text. "They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat."
It is on the basis of this concrete shalom that the hope of the universal shalom is predicted in Isaiah, a vision of cosmic harmony:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.....They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.

III. Fullness of Life for "All"

It is significant that the theme talks about the fullness of life as something that has to do with all people, and in the Asian context the "all" goes well beyond the Christian communities. It is unfortunate that Christian missions has traditionally seen fullness of life as something conditional - as life that can be enjoyed only when people become part of our community. This appears to be quite contrary to the spirit of the Gospel which is an announcement of God's grace and life that is being freely offered to all people.

If fullness of life has to do with
     A life free of want
     A life of dignity
     A life in which justice is not denied
     A life in reconciliation and peace,
it is a promise that God has made to all the peoples of Asia, irrespective of their race, caste, ethnicity, gender or religion. Bringing about this fullness of life into everyone's life is indeed the mission of the church. It is in this act of self giving mission of giving life that people recognize the One in whom God offers life to all people.

It is of interest that in all healing that Jesus performed allegiance to him was not the condition for the healing and wholeness that people received. Rather, it is the experience of healing and wholeness that demanded their allegiance to him.

Did we put the cart before the horse in the missionary movement?

The good shepherd does not wait for the sheep to come to him. He leads them into green pastures, and in the course of it they begin to recognize his voice. The good shepherd does not protect himself in times of danger to the sheep but is prepared, if necessary, to give his life for the sheep.

In the familiar story of the Samaritan Woman, much is made of Jesus crossing the gender, social and racial barriers that separated the Samaritan women from him. There is another dimension that need to draw our attention. The woman who for historical, cultural and religious reasons has been prevented from worshiping at the temple of Jerusalem asks Jesus if God could only be worshiped in Jerusalem. Challenged about God's all inclusive love, Jesus does some inclusive theology on his feet! He moves to a third theological position that would include both Jews and Samaritans in the fullness of life that God offers.

"The time is coming", said Jesus to the woman, "When true worshipers shall worship God in Spirit and in Truth. God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth" (Jn. 4). Since the "old theology" of his tradition excluded this woman and her people from entering into the fullness of life, Jesus does "new theology" that makes God's life available to all.

The churches in Asia have been grudging in their love of their neighbours. In the interest of increasing our own numbers we have not been forthcoming in speaking about this free, out flowing, unconditional love that is at the heart of the Gospel and the center of Jesus' own mission. Yes, the fullness of life is a promise to "all" - irrespective of who they are, and in spite of us. And until the fullness of life has become the reality in the life of all people, we can only have a foretaste of it. For as Paul says in his letter to the Romans 8, "the whole creation is waiting with eager longing" to be freed from its bondage to decay, and to "participate in the freedom and the glory of the children of God."

There is no Christian destiny that is different from the human destiny, indeed of the destiny of the whole created order. The promise of the fullness of life is for "all".

 

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