Latest Posts

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.”


this is the seminary Union in New York wishes it could be

…and U of C and PSR don’t even try. 🙂
I just visited Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai.
Bachelor of Divinity students spend their first year on campus studying, their second year in a village where the faculty go and teach them periodically under a banyan tree, their third year in a slum working with an NGO while studying on campus and their fourth year back on campus.
Their Dalit Resource Centre (Dalits are sometimes still referred to as untouchable) has academic resources and a very impressive library, but they also have files of clippings related to atrocities perpetrated against Dalits (including by the police and government–you should see the Hindu Nationalist Party file!). And their primary focus is on working directly with dalit communities in villages. In some instances, activists who would not otherwise get into a seminary are recruited to study here. (I can think of a parallel to Union in that respect, which is part of my deep respect for that seminary.)
As an aside, at some restaurants, Dalits are not allowed to drink out of the same cups (30 years ago they could only drink out of hollowed out coconut shells) or eat in the restaurant with others. And yet when I talk to many “middle-class” (is that better, Allan? 🙂 ) Indians, they say, “We’re a casteless society now.” Sound familiar?
 dalit theology centre, tamilnadu theological seminary
In the picture is of one of the research assistants. He does academic work and helps with publishing, but he also teaches traditional tribal dances and drumming and traditional self-defense to Dalit youth. Their slogan is “Dalit arts are weapons for liberation.” (All instruments in Dalit dances double as weapons.)
For a concrete model of liberation theology in practice, this place is awe-inspiring.

Practice and theory collide during a traffic jam

I visited my uncle in Malda last week, and he tends to fit the stereotype of the wise India elder. During our first conversation (I tend to think of them more as lessons, but…) he said, “Man evolved from monkeys, yes? Every day I pray that God will make man back into a monkey.” The state of violence that runs rampant in society has made him the classic cynic.

Part of the purpose of this trip is for me to learn about the intersection of justice and the life of faith. It was easy enough to find and make sense of while I was at Iona, because the isolation of that place and the rare air and rich history create the illusion that the fit is natural and smooth. (Obviously for the members of the Iona community, who live in the world beyond that island, the lines are not so distinct. For example, one member was forced to renounce his pacifist commitments when working for the World Council of Churches delivering food to the people of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s, when the military kept hijacking their relief trucks.)

While in India, my hope has been to learn about the application of radical Christian theology to lived experiences of oppression in India, by tribals in particular (the term used here for indigenous people, lest anyone think I’m being offensive). My last blog post highlighted one side of the challenge I face: some people on the margins don’t want to focus on liberation so much as finding peace and comfort in the spiritual realm (God knows this is true everywhere in the world). My other challenge is a slightly more subtle one.

My cousin Bujunda and his family took me to visit another cousin’s family in Mednipur. Before we even left, my uncle warned me it might be a bad idea to go to a place facing so much conflict and so many disturbances due to the Naxalites. The Naxalites are Maoists scattered throughout the northeast of India with particular strength among some tribals and some dalits. They’ve been hiding in jungles/forests and gaining power for the past 30+ years.

On the drive from Mednipur to Hazaribag (where I’m currently staying), we experienced a road block. Villagers’ rice paddies had recently been trampled by elephants, and when the government didn’t provide aid, they protested by shutting down a national highway.

The headline in yesterday’s paper was about 17 people (including 5 youth) being kidnapped and shot by Naxalites in retaliation for a land dispute involving about 40 acres of land in the state of Bihar. Today’s paper talked about the railroad tracks being blown up last night by Naxalites because one of their key leaders was arrested last week. Oh, and they’re texting death threats to the head of the state of Bihar.

Last night at dinner at my cousin’s family friends, they explained that part of the reason the roads in the jungle area are so bad is that no one will take the government contracts because the Naxalites demand payment for the contractors to do their work, or else…well, you get the picture.

When I was in seminary, one of my best friends and I were debating pacifism. He said it was easy to be a pacifist unless you watched the extent of the suffering of those on the margins in, say, southern Mexico. Once you had seen it first hand, you would be tempted to pick up arms with the freedom fighters, too.

Right now the conflct I face is that the resistence I’m witnessing doesn’t seem to be hurting the oppressor much at all, but it’s certainly hurting people with little to do with the problem (and yeah, it’s inconveniencing middle class people like me, who probably are a part of the problem, but the odds of us putting all those puzzle pieces together are pretty slim).

As I learn more about the challenges faced by tribals and dalits, challenges which sometimes threaten their very lives, my prespective will probably shift. But as someone a little nervous about whether her bus will actually make it to Kolkata safely, I’m in limbo right now.

naga theology?

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.

Belated Subho Viswaskorma puja!

workers unite! (to party and drink)

workers unite! (to party and drink)

I am fairly certain I misspelled that particular god, but you know how certain themes keep appearing?

I was very excited to have come to Kolkata coincidentally just in time for Durga Puja (Durga is the goddess of good over evil). I came in September 2006 with my parents specifically because neither my mother nor I had seen Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, ever before.

Not knowing the exact dates, I couldn’t figure out why in all these small pandals (temporary religious structures) the fashion this year seemed to be for Durga to wear a mustache and dhoti. Turns out there’s a festival a little earlier than Durga Puja in honor of Viswaskorma–the lord of the world of work. (Possibly also the lord of bangla, the local hooch…apparently this is a festival when the workers really unwind.)

You’ll see an image of a pandal for the celebration in this post. It’s celebrated by the workers–so you’ll also see an autorickshaw all decked out for the celebration. Reena Bose said when she was in college, they put a bindi and garland on the mimeograph machine to honor its work on Viswaskorma puja.

There are three reasons this festival is striking to me:

1) Iona was created in part to honor labor as holy and to reclaim the church as a place that recognized labor as belonging to God, because the church had become too removed from the lives of the working poor in Scotland (and everywhere else), so this is a repeated theme in a lot of ways.transport decked out

2) The low-wage manual labor force in India is HUGE, and largely taken for granted. There are lots of things that we use machines for in America that, if those machines were more common here, another family would be without a source of income. Watching a building go up means watching men dig trenches and carry thatched baskets of bricks up five stories. Yesterday I saw a man pulling a rickshaw with husband, wife and two children all squeezed in. This wasn’t a motor rickshaw or a cycle rickshaw. Kolkata’s one of the only cities that still has hand-pulled rickshaws. Because the labor pool is so big, this type of work is taken for granted. (In the same way that America takes for granted the migrant farm laborers and dishwashers at restaurants etc etc). I love that the workers have time to recognize themselves as part of God’s work (I don’t know whether middle class hindus get into this particular puja or not), and that even the machines that aid the work are honored.

3) West Bengal is a communist state. (For how long is in question; they seem to be losing power after forty or more years of control.) This means political advertisingthat workers’ rights are embedded in the political rhetoric of this area, of the opposition as well as the ruling party. This rhetoric sometimes comes at a cost to the workers as well as to progress in West Bengal (although be it noted that, much to my chagrin, there is now a McDonald’s on Park Street. It was the one place in Kolkata I saw multiple white people. Why come to India to eat at McDonald’s?! Note to my family: when you come to India, I’m not taking you to Bengali restaurants. In exchange, I won’t eat at McDonald’s on Park Street.). As Viswaskorma Puja fades into the distance, I find myself wondering what kind of god it will take, what kind of political leadership it will take, what kind of revolution it will take, to create health and decent conditons for the people whose lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes said in the Leviathan.

And what kind of puja will we have then?