Apparently Muslim suicide bombers are being blamed for the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. I find this very strange. Islam is a minority religion there. Muslims saw themselves persecuted by militant Buddhists. Last time I was in Sri Lanka, I saw graffiti saying, in English, “Muslims out of Lanka.”
Admittedly lacking proof, I suspected when the news hit that these atrocities were the work of Buddhist nationalists. While I am willing to accept that they were the work of Muslims, it’s just, well, strange, and I can’t say I’ll be surprised if the authorities end up saying otherwise. It’s hard to see how Sri Lankan Muslims benefit from persecuting Christians.
In any case, it’s important at a time like this to re-examine the widespread resentment of Christians in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region. Many adherents of other religions – Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – see Christianity as synonymous with Western decadence.
Hotels = Western decadence
Note that in Sri Lanka hotels were targeted along with churches. The hotels symbolize that Western decadence: hideously expensive gourmet food; women prancing around with no clothes on; alcohol.
Anti-Western religious militants desire a pure nation. Western decadence, as represented by Christian churches and luxury hotels, sullies that purity. So both come to seem legitimate targets for aggression.
The greatest irony for me is that in the West, Christianity is persecuted for standing against the tide of hyper-sexualized, gender-fluid, self-indulgent, self-expressive, self-gratification. See, for example, how Islander-background rugby player Israel Folau gets the sack for tweeting about hell.
Then in places like Sri Lanka, Christianity gets persecuted for representing that same “Western” lifestyle – which we Christians actually oppose. So we lose both ways, as history shows.
European colonization and mainstream denominations
Christianity came to Sri Lanka during the time of European colonialism:
- In 1505, the Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism.
- In the mid-1600s, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and brought the Dutch Reformed Church.
- The Dutch ceded control of their territory to the British in 1802. The British introduced Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Salvation Army churches.
Since independence in 1948, three social forces were overlaid atop this European history: the Sinhala-Tamil civil war; a resurgent Buddhist nationalism; and an evangelical revival led by new, independent churches.
Social impact of civil war
The Sinhalese and Tamils are Sri Lanka’s two major ethnic groups. The Sinhalese consider themselves indigenous to the country. The Tamils are descended from the south Indian province of Tamil Nadu but, having lived in Sri Lanka for some 2,000 years, identify strongly as “Sri Lankan” Tamils.
Independence from British rule brought a surge of Sinhalese nationalism, which resented any public sign of Tamil success or privilege. The government was Sinhala-dominated. It steadily enacted policies that advantaged Sinhalese and disadvantaged Tamils.
Tamils resented those racist policies. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conducted an armed struggle to claim the north and east of Sri Lanka as an independent “homeland” – in Tamil, eelam. This civil war lasted from 1983 to 2009 and cost some 80,000-100,000 lives.
During the war, both sides carried out human-rights violations and media manipulation:
- The police and military carried out extra-judicial arrests, interrogations, punishments, and even executions.
- The LTTE carried out acts of intimidation, assassination, and hostage taking.
- Independent reporting was suppressed.
It therefore became easy to use deceit and violence to settle personal grievances:
- Those in powerful positions in the government or military, or with such connections, could have their enemies assaulted or assassinated and then have the issue hushed up.
- It steadily became accepted that individuals’ wealth and social status had less to do with their character and actions than their social connections, and how far they were willing to manipulate them for their own benefit.
Today, churches and individual Christians face the counter-cultural task of standing for truth and justice.
- It involves speaking the truth and encouraging others to do so and to give each other a proper reward for what they have done. It touches all aspects of life, from queuing to conduct at work. This requires a high degree of individual, interpersonal, and corporate-social insight.
- Such honesty is no longer socially normal. It involves opposing culturally entrenched power structures and established ways of behaving. People will respond with indifference and even hostility.
Therefore, it is tempting for churches to be characterized by nepotism, bribery, even intimidation, rather than by Christ-like truthfulness and humble service.
However, risky, counter-cultural public stands for truthfulness have indeed happened:
- During the civil war, the church consistently stood for inter-ethnic peace.
- After riots in 1983 left hundreds of Tamils homeless, churches opened their doors to house them.
- The Anglican bishop of Colombo called for a day of prayer in light of the trend towards lack of social and governmental transparency and accountability.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism
After the defeat of the LTTE, Sinhalese nationalism came to be expressed as an increasingly militant movement to make Sri Lanka a dharmarajya – a Buddhist righteous state. Sinhalese Buddhist mythology asserts that the Buddha personally visited the island and sanctified it to become an icon of himself. Every Buddhist is duty-bound to protect such icons.
Buddhist monks have become politically active in attempts to mandate Buddhist worship and lifestyle nationwide and marginalize other religions:
- In 2004, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) (National Heritage Party) – a political party led by Buddhist monks – introduced an anti-conversion bill.
- Under the guise of prohibiting “incentives” to “entice” people to change religions, the bill criminalized Christian humanitarian aid and would have made it easy to harass Christians through unsubstantiated allegations of “illegal enticement.” However, the bill was shelved.
In 2005, the JHU became part of what was then the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Its role in political activism has been taken over by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – Buddhist Power Force – which has been involved in violence and intimidation against both Christians and Muslims.
Such Buddhist nationalistic aggression has been denounced by government ministers and Buddhist clergy. Nevertheless, BBS represents the popular nationalism founded in religious conviction.
Freedom of religion and conscience are not taken for granted in Sri Lankan culture:
- Sinhalese Buddhists tie together national, ethnic and religious identity.
- To be a “real” Sri Lankan is to be a Sinhalese Buddhist; anyone who is not is a “foreigner,” a second-class citizen, who is welcome only as long as he or she does not threaten Buddhist cultural superiority.
- Any challenge to Buddhist superiority – such as suggesting individuals change their religion – is an act of triple treason: an attack on the Buddhist religion, the Sinhala ethnic identity and the nation of Sri Lanka.
- Attempts to counter this through asserting “human rights” or “democracy” only reinforce the prejudice that the “Christian West” is trying to “re-colonize” Sri Lanka, and that these notions prepare the way for churches to spread this new imperialism by enticing or manipulating good Sri Lankan Buddhists to become Westernized Christians.
The best response to this anti-Christian religious and cultural domination is the New Testament’s “render unto Caesar” model of godly citizenship: fully inhabiting our Sri Lankan national identity without compromising our faithfulness to Christ.
It helps that most elements of traditional Sri Lankan and Buddhist culture are not against biblical Christian values. For instance, both Christianity and Buddhism value family, education, and religious devotion.
Another way to work against accusations of Western imperialism is to expose and criticize the anti-Christian aspects of contemporary Western culture that traditional Sri Lankan Buddhism also considers degenerate, such as sexual promiscuity, on-demand abortion, conspicuous wealth, and wasteful consumption.
To go even further, we could, like the Apostle Paul, be all things to all people through adopting cultural practices such as vegetarianism.
During the early to mid 20th century, theological liberalism emptied the mainline denominational churches of their evangelistic vigor. Its stunted gospel, which rejected any sense of the uniqueness of Christ and therefore Christianity, led to Christianity becoming merely a traditional religion that you were born into – just as others were born into Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. Christianity therefore became harmless to Sri Lankan culture, and the church was left at peace – as long as it did not proclaim Christ as unique savior and Lord.
The late 20th century international evangelical revival impacted Sri Lanka mainly through the growth of independent, non-denominational or new-denominational evangelism, such as the Assemblies of God, Island Gospel League – a branch of India Gospel League – and Gospel For Asia.
These new churches and movements face much local opposition, mainly because they are effective – people are actually becoming Christians:
- Their novelty makes them even more vulnerable to being seen as forces of Western colonialism.
- Their lack of traditional denominational structure, accountability, and doctrinal standards makes them vulnerable to mismanagement, personality cults, and false teaching.
These churches need assistance to persevere in theological orthodoxy. This challenge is not new; it is the same problem that led to most of the New Testament letters being written.
Recently, established churches have begun catching up with these new movements through starting their own evangelistic and church-planting endeavors. Mainstream churches have been around long enough to be culturally accepted – as long as they do not evangelize. If they begin proclaiming Christ as unique savior and Lord, they will lose this cultural safe zone, and suffer the same opposition as the new churches.
Returning to the case of the Easter murders, we do not condone evil. We call it what it is – evil, violence – and call the perpetrators to repent – to admit their evil, surrender to the authorities, and submit to justice. But in that, we do not wish them evil. We wish them good. We do not want revenge, we want peace – at least the peace of goodwill and courteous tolerance between different religions.
The weekend upon which these atrocities happened – the Easter weekend, where we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, died and rose to forgive us for rebelling against God – is itself the basis for Christians responding to acts of hate, not with equal hate which seeks vengeance, but with love.
That’s why the rest of the world should thank God, the Gods, their ancestors, their lucky stars (according to their personal beliefs) for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. These acts of violence will create radical Christians. But radical Christians don’t kill their enemies in vengeance. They pray for their forgiveness.
Parts of this article appeared in 2014 under the auspices of the Lausanne Movement.