In Hoc Signo Vinces (In This Sign, Thou Shalt Conquer)

Changing perspectives about Christian communities underpin persecution – and also suggest a way forward for evangelism.

Christianity initially grew within the multi-cultural context of Palestine under the Roman Empire. The empire provided the necessary elements for Christianity to spread its roots and propagate throughout the empire-controlled regions.

The empire was generally very tolerant to every religion practiced within its boundaries. As Christianity reached Rome, it was openly welcomed by the slaves and Greek asylum seekers (workers) who gradually spread Christianity throughout the empire. Roman citizens were very superstitious and religious. Some observed differences between their faith and Christian practices—and began to target the Christian community for not observing various Roman rituals and ceremonies. This led to several persecutions by citizens accusing the Christians of anti-Roman policies.

The persecutions were both local and general in nature. The diaspora Jews instigated the Romans against the Christians by bringing false accusations, whereas Romans accused Christians of honoring Christ more than Caesar—which incensed the emperors.

Our failure to identify ourselves with the people and their cultures does a disservice to the proclamation of the gospel.

Persecution lasted for almost three centuries. Various roman emperors, from Nero to Diocletian, attempted to remove the very existence of church from the Roman empire through various religious sanctions and cruel punishments, but they failed. The persecution finally ended when Constantine, a Christian sympathizer, became emperor in AD 313. Constantine’s position reaffirmed the position of the Christian church in the empire as he restored and/or provided grants to restore churches that were destroyed or damaged. He is also credited with making a decree that Sunday was the day of worship for the Christians. Thus, Christianity enjoyed a moment of peace and relief under Constantine’s rule.

As Christianity spread east, it encountered persecution from both invading barbarian tribes and Islamic rulers rushing in to occupy the vast uncharted lands. The church faced harsh times; its very existence was threatened, but it persevered.

Persecution also saw Syrian Christians fleeing their homelands and seeking refuge in the region of Kerala, India, in two different batches. The first group landed in India under the leadership of Thomas of Cana in AD 345 and the second group landed in AD 825, guided by Mar Piroz and Mar Sapor.

The Christian community in India has existed for nearly 2000 years now. This community predominately falls under the ‘minority’ category. The community peacefully coexists with other major faith practices and traditions of India. In today’s multi-religious, multicultural, globalized and religiously diverse world, there is a need to reflect and communicate Christian lifestyles through inter-faith relationship. By their very nature, interfaith relationships are salvific and dialogical; faith in Jesus comes alive in communities as, through discussion and relationships, people are invited to enter into a relationship with God and each other.

India, in the recent years, has been witnessing a communal mind shift, especially in religious attitudes towards people of other faiths, which has contributed to the rise of attacks upon minority groups.

Many religious organizations view Christianity as a threat to the cultural and religious nature of Indian society. It is seen as a western religion with funding coming from western countries to propagate Christian teachings, making Christianity one of the religions looked upon with fear and contempt.

The average Christian in India feels either segregated or isolated in relation to the wider society. Though they live at peace with their fellow neighbors, being a Christian puts them in a different social situation. Felix Wilfred observes that it is not Christianity’s particular faith that is considered foreign but, because the local churches in Asia keep themselves away from the mainstream of people’s life, history and struggles, Christians are seen as separate from, even rejecting of, those around them. Our failure to identify ourselves with the people and their cultures does a disservice to the proclamation of the gospel.

The churches of India need to embrace the gift of incarnate lifestyle as a form of our calling to the world and to understand mission as incarnate lifestyle in action, done within the spirit of love and respect for people of other faiths

Paul’s principle of ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor 9:22) was his application of Jesus’ own incarnation in human form. In Philippians 2:1–11 Paul presents his marvelous exposition of Jesus’ incarnation from heavenly glory into earthly humanity. He wrote this discussion of Jesus’ humiliation to illustrate the attitude that believers should have toward others. Like Jesus, they were to “regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3) and were not to “look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:4).

Having said this, Paul then encouraged believers to have the attitude of Christ and proceeded to describe his move from equality with God to servant of humanity. In order to ‘incarnate’, to become God in flesh (John 1:14), Jesus let go of his heavenly rights and privileges (Phil 2:5) and ‘emptied himself’ (2:6). The Master became a servant, God took on human likeness, and the Lord of Life became obedient to the point of death, a humiliating death on a cross (2:6–8).

We should be incarnational believers who embody his life, his presence, his grace, his teaching, his truth, and his society within our own cultural context. As incarnational believers, we represent Jesus in any context through following Jesus in incarnating his life directly in the context of others.

Jesus calls us to follow Him directly within our own context and develop our own forms of incarnational service as he incarnates in and engages within our communities and societies. Believers who become incarnational believers within their communities can also be seen as the agents of holistic mission. From the holistic understanding of mission, one can say that the priority of Christian mission today is not just the proclamation of the Good News. A holistic approach challenges us to participate in the struggles and sorrows of the people around us so that a just society can be established wherein peace, justice and harmony prevail.

The churches of India need to embrace the gift of incarnate lifestyle as a form of our calling to the world and to understand mission as incarnate lifestyle in action, done within the spirit of love and respect for people of other faiths.

Thus, the need of the hour is to honor the calling of Christ in our lives and adopt a dynamic and radical lifestyle around our communities where our faith practices are continually challenged. By becoming incarnate believers, Christ can be made relevant just as we are within our own lives, bringing transformation in India. So, there is a need for radical discipleship within our society; but, are we willing to portray the “Incarnate-Lifestyle” and be the change we want to bring in India?

Christ is Indian too and so is Christianity….

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