“We need prophets who are restless for justice and peace. Prophets who will not compromise the truth for personal security; prophets who will not turn a blind eye to the reality of evil in our world today in order to protect the status quo; prophets who will stand up and be counted; face the consequence of their action; sacrifice comfort for conscience; and live with integrity even at great inconvenience or loss” said Rev. Dr. Collin I. Cowan, CWM General Secretary. He said this when he delivered the Commemoration Address during the Thanksgiving Service for the life of Dr. M. M. Thomas at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Bangalore, India.
The General Secretary launched the book The Life Legacy and Theology of M. M. Thomas which is the second in the CWM series Prophets from the South. M. M Thomas emerged from the margins of both church and society and committed himself to the struggle against injustice. His participation in the construction of alternate societies and communities based on the values of justice, equality and life shaped his theology and life. The current book in the series is a dedication to such alternative, critical and marginal voices that have contributed to a theological vision of liberation and life for all. It is a celebration of and uplifting of voices from the geo-political south, with a view to acknowledging and reflecting on such contributions as an offering from the global south to the global Christian community in the continued struggle for a just world.
The launch of the book took place during a two-day consultation dubbed, Remembering M. M. Thomas: Reimagining Christian Public Witness in India today. The occasion celebrated the birth centenary of M.M. Thomas and it brought together church leaders, theologians and activists from across the country to deliberate on issues of national concern. At issue was how to position oneself, both individually and institutionally to be public witnesses, drawing upon the work and testimony of M.M. Thomas’s life as a theologian and public witness.
The worship on the first day was led by Rev. Reuben and Rev. Sweety Helen, reflecting on Nehemiah as a public advocate for the rights of his people.
Rev. Vincent Rajkumar, Director Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS) welcomed the participants. In attendance were, Most Rev. Dyvasirvadam, the president of CISRS and Rev. Augustine Jeykumar, Treasurer of the (National Council of Churches in India) NCCI. All three acclaimed the legacy of M.M. Thomas and its continuing challenge for the church today.
The session Politics of Public Engagement in Contemporary India featured renowned journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan who bemoaned the decreasing level of public engagement in politics as a matter of concern. Paying tribute to M. M. Thomas, all the speakers made a call to stand in opposition, not just as a political space but rather as an ideological position and a critical stance. In that regard, Ashok Chowdhury of the All India Union of Forest Working People highlighted the plight of people on the ground, who do not have the luxury for settlement. Their lot is to fight for their rights. They do not have a choice but to continuously struggle.
In a session on Sangharsh and Nirman, translated as struggle and construction, Roma, a Forest Rights activist spoke from the perspective of workers and suggested an evolution of people’s political and social movements. Punit Minz echoed those words by advocating for the creation of alternative societies from below, which, he argued, required alternative politics and movements without which there cannot be alternative politics. He emphasized the need to know history, and to decipher the character of big business as tools with which to challenge the big corporates. Madhudesh followed up with a challenge that the coalition of global capital necessitates alternative people’s alliances. Shiv Vishwanathan concluded the session by emphasizing the need for doubt as essential for asking unsettling questions.
A public lecture on Fascism, Jingoism and Public Witness followed in the evening, moderated by Ms. Roma, featured Adv. Prakash Ambedkar, Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan, Mr.Profulla Samanta and Ms. Sokolo. All the speakers reiterated that grassroots politics of resistance is a necessity to overcome the overt and banal fascism that seemed to be taking over in India.
The second day began with worship led by Ms. Chrisida Nithyakalyani who spoke on the Hannah narrative. She highlighted Hannah’s resistance. Though a victim, she was able to resist the imperialism of the monarchy in her own way. This was followed by reminisces of personal encounters with M.M. Thomas by economist, C. T. Kurien and the Right Rev. Anand Chandu Lal, former moderator of the Church of North India (CNI).
A subsequent session on Indian Christian Theology after M. M. Thomas moderated by Fr. Selvanathan, Director of the Indian Social Institute (ISI), featured four theologians, namely, Rev. Dr. Y.T. Vinayraj, Rev. Dr. Dexter Maben, Rev. Dr. Gladstone Jathanna and Philip Vinod Peacock. Vinayraj used Ziziek’s idea of parallax to evoke certain themes in Thomas’ work. Maben provided a juxtapositional reading of Thomas and a popular Kannadiga author. Jathanna explored the idea of historiography while analyising the Biblical work of Thomas, concentrating on his work on Genesis and Exodus. Peacock deconstructed the idea of Indian Christian Theology and offered possibilities of future trajectories.
A brilliant analysis of Ambedkar by Dr.Lourdunathan, followed. He offered a thorough reading of Ambedkar analyzing the theological potential of his writings. Ms. Cynthia Stephen offered concluding remarks followed by a question and answer session after which the Christian Public Witness in Contemporary India session chaired by Mr. Philip George ensued. The speakers were Dr. Shiju Sam, Dr.J. Athyal, Adv. Rajendra Sail and Rev. Basy Paul. The speakers challenged the audience to continue the legacy of Thomas through critical reflection and political action.
The consultation ended with a thanksgiving worship service at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Rev. Dr. Collin I. Cowan, General Secretary of the CWM in an emphatic address challenged participants to become restless prophets who challenge systems and status quo. He offered that others would find refuge in such actions. He encouraged all to remain on the cutting edge of social consciousness in order to offer unsettling perspectives that speak truth to power. Using the spory of Elijah he exemplified that true prophets speak truth to power and are restlessness about the status quo.
The consultation enabled church leaders, theologians, students, social theorists and activists in India to engage with each other and to renew their commitment prophetic engagement and public witness, taking a leaf from the life, theology and legacy of M. M. Thomas whom CWM has chosen to feature in our second book in the series Prophets from the South.