Part of the reason I’m spending most of my sabbatical in India is in the hopes of better understanding tribal theologies and how they might intersect with liberation theology in the United States. (To some, this might seem a little anachronistic—I didn’t realize, but some of my colleagues think of liberation theology as a fad or phase, rather than as something that needs to be refined. To those critics, I recommend the book “The Future of Liberation Theology” by Ivan Petrella.)
Thanks to my friend Anne Dondapati’s very theologically respected father, I have been connected with a seminary in Kolkata called SCEPTRE, which is affiliated with Serampore Theological College. It offers continuing education for pastors and lecture series (I just missed one on peace studies, and I’ll be traveling during the Asian Ecumenical Conference they’re hosting). The director, Wati Longchar, is a Naga theologian (one of the indigenous groups in India are the Naga).
I visited SCEPTRE on Monday and introduced myself to the staff. I said that Wati Longchar offered to let me participate in a portion of the continuing education course and asked if I might be allowed to attend the first session on Friday. They looked at each other, communicated something I couldn’t catch, and one of them said, “Better on Saturday, 4:30-5:30.” OK, I responded. Another person turned to him and said, “So she’ll be taking a class?” He nodded yes.
I arrived on Saturday at 4 PM and had a cup of tea in the office. At about 4:15, he said “They will finish this session, have a cup of tea, and then they’ll be ready for you.”
A little bell went off. Ready for me….to participate?
That’s the point at which a normal person would say, “Wait…did you think I was going to lead the class? Because I was just planning on sitting and listening.”
But ever afraid of inconveniencing anyone, I sat there and started formulating a possible class on American liberation theology. What could I say and still have good discussion within an hour?
We walked into the classroom, the gentleman helping me said, “This is Sandhya Jha, she is basically an Indian, she is an ordained pastor in America. She has some things to share and many questions to ask. So this will be an interactive session. Sandhya, these are all pastors from Nagaland. They all have theological training and are ordained. So, you have the next hour together.” And he left.
OK, not a liberation theology lecture then.
A room full of people living in the context I’ve come to study.
Let’s just make this a conversation, then.
To be clear, from an outsider’s perspective, the reason I’ve heard of Nagaland is that there has been low-grade resistence to the policies of the Indian government among the Naga for decades now.
The other interesting thing about Nagaland is that it’s one of the only places in India that is mostly Christian—almost entirely Christian, in fact. American Baptist for the most part (with some Pentecostals mixing it up a little bit).
So I tell them a little about my church. I mention that we function out of liberation theology and explain why that theology was an important transition in the Black church. (I also explained how in America we say African American or Black. In India, the term Negro is still the term used.) I mentioned how it can also be a powerful theology for a mixed congregation like mine.
We covered a lot of ground—they thought theological college offered some useful knowledge (maybe half of what they learned applied in the church) but that the calling before attending college was what really mattered. They said they had no problem with church attendance and pastors were held in high regard even by non-church goers, so things were pretty good. I shared that my biggest challenge in ministry was making people see how inspiring the stories of the Bible can be when they’ve heard the stories their whole lives. (I compared that to the passion of First Mongolian Christian Church, for whom the stories are bright and new and inspiring, and those stories invite them to live their lives in totally new ways.) When I shared that, some of them acknowledged the same challenge, and they talked a little about people who show up and act like they care on Sunday morning but cannot be bothered to do anything different the rest of the week. (I told them my phrase for this is “Sunday saints, six day sinners.”)
I told them a little bit about the emergent church, starting with a story I heard from a man in the emergent church movement in Africa, who grew up with a Christianity that had no relevance to his life, his experience of oppression, his struggles even to feed himself. And as an adult he realized this wasn’t Jesus’ fault; it was the church’s. And he began gathering with others fostering a relevant faith trying to establish the kin-dom here on earth. And I talked about it in America.
We discussed the problems with prophesy and speaking in tongues (and one pastor raised concerns about unlearned lay people prophesying. I acknowledged the challenge and said, “I come from a tradition that does not revere the pastor very much, because we believe that everyone who is baptized has the responsibility of some form of ministry. It’s important for us to share our learning, but it’s a tricky balance—how do we also stay open to other people God is using? Especially when Jesus chose 12 fishermen who couldn’t read or write to be the foundation of the church?”
At the end I finally got around to asking about whether there was anything different about their worship, about their actions in the community or about their theology because they were Naga. To a person they said no. Their worship is American Baptist, their hymns, their liturgy, their theology were all given to them by American missionaries. I said OK, and one asked, smiling, “Is that bad or good?”
I said whatever connected them to God was good (bear in mind the language barriers before you judge me too harshly on that one). I said Black Liberation Theology had been very important because the theology we were receiving before that was distorted, and it was distorting God, so we needed something else. If what they have connects them with God in living, vital ways, that’s fine.
And with that, we were out of time. I saw a few glints of recognition of the edges I wanted to push from a few of the younger pastors. Not the session I expected at all. And yet, if I got a room full of Missionary Baptist pastors together in Oakland, would I get a wholehearted embrace of James Cone? That would be pretty presumptuous.
An interesting beginning to my process of learning Naga theology both in theory and in practice.
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