Thursday, April 10, 2008


Reflections from Indian Ecumenical Perspective

Transformation has become a catchword and a buzzword to all walks of life. Transformation is not a private entity of one single individual or community. Every section of the world is in need of transformation, for the whole world is caught up in the web of disgraceful plights and pathos. Transformation is wholistic and is the need of the day. But it is not always that God’s grace is referred to in discussing transformation. And the 9th WCC assembly was emphatic and prophetic in making God’ grace the focus and locus of transformation, thereby drawing attention of all people in the wider ecumenical movement to discuss and understand the grace of God to their own perspectives. Therefore this paper is an attempt in reflecting the theme from an Indian ecumenical perspective.
From Amsterdam to Porto Alegre, the ecumenical movement has come a long way making the Church and society to witness God’s transforming grace all along its faith journey. The 9th Assembly of the WCC held at Porto Alegre in February 2006 has set the tone for the missiological endeavour of the Church and society with its theme, “God, in your grace, transform the world.” For to our Indian context, this is the right prayer at the right time, for this prayer has a challenging relevance for our times today.
I confess that the width and depth of Indian ecumenism is unfathomable by a young man like me, yet, I dare to attempt to draw some reflections from an Indian ecumenical perspective on the theme of the 9th WCC Assembly from my own pastoral and ecumenical standing.
This paper is divided into four broad classifications. Firstly it brings out the dimensions of transformation. Secondly it discusses the grace of God as the driving force of transformation. Thirdly it explains the context of India under the broad head, discerning the signs of our times. And finally defines the grace of God to the Indian context. The Indian ecumenical reflection to the 9th WCC Assembly theme is just a beginning and has much more dimensions and contributions to be added in due course of time by different people from different contexts of the Indian ecumenical movement.

Part I

Transformation is the Divine Initiative
The theme is a prayer, prayerfully designed, so that every one, the whole oikoumene transcending all the barriers of denomination, caste, creed, region, religion, class and gender prays this prayer to God, and also makes every one praying, to pledge that he/she will strive towards making this prayer come true. It is interesting to note that 6/7th of this prayer is ascribed to God and only 1/7th to world (contrary to our individual prayers). This reveals the strength and the power of God, on whom alone the destiny of transforming the world is laid upon. For God is the beginning, the sustainer and the goal in this whole process of transformation. In our days of consumerism and fast and busy living, prayer does not have a prime priority, for people find no time even to talk to their own family members, friends and neighbours, imagine how would they find time talking to God. Even though we pause for a minute for prayer, our own unending selfish list of desires does not even give a space to think of our world today. The theme is highly evangelical, for this shows the spirit of ecumenism. Therefore this prayer, “God in your grace transform the world” gives us all a chance to think and confess the disgraceful clutches to which our world is caught up and makes us feel the necessity of God in transforming it with grace.
Leandro Bosch, an Argentinian Orthodox theologian says, “ the process of transforming and perfecting creation is necessarily closely dependent on divine providence, which rules, governs, guides and brings to fulfillment the positive process of change from what was created out of nothing at the beginning of its existence, passing through redemption in Christ, up to the second coming of Christ.”[1] Bosch emphasizes that the transformation process had already began with the creation, for God transformed the world from creating it from chaos to a splendid masterpiece. And the world in its journey had fallen short of God’s glory and had to be re-transformed by the redemption in Christ. This transforming strength of God will be with the world until the second coming of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the transforming Spirit in this pilgrimage along with the Father and the Son. Therefore transformation is from the Trinitarian God, and it is that God who initiates, sustains and accomplishes transformation to our world.

Transformation is Existential and Eschatological
Once I heard Bishop. Devasahayam telling a story, in one of his Bible studies. There was a soldier flying in a helicopter and in an emergency was asked to jump down from it with the help of his parachute. So he jumped down the helicopter, and to his dismay he was carried away by the wind and finally landed on a tree hanging to it. He did not know where he was and was anxious for some ones help to know where he was. For his anxiety, a man was passing by and the soldier immediately called that man and enquired where he was? The passer by answered, “you are on a tree.” Then the soldier said “are you a Christian?” then the passer by asked, “how did you know that?” the soldier then said “it is only you Christians who speak truth but very uncontextual and irrelevant. For I know that I am on a tree, but am enquiring in which place I am at? ”
I confess for this is true for all of us Christians, we speak truth which is irrelevant and uncontextual. When asked the question “Do you believe that God shall transform this world with grace?” the answer is “a big YES.” But again asked when is this possible, most of us Christians answer, “in the next world or after death or in eternity”. That’s how we make our affirmative response irrelevant. Therefore the ninth assembly of WCC calls us all to strive for the transformation of this world with God’s grace right here in our time and life. This prayer is both existential and eschatological, for God’s grace is always protological, existential and eschatological and so also will be the transformation of the world. With the constant accompaniment of God’s grace and the continuous collaboration of the human beings, transformation shall be completed with the new earth and new heaven formed right in our midst. Thus transformation is a synergy of both God’s grace and human participation, and also the synergy of existence and eschatology.

Part II

Grace of God happens to be the primary ingredient and the driving force in transforming this our world. With out grace, transformation is a mere daydream. Grace of God is the cause and transformation is the effect. Therefore a brief history of the theology of grace over the years is discussed here. The various shifts and understandings it went though can be noticed here. However, the grace of God over years has been a sustained enterprise of God to the creation all along.

Theology of Grace
Grace comes from the Greek word Charis which, means kindness or favour. Grace of God in Hebrew is understood as hesed, which means to bend or stoop. Grace is the unmerited favour of God showered on all the creation of God. In St. Paul’s theology, grace happens to be the central theme. Paul emphasizes God’s gracious action in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, the presence of God’s grace in the believers and explains that salvation is not a human endeavour but exclusively by the grace of God. The early Church Fathers had different views and perspectives on the theme grace. During their period grace was discussed in soteriological and ethical contexts, with synergism as a characteristic feature. According to Iranaeus, “in creation itself human beings receive an existence based on grace, and as the image of God they are called to a fellowship with God that they cannot attain on their own after the fall. That is why the linking of divine grace with human beings in Jesus Christ is both possible and needed.”[2] Augustine, stresses the total incapacity of human beings to turn to God on their own initiatives, and it is only grace that awakens faith, and this is the basis of freedom of the will and turns humans to good.[3]
For Martin Luther, grace happened to be the central theme of Reformation, and has made Sola gratia (by grace alone) as one of the principles of Reformation. He says, “ the gospel of Jesus Christ is grace, for it proclaims the gracious God who in Christ has mercy on sinners. God justifies humans by grace alone without any merits on their part, vesting them with righteousness of God.”[4]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguishes between cheap grace and costly grace. By the phrase cheap grace, he means the intellectual assent to a doctrine without a real transformation in the sinner's life. Bonhoeffer says of cheap grace, “It is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[5] Real grace, in Bonhoeffer's estimation, is a grace that will cost a man his life. It is the grace made dear by the life of Christ that was sacrificed to purchase man's redemption. Cheap grace arose out of man's desire to be saved, but to do so without becoming a disciple. The doctrinal system of the church with its lists of behavioral codes becomes a substitute for the Living Christ, and this cheapens the meaning of discipleship. The true believer must resist cheap grace and enter the life of active discipleship. Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting; the Christian must rise and follow Christ. He writes that "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes."[6]
For Margot Kaessmann, “grace is the source of life, of reconciliation, of hope for peace and justice. And it is a sign of God’s vision for this world- sometimes visible even to those who do not believe.”[7]
In the Dictionary of Hinduism, the Sanskrit word for grace is Anugraha which means “to support, uphold, foster, treat kindly.” Grace in the unripe stages of the spiritual journey is experienced by the devotee as receiving gifts or boons, often unbidden, from God. The mature soul finds himself surrounded by grace. He sees all of God's actions as grace, whether they be seemingly pleasant and helpful or not. For him, his very love of God, the power to meditate or worship, and the spiritual urge which drives his life are entirely and obviously God's grace, a divine endowment, an intercession, unrelated to any deed or action he did or could perform. In Saiva Siddhanta, it is grace that awakens the love of God within the devotee, softens the intellect and inaugurates the quest for Self Realization. It descends when the soul has reached a certain level of maturity, and often comes in the form of a spiritual initiation, called shaktipata, from a satguru.[8]More broadly, grace is God's ever-flowing love and compassion, karuna, also known as kripa ("tenderness, compassion") and prasada (literally, "clearness, purity").
Thus we could see the different shifts in the understanding of God’s grace over the years. However, the direction from where grace descends is lucid, for it is from God alone to God’s creation.
Part III

The context of India
Having discussed the dimensions of transformation, and grace of God as the driving force of transformation, it is time to discuss how this grace of God is applicable to our Indian context. Discerning the signs of our times is the need of the hour, therefore a few of the important Indian contextual challenges are discussed here.
1. The Challenges from Globalisation
Globalisation is a phenomenon that is multi dimensional. The market society created by globalisation poses major ethical challenges to the ecumenical movement and its theology.[9] Globalisation promotes un-ethical values and imbibes profit and money centred values. According to the logic of economic globalisation life is redundant and has no value in it self. These are the few challenges of globalisation.
· The concept of justice is alien to globalisation. It does not include two important components of development in the ecumenical understanding of development: justice and people’s participation.
· If the ecumenical movement is about the unity and liberation of humankind, globalisation poses a direct challenge to it, for it strives for uniformity and divides the gap between people.
· The ecumenical movement, which is a dialogue of cultures, faces a serious challenge from cultural globalisation through the process of homogenisation.[10]
2. The Challenge of Dalit Oppression
The three thousand year old slavery of the so called Untouchable outcastes under Brahminical Hinduism has intensified the plight and the reality of the marginalised sections of Indian citizens who number about a quarter of the total population of India.[11] They are fettered by poverty and powerlessness. They are alien to freedom of the spirit. They are oppressed in every sense of the term Dalit.[12] The oppressive and negative principle of hierarchy, naturally denies any inherent equality of status to individuals or groups of human communities, particularly to the vulnerable ethnic minorities like Dalits is against the divine imperative of creating all humans in the image and likeness of the Creator God. Thus Dalit oppression poses an important challenge to the ecumenical theology. The following statistics gives us the condition of Dalits in India. Their tears are like a never-ending flow and their humiliation knew no bounds.
· More than half (54%) of Dalit children are undernourished in India.
· 83 per 1000 live birth children born in Dalit community are probability of dying before the first birthday.
· 45 percent of Dalits do not know read and write in India
· Dalit women burden Triple discrimination (gender, caste and class) in India
· Only 27 percent of Dalit women give institutional deliveries in India
· About one third of Dalit households do not have basic facilities.[13]
3. The Challenge of Religious Fundamentalism
Religion in India today has become very close to the people, not because of the values and spirituality of it, but because of the power and identity it adhere to. Padha Yatras and Rath Yatras have been increasing. Conversions and re-conversions are on the rise. Violence in the name of religion has become a common phenomenon. The Godhra incident, the Dang incident, the Varanasi bomb blasts, persecutions on the religious minorities etc. you name it, you have it. These incidents reveal the sheer rise of religious fundamentalism among people in India. Religious fundamentalism is one of the major challenges India is facing today.
4. The Challenge of Ecological Crises
Human beings greed of accumulating is not a new story. The greed of human beings is heaping up, and with their greed they destroy and destruct the ecology. Capital-intensive patterns of development, and consumer-oriented lifestyle which they encourage, have had a disastrous effect on the natural environment, and the sustainability of life.[14] The untimely monsoons, extreme climatic conditions, natural calamities, extinction of certain species etc. are all due to the ecological imbalances caused in the eco-system. Building of huge dams affects the forests and its livelihood. Therefore ecology is also at risk in our Indian situation.
5. The Challenge of HIV/AIDS
India runs second to South Africa in the world with highest number of HIV/AIDS people. Estimates say that by 2015 India shall beat South Africa and shall stand first with highest number of HIV/AIDS infected people. (Unfortunately India cannot beat them in Cricket). The trend of increasing HIV/AIDS in India is a serious issue of the day. The youth and the women are the worst victims of it. Extensive commercial sex, drug abuse, migration, lack of awareness, etc are all the reasons for this rapid growth of HIV/AIDS in India. The infected people are looked down upon and are not given proper care. Thus HIV/AIDS poses a great challenge in our Indian context.

Part IV

Imploring Grace of God to the Indian Context
Rt. Rev. Dr. V. Devasahayam, speaking in a Mutirao on Dalit Perspectives organized by the UELCI during the 9th Assembly of WCC in Porto Alegre, remarked that the Church talked about only grace and not about socio-ethical issues.[15]I believe that’s our confession as the Church in India. It is true for we speak in length and depth about grace in our sermons, and hardly attempted to translate the grace of God to our contexts. We, the Church in India have become hypocritical, by singing “Amazing Grace how sweet it sounds…” on the one hand and on the other, are insensitive to the issues of the day and never think that our world living in chaos and confusion is in need of that Amazing grace. Time has come now to implore the grace of God, for only the grace of God can come in rescue of our situation and heal the hurts and burns of our society.
But how is this grace of God defined, implored and applied to our Indian milieu?

Grace of God is purely divine initiative offered to the world. Grace is a universal dimension of God directed to the people of particular contexts. As we know grace is the unmerited favour of God to the people of God. Since the grace of God is over arching the whole creation, spreading every nook and corner of this world. Keeping in view the context of India, grace of God can be defined as follows.

1. Grace of God is directed towards transformation
Both globalisation and grace of God are global phenomena, and what is the difference between them? Globalisation strives for uniformity denying all plurality, where as grace of God strives for the unity in diversity, affirming diversity as the design of God. Globalisation is oppressive, for only the dominant and powerful dictate terms of the day, where as grace of God is liberating, for it bridges the gaps and liberates all that are oppressed. The purpose, goal and direction of the grace of God is to establish transformative justice in the whole world. Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, the General Secretary of WCC in his inaugural address at the 9th WCC Assembly, said, “the goal of transformative justice is to overcome oppression and domination so as to achieve healing, reconciliation and the re-establishment of people’s relationships.” He further said, “ the good news of transformation is the proclamation of the new heaven and earth, where former things are no more. It is God’s invitation to participate in a festa da vida, to rejoice in the feast of life.” [16] Particularly for Indian context, metamorphosis is the need of the hour. The poor are looking for the alleviation of poverty, the Dalits, the Women, the Tribals are looking for liberation, the whole eco-system is looking for transformation, religions in India are awaiting transformation, the HIV/AIDS scenario is looking for healing. How are we in India can enjoy the feast of life together? Let us implore the grace of God for it is the primary agent of transformation, for it is directed towards transforming the whole creation into new creation.

2. Grace of God as Bridging the Gaps
In our Indian context, there are very many binaries within and among the creation. Though in the post-modern context, these binaries are understood as human constructs, these distinctions exist, and this is a reality. In India on the basis of class, we have the rich and the poor, on the basis of caste we have upper caste and lower caste, on the basis of gender we have male, female and transgender, on the basis of communication we have information rich and information poor, the weak and the strong, the powerful and the powerless etc. With the onset of globalisation, the gaps are increasing between these categories. The rich and poor divide has been increasing, the oppressor and oppressed divide has been increasing, human and non-human divide has been increasing. And this divide does not end there but develop as conflicts and thereby turn out to a crisis with all other ramifications like hatred, hostility, enmity etc. among the creation. For since it is the same rain, which showers upon all the earth, so also it is the same grace of God on all creation. Therefore for our Indian context, the grace of God is understood as that which bridges the gap, by removing the greed from the rich and by alleviating the poor, by making the oppressor to realize that all are created by God for fellowship and friendship and by liberating and empowering the oppressed to enjoy life in its fullness, by making the humans be responsible stewards of the creation and by making the creation to blossom and bloom with out any untimely calamity.
“Ecumenism is not just all things, by themselves belonging to the household of God. But all things interrelated to each other in this household of God.”[17] Thus by the grace of God ecumenism is aimed to bring out the interrelatedness in the household of God. An ecumenical existence demands an attitude of respect towards each other in the context of pluralism with a positive interaction for mutual enrichment. Grace of God builds partnership among creation and paves way for the transformation of the creation. Let us all therefore pray, “God in your grace, bridge the gaps and transform our world.”

3. Grace of God calls towards praxis and Solidarity
Conventionally it was understood that grace is an antonym to works. People often quote and misquote Luther, for he has professed such a theory. But for Luther in a context where the Church and its leadership were preaching that salvation can be achieved by works and salvation was for sale, he has but no other go than to confront and oppose the role of works to attain salvation. For him it was Sola gratia (grace alone) over against Sola Roma (Roman Church alone). However, in our present context, the recipients of God’s grace are called to exercise grace to actions and particularly to praxis. When God in revealing God’s grace in creation and redemption was primarily involved in doing it rather than mere speaking it. God’s creation and redemption involves praxis rather than sheer theory. Therefore grace and actions go hand in hand, they are complimentary rather than contradictory. Thus grace of God calls all of us to praxis, the oxygen of faith. To respond to this call, is to affirm life, to learn to live in true solidarity. Daisy L. Machado says, “Solidarity allows us to see the imago dei in the faces of those not like us, and it gives us the strength to reach out to those we consider foreign, to “the other”, and to attempt to build community. And it is solidarity that condemns the radical individualism that pervades the lifestyle we find today throughout those nations that enjoy wealth and power, where the value of a person is measured in how much she or he can buy.”[18] Therefore the grace of God calls us to praxis and to be solidarity with all those striving for liberation and justice. If a transformed world in God’s grace is to be possible, firstly transformation needs to take place within us. If a transformed ME is possible, then a transformed world in God’s grace is possible.

“God in your grace transform world”, is the univocal prayer of India for it is austerely awaiting a transformed society. Transformation is a graceful enterprise of God done in collaboration with human beings. It was said that,
Love given upwards is worship,
Love given outwards is affection,
Love given downwards is grace.
Therefore it was the grace of God that was showered downwards as the love of God towards the entire creation on God. And this is also a challenge to all the recipients of grace of God to be in partnership with God in transforming this our world. God in God’s grace requires you and me to transform our society. God is always willing to shower God’s grace for the sake of transforming the world, but human beings response to God’s call to be partners is required at a time like this.
Therefore let us all join together and implore the grace of God and transform our society. Let us join in the words Ravindranath Tagore, “Into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake.”

[1] Leandro Bosch, “The Assembly Theme: A Patristic Approach” in The Ecumenical Review 57/3 (July 2005) : pp.299-300.
[2] Dictionary of Ecumenical Movement, P.440.
[3] Ibid pp.440-441.
[4] Ibid P.442.
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R.H. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1960), P. 30.
[6] Ibid., P. 53.
[7] Margot Kaessmann, “God’s Grace A new Beginning in the Midst of the Scarsof History” in The Ecumenical Review 57/3 (July 2005) : p. 287.

[9] Ninan Koshy, A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Asia, Vol. I, (Hong Kong : WSCF-AP/APAYMCA/CCA, 2004) p.334.
[10] Ninan Koshy, A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Asia, pp.335-336.
[11] M. Azariah, “Ecumenism from the Perspective of the Marginalised,” p.205.
[12] K. Rajaratnam, “Contemporary Reflection on Global Oppressed Communities: A Multi-faith Approach,” Gurukul Journal of theological Studies 12/1&2 (2003): pp.5-9.
[13] NSSO, Census of India and NFHS-II in
[14] Report from a Theological Roundtable on The People of God Among All God’s Peoples : Frontiers in Christian Mission Nov 11-17, 1999. P.37.
[15] Amelia Andrews, “Church Fostering Brahminic Traditions” in People’s Reporter 19/5 (March 10-25, 2006) P.5.
[16] “Be A Strong, Credible Moral Voice” in People’s Reporter 19/5 (March 10-25, 2006) P.5
[17] Chilkuri Vasantharao, “Ecumenism in a Pluralistic Context,” in Ecumenism: Prospects and Challenges, edited by Vinod Victor, Leslie Nathaneil & P.Surya Prakash (New Delhi: ISPCK, 2001) p.180.
[18] Daisy L. Machado, “James 1-5” in By Grace You Have Been Saved (WCC: Geneva, 2005) Pp. 83-84.

1 comment:

chilkurivasantharao said...

Dear Patta,

I have read your article with great enthusiasm and found it to be a well written and comprehensive.

I appreciate you for such an initiative.

Chilkuri Vasantha Rao