Friday, 26 September 2014

Jack and the peace talk

Last year, when pundits were discussing the role of the social media in triggering or exacerbating communal clashes in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, I met Jack Manuputty at a conference in Bangkok. Jack is the initiator of the Peace Provocateurs movement in the Maluku Province of Indonesia.
Peace provocateurs? Well, Jack actually did induce others to spread peace in the once conflict-ridden Maluku. In September 2011, when tensions erupted after a 10-year hiatus in the violence that cascaded in Maluku, Peace Provocateurs used the social media to defuse tensions.
Bringing people together: Rev. Jack Manuputty

Inter-religious clashes between 1999 and 2003 in Maluku, called Spice Islands, took a heavy toll: 9,000 lives (unofficial sources put the number at 15,000); over 500,000 internally displaced people and thousands who fled to other provinces in Indonesia and some who even sailed illegally to Australia; damaged houses and public facilities.
The social fabric was torn to shreds, and the 54 per cent Muslims and 44 per cent Christians that made Maluku’s population lived in an insular world. The Malino II Peace Agreement, signed in 2002, ended the large-scale violence, but there were sporadic tensions.
The media took sides in the conflict if not they were indifferent. So when conflict erupted again 2011, many media houses portrayed it as similar to that of the 1999 conflict. The visual media used pictures of the violence in 1999 in a loop. At a different level, rumours, exaggerated reports and misinformation flew thick and fast in the capital Ambon City via SMS, Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Many radical websites stoked the fire.
That was when Jack founded the Peace Provocateurs movement involving a network of students, lecturers, religious leaders, journalists and others who had strong connections across the religious divide. “We
decided to respond in kind with a reverse intent. If conflict provocateurs could use new technology to incite violence, we could use it to undermine their incitement,” he told this writer at the Consultation on Media and the Promotion of Peace and Justice held in Bangkok in the first week of September.
Significantly, Peace Provocateurs adopted the same methods as that of the mainstream media or at least what they ought to have done. Every time there was a rumour, like churches or mosques being burned, its members checked out to see whether there was any truth in it, traced the source of the information and used Twitter and text messages to send clarifications on reports. Eventually, the mainstream media began to follow their information on Twitter and Facebook. What’s more, the mainstream media agreed to choose their words carefully while reporting violence; for instance, the term “riot” was replaced by “tumult”.
Peace Provocateurs made sure to burst the “expanding bubble of anger” at the earliest, mostly in an hour. For instance, when a Christian girl had her arm hacked off by a Muslim crowd, everyone expected more trouble to follow. Soon a Twitter message signed “Provokator Perdamaian”, or “Peace Provocateurs”, began doing the rounds: “The girl is fine & at home with family. Look, here’s a fresh photo of her. And here’s a video with her made a few minutes ago.”
In another instance, when a grenade attack a week before the opening of the National Quran Recitation Festival (MTQ) injured 48 Christians, Jack tweeted, “Don’t you ever think that you can provoke the anger of the Christian community so the MTQ will fail. We will fight to the end to make this event successful.” The message went viral and both Muslims and Christians agreed to make the MTQ a success as part of the Maluku pride.
The Peace Provocateurs movement, which has no formal structure, has now extended its activities to peaceful times. One of its arms is the Maluku Photo Club. Its members circulate pictures of peaceful interaction among the community through YouTube and other social media outlets. Photographs like that of a Muslim trader in a predominantly Christian area serve to demonstrate the fact that the vast majority of people have no interest in the violence that vested interests are trying to stir up.
A documentary made by ICT Watch, a Jakarta-based civil society organisation established in 2002, explains how Peace Provocateurs started “making peace with our fingertips”. Almas Catie, one of the founding members of the movement, and his friends have waged their own battle against the mainstream media’s domination by publishing a community magazine.
The use of Internet to provide peace is the outcome of the strong ties Almas and friends fostered over the web and in the virtual world--school alumnae, neighbourhoods, soccer clubs, musicians, photographers, bloggers, and so on. The strategy was simple: identify ‘strategic partners’ in the border neighbourhood; build a team of contacts located at flashpoints throughout the city; and enlarge the group of friendship web by encouraging much more friends to join the movement. Glenn Fredley, the Moluccan singer who campaigns for peace and justice, says he believes his friends on the social media.
The success of the strategy was not surprising, as there are 55 million Internet users, 42.9 million Facebook users and some 3.3 million bloggers in Indonesia. The number of Twitter users has trebled in the past three years.
“The entire strategy is wrapped up in what we called the coconut leaf plaited-mat strategy,” said Jack. “The character of this strategy is adopted from the Moluccas’ practice of plaiting coconut leaf mats, where each group is woven in with other groups in order to achieve strength to pursue the peace process and dialogue/communication within community at large.”
However, the social media is just a part of a big repertoire of the peace movement. Music, dance, theatre, photography, storytelling and sport were used to bring people together, bridging the gap among them, and building trust among each other.
Jack is also the co-founder of the Maluku Interfaith Institution for Humanitarian Action (LAIM), which creates institutional capacity-building programmes, develops positive public discourse, and builds a network of pluralistic conflict prevention observers. LAIM builds interfaith peace groups of journalists, women, religious leaders and students. In its “live-in” programme, clergy men and women spend overnight in each other’s homes in order to build trust and work together to solve social problems in the country.
The network has expanded its work and even posts volunteers in the streets to address flare-ups directly. Many of its models have been adapted for use in other parts of Indonesia.
On October 11, 2013, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding awarded Jack Manuputty, a Master of Arts and International Peacemaking Program graduate from Hartford Seminary in the United States, its Peacemakers in Action award in recognition of his peacemaking efforts.
“These activities involve the provocateurs in the story to the point that they are no longer observers and reporters, but active participants,” said Jack, who believes in the power of action to transform society.
His clerical robe makes him believe all the more about his role in the reconstruction of society.
The Reverend Jack Manuputty is a pastor of the Maluku Protestant Church (GPM).

(Published in New Vision for a Changing World, September 2014) 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Faith in the city


“Being hungry sucks.... Woke up today little disoriented, hungry and irritated. Was not a nice feeling – fell asleep again shortly after breakfast. And this is when my lifestyle otherwise is sedentary except for the evening run. Can only imagine the ordeal of someone who has to do hard labor on an empty stomach!”
--Blog entry on September 26, 2011, in http://rs100aday.com/ maintained “by two friends (Tushar Vasisht and Mathew Cherian) trying to bring to light the concerns of the average Indian through firsthand experiences”.

They were People Like Us who were born in middle class families, valued academic excellence and landed dream jobs. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Tushar Vasisht, as their website says, was an investment banker with Deutsche Bank in San Francisco and Singapore. Mathew Cherian holds degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Johns Hopkins University, and has experiences in hardware design, educational technology, and the Semantic Web. 
The duo met at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) project, and two years ago they embarked on a daunting initiative to find out for themselves what it was to live on Rs.100 a day for three weeks in Bangalore and Rs.32 a day for another week at Karukachal in Kerala.
Living on Rs.32 a day? Remember, the Planning Commission had given an affidavit in the Supreme Court on September 20, 2011, that Rs.32 was the limit for poverty line calculations. There are lakhs of people in India who do with even less.
Tushar and Mathew chose Rs.150 a day as the budget for the Bangalore experiment considering the mean national income of India at Rs.4,500 a month. They fixed Rs.100 a day after deducting one-third of that budget that would go for rent. It was goodbye to many things that they had been used to until then—car, maid, air conditioning, washing machines, refrigerator, meat, milk or milk-based products, soft drinks, and so on.
“Needless to say, the experiment was highly challenging for us – personally and professionally. We lost 2.5 kg and 6.5 kg of weight, respectively, during the month and found ourselves bound by various constraints and challenges,” they wrote in their blog.
To those of us who try to find the path to salvation through Lent fasting and philanthropy, the findings of their report would be an eye-opener. For instance, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the recommended daily intake for an Indian is 1,776 calories. But the young men could only consume anything between 1,300 and 1,600 calories with the resources they had. “As a result, we were lethargic, even without putting our bodies through the rigor a day laborer subjects his to.”
Other challenges they faced included the breakdown of social and professional networks (“missed calls” were all they could afford mostly) and lesser mobility (limited to a 5-km circle, walking everywhere as bus fares were unaffordable). Other economic necessities like the repair of a pressure cooker or medical expenses were unthinkable.

Daily bread 
India is home to a large number of the world’s hungry people. According the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2012, after a small increase between 1996 and 2001, India’s GHI score fell only slightly, and the latest GHI returned to about the 1996 level. This when India’s gross national income per capita almost doubled. Why do people still go hungry to bed even as incomes have doubled?
The fact is that the benefit of economic growth is only for a few. Our cities have grown unimaginably and so have the gap between the rich and the poor.
So, “making sure that food can be accessed by all the people requires that they have the purchasing power to buy the necessary food, which, in turn, means that employment, remuneration and livelihood issues are important” (‘The Political Economy of Hunger in 21st Century India” by Jayati Ghosh, Economic & Political Weekly, October 30, 2010).
A re-reading of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) will help us understand the social and economic implications of having a job, a living wage and the money to buy food. In short, the prayer ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is for the provision of resources to everyone (us) and not an individual (me or my family) and protection against everything that hinders from enjoying them. Or, the onus is on the entire community to combat poverty and hunger.

Church and the city 
More often than not, we resort to prayers and charity (tithing) as the easy way out. Charity, obviously, is to relieve the suffering of a person in need. But it is no substitute for justice. Jesus himself said (Matthew 23:23): “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” The key here is justice and mercy.
Sometimes we are quick to offer simplistic solutions. The other day someone told me there would be no poverty in our State (Kerala) if everyone there stopped drinking. That stems from a lack of understanding of the causes of poverty.
Poverty is not the failure of an individual or group to be successful individuals; rather it is inflicted on them by a lot of factors. The class or caste one is born into determines his or her life’s chances—access to food, good education, decent housing or medical facilities. 
This ‘structural violence’ is so institutionalised that it is seldom recognised as violence. The Church has a role to create awareness about this structural ‘sin’ and get involved in the struggles for economic justice and food security.
In the 1980s, amidst growing poverty in the British inner cities, a Special Commission of the Archbishop of Canterbury was established “to examine the strengths, insights, problems and needs of the Church’s life and mission in Urban Priority Areas and, as a result, to reflect on the challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation: and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies”. 
Its report, Faith in the City: A Call to Action by Church and Nation, created new awareness of the emerging gaps in British society. The report became controversial for its criticism of the economic policies of the government of the day for the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
“Faith in the City began a movement which was partly political (with a small p), partly theological and partly spiritual. In all three senses, it was a beacon of hope to a lot of people: local authorities felt that the dilemmas that they faced with limited resources in the face of overwhelming deprivation were being recognised; the churches on the ground felt that the rest of the Church was waking up to the realities of inner city ministry; and, most important of all, people who were locked into the poverty trap of deprived inner city communities began to feel that perhaps there could be a national understanding of the paralysis which gripped them. Faith in the City began a discussion across the nation and a movement within the Church. It showed that our common concerns could be harnessed in the common good,” said the Very Revd Graham Smith, The Dean of Norwich, in 2005.
How do we make our city good?

Youth and the city 
Some years ago, at the end of a three-day Yuvajana Sakhyam centre camp in one of the towns in Kerala on the theme ‘Whatsover you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do it for me (Matthew 25: 40)’, a young man got up to ask the speaker, ‘Achen, Where do I find the poor?’ The speaker was livid.
Most of us in the cities live in a bubble, untouched by reality. Let me list a programme for city Yuvajana Sakhyams in their emphasis on social justice.  
  • Break out of the bubble, like Tushar and Mathew did, and make a conscious effort to apply the gospel to the economics of society. Why makes people poor? What are the causes and effects of poverty?
  • Initiate studies on the Food Security Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill, and other pieces of legislation that affect the lives and livelihoods of a large number of people.
  • At least one of our churches in Delhi initiated a ‘langar’ (community kitchen) for the poor during Lent. Can we have more churches opening up their premises for food and opening shelters for the homeless?
  • Participate in the struggle to make food security a reality. “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5: 24).


Saturday, 30 March 2013

What is good news?

Vicars dread having to preach to an empty church. But what would happen if one of them were to add a bit of entertainment to worship so as to improve attendance? I can imagine the stern frowns on many a face if an Achen were to allow a rock-and-roll inspired performance in church, like what Mary Clarence does in the movie Sister Act. So it is with the media. On the one hand is the remark that the quality of serious journalism is declining. On the other hand is the complaint that the content is too boring (as many would say of a church service that is too boring).
The analogy -- borrowed from Market-driven Journalism: Let the citizens beware? by John H. McManus -- between the church and the newsroom ends here. Obviously, enhancing the liturgical experience is not like packaging media content. And at least in the context of the Mar Thoma church, Achens are under no pressure to impress church-goers unlike in the West where non-denominational churches attract a large number of the faithful. 
But applied to the media, it raises a lot questions. What does the public want? What do people consider as a quality product? Does entertainment always attract more people than “high quality” content? Are editors forced to think with “cash registers in the mind”? Does news as a “commodity” bring down its informational value? In short, what constitutes good news? And, most of all, who should be the arbiter of what is good?
Any discussion on this should be based on the indisputable fact that the media, be it newspapers, magazines, television or the Internet, serves an important function in democracy. I recall how a guest preacher (a layperson) in my native church in Kerala began his sermon by saying that he read no newspapers at all and shut out television entirely because they delivered ‘bad’ news! Instead, he said, he read only the Good News. (It is another matter that the great theologian Karl Barth advised his young colleagues “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”)
Such talk from the pulpit creates more misinformation and confusion. The media must be recognised for what its functions are. McManus says the mainstream media acts as society’s headlights. Imagine driving your car through a rough and potholed road on a dark night without the headlights on. Well, that is what society could be without a free media. “Good journalism can’t smooth the path into the future, but it can help us find less bumpy routes.”
Information, and specifically the news media, can play a crucial role in the formation of public opinion in society. It can impact major social, political, and economic issues in a substantive manner. There are several examples of investigative and analytic journalism bringing a significant issue to the fore. The role of the press and news television in probing certain scams of recent times is worth mentioning. Veteran journalist P. Sainath’s investigations of rural distress and farmers’ suicides are examples of journalism at its best.
However, critics say that the ratio of serious to sensational journalism has been steadily declining. There is no denying the fact. In 1981, Ashwini Sarin, a reporter of The Indian Express, broke the law to expose how poor women were being trafficked. He actually ‘purchased’ a girl called Kamala. The more recent Peepli [Live] is eerily familiar of bad practices to earn television ratings. In short, journalism is crafted to serve the market and what was till yesterday pursued as facts and truth are today commodities offered for sale. Other worrying tendencies in the media include systematic dumbing down and rogue practices like paid news.
For purists, this is nothing but blasphemy. Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the United States, blames the market culture of journalism thus: “In the new culture of journalistic titillation, we teach our readers and our viewers that the trivial is significant, that the lurid and loopy are more important than real news.”
Defenders of market-driven journalism, however, say the media environment is too competitive in today’s world to disregard the market side of it. They argue that the free choice of consumers will make the content more lively and invigorating.
Striking a balance between information and entertainment or audience interest (market pressure) and journalistic values is the key to good journalism. In my opinion, a well-written article about the life of Amitabh Bachchan or “news you can use” can be both informative and entertaining. But some piece of information on his daughter-in-law’s baby shower is at best flippant. Snooping into the strict personal lives of people, be it celebrities or politicians, can in no way be said to be in the public interest.
As Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju observed recently, “No doubt the media should provide some entertainment also to the people, but if 90 per cent of its coverage is devoted to entertainment, and only 10 per cent to all the socio-economic issues put together, then the sense of priorities of the media has gone haywire.”
I place myself in a position that media practitioners too, like all other professionals, make errors of judgement. For this there are watchdog institutions. Besides, there are journalists themselves who are critical of the bad practices in their profession. It cannot also be forgotten that 2011 was the year journalism changed; it is a testimony to the power of the reader that News of the World, which at one time was the biggest selling English language newspaper in the world, had to shut down.

The big picture
This article is not to analyse who has the stronger case, votaries of market principles or their critics, but the implications in society of the trend towards journalism that serves the market. For instance, such media practices as the phone-hacking scandal for which News of the World is facing charges are clearly the result of the commercialisation of the mass media. 
In India, as elsewhere in the world, there has been a rise in corporate power over all areas of people’s lives--economic, political and social. What it entails for the media is that more than social responsibility, economic criteria have come to dominate decisions about the messages and means of communication. Extending the analogy of headlights further, it can be said that there are many factors responsible for the poor quality of illumination of roads: they range from the personal disposition and values of media persons to the priorities of the corporate media (and companies that put pressure on the media) in deciding what should be illuminated and what should not be.
Says Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop Rowan Williams in an essay on the media: “[T]he journalistic enterprise... is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity - which is therefore selected, packaged, and, to that degree, inevitably slanted. This unavoidable ‘marketising’ of the process has the effect of creating yet another interest group, the professional producers of information, whose power as suppliers in the market restricts the freedom of others.”
These producers of information, those who control information, decide who will speak about whom, about what, when and for how long. They identify the priorities and interests that “deserve” attention. They determine the national priorities and set the agenda.The implication of this in society is that it reinforces a limited world view. For instance, I have heard many youngsters speaking against reservation in education or jobs, without being aware of the historical or social reasons for it.
In a world of blatant economic imbalances such as the one we live in, the dominant narrative in the media is often of the rich and the powerful. There is a tendency by journalists to apply “metropolitan templates as the obvious frame of reference” as a result of which there are disturbing gaps of information in regard to rural affairs. Obviously, solutions too are top-down.
While reading daily news or watching it on television, have you ever asked yourself, “Whose perspective is this?” The predictable reply is that this what the reader or the viewer wants. But excluding other perspectives is like showing only half or even less of the picture.
What coverage does the poor, the Dalits or the marginalised in society get in proportion to glam and glitz? Their perspectives do not sell. Oftentimes, with its subtle and not-so-subtle images, the media also becomes instrumental in creating new forms of social division in society. We are in no way less guilty in perpetuating them.
The good thing is that technology is changing news environment in many ways. “If the classical journalist just occasionally nurtured the illusion of writing or speaking for posterity, no such fantasy is possible in the electronic world. In one way, it is the reductio ad absurdum of marketised information, indiscriminate information flow,” says Bishop Rowan Williams.
“From another perspective,” he adds, “the user's immediate access to both the producer and the rest of the audience radically undermines some of the power of the producer. Classical media outlets claim to serve democracy but often subvert the possibilities of an active, critically questioning public by assuming the passive undifferentiated public we have been thinking about. The drift in some quarters to near-monopolistic practices, the control of the product by careful monitoring of response and periodic re-designing - these evaporate when we turn to internet journalism.” (There are other dangers to this, though.)
The case of WikiLeaks expose is a classic example of new forms of journalism emerging. But technology is no solution as long as “journalistic communication is bound to a market model”. 

Some gospel truths
Building a socially conscious media is a process. It is not going to change overnight by moral exhortation.What then should our role be as Christians in a process of social action regarding the media? It is to challenge the right of the “gatekeepers” to decide for others. It requires us to constantly challenge the media’s negative impact on society and the distortions it creates. In other words, it is important not to take everything presented in the media as gospel truths.
We need to ensure that the media reflect, in a balanced fashion, the views, opinions and cultures of all segments of society. The fundamental methodological critique is to focus on “Who is telling the story and for whom?”
Churches can provide an invaluable service in this by helping the general public (not just church-goers) better understand the media and be wiser consumers. The National Council of Churches USA, a leading organisation for ecumenical cooperation among Christian denominations in the United States and of which the Mar Thoma Church is a part, has adopted several policy statements with respect to the issues of media, faith and society. It has a Communication Commission whose activities are (1) media advocacy, (2) media education, (3) network television programming and (4) Worldwide Faith News, “a web-based venture which allows faith groups from all over the world to post their news releases, gaining equal access to mainstream news coverage”. (Details of the NCC policy guide can be had on http://www.ncccusa.org/about/comcompolicies.html). It is an example worth following even at the parish level.
It is also for us to discover ways to use the media itself to make our voices heard and those of the poor, Dalits, women and other marginalised sections of society. The Occupy movement in different parts of the world offered the church an unprecedented opportunity to make such voices heard louder. The image of a bishop being led away in handcuffs for trying to enter the Juan Pablo Duarte Square in New York City won’t die that easily. By doing that, he and hundreds of members of the clergy and the laity was setting a fine example of even occupying a “space within the media”. 
Engaging with economic and social justice is a gospel imperative. As Mar Thomites we gloat over how Yuhanon Metropolitan engaged himself with social and political causes.
But most of all, if we need to be careful in discerning good and bad media content in mainstream media what about our in-house publications? What images do we convey through these? What filters are there to keep out negative stereotypes or messages that promote a self-centered lifestyle?
How does the Facebook generation see these publications? Do only “success and celebrity rather than a broken and a contrite heart that are made to seem desirable” in them, as Malcolm Muggeridge, the legendary journalist and social critic, says in his essay titled ‘Christ and the media’. Or is “Jesus Christ Superstar rather than Jesus Christ on the cross who gets a folk hero’s billing”?
(This appeared in the Diocesan Herald in March 2012. The views expressed here are personal.)

Friday, 18 January 2013

Tell me the old, old story...

Having never distributed a tract or ever “proclaimed” the gospel, I was taken aback when Harish S. (name changed) told me, “Saab, mujhe Yesu ki kahani suna do” (Sir, tell me the story of Jesus). My memories raced back to the day two years ago when he barged into my office, pulled a chair in front of me and sat down before declaring emphatically: “Sir, I have been attached with your office. I have never got along well with any of my superiors and have not been in any department for long.”
To the rest of the office Harish was a troublemaker who had to be dispensed with as early as possible. And the authorities had found it convenient to attach him to the public relations officer who had joined the organisation newly: me. In my youthful brashness I retorted: “Neither do I guarantee that we won’t have problems with each other. But let us get to work now.”
Days went by, with Harish provoking me by perpetually coming late, dilly-dallying on work, and worst of all, quizzing me on a hundred and one things. I tried not to lose my nerve and always got my work done. Technology played a great part in this more than my people management skills—I was more comfortable using a computer to do my job rather than let a stenographer do it.
To his credit, Harish was an excellent worker and had indomitable pride in his skills. But I could sense that he was wrestling with certain problems in his life. I too have had struggles in my life and had taken some time to find my way around them. My personal experiences had taught me to believe that everyone has a story to tell. All you need is to give them a chance to tell it.
Slowly I got to know his story. Harish was the youngest of three siblings, much pampered, and who grew up in a patriarchal set-up with lots of misgivings about how a woman should behave in a family. His sister-in-law, who cooked, cleaned, and washed clothes for the whole family, was his model for a wife he would take. But when the girl he married left him after two months his ego took a severe beating.
His sole aim was now to fight her legally. He used all the resources available with him to do so. But in the process, little did he realise that he was tilting at windmills, wrestling with the ghosts of the past and events beyond his control. I met Harish when his life was a roller-coaster ride, sinking into deep depression and adrenaline highs. His irresponsible behaviour and penchant to defy authority was only a part of that. He had an unusually negative attitude, which got manifested in abnormal mannerisms and nervous twitching. Once he told me he had no control over his limbs.
In a small way, I helped him battle his demons. Slowly he began to trust me and confided in me a lot. Once he took me home to his mother, who was paralysed waist down with a stroke. In incoherent syllables that came out from her mouth, a mother’s heart told me how grateful she was that Harish was now in my department. Tears dropped from her eyes like the monsoon rains.
It was during one of these days that he asked me to tell him the story of Jesus.
In order to wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation for me, I told him I would give him a book (the Bible) to read. Never wanting to yield, he refused it pointblank. He wanted to hear the story from my own mouth. I refused again. Why should I put up ramps and rails for someone who is not handicapped? Why should I try to transform him, I thought. Much to Harish’s chagrin, I got him a Bible in Hindi.
Now he found another negative: the letters in it were too small. He kept the Bible aside and kept on pestering me to tell him the story of Jesus. Next I got him an illustrated Bible. He found it too childish. Nevertheless he took it home. I did not bother to check with him again if he read it or not.
A few months later, Harish came with a flier in his hand which announced the arrival of a Christian healer in town. He began nagging me to accompany him to the ‘crusade’. This time I could not back out.
People were still pouring in when we reached the stadium. Music blared from the speakers and the atmosphere was thick with expectation. After the initial songs, those who wanted healing were asked to step forward to the front row. There were people on wheelchairs, the blind and the maimed, and the sick at heart. Harish now wanted to go to the front. This time I refused flatly, telling him if he wanted healing he would get it where he sat.
But when the signature tune began, through the tears that clouded my eyes, I saw him waving his hands and singing along with the crowd.
I spoke to Harish several years later after I had left that job and the city. His problems were not yet over, but he seemed to be in better control over his emotions. I am still not sure if he read the Bible I gave him or whether he knows the story of Jesus.
Now here was a golden opportunity, as at least some of you would say, to fulfill the Great Commission, the foundation for Christian evangelism and mission. Well, I wasn’t too sure about it. 
We look for ways and means to “winning people to Christ” using every medium: print, radio, television, and the internet. But, are the experiences of Christians in the Book of Acts repeatable today, in a world 2,000 years away and in a different cultural context? What is the best way to proclaim the gospel in a pluralistic society like ours? What should be the understanding of salvation be: an exclusively personal concern (“my salvation”) or one that includes every realm of human life (“our salvation”), including the transformation of relationships, political structures and release from social and economic oppression?
Did I miss a chance to proclaim the gospel to Harish? Did I lose a chance to save a soul? Could I have helped him change his attitude by telling him the old, old story? Would it have opened the door of salvation to him, or to me?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Rachel's cry

The day I sit down to write this column is the jubilee of a movement of sorts. It was exactly 50 years ago, on September 27, 1962, that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. The book became an instant hit for its deft handling of a subject hitherto dealt with only in science journals. It struck a chord with ordinary people, made powers that be to sit up and take notice, and rubbed the industry the wrong way. Many people credit it for having heralded the beginning of the environmental movement. Others say it is too much to attribute to a book, but no one would deny that, as the biologist Roland Clement said, it “stirred the pot”.
Silent Spring begins with “A Fable for Tomorrow”, in which Carson speaks about a strange blight creeping over a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. “Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
"It stirred the pot."
“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.”
The book was about the ill-effects of pesticides on the environment. Carson argued that the chemicals created to kill insects, weeds, rodents and other organisms made their way up the food chain and threatened animal and bird species and eventually humans. They should not be called ‘insecticides’, but ‘biocides’, she said.
Carson was no novice who stumbled into an emotional campaign for the environment. A writer by vocation, Carson was a scientist by profession and was well aware of the concerns wildlife biologists at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, had about the deadly chemical DDT, which was administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she worked. But what caught her immediate attention was a 1957 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding aerial spraying over Long Island. She now began collecting material on pesticide effects, and four years of research eventually became Silent Spring. It was initially serialised in The New Yorker.
Its publication caused ripples in political and industry circles, and President John F. Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims. The ultimate result was environmental legislation to regulate the use of chemicals and pesticides.
But criticism against Carson was vicious. She was threatened with lawsuits, and personal attacks included charges against her of being a communist sympathiser wanting to reduce Western countries’ ability to produce food, to achieve “east-curtain parity”. Even today, critics accuse her of “cherry-picking studies to suit her ideology” or of sounding a false alarm, causing millions of people around the world to suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria.
But Silent Spring’s legacy is that Carson posed the moral question. The idea that nature existed to serve man never appealed to her. Says her biographer Linda Lear in the aptly titled book Witness to Nature, “She wanted us to understand that we were just a blip. The control of nature was an arrogant idea, and Carson was against human arrogance.”
Over the years, many chemicals that Carson had proved were highly dangerous are still being used in many parts of the world. A recent report, Global Chemicals Outlook, compiled by UNEP working with international experts, says though the exact number of chemicals in the global market is not known, 143,835 chemical substances have been pre-registered under the requirement of the European Union’s chemicals regulation, REACH.
The global chemical output (produced and shipped) was valued at $171 billion in 1970. By 2010, it had grown to $4.12 trillion.
The report further says: Chemical manufacturing and processing activities, once largely located in the highly industrialised countries, are now steadily expanding into developing countries and countries with economies in transition. For example, from 2000 to 2010, chemical production in China and India grew at an average annual rate of 24 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively, whereas the growth rate in the United States, Japan and Germany was between 5 per cent and 8 per cent. In 2001, the OECD issued projections that by 2020, developing countries would be home to 31 per cent of global chemical production, and 33 per cent of global chemical consumption.
DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, eight years after Carson’s death. The Stockholm Convention, which took effect in 2004, outlawed several persistent organic pollutants, and restricted DDT use to vector control. The Convention has been ratified by more than 170 countries and is endorsed by most environmental groups. According to some reports, India is the only country still manufacturing DDT.
“Individuals living in poverty are particularly vulnerable, both because their exposures may be particularly high, and because poor nutrition and other risk factors can increase susceptibility to the effects of toxic exposures,” says the UNEP report. Examples are not far to seek; the deadly effect of endosulfan in our own backyard is too well known and documented.
That is where Silent Spring becomes chillingly contemporary.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

‘Have you not read...?’

No Christian parent who wants to raise ‘God-fearing children’ will frown at what my daughter asked me recently: a Bible. To be precise, she wanted a teen Bible. (The promotional phrase for one of them in Amazon says, ‘a Bible that speaks to their world’.) But we have at least half a dozen Bibles at home, different versions of it and in two languages, some of them taken out only on occasions.
Bibles now come in different versions, and mediums. There are the print, audio, braille, online and various electronic formats of them. Bible Apps for phone, computer and laptop offer different versions of the Word. The Bible Society of India website says it provides the Word of God in audio and video forms, catering to the need of non-readers and neo-literates. It says it has pioneered the development of a wide range of new Scriptures for special audiences and groups: the visually challenged, the hearing impaired, terminally ill, victims of HIV, semi-literate and rural audience, and so on.
The Bible is also a consumer product regularly repackaged and customised to suit the taste of a particular audience, making it the best-seller year after year. In 2007, some 25 million Bibles were sold in the United States — “twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book”.
A Bible for everyone
An article, ‘The Good Book Business’ in The New Yorker, says: “There are devotional Bibles for new believers, couples, brides, and cowboys... such innovations as ‘The Outdoor Bible’, printed on indestructible plastic sheets that fold up like maps, and ‘The Story’, which features selections from the Bible arranged in chronological order, like a novel. There is a ‘Men of Integrity’ Bible and a ‘Woman, Thou Art Loosed!’ Bible. For kids, there’s ‘The Super Heroes Bible: The Quest for Good Over Evil’.... In the ‘Rainbow Study Bible’, each verse is colour-coded by theme. ‘The Promise Bible’ prints every one of God’s promises in boldface. And ‘The Personal Promise Bible’ is custom-printed with the owner’s name ([For instance,] The LORD is Daniel’s shepherd’).”
The Bible is many things to many people. Many Christians read it ceremoniously at the break of dawn and as darkness encircles the earth, the Word engraved on the tablets of their hearts or leaving an imprint as temporary as desert tracks the wind erases. Some pore over it to find solutions to all their individual problems. Others try to find new meaning in the Scripture in the contemporary political, social and economic context. Some die for it; some live by it. Some invoke the promises in it to bring wealth and health to themselves; to some it is chicken soup for the soul.
People from as diverse backgrounds as ever, prince and pauper, capitalist and communist, slave and master, techie and casual labourer, Syrian Christian and Dalit Christian, all have used it to their purpose. It has been a tool of exclusion and dispossession; it has been a device for inclusion and liberation. Uninformed readings of it has led to an environmental ethic that is destructive even as it has been an inspiration for taking stewardship of the earth seriously.
From Genesis to Revelation, it is an entire series of classic literature in different genres: Poetry, historical narrative/epic, prophecy, epistles, and more. Approaching the Bible as history, it provides an insight into Jewish culture and traditions, and as a book of law and ethical guideline.
Why is it that the Bible looks radically different to different people? Is it worth seeking moral answers in the Bible to apply them in our context, when the moral issues of today are very different from those in biblical times? Does the Bible lend itself to an alternative interpretation?
‘Have you not read [in the Scriptures] …’ is an oft-repeated question Jesus asked the Pharisees. They were known for their strict observance of rites and ceremonies of the written law and their traditions concerning the law. Yet Jesus’ poser meant that he did not subscribe to their views or recognise their interpretation of the Scriptures. He obviously wanted them to follow it in spirit rather than in letter.
So, how do we read the Bible? Maybe you know this oft-repeated quote by our Valia Metropolita Philipose Mar Chrysostom: Don’t read the Bible, but study it.
Kristin Swenson, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of World Studies, in an essay ‘What You Should Know Before Reading The Bible’, says “knowing something about the Bible
 its historical backgrounds and development, its languages of origin and the process of translation, and its use within religious communities as well as secular contexts enables readers to make sense of biblical texts and references for themselves. For religious people, such knowledge can enrich their faith; and non-religious people may appreciate better why the Bible has endured with such power and influence.” Kristin is also the author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.
“The Bible is not an answer book to our questions, rather it helps us to ask the right questions,” says a theologian friend of mine. “It tells us how our ancestors experienced God in their life stories and lived a life worthy of their calling. Our engagement with the Bible helps us to discern God in our times and to engage in ethical praxis. When we read the Bible our attempt should not be to find out the original meaning of the original author in the original context. Rather, we, as readers, should bring our story into the Biblical story and construct new meanings to make the Bible a living story in our times.”

One of the things Kristin says she loves about the Bible is its resistance to reduction. “By way of a few examples, there are several stories of creation and four different narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Consider the coexistence of explanations of suffering as punishment and the book of Job. Yet declarative and absolutist statements beginning, ‘the Bible says’, and bumper stickers such as ‘God said it. I believe it. That settles it’ are commonplace,” she says.
And if you maintain that the Holy Spirit will make the meaning of biblical texts clear to believers, here is what she says: “Knowing some background information (the more, the better) about the Bible is bound to lead … to fruitful discussion. Maybe it's there, in the spaces of informed conversation about a multi-faceted Word of God, in the dynamism of humble learning and listening, that the Holy Spirit pulls up a chair and the Bible reveals its richest meanings.”

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Living the Good News

When it comes to the business of education, everyone loves a good deal. So I was intrigued when I read of Super 30. It was very different from the stories that I had read about ‘serving the community’ or ‘giving back to society’. A lot of philanthropy these days, especially of the corporate kind, is motivated by a desire to make a name for oneself. In the case of individuals it could be just an ego trip. For social service organisations the reward often is a column-inch space in newspapers or 30 seconds on television.
Super 30 is an innovative educational programme run by the Ramanujan School of Mathematics in Patna with an aim to create technocrats out of 30 meritorious students from among the economically backward sections of society. The school helps these children get into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the dream destination for many students even from the cream of society. It provides free tuition, board and lodging to these students who are handpicked on the basis of their talent, family background and education. This year, 27 of the 30 cleared the exam. That is a giant leap from 18 in 2003, when it all began.
Ramanujan School, named after the great mathematician, is the brainchild of Anand Kumar, who, despite his academic excellence, could not pursue a higher education in Cambridge just because he did not have the means to do so. Knowing what it is to be left out in the race, he now decided to train a group of students for various competitive examinations.
Anand’s funds for Super 30 come from the nominal fee (compared with that in other coaching centres) he charges other students who join his academy. His institution now figures in the list of innovative schools in the world. What strikes you as you browse through his website is the notification in bold, NO DONATION PLEASE.
In this, I can’t but help wonder if Anand Kumar is not living the Good News. Had he not welcomed the Super 30, a good many of them would have had wasted lives like flowers that expend their sweetness in the desert air.
Commoditisation of education in India in recent years has increasingly left many bright young students in the lurch. There have been reports about a few students taking the extreme step apparently depressed over their inability to continue their education. Recently, there were news reports in Kerala about a boy who dropped out of medical school as he could not afford to pay his fees. That timely intervention by a few kindly souls helped save the day for him is encouraging, but the larger question is why should the poor be always grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table rather than be seated at the board?
It is that time of the year again when parents are willing to invest for their children’s education -- ‘buy’ admissions to various professional colleges in the country. It is also that time of the year when we open our wallets for what we consider a worthy cause -- spend a few rupees on the not-so-privileged for their books, uniforms and umbrellas. “Diaspora philanthropy” too works best now; every year there are a number of notifications in church publications inviting ‘deserving candidates’ for help from our Churches abroad.
Religion plays a big part in making us set apart a portion of our incomes for charity (tithing in Christian parlance). It is hard to tell whether it is out of guilt or out of a feeling that it will serve as a protective shield against hard times that we secretly fear. Or as an investment to reap rich dividends later (as Malachi 3: 10 says, “Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it”). Maybe it is a combination of all these.
Marthomites are never known to be tight-fisted, but what do charities mean to us and why? What are the values that we associate with philanthropy?
“We have the mindset of the benevolent master. Our missions and ministries are always mission ‘for’ and mission ‘to’. We are yet to understand mission as mission ‘of’ or mission ‘with’. Mission and charity always construct the other as our other. It will never help them [the needy] to get out of their wounded psyche and to design their own identity and selfhood,” says my theologian friend.
What can be good news from our Yuvajana Sakhyams for the poor and marginalised students who find themselves in circumstances they have not chosen and are helpless to change? There are no quick-fix solutions when the problem of education is of insufficient funds and inefficient schools and when privatisation of education is as much of a problem as it is a solution.
Years ago, when emotions were stirred more quickly than reason, I was guided into a slum by my seniors in the Yuvajana Sakhyam. It was called beggars’ colony. They gave them free tuition and conducted medical camps and catered to their ‘real’ needs than the needs we ‘felt’ they had. I reckon it was worth much more than the ‘educational kits’ we provided in our later years and filled the annual reports with those figures.

P.S.:
Anand Kumar’s mission is worth disseminating in a world where education is just another commodity. GoodNewsIndia (www.goodnewsindia.com) by D.V. Sridharan offers many such inspiring stories “of positive action, steely endeavour and quiet triumphs -- news that is little known”. He stopped updating GoodNewsIndia in 2006, which he had been doing for six years, when he had doubts whether publishing feel-good stories about India by itself was good enough as a service. Then he turned to restoring a piece of land in Chennai. “I no longer retain my early confidence that a sustained economic boom will be like the tide that raises all the boats. ...I further believe that a ‘modern’ economy cannot create true wealth, ... it can be destructive of what wealth we inherited and still possess. The true wealth of any nation is in fertile soil, abundant water, clean air, safe food and its people educated for independent action and free to practice it. I shall go searching for people who are trying to make India wealthy in this manner,” he writes on his website.
I have been told by at least a couple of friends that there are ‘good news’ initiatives by our own churches that are worth spreading. Please watch this space for them. And send me your stories (with photographs) or ideas worth disseminating at burningbushsam@gmail.com.