On This Rock I Will Build My Nation

A momentous clash is taking place at this very moment in our country—a clash between pre-Christian and Christian ideas of nationalism. Pre-Christian notion of nationalism holds that people belonging to a particular ethnicity, and bound to certain specific customs, symbols and memories, constitute a nation. This ethnocentric nationalism considers other ethnocentric nationalisms as rivals and even enemies. This is the way Greek philosophers distinguished their national selves from the so-called barbarians.

Then there is a Christian notion of nationalism. For many Christians, even intelligent, well-meaning ones, a Christian idea of nationalism is a contradiction in terms. One cannot be a Christian and a nationalist, they argue. This is because, in their minds, nationalism is the exclusive possession of pre-Christian ethnocentrisms. They have internalised a frozen image of nationalism, which reflects to them the horrors of two World Wars, German Nazism and Italian Fascism. Nationalism, they say, is a narrow ideology that is used by politicians to use one group of people against another.

However, if one were to reflect biblically on the idea of nationalism, one might have a change of heart. In narrating the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), Jesus was striking at the very root of ethnocentric Jewish nationalism. In doing this, Jesus wasn’t negating the concept of nation. He underlined that by ignoring and bypassing the injured traveller, the priest and the Levite were making a mockery of God’s promise to Abraham that he would become a great nation (Gen 12:2). The residents of a great nation do not look the other way when they see suffering humanity. A great nation exists for others. It is the light for all the other nations (Isa 42:6, 49:6), illuminating their way to greatness. Jesus’s Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) is to translate the great promise for the rest of the nations.

When European nations from seventeenth century onwards were following the Greek and Roman model of building empires, followers of the Messiah became the carriers of the biblical model of nationalism. Compassion was at the heart of their missionary enterprise. It is now a platitude to say that missionary—and post-Independence Indian Christian—service in the field of education and health has been gargantuan. What is often overlooked is the fact that while serving humanity in this manner they also helped institutionalise modern education and health care. They put a mechanism in place through which professional education and health care can be rendered to the society on an on-going, long-term basis. People not only received the benefits out of these institutions, they also received training to carry forward the benefits to the next village and to the next generation. It sought to create a professional class of people who felt responsible for their fellowmen.

The new churches that are being established should ideally all become nurseries of democracy where men, women and children are empowered to contribute fully in the life of their worshipping community.

Besides, it was the missionary activity that created a “public sphere” in India in the nineteenth century, which gave a strong foundation to the emerging modern nation itself. Out of this came newspapers like Bengali Dig Darshan (1818) and Marathi Dnyanodaya (1842), and social-reform movements like abolition of Sati and restoring dignity of Shanar women. Newspapers, schools, support for creation and dissemination of literary works created a new intellectual environment in India. This was the public sphere where conscientious individuals and groups could engage in dialogue and debate, and contribute in framing of public policies. Most of these efforts ended up focusing on those who had long been neglected by the traditional as well as the colonial elite. Missionaries were aware that in serving the “least of these my brethren” (Matt 25:40), they were serving the Lord himself.

In the preface to his 1912 book, The Outcastes’ Hope, which studied the mass-movements among India’s so-called Untouchables, the Rev. Godfrey E. Philips of the London Missionary Society, in Bangalore, says that “Christianity was attracting the low, and raising them as no power on earth had ever raised them before. The whole story of the progress of Christianity was a story of moral miracles.” This progress was always measured in institutional and structural terms and not in merely the nebulous sentiment of compassion.

Primary schools, adult education, boarding houses, industrial training, and agricultural education were all institutional efforts to provide a framework of progress to the marginalised majority of Indians. The key contributor in this scheme is the pastor–master or preacher–teacher. Rev Philips writes: “…The whole question as to the success of mass-movements depends on the care and instruction which these new communities receive. In season and out of season, for many a long year to come, the mission must be steadily teaching the outcaste, teaching his wife, and teaching his child. This means that in every mass-movement village the mission must place an Indian worker commonly called a teacher-catechist, who combines the office of pastor to the flock and teacher to the school.”

Modern India is a testimony to the moral miracles that followed the promise of God—in Abraham all the nations of the world will be blessed. This blessing in India has had three main components: A long-term commitment to develop whole communities; teaching for every single member of the family, including the women; the pastor doubling up as the teacher.

The new churches that are being established should ideally all become nurseries of democracy where men, women and children are empowered to contribute fully in the life of their worshipping community. It is in this worshipping community that they develop skills and perspectives expected in a responsible citizen of the country. Literacy, hygiene, strong family relations, decision-making ability, financial management, all goes into enabling the newly founded churches to reorganise themselves afresh into an empowered community. This is part of the historical growth of church in India.

A typical church planter these days does not read history. The reigning paradigm in most Christian organisations neither values nor encourages wide learning—nor do they leave any time for that. Christian workers have largely withdrawn from the public sphere, which their spiritual ancestors helped create. Preaching has almost completely overshadowed teaching. However, the gospel continues to offer hope and healing to individuals and families. It empowers them as they reject fatalism and superstition. New believers, especially women, show a remarkable self-confidence. They all inculcate virtues that go into making useful and productive citizens of a vibrant nation. This form of national awakening is resisted by a darker version of nationalism. A nationalism that translates compassion into institutions, which then empower the marginalised people leading them to question the status-quo is a threat to ethnocentric nationalism. Thus the clash between two forms of nationalism.

A contemporary pastor and a church planter is a nation builder without knowing it. Mission organisations do not subscribe to the idea of nation and nationalism but they practice it unknowingly. How much more of a blessing they would be to the country if they did so deliberately!

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