The Orthodox world must categorically denounce Patriarch Kirill – a sycophant of Putin – for his brand of distorted Orthodoxy. The politicking patriarch’s benediction “May the authorities be filled with responsibility for their people, humility and the readiness to serve them even if it costs them their life”grants permission to carry out genocide of innocent people. Such a despicable version of sullied Christianity will cut a swathe throughhumanity far more than the unholy Crusades, colonialism, communism, Marxism, socialism etc.!
The community of faith brought into being on the day of Pentecost by a gathering of over three thousand disconcerted believers in and around Palestine two millennia and two decades ago has become the largest faith community with over two billion followers. The 18th-century dawn of the age of enlightenment turned out to be the end of Constantine’s triumphalist European Christendom.
Many religious and political leaders were running crazy racking their brains for a rational response to the lethal virus. Time magazine approached N. T. Wright, an unsuspecting Anglican prelate, to find a magic bullet. Wright replied: “Christianity offers no answers about coronavirus; it’s not supposed to.” Why didn’t editors of the magazine, who misguidedly prefigured that Christians probably had a more reassuring response, more persuasive word, approach a Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish scholar or spiritual leader for their postulation? It might well be an atypical point in time when we compare our leaders to a weak and weary Jesus asleep in the stern in the midst of a fierce storm! (Matthew 4:35-41). Remember the words of caution of the cook on the sinking Titanic: ‘Now is not the time to count the silverware but to get the lifejackets!
It could well be either our hubris or stuck-up claim as if God trusts us to solve this conundrum more than our neighbors who might belong to other faith traditions. No one religion is in charge; no one person speaks for God or temple or church or mosque! Fly-by-night theologians are no different from Chicken Little: The sky is falling!
Might this be a warning? God is angry! Insurance business call it ‘an act of God’? Then, is COVID-19 a sign of the end of this world? It is not nice or prudent to mess with Mother Nature. As Pope Francis propheticallysaid in his “urbi et orbi” (to the city and to the world) address during the Holy Week: “We ignored a world that had gotten sick, thinking we would never get sick ourselves.” He also repeated an old Spanish proverb — “God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, but nature never forgives.”
It might be fun for some to thrash bucolic landscapes and forests, which are natural habitats of animals and plants and unknown species of organisms. Cut down the trees; carnage or cage the animals; rub eco-systems the wrong way and chase viruses from their natural hosts – you guessed it – they need a new host. Predictably, we are it.
In the 1980s, there were more Muslims in Canada than Presbyterians. Now, four decades later the burgeoning number of faithful followers of other major faith traditions outnumber the ‘white Christian’ faithful not only in Canada but in all nations of the once triumphalist Western church. The religious landscape has seismically turned around both in the north west and the southeast. With the gravity of the movement that began on the Day of Pentecost shifting from the north and west to the south and east, a sea change has been underway across the globe in the past five decades of my active pastoral ministry in the global church in Canada, Scotland and New Zealand.
The European church history infers that Flavius Constantine, the first Roman emperor to credibly confess to the new Palestinian spiritual configuration, was the prime promoter of the Good News of Jesus. His baptism on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nicomedia probably was the formal beginning of European Christianity.
All the major religions emerged in Asia; therefore, the newly instituted faith flourished in the European spiritual vacuum. Perhaps that is why western churches insist that they have uncovered and snatched a whole new deeper perception of Christianity!
The emperor demanded his people to accept this freshly marketed faith in the declaration of the Edict of Milan in 313. He also built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the claimed site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem and convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Therefore, Christianity which emerged in the forlorn Palestinian forts out of the blue became a European religion!
Originally ‘evangelical’ – mid 16th century Latin evangelium, from ancient Greek for ‘good news’ or gospel was similar to television updates or amber alert – an imperial ‘breaking news’, which has nothing to do with Jesus, his teachings or the Bible. However, this spanking new faith turned out to be another spoiler like the whopping Kohinoor from India, or oil from the Gulf region, or spices and tea from Darjeeling, Kerala and Sri Lanka.
My parents believed that Christianity was about love, compassion and service. When I was a teenager my mother, gazing at the land she inherited from her family, redrafted King Philip’s words to Alexander, “my son, look out; Macedonia is too little for thee”. So, I walked off in a huff from the Apostle Thomas’ heritage in Malabar with my tamed Bucephalus and strolled by the statue of John Knox in Edinburgh for three years. I chose to be where I am; not thrown into this time and place where I find myself. Around 500 BCE both Jain and Buddhist writings propagated fatalism.Vidhi was a divine being of destiny or predeterminism. John Calvin was a medieval practitioner of predestination taught by Augustine of Hippo in the early Church.
Martin Heidegger toyedwith Augustine’s viewpoint and labelled it Geworfenheit (thrownness). Yes, a reformed breath of fresh air of European Christianity looked tantalizing then.
I grew up in an ancient, first-century, Christian community where we had Messianic sanithyam (presence) three centuries before the Good News of Jesus reached Rome. For sure, we had European minority ethnic churches in our backyard for foreign workers at the tea plantations. They were lay people who were preoccupied with pillaging the resources. Therefore, Christendom of the West that had little impact on us needs to be demystified. On the other hand, there was a lively missionary presence in major urban areas. K. M. Panikkar, an Indian historian, believed that the Christian faith was used as an appendage of the empire as he reminded us that the (foreign) Christian attempt to convert Asia has failed.
Now, fast forward to 1969 – the year when the first humans – American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the Moon on Sunday, July 20th. A few weeks later that year in the refreshing autumn temperatures the progeny of colonial trailblazers of affluence and power returned to the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society residence. An unknown tropical tyro from an ancient Nasarani heritage joined them at breakfast. Our matron Eleanor Thompson graciously asks: “Would you like some English tea, Mr. Mathew?” My response was: “Where on earth is tea grown in England?”. Viscerally unimpressed, Eleanor dashed off to the kitchen cupboard and returned with a tea box. She read the label on it: “Oh, Indian Tea packaged in Birmingham!” And she cackles: “Goodness, gracious; there is no such thing as English tea.”
Later that day after my classes, I heard an earful on the European reformers, predominantly Luther’s defiant act of posting his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 and of course more on the Disruption of 1843 when 450 ministers left the established Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland. Phew!
Both my professors and my classmates suffered from a myopic theological worldview. They appeared clueless about the global community with its diversity. The reformers such as John Knox and Thomas Chalmers were like eagle parents who carried narrow doses of ‘prey’ to their nest to feed their chicks. They fed the people who were rescued from the Roman hegemony by tearing off pieces of food and holding them to the beaks of the newly morphed Presbyterian eaglets. Like the little chicks, they breathed, moved and had their being in whatever Knox regurgitated from his learnings in tumultuous Geneva. Therefore, they never heard of my first Century (52 CE) St. Thomas apostolic full-blood Nasaranipedigree and heritage of Malabar!
Characteristically nostalgic and a bit naïve being there, I said to myself: “There is no European Christianity.” However, this ignited a fire inside me to investigate at least five essentiallytheodemicevents that crushed all the commandments of Moses and Jesus in the younger European Christianity. Unlike most other faith traditions, with all our routine revivals, hair-splitting seminars, long-winded lectures and frantic research, the Christian community suffers from a know-it-all smugness. The western church keeps producing papers, surveys, books and forecasts about the second coming. Somewhere along this high and mighty direction, we lost our collective humility as we follow the footsteps of the man who gave up his life for us. It takes me back to my first year in theology; albeit I had far more academic mileage ahead of my classmates, they wanted to make sure that I internalized the Scottish Presbyterian version of Christology! You see, I was brought up in an ancient heritage where Jesus is the Messiah, not Christ. Jesus and his disciples never used the term ‘Christ’. Are the Hebrew term Messiah and the Greek word Christ one and the same?
In Jeremy Bentham’s phrase, the seven demons of Chicane or monstruous crashes in and around the church slowly but surely chipped away the so-called triumphalist Christian Europe are the unholy Crusades, Dissension, Colonialism, Holocaust, Apartheid, Slavery and Apathy at Home – all made in Europe! In fact, the former mission-sending nations are flattened on the Satanic skid rows of gun violence that threatens the lives of innocent ethnic minorities on our streets. What a dismal spectacle of a cataclysmic collapse of 20th century of Western Christianity! Whatever happened to the church that sang, “Onward Christian soldiers!” and fired the fabricated flow of personnel to convert the heathens? As Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “I came to the conclusion that there is an existential moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself; nobody else can speak for you.”
This appalling word ‘crusade’ ought to be erased forever from the ecclesial wordlist as it had absolutely little to do with the imperial cross of Jesus. Perspectives of historic experiences differ from the victor who records them and those of the vanquished left speechless on the sidelines.? The authors of the Bible and the Quran outrageously exculpate atrocities imposed on women and minorities relegated to the margins. Most students probably never questioned why
The Middle Ages in Europe were the Dark Ages! The affluent landlords who promoted a fatuous theocratic rule, which did not originate from the Holy, that inflicted hideous brutalities and terrorism including the Crusades in the name of faith in Jesus.
Shankara’sAdvaita creed of unity of the supreme being and the human soul corroborated in the Gita is helpful to figure out what unity is all about. Advaita or non-dualism is the negation of dvaita or dualism. Therefore, all humans are connected. It is weird and wonderful that the 21st century humans needed a lethal virus to bring us all together -summoned all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave (Revelation 13:16) – instead of fighting like cats and dogs,work in partnership in order to pool our resources towards healing of all 7.8 billion plus living, breathing brothers and sisters on this fragile planet.
Jesus had a coterie of disciples who hardly agreed on anything while they followed his footsteps for three years. The Gospel narratives offer us several occasions when Jesus castigated them overtly and covertly. For example, the impetuous Peter and his shenanigans. Then the sandbagging brothers: John and James. Judas – that unique prodigy who represents mercenary televangelists, pastors, patriarchs, popes and church bureaucrats. Finally, a meekly inquisitive but cheekily honest Thomas. Such muddled up leaders have always been in and around the church. Many generations of disciples carved nations, empires, communities, and even families up over the past two millennia. The great schism of the East-West schism of 1054 CE did not allow Constantinople or Rome to be the command post of the European Church. The older churches in Alexandria, Jerusalem, Istanbul (former Constantinople) and Kerala flouted the 16th century reformation as an ecclesial hiccup in Europe – a family feud between the northerners and southern – that spawned scores of rival communities. Such feral rivalry in Europe metastasised the ministry of the global church.
No nation on earth gained anything from colonialism except the colonial powers who destroyed the economic future of most nations in Africa, Asia and South America. The so-called ‘third world’ of poverty was created by 450-year-long colonialism. In spite of the fact that the older Asian cultures never surrendered to the fabricated European superiority, the missionaries were conceited agents of hard-line expansionism, except a few exceptional servants of God’s people such as C. F. Andrews, Mother Teresa, Stanley Jones and Andrew Walls, brought with them a mindset of a moral condescension which Mahatma Gandhi staggeringly crushed soon after the second World War. Once I was spurred by a denomination to serve in my own home turf as a ‘foreign’ missionary! Certainly, it might have been a great bargain to enjoy the salary and benefits and retire onthe Shetland Islands swigging Single Malt Scotch Whisky in my twilight age!
Unlike most missionaries and theologians in Western Christianity, Andrew Walls was an exceptionally stalwart mentor during emerging days of Missiology with his prophetic verdict. He announced at the Graduate Fellowship gathering held in Birmingham during the Christmas holidays of 1969, “The European Christendom has collapsed. The good news is that the mission and ministry of Jesus will be taken care of by the coloured, youth and women.” When I reminded him that all humans are coloured – then he added, I mean ‘the non-Western Christians” which also required correction. Why do we have to speak of the world from a Western perspective? He admitted: “It is the thriving church in the south and east. The church in the north and west is dead.” That’s why there are more pagans in Scotland, the cradle of Presbyterianism,than Presbyterianstoday!
Over the years many in Europe tried to tell me how generous the colonizers were in improving the lifestyle of the people around the world. Previous to the four-century long British domination India, the world leader in manufacturing producing most of the world’s industrial output, was the richest nation on the planet during the medieval times. However, they forgot how they wiped out the native peoples of North America and Africa albeit ancient Asian cultures were impermeable. The British monarch, the head of her church, should consider returning the stolen crown jewels as well as offer an apology for the 1919 Jallianwala Baghgenocide.
A few Protestants openly opposed the Nazis. Reprehensibly, Pope Pius XII and his church preferred a policy of neutrality during World War II. Abraham Heschel in his book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity states: “Our people’s faith in God at this moment in history did not falter… We all died in Auschwitz, yet our faith survived. We knew that to repudiate God would be to continue the holocaust.” The xenophobic church tolerates systemic racism. When the church discriminates people as “us” and “them”, the church is demonizing the “other”. When I walked up the aisle on my first Sunday as minister, two farmers seated in the pews had a brief pastoral relations meeting. When one quizzed “Why can’t we get one of our boys?” The other replied: “Our boys are school dropouts at 14; they wouldn’t make it to Queen’s University; besides, they prefer working for Canadian Tire or K-Mart”. It is a profane truth that Jesus and bigotry cohabit in our spirituality! Jesus had a conversion when the Canaanite woman begged him to heal her daughter. She enabled Jesus to expand his healing ministry beyond his own people!
Born and bred in the forlorn imperial outpost of Palestine Jesus, after all, was a person of colour. And other founding forebears of faith traditions such as Moses, Mohammed, Krishna, Arjuna, Mahavir were born brown! Malcolm X erroneously stated that Christianity, founded by a Palestinian Jew, as a “white man’s religion”.
This 18th century racial segregation, enlarged on the premise of baasskapor white supremacy, was cooked up in the Dutch Empire to keep the minority Europeans in South Africa and Namibia cloistered from Asians, Coloureds and the native black Africans. Abraham Kuyper being one of the patriarchs of apartheid, the model was ‘christened’ within the Dutch Reformed Church to experiment in the distant colony! No one described it better than Desmond Tutu, When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.
Traumatic xenophobic encounters began on my first Sunday during my very first Sunday worship service when one farmer murmured to another farmer during my sermon, “why can’t we get one of our boys?”. And the farmer sighed back: “Look, our boys didn’t go to Queen’s University; they are happy working at Canadian Tire or the local gas station”. So, after eight years in ministry, I had an opportunity to uncork one of the vials of “juice of cursed hebenon” of European Christendom — an abhorrent sustaining of structural racism at an Interfaith gathering in 1983. One warm afternoon, over one hundred overweening delegates resolved with a sardonic smirk at my risible assertion, “When I cross the Yonge & Bloor intersection in Toronto, no one would take note of the halo of an ordained United Church minister with my Nasarani first-century -Apostle Thomas – apostolic pedigree but a ‘bloody Paki!”. However, the late Prof. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, guest-moderator of the event was not amused by the smirky response of the audience. In spite of or more correctly because of my prurient pursuit, I was invited to teach his class at Harvard University. Following this one-off exposure, the former Division of Mission in Canada of our glacially slow denomination asked me to convene its very first national Anti-Racism Task Force (1993-97). Our report presented to the Camrose General Council might be gathering dust in the Archives!
The former mainline churches now justifiably relegated to the sidelines came up with an absurd catholicon called racial justice jerry-built by the perpetrators instead of empathizing with the pain of those savagely quashed by racial injustice for centuries. Between 1831 and 1996 Canada’s policy of forced assimilation of more than 150, 000 First nations, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their families and placed them state-run Church schools. The policy was to ‘get rid of the Indian’ in the child’ by abandoning their native languages, speak English or French and convert to Christianity. In June 2021, the shameful discovery of the remains of more than 215 innocent children in the Kamloops residential school brought to light a reprehensible legacy of racism promoted by the Canadian churches. Around the same time, when a 7-year-old child was arrested on rape charges in a small bucolic community near the Canadian border in upstate New York a few Holy Cow but racist secrets were revealed. Juvenile arrests are made asymmetrically along racial lines. While Anglo-Saxon kids are sent to therapists or returned to parents for the same violation the Hispanic and Black children are arrested! Justice and fairness appear as compassion and appreciation in a civil society.
Woefully the outbreak of slavery has been part of our human condition in all cultures and faith traditions. And the colonial European Christendom benefited from the slave economy. The European slaveholders, many of them ordained clergy and hymn writers, had a great collaborator in Paul trained in the feudalistic Greece to justify slavery. Paul did not know Jesus yet he emulated whatever he learned in Athens especially the barbaric abuse of women and slaves. The Ottoman Middle Ages captured Christian slaves. From the seventh to the twentieth century, Western and Central Asia, North-eastern Africa, Europe and India had Arab slaves. The Christian Europe and several African kingdoms promoted the Atlantic slave trade for centuries since 1600 CE. However, endorsed by the self-made apostle Paul the early church did not raise a red flag as it hailed the clampdown of slaves, especially women, created in the image of the Holy One!
Apathy at Home
Western Christianity played a two-pronged, cabalistic apathy at home which was well hidden from the ‘mission fields white unto harvest’. Whatever happened to the so-called Victorian missionary zeal? Blame the Munshi who served Queen Victoria gaining her affection. Over the years, I came across a messianic mirage in reaching out to the doomed ‘heathens’ in the faraway colonies. In hindsight, such whimsical enthusiasm was ephemeral as it was more fixated on the colonial swag than the salvation of the lost. For a very long time, I searched for the mission trailblazers and their progenies who belched:
Heavenly sunshine, heavenly sunshine!
Flooding my soul with glory divine!
Heavenly sunshine, heavenly sunshine!
Hallelujah, Jesus is mine!
I am still holding my breath to hear these words crooned in the former mission-sending houses of worship:
Heaven is a wonderful place,
Filled with glory and grace,
I want to see my Saviour’s face,
Heaven is a wonderful place.
Life on our gyrating home planet, as hymn writer Fred Pratt Green reminds us, has its process of ‘ploughing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping.’ Somehow, the alarmist European preachers of offhand spiritual awakening of judgment and damnation tried to ambush the folks or conveniently the heathens’ ‘at the ends of the earth’, who belonged to other equally valid faith traditions, with ‘fire and brimstones’ – not in their backyard! Perhaps they misunderstood the words of the risen Jesus? “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Imagine the scourge of condescension, disrespect, suspicion, manipulation and control from a simple religious metaphor can inflict on humanity! Is this the Christian way of strengthening one another with insights and fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit? After all, each one of us is the touchy-feely source of both good and evil; both angel and demon. So, religion is all about doing our best in order to acknowledge and appreciate the presence of the Holy One in others.
Over the past five decades, I have come across scores of enraged children of former missionaries who gave up the ship as young adults. In the 1970s, the mainline denominations snubbed immigrant congregations of minority ethnic Christians in their backyard; within decades such immigrant Christian communities eclipsed the former triumphant mainliners. Our 20th century rural and urban skylines in the former Christendom are cluttered with Coptic, Eastern Orthodox and Mar Thoma steeples along with teeming places of worship of all faith traditions.
Fifty years ago, it was interesting to visit British castles or palaces in almost every hamlet made of freighted hard wood from my backyard in India and loaded with stolen trinkets and valuable works of art. The weirdest thing was that there was nothing English or Scottish about them except the locale. I felt mugged twice when I had to pay to enter these fabulous estates where my family inheritance was ensconced and elegantly built by the sweat and blood of slaves.
The Good News of Jesus encapsulated in the Song of Mary and in Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke’s Gospel (4:14-30) offer both grace and judgement: comfort and contentment for the oppressed and caveat and concern to the oppressors. Such an imperative news of titanic daring against despair, energising radiance against darkness, galvanising liberation against captivity will never fail. However, the thing called Christianity, the church and its protagonists have been fading.
The heart and soul of our faith keep moving from Jerusalem and Nazareth to Alexandria and Malabar, from Antioch and Istanbul to Rome and Athens, from Geneva and London to New York and Toronto, from Maramon and Singapore to Busan and Shanghai, from Hamburg and Stockholm to Tokyo and Invercargill. Therefore, the 21st century church with its epicentre in the south and east is alive and well. The northern and western ways of life of Greece and Rome are no more
required to prosper and preserve the old Palestinian faith. No matter how the church prospers or plunges, the Good News of Jesus will always weather the high winds of time and place. No one faith tradition can contain all of divinity. No one denomination displays the humanity of Jesus in its fullness. Deeply enthralled by the Upanishads and the Good News of Jesus, T. S. Eliot reminds us:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
The Rev. Dr. John T. Mathew is an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada. Besides serving several urban and rural congregations in the province of Ontario, Canada since 1974, he also taught in the Department of Religious Studies, Huntington/Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. Mathew was awarded the Merrill Fellowship at Harvard University Divinity School; he was Pastor-Theologian at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ. He served at St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen (Church of Scotland) as Ecumenical Guest Minister (2010) and Interim Minister in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (2015-2017).