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The Help — is it helpful?

Since the movie The Help is coming out, I wanted to share a review I wrote about the book at the beginning of this year, at a site called Fidelia’s Sisters, a site for young clergy women. I was asked to write it because The Help had become such a hot book group book, and because one of the editors of Fidelia’s Sisters knows that I do a lot of anti-racism work.

As an aside, I stand by my assertion in the brief bio at the end of the article that I am a fun person to invite to parties.

Does it get better?

I got some interesting feedback on a devotional I recently wrote for our region (the Disciples of Christ in northern CA-NV). It appeared in the same e-news where a woman in our region asked for prayers for her son, who has been bullied (about orientation and race) so much that he shared with his therapist his suicide plan; he is on constant watch and his family is trying to undo the brutal damage rendered by his classmates. I thought I would share my reflection here:

DEVOTIONAL by Sandhya Jha

Missional and Reconcilation Minister

Sandhya JhaThis past year has seen a major campaign take off in a lot of public schools-an anti-bullying campaign, but directed at the victims of bullying, many of whom have been driven to suicide because the bullying has become demoralizing or even mind- or life-threatening. It’s called the “It Gets Better” campaign. Even the President of the United States did a commercial as part of the movement.


This week on Glee, one of the main characters overcomes his fear of being beaten up for being different in order to show up at Prom. And he’s not beaten up. But he’s publicly humiliated, the same way he would have been at my own high school 17 years ago. And as I watched the show, knowing that most of the youth in our region were watching it, too, I found myself wondering, “Does it? Does it get better?”

This is a tricky subject to pick up in the e-news because the “It Gets Better” campaign is predominantly focused on growing suicides among gay youth as a result of bullying. I know that our spiritual tradition leads us to very different understandings about the issue of homosexuality. And I know that this region strives to be open and inclusive while honoring the diversity of understandings of how the bible speaks to this issue, allowing congregations to do our own discernment about our interpretation of the scripture and how we carry it out in our churches.

But one thing that I know every person in this region believes is that no child should be physically, emotionally or verbally harassed until they feel they have no option but to end their lives. And all of us know that bullying is scarring too many, many youth because of race, class, gender, orientation, or for the sheer simple reason that they don’t fit in.

I recently visited a UCC church in Tehachapi, California, located down the street from the park where 13-year-old Seth Walsh had recently ended his life to just that type of harassment, and his sense that things weren’t going to get better. The church found itself thinking, “If only we had been in relationship with the youth of this community so that they knew there was a place they would receive love. If only we had been a place that said ‘Hateful language is never okay.’ If only we had been a place that publicly proclaimed God’s message that Christianity means never spewing toxicity.” Because the youth taunting Seth were almost invariably Christians.

Seth didn’t die just because those kids’ churches rejected homosexuality. Seth died because those churches remained silent about how we treat people when we’re part of the body of Christ. Those churches didn’t say “We can disagree fiercely, but we will always disagree in love.” Those churches didn’t proclaim that triumphalism has no place in the realm of God, even when we are 100% sure that we are right and they are wrong.

Triumphalism may be a new word, but it’s something we’ve all experienced, no matter what our political or religious beliefs-it’s that attitude that a group believes they have the God-given right to be obnoxious and aggressive and possibly even violent in the way they let you know how right they are, how moral they are, how superior they are, and how wrong, bad and inferior you are. It usually applies to a whole culture or community-like Rome’s triumphalism over the Israelites when they demanded that all citizens of Rome declare “Caesar is God,” even printing it on the money the Israelites had to use.)

Those churches didn’t say “We never act superior and we never shut people out when they are in pain and struggling.” When television and politics and adults modeled bad behavior, those churches didn’t say anything at all.

Jesus died rather than let the voices of triumphalism or of hatred win. He died rather than accept complicit and covert silence. And he rose again, proving that triumphalism and hatred would not win. He rose again in loud proclamation, so that his followers could not dream of being silent, even if their voices cost them their own lives. He rose to let people know that it does get better when we are in relationship with a divine and loving and right-there-next-to-us God.

There are Seth Walshes in all of our communities. And they don’t automatically know the taunting is wrong in the midst of their own internal wrestlings. Neither do their taunters. Neither the Seths nor the taunters see anything in the world around us that says “the Christian life is not a life of triumphalism.”

Our denomination is trying to stand with Jesus with its upcoming General Assembly resolution against bullying:

. It’s an inspiring step in ending our silence and creating a culture of respect and love even when we don’t agree with someone else.

A resolution won’t get rid of bullying. But a church proclaiming its commitment to ending bullying CAN get rid of it. Will our churches share the good news of our divine and loving and right-there-next-to-us God who tolerates neither silence nor meanness? Does it get better? I pray that our answer is yes, and that our actions speak to that truth.

My 2003 India internship

I just came across my summary of my internship in India while I was still in seminary. (It ended up in some ether file for Global Ministries eons ago.) I wanted to share it, because these are lessons I want to re-learn. I’d love your thoughts (and observations about ways you’ve learned the same or different lessons yourself).

Sandhya Jha
report on trip to India, summer 2003

My first dissapointment upon arriving in Kolkata (not an auspicious beginning to a report, is it?) was learning that my field placement had been changed. I arrived with the understanding that I would be working and possibly living in a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and HIV/AIDS patients in a rural suburb.  Arrangements had been made for my placement coordinator’s associate to take me to the site.  That morning, he came to the house, took me by cycle, rickshaw and bus to the Calcutta Samaritans, a nonprofit organization in the heart of the city.  I would be, it turned out, volunteering at a walk-in clinic dedicated to STD prevention and care which serviced two slum areas.  When I finally got up the courage to ask the coordinator why she had changed my placement, she responded, “Well, the midway home [halfway house] would have been fine if you were training to become a health worker, but you are going to be a pastor, so you don’t need to do that–you should be more comfortable. So you will live in my office (a room with a computer, cable with English programming and even an air conditioning unit) and work at the Samaritans.”

End of story.

While my clinical pastoral education had taught me that I was not there to change people and that I was there in fact to be changed myself, I have to confess to retaining a few fantasies about how I would be changed.  I imagined the Mother Theresa experience of living and working with the poor, doing menial work like changing bed pans, of holding the hands of the dying and mopping their brows–experiences which would transcend my limited grasp of the language and would teach me a deeper respect for the dignity of people living with HIV and AIDS.  Instead, I was living in a better place than my home in Chicago (which has neither cable nor an internet connection nor A/C) and sitting in a clinic where people were well enough to walk in and whose major complaint was generally a yeast infection.  Plus, my lack of language skills made me almost valueless to the already stretched staff–I could barely communicate with anyone but the nurse and doctor, both of whom spoke English fluently.

During my first few weeks, I learned how the clinic functioned, read materials on HIV/AIDS prevention and care in developing nations, and did basic patient intake–a task created to give me something to do, although it created more work for the staff than had they done it themselves.  “Apnar nam ki?” I
would ask the patient while a staffperson sat with me and helped me with the spelling (which often had to be corrected again later by the social worker), and
then the staff person would take over by asking them where they worked and how much they earned, which they translated for me and I dutifully recorded on the intake sheet.

All of the down time (and when it was raining, there was plenty of it) gave me an opportunity to better understand the organization in which I found
myself. The Calcutta Samaritans was established by Rev. and Mrs. Pavamani (known affectionately as Auntie and Uncle by most of the staff) in the late

Its initial goal was to meet the needs of abandoned street children, but it now includes–in addition to an informal education program for street children–job training for women in the bustees (slums), job training and certification for juvenile delinquents, a home for at-risk and delinquent boys, a drug rehabilitation program with a halfway house and support groups, a help line  (possibly the first in Kolkata if no longer the only), and PASAC, the clinic where I worked: prevention of AIDS/STD Awareness and Care.  In addition to the walk-in clinic, there was a mobile clinic that went to two of the larger bustees in the area once a week.  I was taken one time, but my presence in the slum attracted such a crowd that I was eventually escorted back to the mobile clinic to chat with the doctor until it was time to leave.  There were also peer education teams that went into slums and met with rickshaw pullers and prostitutes to do basic education about STD prevention and care.

I had a real opportunity to talk with staff about their motivations for working at PASAC and the Calcutta Samaritans in general.  It emerged that the Pavamanis had a real commitment to not only helping people in need but recognizing their gifts and incorporating them into the structure of the organization.  I worked with employees of the Samaritans who were recovering drug addicts and former members of the informal school for abandoned street children.  I worked with Christians, Hindus and Muslims who prayed and gossiped and yelled and worked together.

I found myself faced with the complex interplay of different faiths on an almost daily basis during my time in India and struggled with how to fit those experiences together cohesively.  I continue to struggle with that, but wanted to take a moment to share some snapshots. On my first day, I was introduced to the clinic nurse (not officially trained or licensed, but she had spent a number of years working in a retirement home for British people who had stayed in India after independence).  She was thrilled to know I was a “lady pastor,” and immediately shared her story about having wanted to be a nun when she was young but that her parents had made her marry instead, for which was now grateful because she was now a “believer.”

Her sisters remained Roman Catholic, so she prayed for them.

On the same day, I met the doctor at the clinic, a Hindu who greeted all of his patients with “Namaaskar, Salaam Alaykum.”   He instructed me that we had
no right to judge the patients who came in here–rickshaw puller, slumdweller, sex worker.  If we were in their condition of poverty, we would make the same choices or worse.  He also talked about empowering women in society and developing relationships.  “We treat everyone as a friend here–no one
should leave with tears in their eyes–and that’s part of the medicine, when you treat them with respect and they come to believe you can help them, because of
the relationship.  That’s faith healing.  And it works.”

 That morning the women who served as peer educators gathered and Nurse Francis led them in the Lord’s prayer in Bengali.  It became clear soon after, however, that few were Christian.  After the prayer, several said, “Good morning,” to me.  I responded in kind and they smiled.  One bravely said, “Namaaskar,” and pranaamed.   I did the same, and there was an excited buzz among my new “didi’s” (older sisters).  “Salaam Alaykum,” tried another.  “Alaykum Salaam,” I replied, and they were ecstatic.  I spoke almost no Bengali and they spoke almost no English, but it created trust and relationship.  And I think it was probably my most Christian action during my time there.

Dr. Saha was militantly interfaith and lived his worship through service. One day the whole staff of the Samaritans was supposed to gather during lunch
to hear a guest speaker who had been brought in by the director (whom the staff calls “Uncle” and is treated like a god).  When the assistant director
asked Dr. Saha to close the clinic and come to the main building, he demurred, saying that there were too many patients.  Ten minutes later the same thing happened. The director phoned and told Nurse Francis they were to come at once. When she relayed the message to him, the doctor shouted, “Sister, I will quit the Calcutta Samaritans!  What kind of God doesn’t want to take care of patients?”

Although the Samaritans are a secular non-governmental organization, Rev. Pavamani, the director of Calcutta Samaritans, leads a Christian Sunday worship service that predominantly draws staff and some clients from the Samaritans. One Sunday he preached about how he had always dreamed of having a son–
“A Billy Graham, no less, saving thousands of souls.”  And yet in his next sermon he talked about how Jesus came to give us a relationship, not a religion,
and that we needed to treat people of all faiths with dignity and respect in keeping with our vision of a harmonious India.  These ideas of evangelism
and respect for other traditions lived side-by-side with no seeming sense of contradiction both in the worship and in the work of the Samaritans.

Most of the patients at PASAC–and some of the staff–are illiterate.  I was fascinated when I watched my first case assessment between Jutika, the caseworker, and a client.  Limited though my Bengali was, I understood she was repeating instructions over and over again on when to take which drugs and with what.  My first thought was how attentive she was being– ‘When I go to the doctor, I only get told what to take; I have to read the print-out at the pharmacy to . . . oh.’  She was going through it all in painstaking detail because the client has to memorize the different time schedules for the different drugs.  That’s why she was drilling them:

       “OK–how often do you take this little red one?”
       “Three times, at meals.”
       “Right; not just milk or water.”
 Condom demonstrations were likewise incredibly detailed; the clients would never be able to read the package. About four weeks in, I finally had the courage to say to the doctor that if it would be helpful, I could set up a database on their computer that would allow them to better track their patients (everything was still being entered into a log book).  This proved to be too big a transition for them, but it did open up all sorts of possibilities now that they knew I could use a computer. Suddenly my days were full–I catalogued the resources in order to allow easier access to PASAC’s collection of materials and taught one of the staff members how to expand the list, I helped with grant reports, and on and on. I mention Jutika’s daily work and my own tasks because beyond all of the religious quandaries, beyond the hope amidst desparation I witnessed, the crux of my experience lay in the mundane.  I came to India knowing I would be changed.  I anticipated drama and deep personal relationships and catharsis– the mopping of the brows of the dying, et al.  I didn’t get that.  What I got was a devout Christian woman demonstrating how to use condoms hour after hour, day after day.  What I got was a morning spent sweeping out the clinic because one of the staff thought it would be a good day to do it and Nurse Francis remembered from her days at the nursing home that British people were willing to do anything.  What I got was 10 weeks of women coming to the clinic with yeast infections.  What I got was sitting at the computer and laying out grant applications, which I probably could have done from my computer in Chicago.

When I was planning my trip to India, the chair of my ordination committee said to me, “You go over there and show them the face of Jesus, just like that little lady did.”

Realizing he was talking about Mother Theresa, I responded, “I think she was the one who saw Jesus.”

He brightened up.  “Exactly!  There, and there, and there,” pointing to imaginary homeless and dying people around him.

I felt like I already saw that.  On some level, I think I do.  What I learned to see this summer was the work of God in what could be very mundane work that repeated itself over and over with little visible signs of improvement. They say God is in the details, and I think I begin to see how that’s true. And God was in the grace extended to me by a community doing great things long before I arrived there who have continued to do great things despite my departure. My task as I see it in the coming months is to reflect on the lessons taught to me and to determine how to keep alive that work of God in my current surroundings, in the church I will serve and in the community to which I will be accountable.  I suspect part of that might entail learning about peer education and how it might work in my congregation.  Part may involve engaging in interfaith work with an intentional eye to creating a welcoming environment for people of other traditions (and being willing to be a visitor instead of insisting on playing host).  A large part will be recognizing the grace being extended to me by existing communities that welcome me in for the time I serve with them.  And I hope that part of it is beginning to learn that a sense of hopelessness is never an adequate response to a situation, no matter how vast.

The most exciting part is, I suspect I am not on this journey of learning alone—  I suspect the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ are on this path with me, wrestling with interfaith issues, issues relating to diversity within the United States, and learning where to see and listen for God.  I saw that at my denomination’s General Assembly in the overwhelming support for a resolution on civil liberties for immigrants and high attendance at workshops on the same subject.  I see it in Global Minstries’ commitment to Christ-rooted mission work based on conversation, not just conversion.  I see it in the Christian Church’s intentional cooperation with the Islamic Society of North America for interfaith community work each September 11, and in Bath UCC’s covenantal relationship with Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where profound relationships in Christ have been formed across racial barriers.  The knowledge that the church walks with me, and struggles with me, makes the hard work a little less lonely.

Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King

Shed a Little Light

Whenever I sing “We Shall Overcome,” I choke up. You may be thinking, “Don’t we all?” Probably it’s hard to be progressive in America and not be moved by it. And I couldn’t tell you all the reasons, but here are a few that have surfaced for me over the past week:

I am transported to the funeral of slain civil rights worker James Cheney, where the mourners closed the service singing several verses, including, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid today. Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome some day.” This after the KKK and the county’s law enforcement had colluded to destroy three young men trying to get people a right they legally had already.

I am transported to the music room at Bath Elementary School, where I held a book about MLK out to my music teacher and said, “There’s the music for a song that Dr. King sang during the movement. Can you play it for me?” I read every book on Dr. King in that library, because he was talking about something I thought I was connected to but no one else was talking about, including the 7 or 8 of us in the school who were people of color.

I watch a clip of Dr. King preaching about non-violence or the courage to love or not letting another man determine your worth, and I feel not just inspired, but I feel less alone. And that becomes truer by the year. I don’t know how to spread those values, but this brother, this friend who died 8 years before I was born is there in that black-and-white film footage stirring thousands. And I know it can be done again, not just by me but by a collective of people living into those ideals.

And I also choke up because they were singing that song long before I was born, and when I sing it now in a big crowd on MLK Sunday, it’s still true. But it’s not yet in the past tense. I choke up because we have yet to overcome.

And so today I sit down with colleagues to vision about the Oakland Peace Center, particularly about funding it. And I hope that I can play a part in all of us overcoming. And I pray at this moment that you reading this can also play a part, and that you and I and all people of faith and goodwill shall overcome someday.

LONG overdue India reflection

This is actually a devotional I wrote for the e-news of my denomination’s regional church (on which I serve as staff). I wrote it upon my return because they had generously given me sabbatical time and paid my salary while I was away.

Bengalis are not popular in Assam.

That barely sounds like English, does it?

My father is from West Bengal, a state in India. My mother is from Scotland. When I’m in India, I generally emphasize the former, because it creates a solidarity of sorts-I’m obviously American, but in some ways I’m still connected to this vast, diverse and ancient land. It generally works for me.

Not so much in Assam.

In the state of Assam (part of northeast India, which is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Burma), the British very strategically placed people from lots of different cultures in the tea plantations at the turn of the 20th century, so that people couldn’t speak their own language and rise up as a united people. Bengalis, Assamese, Keralans, Orissans, Biharis worked side-by-side, separated by different languages and cultures. The indigenous Assamese people (kind of like Native Americans here) barely add up to 20% of the population in their home state now (many having been displaced during the British reign).

But in the mix of things, Bengalis were put into leadership a lot of the time-they became the plantation managers and overseers, and they found decent-paying jobs in industry and in the marketplace. They made it their home.

I was invited to present a paper on Black liberation theology and the bible at Eastern Theological College in Jorhat, Assam at the end of my sabbatical, at a conference on tribal (indigenous) theology and the bible. During that conference, I discovered that people were much more comfortable dealing with my Scottish heritage than with my Bengali heritage, because the British might have been oppressive a long time ago (and set up the existing system very intentionally and sown seeds of dissent among Indians before they left), but the people who were oppressing them now were Bengalis. Because they liked me, folks were willing to ignore my Bengali culture.

My roommate was an indigenous person from the northeast and the vice-principal of a seminary in the next state over. We were talking one night about what we valued about our cultures. I had the presence of mind to begin by saying, “I know Bengalis are not so popular here,” before continuing with, “but something I really love about Bengali culture is the way they’re really invested in one another’s wellbeing-neighbors watch out for each other and know one another’s business.” She said, “Yes, it’s hard for me to think of Bengalis in a positive way, so it’s strange to think of good things about Bengalis, but I know that you have had good experiences of them, and maybe they’re not all the same.”

I benefit from privilege in a lot of ways in America despite the challenges of an Indian identity-I’m light-skinned and straight and educated and middle-class (if not middle-income). And in India I get even more privilege (albeit occasionally with a little resentment mixed in-one presenter at the conference in Assam kept making references to the “western visitor” and how maybe I could explain the tolerance of alternative lifestyles and the consumerism and materialism and sexual liberties that we were exporting in harmful ways to the people of India). But at no point in time had I ever thought of myself as being privileged as an Indian, specifically in this case as a Bengali. And I’ve been thinking about it for the last month now.

I do anti-racism work because I fear that we let our privilege go unchecked and unacknowledged, so we unintentionally harm others in the process of pursuing the privileges we think of as rights. And yet, when I found myself in a situation where everyone knew that I benefited from privileges I had never recognized before, it didn’t feel great. However, it gave me a really big gift: it gave me the gift of empathy which I had not had before: only in realizing the privileges of my community in Assam was I able to truly understand the costs to the Assamese people and also to the relationship between Bengalis and Assamese in the city of Jorhat. And it was only in recognizing that privilege and acknowledging it that I got to experience the joy of open relationship with someone who had no reason to love me as a Bengali.

And I learned a little bit about grace, too. The next night, my roommate looked at me and said, “When I first met you, I thought you looked white. Now I look at your eyes and cheeks and nose and chin, and I see that you look Bengali.” And she meant it as an affirmation, despite all the complex history wrapped up in that short phrase “You look Bengali.”

As I re-enter my work here with people I have loved and missed, I re-enter a little different, re-shaped by my interactions with amazing people in the other land I call home. And I hope I re-enter having learned more about self-reflection as a way of living my faith with integrity. But I also hope I re-enter having learned a thing or two about grace. And I pray that in the coming years, we will continue to extend those opportunities for self-reflection and for grace to one another. God bless you and thank you for giving me the gift of this sabbatical time; you will never know how much you have blessed me.

All we are saying is…

I am a pacifist (a conflicted one during Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, but a pacifist). I also like to think of myself as a realist. My friend Garry used to joke that I said “There would be no Martin without Malcolm” so often we should just give that speech a number so I wouldn’t have to waste the breath on it.

I had the chance to lead some discussions on liberation theology with masters students at Aizawl Theological College a couple of weeks ago. In case you’re interested, we took on the following topics, one a day:

An overview of Black Liberation Theology

Liberation theology and the “historic project” (a 3rd generation critique and challenge)

Liberation theology and the challenge of postmodernity

Liberation theology and violence

Liberation theology and land, women and Native Americans

(I did one-page conversation-starting summaries of each of these if you’re interested in any of them)

During the conversation on liberation theology and violence, I found myself arguing against that exact same notion from one of the students.

Most liberation theologies either explicitly or implicitly endorse armed rebellion against forces of oppression (and they are not without biblical backing, if they bother to look for it). Most liberation theology also emerges from dire situations and secular responses to it (Cone’s Black Power Black Theology was written as cities all over America burned during riots/rebellions, for example). I commented that the internal active rebellions against the Indian government today were happening within Christian communities in many instances. Was violence necessary, I asked, in liberation theology, and if so, what was the theology behind it? (I also made the arguable statement that Dr. King’s theology isn’t really considered liberation theology partly because it was integrationist, and largely because it was nonviolent in philosophy as well as strategy, and talked about the different roles of King and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement.)

One student in particular said with the situation this dire, there is no other option. I explained why King might disagree and put forward the (arguable) case that more civil rights were gained under King’s nonviolent movement than the armed black power movement that followed it, even though it emerged out of frustration with the lack of effect of Dr. King’s work. I also said many pacifists point to Gandhi (again arguably) as proof of passive resistance as a powerful force against oppression and brutality. And one of the students said, “But would they have listened to King if they weren’t scared of Malcolm X as the alternative?” In other words, could there be King without Malcolm X?

In one hour, we weren’t going to resolve this issue, so I just said he was in a distinct majority on this issue, and I just wanted to know what the theological rationale was for this position if they did in fact endorse violence (which none of them endorsed in the concrete so much as in the abstract). I also mentioned that in Malcolm X’s FBI file, the FBI expressed little concern about him until he moved away from the Nation of Islam and towards engagement with the existing civil rights movement. Nonviolence can be more threatening to oppressive regimes.

I don’t think they bought it, and for the same reasons people in the US don’t buy it—we think of pacifism as a luxury good. We think of it as a nice idea that isn’t very realistic.

Statue of the Great Salt March

Statue of the Great Salt March

I visited the Gandhi memorial museum in Delhi last week. There were a lot of freedom fighters. There were a lot of people working to overthrow the government. But his ideas were so radical AND SO EFFECTIVE that he’s the one with the museum and the statues and people still struggling to live into his ideals. And in no small part, we wouldn’t have had the civil rights movement in the form it took had it not been for Dr. King’s mentors learning directly from Gandhi and teaching a generation of leaders at Morehouse those same principles. From my vantage point, that’s power.

at the gandhi museum

at the gandhi museum

Aizwal, Mizoram…tribal theologies and gratitude for the gospel

The stunning city of Aizwal

The stunning city of Aizwal

There’s a South Asian theologian named Thomas Thangaraj who taught at Emory and Candler for a number of years before retiring back to Tamil Nadu (southernmost state in India) a few years ago.

I met him in 2001, and he told a story to a group of us about white-guilt-interfaith work versus interfaith work that honors our own and others’ traditions. He was a PhD student at Harvard Divinity School (many years ago; I’m sure things are different now), and he went to the student mixer on the first night. You may already know that Harvard has a reputation as an open-minded, liberal school that embraces other faith traditions. (Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project is a phenomenal example of this commitment.) He walked into the mixer of predominantly Anglo people, and several of them rushed up to introduce themselves. “Are you Hindu?” one of them asked enthusiastically. “No, I’m Christian.” As Dr. Thangaraj tells the story, they looked at him with pity and embarrassment, as if to convey the message, “What did our horrible and oppressive colonialism do to you that forced you to embrace our dominant faith tradition?” He had to explain that he LIKED being Christian, that the message of Jesus Christ was empowering and comforting and that he was not a victim in this equation. (Be it noted that Thomas Thangaraj’s writings are respectful of other faith traditions, including his most famous book, The Crucified Guru. His students also say he challenges dominant frameworks of Jesus in the classroom in ways that shape their ministry for the good.)

This story springs to mind because I am currently spending the week in Aizwal, Mizoram, at the Aizwal Theological College. I am here sharing some reflections about liberation theology (we’ve had some great conversation about the challenges of postmodernity to the models of liberation theology that currently exist, and we’ve even stretched liberation theology to include some internal community ethics questions). I am more importantly learning about tribal theologies, the theologies of indigenous communities in India (particularly in the northeast). Tribal theologies are a little newer than Dalit theology, which is a little newer than western liberation theologies. (I’ve also just learned about a Korean liberation theology called something like Minjung that I need to look into.)

As a result of these theologies being slightly more in formation, opinions on what they should look like and what their role should be differ. But one problem here strikes me differently than other liberation theologies I work with:

Jesus was brought to the state of Mizoram by Welsh Presbyterian (and Baptist) missionaries. Mizoram is a 90% or so Christian state. Worship is vibrant and the city closes down on Sundays because most everyone is in church most of the day. (This is changing, thanks to cable TV and youth not feeling that they have a role in the church, but attendance is still remarkably high.) And being a culture of respect, few want a theology that says there is something wrong with the missionaries.

Mission in Mizoram goes back a little over 100 years. Latin American liberation theology didn’t have to worry about offending people because their beef was with political leadership that perpetuated bourgeious capitalism at the expense of most of the population. African American liberation theology didn’t care about offending anyone because the people who brought them the gospel also bound them in chains. Native American liberation theology didn’t care about offending anyone because the people who brought them the gospel took away their homes, wrapped them in disease-infested blankets and practiced genocide. And while the missionaries in Mizoram worked in partnership with the British colonial government, their primary impact on the community was a rejection of their cultural expressions. (Interestingly, in one particular instance even this was unsuccessful: at the first revival, the missionaries told the Mizos that their indigenous drumming was of the devil, and they were not allowed to use drums with the music of the revival. At the second revival, the Mizos were chastised again. By the third revival, the missionaries’ efforts to stop the devil drum from entering into worship was permanently foiled. Indigenous drums and dancing during the hymns remain a central part of Mizo worship today.)

Dancing and drums in a Mizo worship service

Dancing and drums in a Mizo worship service

I visited the Baptist seminary in Aizwal yesterday and had the pleasure of meeting their students and faculty and stirring up a very fun, very heated conversation about liberation theology and tribal theologies. In the process, however, I inadvertently offended a visiting faculty member from the UK who, after the lecture, introduced himself by giving his name and saying, “My parents were the colonial missionary oppressors you were talking about.” (For the record, I didn’t say that phrase, although I probably said something about liberation theology responding to white oppression. Which it did, so I’m not sure I should apologize.) The rest of us in the room (the faculty had tea with me after the large group session) tried to articulate how tribal theology didn’t mean to belittle the great contributions of the missionaries who gave so much to share the gospel. (Well, one faculty member said Mizoram isn’t oppressed or marginalized, so it doesn’t need a liberation theology, but that’s another story.)

I am so inspired by the courage and force of conviction of the faculty and students at both institutions. (I particularly admire the women, with whom I’ve tried to spend some extra time, who continue to serve and challenge and nurture a church that won’t ordain them or even let them serve as elders. That’s another post,

Me, larger than life, surrounded by the elders and pastor of a Mizo Church.

Me, larger than life, surrounded by the elders and pastor of a Mizo Church.

though.) And I believe a “self-theologizing” culture will emerge. (That was the term we all finally agreed would be acceptable to Mizos and missionaries alike.)  But I do not envy the task of Mizo theologians and pastors who are trying to invite their churches into self-theologizing while making sure not to disrespect the missionaries who brought them the gospel that liberated them from superstition and fear of evil spirits (as the missionaries’ son explained to me was the liberating work of his parents and their colleagues). Perhaps the movement’s theme song will be “We shall overcome…but not overcome their oppression because they were actually very good to us.”