M.M. Thomas on the local church

I’m reading through the works of Vinoth Ramachandra for my book project on Anglican approaches to religious pluralism. He is a Sri Lankan lay Anglican theologian who offers quite a compelling vision of Christian integrity in a multicultural world.

In one of his books (Faiths in Conflict?) he talks about the largely ignored contribution of Christians to public life in the modern state of India.  He offers a quotation from M.M. Thomas about the humble yet profound role local Christian congregations had on the development of modern Indian philosophy and social thought. Thomas writes, “the local Christian congregations, which in their worship and sacramental life, demonstrated a pattern of corporate life of fellowship, transcending caste-division impelled by their sense of being made brethren through the death of Christ on the cross. The Lord’s table open to people of different castes and tribes and sexes challenged the traditional spirituality that divided people into the ritually pure and impure and thereby supported social structures of caste, sex, and other discriminations.  It does not mean that the church congregations did not make compromises with such structures themselves. They did. But they also promoted a spiritual vision and practice that challenged them, thereby acting as a transforming ferment in the larger society.”

This seems to me an important witness for Christians to reflect upon.  A lot of really smart church leaders and theologians have spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how the church can speak authentically in public life, serve the common good, develop a political theology.  A lot of church leaders and theologians have also tried to cozy up to people in power in order to influence political policies, agendas, platforms.  I am finding that this is true not just in the US but also in South Africa.  And we all can think of the egregious cases where individuals and churches have gotten corrupted in the process.  But for the most part I think it is more about faithful people and faithful churches trying to make some positive change and yet ending up feeling as though they are banging their heads against the wall.

What Thomas’s quotation suggests is that instead of trying to figure out a clever way in which Christians can speak intelligibly in a pluralistic society or leverage spiritual power in the rough and tumble of partisan politics, perhaps the best strategy is to simply be authentic Christian communities in the midst of our societies.  Living out the world transforming values of the kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ in our worship and corporate life of fellowship may wind up being the most effective way we can protest the partisanship and tribalism that is tearing apart our societies, and act as the “transforming ferment in the larger society.”

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