It was early afternoon on Easter Sunday, Australian time. I had just enjoyed Easter morning service at my church. Basking in the glow of having worshiped our risen savior, I idly checked my news feed – and discovered that churches in my homeland Sri Lanka had been bombed.
After I got over the initial shock, I found I was not surprised. Christianity in Sri Lanka has, over the past decade or so, been opposed and oppressed by a resurgent Buddhist nationalism. Church buildings have been stoned and Bibles burned by mobs led by saffron-robed Buddhist monks. I thought these attacks represented the escalation of that Buddhist opposition.
Sri Lanka was racked by a terrible civil war from 1983 to 2009 between the Sinhalese and the Tamils – Sri Lanka’s two major ethnic groups. I was there in 1983 when it all began. I saw the mobs rampage down my street, burning the houses of the Tamil families across the street – the families whose children I played with and invited to my birthday parties.
Being Sinhalese, my parents and I were safe. I watched my father chat over our front gate with the Sinhalese rioters. He later told me they said to him, “Sir, we will give you all the property of these Tamils” – the Tamils who were right then sheltering in our back room and praying for their lives.
During the war, both sides carried out human-rights violations. The police and military carried out extrajudicial arrests, interrogations, punishments, and even executions. The separatists carried out acts of intimidation, assassination, and hostage-taking. In 2009, government forces finally crushed the Tamil separatists. They have been accused of engaging in war crimes in the process.
Having defeated the Tamils, Sinhala nationalism took a Buddhist religious flavor. Sinhalese Buddhists, many believe, tie together national, ethnic and religious identity. To be a “real” Sri Lankan is to be a Sinhalese Buddhist. Anyone who is not Sinhalese Buddhist is a “foreigner,” a second-class citizen. They are welcome in the country only as long as they do not threaten Buddhist cultural superiority.
Christianity in particular is considered a “Western,” “foreign,” “imperialist” religion. Christianity was established in the country by Europeans during their expansion of their international colonies.
But Christianity may have influenced the country, if lightly, as early as the 6th century – well before European colonization. In the southern Indian state of Kerala, there are significant Christian communities that claim to have been initially established by Thomas, one of Jesus’ 12 Apostles. An inscription of a cross, very similar to the cross icons of Keralite Indian Christianity, has been discovered during archeological excavations in Anuradhapura, northeastern Sri Lanka. It is perfectly possible that Christianity first came to Sri Lanka, if only briefly, through Indian Christians of the St Thomas tradition.
Returning to the present day: Any challenge to Buddhist superiority is considered 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,” “freedom of religion,” or “democracy” only reinforce the prejudice that the “Christian West” is trying to “re-colonize” Sri Lanka.
Since 2009, Christians, and church property, have been attacked by militant Buddhists. Before the Easter Sunday attacks, a mob attacked a church in Anuradhapura on Palm Sunday.
This is one reason that, when I heard about the Easter Sunday attacks, I thought they had been perpetrated by militant Buddhists. Another reason was the connection between churches and luxury hotels. These hotels symbolize Western decadence: hideously expensive gourmet food and drink; women prancing around with virtually no clothes on; etc. Christianity is considered a “Western” religion; these hotels represent “Western” decadence; both therefore deserve to be expunged from the land.
The greatest irony for me is that in the West, Christianity is mocked and opposed for standing against ‘progressive’ Western culture. Cultural values in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand increasingly reflect views of gender, sexuality, and self-gratification that conflict with traditional Christianity
The greatest irony for me is that in the West, Christianity is mocked and opposed for standing against “progressive” Western culture. Cultural values in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand increasingly reflect views of gender, sexuality, and self-gratification that conflict with traditional Christianity. In Australia, where I now live, Islander-background rugby player Israel Folau’s career as a professional sportsman has been jeopardized by him tweeting traditional Christian views about divine judgment. Then in places like Sri Lanka, Christianity gets persecuted for representing that same “Western” lifestyle – which we actually oppose. So we lose both ways.
So imagine my surprise at the recent reports that identify Muslim suicide bombers as the culprits. Islam is a minority religion in Sri Lanka. The militant Buddhists persecute them too. As I wrote in an earlier article for Asia Times, the last time I was in Sri Lanka, I saw graffiti on a railway station wall saying, in English, “Muslims out of Lanka.”
I am of course willing to accept that Muslim suicide bombers, not Buddhists, perpetrated these attacks. But I would need good evidence. It’s hard to see how Sri Lankan Muslims benefit from persecuting Christians. The connection with militant Buddhism is much more obvious.
Whoever perpetrated these attacks needs to know: In the name of our God, the Christian church opposes evil in all its forms. We call on those who perpetrate evil to “repent” – to admit their evil, surrender to the authorities, and submit to justice. And we do this in the name of Jesus Christ our God – the Jesus whom we believe lives forever and will one day judge the whole world. The perpetrators of the Easter attacks will one day stand before the Jesus whose resurrection Easter celebrates.
But, in the name of that same God, we do not wish evil upon our enemies. We wish them good. We do not want revenge, we want peace – at least the peace of goodwill and courteous tolerance between different religions.
During the Easter weekend, Christians celebrate that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, died and rose to forgive us for rebelling against God. That death and resurrection are themselves the basis for Christians responding to acts of hate, not with equal hate which seeks vengeance, but with love. Christians do not see ourselves as “enlightened” people who are therefore qualified to tell others how to live. We see ourselves as wicked people who have received undeserved mercy from God.
Indeed, the Easter church attacks will create radical Christians. But radical Christians don’t kill their enemies in vengeance. They pray for their forgiveness.