I have slightly modified the title from ‘Who do we say Jesus is today in Southern Asia' to ‘Who do people of Southern Asia say Jesus is today?' I just wanted to make sure that our focus is on the understanding of people in different parts of the world about Jesus rather than ‘we' trying to define it for them.
The emphasis on ‘today' affirms the fact that the human attempts to articulate the meaning and message of Jesus Christ, or christologies, to use the proper theological terminology, need to reflect and respond to the contemporary conditions and struggles of life in the midst of which the meaning and relevance of Jesus Christ and his message are sought. Jesus was confessed and declared as the Messiah, or the Christ not because of any dogmatic or doctrinal resolution, but precisely because of his response to the contemporary living conditions, struggles, pains, and longings of the people by mediating the life giving power of God, giving life to the dead, bread to the hungry, sight to the blind, release to the captives, and ushering in the righteous rule of God and the hope for its fulfillment. Any Christology or Jesus talk that does not reflect and respond to the struggles of the people will only remain alien and irrelevant, as though they were manufactured in some other time and place. One of the Indian theologians calls such christologies as "helicopter christologies" which try to land from above. In their attempts to land, ‘they make a lot of missiological noise, and kick up so much of theological dust that people around are prevented from hearing the voice and seeing the vision of the descending divinity.' In Southern Asia, as elsewhere, we have plenty of helicopter christologies as well as genuine, authentic and relevant articulations of the meaning and message of Jesus Christ.
Southern Asia is the birth place of many major religions of the world, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. It is also home for almost one third of the human population, which is about two billion people. The life and thought of these people have been shaped for several thousand years by these religions that have originated in this region. Christianity, in spite of its spread in this region from the time of apostle St. Thomas in the first century CE itself, still remains a minority religion, with only about 2% of the population adhering to it. Any testimony or understanding about Jesus Christ in Southern Asia primarily pertains to that of this 2% of the population, and then as a response to these testimonies, we have images and understandings of Jesus Christ, articulated by people of other faiths too. In both cases, the chrsitologies or understandings of Jesus are very much shaped by and expressed in this multi-religious context.
Another factor that shapes the testimony and understanding of who Jesus is today in Southern Asia, is the fact that Southern Asia is home for half of world's poor. Almost three quarters of the population of Southern Asia lives below the poverty line. In as much as the Gospel of Jesus Christ focuses on the plight of the poor, oppressed and the marginalized, any authentic articulation of who Jesus is gets shaped by the conditions of poverty that most people of Southern Asia find themselves in.
A third factor that has shaped and continues to shapes the understanding of Jesus is the colonial history of Southern Asia. Most of the countries in Southern Asia are former colonies of Western nations. The peak of colonialism coincided with the missionary movement and the spread of Christianity in this region. Such a coincidence points to a relationship which is ambiguous at best and adverse at worst. The spread of neocolonialism in the last several decades has done very little to salvage any positive image of this relationship. As a result, for the majority of the people in Southern Asia, particularly the people belonging to other faith traditions, the image of Jesus remains inseparable from that of the rich Christian West and the North that colonized and plundered the poor non-Christian East and the South in the past and continues to do so in the present through neocolonialism or economic globalization.
Thus the above three factors, namely the history of colonialism, conditions of poverty, and the plurality of religions, need to be born in mind as we try to articulate who the people in Southern Asia say that Jesus is today. In most instances, the impact of these three factors overlap that of each other.
First let me begin with a personal observation pertaining to the events of last week in the Christian calendar, namely Good Friday and Easter. 20 years ago when I first came to this country as a student, one of the things that shocked me had to do with Good Friday and Easter. I was attending a particular church. Beginning several weeks prior to Easter, I kept hearing so many announcements about the preparations for the celebration of Easter, and the excitement was rapidly building up. But I heard nothing about Good Friday. Lo and behold, there was nothing happening in that Church on Good Friday. Having been born and brought up in a place and church where everyone spends most of Good Friday in the Church and listens to meditations on the seven words of Christ on the Cross, it was indeed a shock for me to see that the churches here had nothing or very little happening on Good Friday. That made me reflect on the contrast.
In most of Southern Asia, especially in my country India, if a person goes to Church once a year, that will be on Good Friday. If it is twice, it will be Good Friday and Christmas. If it is thrice, it will be Good Friday, Christmas and Easter. No Christian will miss church on Good Friday, unless that person is seriously ill. By the way, Good Friday is a national holiday in India, even though it is predominantly a Hindu country. Why is it that no Christian misses church on Good Friday ? I began to reflect.
Who do they say Jesus is ? Jesus is one who suffers with them and for them. Most of these people whose plight is suffering, marginalization and deprivation, could easily identify with, and feel one with the one who was suffering and dying on the cross. To know that the Son of Man shares their suffering even to the extent of death is not just comforting, but also liberating. That this death is overcome by resurrection gives them the hope for a new life. So Good Friday and all that it signifies is very important for them in understanding and bearing testimony to Jesus the Christ. It is the suffering and the reality of death that they have been experiencing which gives them any meaning for Easter. Good Friday is not just a reference point, but life experience for most of them.
So they see Jesus as one who suffers pain and powerlessness with them, cries with them, starves with them, laments in desperation along with them, yet gives them hope for a new life. Not to meet this companion in their suffering face to face on the day that he was killed would indeed be a betrayal. So no Christian would miss church on Good Friday. Even several Hindus and people of other faiths also go to church on that day.
Does it mean that the resurrection of Jesus does not mean much for them? Of course it means a lot. However, for majority of the people it is more of a distant hope than of any imminent or immediate experience to identify with. ‘Victory' and ‘triumph' is not part of their daily or even occasional personal or national experience.
We have many ‘helicopter christologies' too which would like to keep the experience of resurrection at the level of distant hope to be experienced in the life after death, and not in their lives on this earth. Jesus is seen as one who promises heaven after death (view prominently held and promoted by most fundamentalist groups even within the mainline churches).
Some other popular views and understandings of Jesus are: as miraculous healer, and as one who bestows prosperity - views promoted by several popular revival preachers and tele-eveangelists;
Two other christologies or views of Jesus Christ are important to mention, one held by Christians and the other by people of other faiths.
Many of the Christians understand Jesus as the Christ and Son of the living God, as opposed to saying that Jesus of Nazareth is God, like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a distinction that is often lost. While the divinity of Jesus is confessed and affirmed, any ontological identification of Jesus with God is rejected. Jesus is divine but not deity. The implication of this distinction is that while Jesus reveals God, God is not confined to Jesus.
The relationship between God and Jesus Christ has been the point of debate and divisions from the time of New Testament onwards. Nevertheless, it is specifically significant in a religiously pluralistic region like Southern Asia, where faith in God is much older than Christianity, and the traditions of God's revelation without any reference to Christ are deep rooted and have shaped the spirituality of the majority of people for thousands of years. In the midst of all these people, any claim that God and God's revelations are confined to Jesus Christ amounts only to an alien helicopter christology. Part of the struggles and religious conflicts resulting often in violence between Christians and people of other faiths has to do with the lack of clarity about this distinction between seeing Jesus as divine and as deity.
The last view of Jesus Christ that I wish to point out here is the one held by many people of other faiths – as a western god, imported by the colonizers. He is the god of the westerners, who threatens to destroy their faith, culture and morality, and therefore needs to be kept out or kicked out.
This view owes primarily to the "Christian culture" that has come to identify the Christian community because of things like gothic style cathedrals and the western ‘church music' which have nothing in common with the local cultures. To a great extent it has become difficult to separate ‘Christian' from ‘western.'
A positive aspect of Christianity that has contributed to the negative attitude towards Christians in certain places and from certain groups is the liberation of the lowly. For instance, in India, Christianity has greatly contributed to the liberation of the Dalits who have been oppressed for centuries under the tyranny of caste system. While there is still so much to change, certain groups which have lost their control and domination over the former ‘untouchables' see Christianity as having contributed to the education, development, and awareness among the Dalits and resent this influence and ‘disturbance' in their traditional practices. But those who have experienced liberation celebrate Jesus as the liberator.