By Dr. Joseph Prabhakar Dayam
Feasts are religious. Each evince an aspect of faith and provide occasions to celebrate its meaning with a view to be renewed in our spiritual commitments. Therefore, we have feasts to mark the lives of various Apostles and Saints. We seek to be renewed in our commitment to Christ as we celebrate their memory. It’s the Church’s way of rooting itself in the faith of the Apostles and participating in the historic faith of the Church. It is about faith and to keep the tradition alive.
They are cultural. They are occasions for aesthetic encounters and public entertainment. And they also could become economic machineries for the religious institutions, cultural units, and local political outfits to survive on them.
They are Political too. They form our identity. They also contribute to a sense of belonging. They do include the communities by way of symbolically re-membering the body politic of a society which otherwise is dismembered in its everyday life by various factors that stratify the society.
They exclude too, particularly when these feasts become identity markers for a community. Feasts are political theatrical events. They could either help reinforce the status quo or seek to counter the hierarchy by its excessive mimicking of power. They could either be events of power negotiations or occasions for defiance of power. It all depends where they come from and what their agenda are.
Feasts in their observance have performative power. They could either transform the collective life of a community to become an open community of brotherly/sisterly embrace or degenerate the community into an exclusive triumphalist community over against the others.
The feast of the Apostle Thomas is part of Church’s tradition to commemorate his practice of Christian discipleship that included wavering between doubt and faith, having a universal vision of the reign of God, reaching out to the ‘utter most parts of the world’ in love with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the consequent martyrdom. The introit and the collect that are given in the Lutheran hymnal point to the call, the commission and the cost of discipleship that are involved in being sent into the world.
The scripture text assigned refers to the resurrection appearance of Jesus to Thomas and the rest of the disciples. It makes a reference to Thomas’s refusal to settle for the resurrections of Jesus to be a mere mystic presence. Not that he was avoiding unsettledness of faith and seeking certainty in Cartesian sense. He had a greater vision of the resurrection than a mere mystic presence or an existential co-travelling. He wanted the flesh-ness and blood-ness in the resurrection of Christ, for that alone would be a divine vindication for the death of an innocent under the cruel empire, and that alone could dismantle any notion of body – spirit dualism and offer a wholesome vision of human salvation.
His insistence on feeling the wounds with his finger was for him to be affirmed in his faith that the resurrection of Jesus could truly be a ground for Christian hope. Once he was conformed of it, he makes the confession that Jesus is the Lord, a confession that counters the imperial creed that Caesar is Lord.
Therefore the feast of St. Thomas is about the historic Christian faith that, God in the resurrection of Christ has vindicated all those innocents and all those who resisted the empire and suffered and crucified. The Jesus movement needed this sign (with its physicality/materiality). It is about seeking Pax Christi over Pax Romana, and in pursuing the peace of Christ, being aware of the cost involved in it. The feast of St. Thomas calls for a radical faith and a radical spiritual praxis. It is political in its own way.
The confession that Christ is Lord is a political faith affirmation that refuses any kind of allegiance to regimes of violence and hatred. To seek the ground for hope in the resurrection of Christ for all humanity and thereby reaching out to the oceans beyond is to open oneself in love to a vision that holds all nations together as one humanity. It calls for dismantling boundaries of ‘race’, gender, ethnicity and nationality and envision a new heaven and new earth where all human beings participate in God ‘reign of love.
That which was celebrated on the 21 December is moved to 3 July and for some reason, the myth of St. Thomas ‘s visit, ministry and martyrdom found more prominence than his confession that Jesus is Lord and the theological and spiritual implications of this confession. I used the word ‘myth’ not to suggest that it is fictitious, but to be aware of the complexities involved in establishing a ‘fool proof evidence based’ historical account of his visit. By suggesting that it is a myth, I mean that St. Thomas’ story in India becomes a horizon of understanding and there by provides as a meaning making apparatus for those who seek the identity of the St. Thomas Christians. I used it in that positive sense.
To observe the St. Thomas feast in India , therefore is to embrace that legacy of christian discipleship that calls for an open embrace of the cultural, religious and ethnic other with the love of Christ and humbly offering the gifts of the gospel, and to celebrate the hospitality of the natives while conversing and converting. While observing the feast of St. Thomas we also may have to bring to memory the lost opportunities of reaching out in love to other communities as the St. Thomas Christianity in India priveleged the narrative of the conversion of the Namboodri brahmins and consequently became exclusive for several centuries.
The historic and universal tradition of St. Thomas feast now is observed by many Christians in India as ‘Indian Christian Day.’
Those who envisioned this ‘event’ clarified this as a celebration of the coming of St. Thomas to India right in the first century and thereby establish a claim that Christianity is 2000 years old and therefore native to the soil. The advocates of it suggested that this is Church’s way of countering the Hindutva idealogues’ claim that Christianity is foreign to India. They further insinuated that “by marking it in 2021 and every year henceforth, we, as followers of the Lord Jesus, can preserve our identity within India’s cultural heritage, while uniting with all those who wish to celebrate it, irrespective of language, custom, creed, region or religion.”
Father Babu Joseph, a former spokesperson of CBCI assessed the value of this endeavor as “this would be an important step in making Christianity as part of Indian history and ethos,”
The aims of this effort seems to be 1. to make a claim to indegenous status to Christian faith, 2. to impress upon the majority of the present day India that Christians are Indian enough, 3. to prove to those who insist upon nationalism as a requirement for anyone to be a citizen of this country, that Indian church is nationalist.
These are all certainly well meant. But the question is whether these politics of accomodation are theologically and politically legitimate?
I want to place before my friends who want to observe this day as Indian Christians Day the following concerns:
1. To call St. Thomas Christianity as Indian Christianity is perhaps an anachronism. The India of the first few centuries of the common era was certainly not the India of our times. India is a colonial construct. To call the ancient Christianity of St. Thomas tradition as Indian is perhaps to succumb to the Hindutva’s claim of the ever present Akhand Bharat.
2. Church is not merely a sociological unit, but it is theological category. As a theological category it is rooted in time and space, yet it is universal (catholic) in time and space. Its identity is time and space bound, yet its call is to transcend that identity. The question is whether we are Christians in India or Indian Christians?
3. The nomenclature ‘Indian Christians’ has its state ascribed meaning. It refers to those who are ‘caste converts’ to Christianity. This term excludes majority of the Christians in India (Dalit/Tribal/adivasi Christians). This term primarily identifies one not by their faith but by their caste location. A Christian identity can never be a caste identity since one cannot serve caste and Christ at the same time.
4. The Indian Church’s tendency to succumb to the pressure of nationalism is an ethical dilemna that the church needs to give serious thought to. Indian Christian theology until the rise of Dalit/Tribal/Feminist theologies have succumbed to the nationalist pressure and consequently had become exclusionary -resulting in the narrative absence of the Dalit/Tribal Christians in ‘Indian Church History, and its theology lending its ideological premise to the exclusionary practices.
5. Nationalism as we see it today has become hegemonic. We also are aware of its genocidal character in many several expressions of nationalism in different parts of the world. Church perhaps has to resist such nationalist idealogy than falling into its trap. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the wisdom that comes from Paul Tillich who wrote after having witnessed the church’s collaboration with nationalism that, “when nationalism is raised to the level of ultimate concern it becomes demonic.”
The author is a Theologian, a scholar , teaching in ACTC seminary in Hyderabad and a former faculty in UTC Bangalore.