RESPONDING TO VIOLENCE
The violence in Orissa has not only troubled the Christian community, but has also shocked the nation and even the world. Condemnation has come in from all quarters. Much analysis is being done by the media exploring the reasons for this violence-inter-religious conflict or inter-tribal problems, mostly as a reaction to the senseless slaying of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Almost without doubt, one can be sure that the immediate provocation for this violence was the murder of 80-year old Swami Laxmanananda. This brutal taking of life needs to be condemned by all, irrespective of personal religious sympathies. He surely had won the affection of many with his message that one should stick to the religion at birth. In the 1960s he denounced marital life, as many sages in Hinduism do, and had moved to Kandhamal, which became his Karma Bhumi. He did this because he felt that "Christian missionaries were indulging in the mass conversion of tribals and luring them with money and other forms of enticements." On his part, he was instrumental in setting up orphanages and educational institutions.
It gives great satisfaction that, not only has the Christian community demonstrated public unity in the face of persecution, but has also condemned the wanton taking of life, whatever be the provocation. But how do we respond to those who are behind the violence?
It is not the first time that the Church is facing persecution. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to agree with the famous observation of Tertullian that, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The Church has, from the times of Stephen, stared persecution in the face. We nevertheless need to ensure that we are responding appropriately to provocation. Jesus taught His disciples to " love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Matt. 5:44). So, this brings us to the first step in our response. Though it may seem difficult, we need to learn to love our enemies and learn to forgive. Orissa brings back memories of Graham Staines, who was burnt alive with his sons in his jeep. But the response of his wife, Gladys Staines, touched the nation. She forgave the killers - in her words: "When we forgive, we allow the wounds to heal. Besides, by forgiving, we encourage other people to do the same." Our Lord set the example by praying on the cross for the forgiveness of those who had treated Him shamefully and plotted His death. Are we praying for those who are behind these violent acts? That they may see the great love that God has for them in giving His Son as a propitiation for their sins? Remember, there are many misguided persons involved in this violence, who do not know what they are doing and the full ramifications of their actions.
Secondly, we should not be surprised at persecution. No! we do not seek it; nor do we condone it; but we remember the words of Jesus. He prepared us for these times by saying, "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn. 15:20). The conversation between Saul and Jesus on the way to Damascus is comforting. As Saul fell to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4). You would have noticed that Saul was not actually persecuting Christians, but inadvertently, actually the Lord Himself. So also, when we forgive those who trouble us, it cannot be done on our own strength, but can do it through Him who strengthens us - because He is in there, more than us.
We also need to remind ourselves of the precedence of the apostles who did exercise their freedom as citizens of the land. We need to voice our indignation when our brothers and sisters are being wrongly treated. When Paul was unjustly thrown into prison by the Philippians and was about to be released, he refused to allow this to be done quietly. He said that he would not accept his release without proper procedure and insisted on the magistrates coming personally and doing what is needed (Acts 16). So also, when the Roman governor sought to send him to the Jewish authorities for trial, he refused to accept the offer, and, exercising his rights as a Roman Citizen, appealed to Caesar.
Finally, we need to be cautioned that all this applies only if we are suffering for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong (1 Pet. 3:17).So, even at the time of persecution, we need to examine ourselves to see whether we are suffering for the right reasons and not because of foolishness or iniquity of our own.
Of course, we trust that the Christian community will continue to voice its anguish at all forms of injustice, irrespective of the religion of the victims. The Church, the bride of the Lord, is 'a pillar of the truth', and her voice has to resound through the ages at everything that sets itself up against the truth.