Christianity in Kerala is about 20 centuries old. During the first 16 centuries, this Christian community had a relatively peaceful existence. During the last four centuries it had to pass through very painful experiences. Assaults from outside left it torn into several pieces. How this community sees itself and how it interprets its painful experiences will determine how it will face its future.
According to the tradition, Christianity started in Kerala with St. Thomas. Since the fourth century, Syrian Christians began to emigrate here from Persia. Welcomed by the natives, they merged with the way of life in Kerala. They enjoyed their freedom of religion and peaceful life with high social status until the very end of the 16th century. The troubles began with the colonization from the west. The Portuguese colonizers forced their religion upon them with political and military power. Later with the British colonizers came the protestant missionaries with their brand of Christianity. Along with these western colonizers, the Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch also tried to colonize the church in Kerala. Thus due to the assault of these greedy foreign powers, the Christian community in Kerala broke into a number of pieces.
A Vision for our Future
We existed in Kerala for 16 centuries peacefully, and the troubles occurred only in the last four centuries due to the colonization. Today we are no more a colony of any foreign powers, and it is time to leave the past behind. The past is past. Let us all look forward with hope rather than be captives in the painful memories of the past. This is a time for all the broken pieces of the Christian community in Kerala to accept the challenge of regaining the lost unity. If we can see the vision of a united Christian community in Kerala as it was before the colonizers arrived here, it will surely become a reality.
A Positive Approach
It is neither possible nor desirable to forget the past. We got split into various groups due to specific incidents in the past. Our differences today were caused by those incidents. We can together examine those incidents impartially and learn important lessons that will help us today in our journey forward. We need not and should not ignore our differences, but in spite of our differences, we must be able to stand together, willing to learn from each other and to work together. Our goal is not a unity without diversity but a unity in spite of diversity. We are no longer a Syrian-only church, nor should we aim to become one. The Latin and Anglo traditions have also become a part of our tradition along with our Syrian and the Indian tradition.
Christ’s Way of Unity
Growing up in my community, I was taught that my particular Christian church is the true inheritor of the original church of Jesus Christ. I learned in the Sunday school classes that my community walked in truth in the last two thousand years of its history while all the other groups deviated from truth. The picture I developed in my mind was somewhat as seen below.
As I grew up I began to realize that there must be something wrong with this picture. When I came in contact with people from other churches, I realized that each group claimed to have the same picture, with their particular church as the true inheritor of the original church. Recently I browsed through the websites of several churches in Kerala, and I found that they all have the same picture of their history. Each group interprets history in such way as to justify itself and prove that all the others have deviated. Thus if you accept the history of any one group as true, you will have to reject the histories of the others as false.
This approach may be described as the approach of self-justification. This is the approach adopted by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eating the forbidden fruit, they break an agreement, which is wrong. But instead of admitting their fault, they justify themselves by interpreting the event in their own way. They create their own history to suit their purpose. The result? Relationships are broken and a community is disintegrated.
The approach of Christ is radically different from Adam’s approach of self-justification. According to Christ, God alone is good and righteous. Self-righteousness is replaced by God-righteousness. If we admit that God alone is right and we all can be wrong, what would be the result? We will mend our broken relationships by forgiving and seeking forgiveness, and we will stand together as one body. That is why Paul proclaimed that Christ broke down all the walls of separation, and that in Christ there is no Jew and Gentile, no male and female, and no master and slave.
Unfortunately, Christianity still seems to be in the path of Adam, following the approach of self-righteousness. Each group claims to have the custody of truth, and interprets history in their own way to justify themselves. As a result, we have split into so many pieces, and still keep on splitting. Christianity needs to turn to Christ. It needs to leave the approach of Adam, and accept the approach of Christ.