Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Violated Christmas: Of armed soldiers in Churches and the spirit of Christmas

Christmas eve midnight services in Churches across Goa this year were marked by the presence of police, armed soldiers, commandos and other paraphernalia suggesting a state of heightened security. What would a Christian response to the security arrangements have been and what were the options open to us?

Yearly we are reminded by the elders of our faith that the bulk of the word Christmas is formed by the alphabets spelling Christ. It is Christ and his message that must form the bedrock of our Christmas celebrations, and temper the physical and material aspects of the festival. It is then to this Christ, his message and the traditions of his Church that we must turn to when attempting to uncover a Christian response to this most uncommon of events.

If we regard the scene of the nativity in Bethlehem, two millennia ago, what we behold is a scene of stark vulnerability. God is born; not as man, but as a child, dependent on his impoverished parents, in a stable that relies as much on animal heat as it does on straw for warmth. This is a child born not in a time of peace and security but under the threat of death. And yet despite his options, Christ chose to be born not in a palace that would afford him the security of arms and soldiers, but in manger surrounded by human bonds that are the true foundation for the peace that he came to establish on earth. The presence of weapons and soldiers at the midnight services then, should be seen as an unwelcome and defiling presence to a moment necessarily dedicated to peace born from brotherhood and a voluntary adoption of vulnerability.

It was this conscious adoption of vulnerability again, and the conscious choice for death that motivated Christ to accept death on a cross. If Christmas is a time for spiritual renewal and the honing of the virtues of vulnerability and self-sacrifice, then once again, the presence of soldiers worked contrary to this spiritual exercise. Let us assume for a moment, that there was a genuine threat of attack on Christian congregations across Goa. Our presence, unarmed and without security would have been a conscious act of readiness for martyrdom, underlining the spirit of self-sacrifice which the Nativity was only the prelude to. Gandhi, though not Christian, is perhaps among the foremost of political Christians, offering a political agenda suffused with Christian ideals. The path of the satyagrahi, is the act of non-violent and conscious offering of our bodies to the aggressor; an act that simultaneously shames and converts the aggressor into the path of dialogue and permanent peace. It is the act of the Christian willing to be martyr, in imitation of Christ.

This Christian and satyagrahi option, in fact opens up a wide avenue to deal with the terrorism that is the scourge of our times. It offers a committed and non-comprising response to political and social violence. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much blood you are willing to shed, we will offer it up, unprotesting, without converse recourse to weaponry until you realize the futility of terror and violence. This option, that shuns automatic and explosive weaponry, opens up the path for dialogue and the breaking down of social barriers that at the end of the day cause the forms of terror that we have been witness to in recent times.

For a religion that encourages people to accept the crown of martyrdom, the presence of soldiers to prevent the possibility of that martyrdom was an abomination and an option for spiritual education sadly lost. The elders of the faith had a wonderful opportunity to offer the faithful the choice between the world (and its notion of security) and the faith. We had the option of not attending the midnight service if we chose the softer option. The Church failed in its duty of preventing this armed intrusion. In not making a symbolic act of rejecting the offer of such illusory forms of security, the Catholic community of Goa has lost a golden opportunity. For this loss, the spiritual leaders of the Church must necessarily reflect on this, their failure. Even more unfortunate, is that this community has in this act become complicit in the charade of the State. A charade that offers meaningless, token gestures that offer only an illusion of security. This tamasha does not provide any real security it merely strengthens the hands of a state that seeks more and more power while refusing to address the basic needs and problems of the people. In the face of the continuing struggle of the Goan people alone, this militarized offer of security ought to have been politely declined.

Clearly, the logic I offer does not fall into what one would call ‘rational’ and ‘practical’. However, I offer the suggestion that there are multiple realities available, depending on the position one chooses to adopt. When Christ was resurrected he inaugurated a new dimension in time and space. Indeed, while on earth he clearly indicated that his kingdom was not of this earth. In being members of his flock, we are invited to appreciate the reality of this alternate dimension, participate in its logic, and alternatively structure the reality offered to us by the State (and market). Both Christ and the early Christian tradition were very clear about the extent of the Christian’s relationship with the material world presided over by the State, a position aptly summed up in the phrase “unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’.

As the faithful proceeded to service at Don Bosco’s in Panjim, they silently fell into line in front of the lone metal detector. As they crossed that metal detector without complaint, into the grounds where a sacred service was to be held, they entered not the realm of space and time inaugurated by Christ, but the realm of fear, produced by the State. In this space security and liberation from fear came not from the path of Christ and the faith of his Church, but from the barrel of the gun. This Christmas then, our moral universe itself shifted over from the right hand of God, to the Right.

And yet, even if it would have liked to, would the Church have been able to say “No, thank you” to this offer of ‘security’ from the State?

It is likely that had the elders of the Church in fact taken this stand, it would have still been possible for the State to override the rejection arguing that this security must be put in place for the larger security of the State. This overriding would have resulted in the inability of the Church and Christians to spiritually engage, in the forms outlined in the arguments above, with the multiple forms of terror that are faced by society today. What this effectively translates to is the emptying out of our spiritual universe as a result of the actions of the State preventing a meaningfully engagement with a spiritual tradition. In such a scenario, as was played out this Christmas, the Christian tradition is severed from its spiritual realm and forced into merely a ritual and superficial performance of religiosity. Thus the Christian is produced not as a mystic, but as a member of a group that performs certain rituals, dress in a particular manner and who have certain common holidays. It is when religion is pushed into this secular and non-mystical form, that the trouble really begins to start, once more making a case against the Christmas tamasha that we were forced to be both actors of and audience to.

A Christian response to the ‘security’ arrangements in Churches this Christmas eve would have been to reject them in one voice. The alternative would have been to commit to the non-violent path toward dialogue and establishing the foundations for a society purged of social and political violence. Should our refusal have been over-ridden, it would have been incumbent on the preachers in every Church to denounce this unchristian act and urge a greater suspicion of the false promises of security offered to us by a State that seeks to induct us into its own notion of reality.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 31 Dec 2008)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year! I'm treating you to my response to your Christmas
violence as the first gift of the pristine year 2009:
Your annoyance at the presence of increased security measures during the Christmas Eve celebrations is clear. As usual, I admire the verbal brille with which you express your indignation about what sounds like an open insult to the integrity of one of the most cherished celebrations of our faith. I particularly like your coinage of words like “paraphernalia” in the first sentence, expressing your contempt more effectively than anything. A formula like “born in manger surrounded by human bonds that are the true foundation for the peace that he came to establish on earth” is fortunate and deserves a place in some ecclesiastical doctrine.

Yet, at a few decisive instants I tend to deviate from the point you
make and the stand you take. Before mentioning these, of course I have to stress that I have no idea of the disturbance that this armed presence caused during the celebrations, so I cannot judge the exact measure of your annoyance.

That being said, I was puzzled by your outright rejection of the
security measures. Of course, in principle you are right, that they do not have any place amidst the spirit of Christmas, which indeed amounts to “a voluntary adoption of vulnerability”. But could this voluntary adoption not uncannily swift deteriorate into carelessness and irresponsibility? Of course, again I have to stress that I do not know the severity of the threat of anything happening in Goa that day. So I cannot fathom the degree to what rejection of security measures would count as careless. Still, we can allow at least the assumption of a threat, as you suggest yourself, even if only for the sake of argument.

Then I ask myself: would I have taken my children to church that night, if only the smallest hint of a threat existed, and if there were no appropriate safety measures to give me at least the illusion of security? I think my answer would be clearly: no.

I don’t hold much for martyrdom myself. I have seen and heard it being invoked too often for the wrong sorts of reasons. I also don’t believe that the self-sacrifice of Christ was an open invitation to seek
martyrdom. What I do believe is that some things rank beyond life and death, and that in exceptional cases (which we can only hope not to encounter), the impossible choice comes before a human conscience to put his/her life at risk for the sake of something more holy than survival.

But I’m not very sure if that Christmas Eve in Goa was such an occasion.

I’m also not very sure if in the face of the threat of indiscriminate and shapeless violence (of which we speak when mentioning ‘terrorism’) the appeal to ‘offer the other cheek’ would mean much.

The example of Gandhi is a case in point. I have always thought that
satyagrahi was successful (to a certain extent) as a strategy of
resistance, because the opponent was somehow bound by a rule of law,
albeit largely by its own making, and could not resort to indiscriminate violence and force with impunity. In fact the instances where such excessive and disproportionate violence wasused, this contributed precisely to a further destabilization of the regime. So satyagrahi was
successful in the precarious constellation of a rule of law constantly struggling with its own excesses. I would say in the present context, where a similar excess on the part of the State and the law struggles to
contain an equally excessive violence, called ‘terror’, satyagrahi somehow sounds a bit out of place to me, if only because it’s confronted – at least in one part – with a faceless opponent that is not bound by
any form of law.

That’s in short how I would phrase my hesitation to your plea for
voluntary vulnerability, as a mystic act to break the circle of
violence. I fully acknowledge the high moral standard of such a plea,
with the reservation (mentioned above) that it could easily be twisted into carelessness and irresponsibility, and be condemned as such, which would not have much moral appeal. I trust you are familiar with the similar ambiguity in the phrase “unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God
what is God’s” that you quote. More often than not, it is used to back out from responsibility for the affairs of the world, which is how it could be read, even if intended as rather the opposite.
Do I make any sense?