Towards Assembly 2024: South Asia Regional Pre-Assembly challenges systemic inequality and injustice

by Cheon Young Cheol

The South Asia Regional Pre-Assembly, the last of six regional conferences held ahead of the Council for World Mission (CWM) General Assembly in June, drew delegates from four CWM South Asian member churches in Bangalore, India, from 18-22 March to encourage and challenge each other to envision a new heaven and a new earth where all of God’s people dwell together in fostering life-flourishing communities.

The delegates—representatives from Church of Bangladesh, Church of North India, Church of South India, and Presbyterian Church of India—explored channels through which they could deconstruct oppressive systems, confront societal divides, and promote regional ecumenical unity and reconciliation.

CWM General Secretary Rev. Dr Jooseop Keum welcomed the delegates to engage and creatively “Rise to Life: Together in Transformation,” the theme of the upcoming June General Assembly. He further highlighted the importance of gender justice and the prevention of gender-based violence as an agenda for the church’s mission in Asia.

In spite the challenges, Keum exhorted the audience to take heart that, as a community of churches in mission, they must continue to sing a song of hope in the midst of tribulation.

Challenge oppression and injustice

Bishop Dr Geevarghese Coorilos, from the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church and a renowned missiologist, gave a keynote address reflecting on the General Assembly theme.

His presentation offered insights into the multi-layered challenges facing South Asia, ranging from extreme inequality and injustice, with a significant portion of the population living in poverty, to the grave threats posed by climate change, such as rising sea levels and increased migration due to environmental disasters. He highlighted how systemic forces like casteism, sexism, and xenophobia contribute to a pervasive culture of death and violence, challenging the very essence of human dignity and democratic values.

Defining the differences between transformation and reformation, Coorilos urged an increased, intentional transformational response by embodying a life-centric ethos. He also emphasised the theological and moral imperative to cherish and advocate for life in all its forms while criticizing existing structures of oppression. He called for a radical, transformative mission that aligns with the principles of love, justice, and interconnectedness.

“In a world where new incarnations of Caesar and new avatars of Herod are in power and control, our task is no different: to transform lives together by resisting and confronting empires of our times. Empires, evil systems, and structures cannot be reformed. They must be overthrown,” he declared.

Coorilos also pointed out that the Assembly theme of “Rise to Life: Together in Transformation” is presented as not only a theological reflection but also a practical call to action against the culture of death and for a Trinitarian political economy that promotes sharing, equality, and ecological integrity, challenging the destructive forces of neoliberal capitalism.

This rallying cry, according to Coorilos, advocates for an urgent wakeup call to address global threats, and affirms the agency of marginalized communities and creation itself, encouraging a collective movement towards a more just, equitable, and life-affirming world.

A look at power

Rev. Dr Allan Palanna, a lecturer in the Department of Theology and Ethics of the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, delved into the Assembly sub-theme “Transforming Power” by emphasising the character and societal impacts of power in global contexts.

He referenced The Accra Confession and Allan Boesak’s insights on the life-denying, enslaving power of open market dynamics.

Palanna noted the historical shifts in Christianity’s power dynamics and highlighted the influence of power in Christian communities, along with the reimagining of power as a source of restoration and regeneration.

He also reflected on the roles of biblical ambassadorship, the cost of being an ambassador for Christ, power conflicts among the Apostles, and healing power conflicts.

Palanna noted the importance of transformative power principles, the ethical alternative of God’s reign, resisting power irrelevance, and the impact of social media on communication.

“The Word forever challenges faith communities to identify moral and ethical gaps in the use of power, re-imagine power as an instrument of God, and resist attempts to make power irrelevant to the cries of the most vulnerable communities and the earth and as Aruna Roy once remarked, ‘so that power will be more truthful and truth will have more power,’” concluded Palanna.

Rev. Samuel Mall, an assistant professor in Christian Theology, spoke on another Assembly sub-theme, “Building Life-Flourishing Communities.”

Mall placed an emphasis on the urgent need for communities to embrace inclusivity, ecological responsibility, and solidarity against a backdrop of rising religious nationalism and ecological crises.

He raised discussions that highlighted the importance of extending life-flourishing communities beyond humanistic scopes to also include nature, reflecting on the water crisis as a vivid example of ecological neglect.

The South Asia Regional Pre-Assembly also touched on the historical and ongoing impacts of partitions, such as those of India and Palestine, underscoring how religion and British colonial policies have long fueled division and conflict.

Mall critiqued the internal challenges faced by churches in India, such as the Church of North India’s struggle with caste discrimination and the impacts of globalization on marginalized communities like the Dalits.

He called for a rejection of exclusive religious claims and for embracing a spirituality that actively participates in the liberation and support of the oppressed, advocating for partnerships that transcend religious, cultural, and sexual boundaries as a counter to oppressive ideologies like Hindutva.

Challenges to democracy

A key highlight of the regional pre-assembly was “Challenges of Democracy in South Asia,” a public event that brought together over 100 members that engaged and discussed the various challenges to democracy within the South Asian context and the world.

Presenters urged churches to come together and provide resistance through commitment and action. Speakers also espoused that reality that the church has always been the agent for social change within many regions of the world.


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