Chaotic scenes unfolded before an incredulous world last weekend in an Indian Ocean island the size of West Virginia yet with a population ten times larger. Since July 9, global media outlets have been running lead stories on the dramatic social ferment in Sri Lanka.
A massive citizen mobilization pushed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the most powerful Sri Lankan leader since the days of the country’s ancient kings, to unceremoniously leave by a back door to escape the wrath of hundreds of thousands of protesters that came calling at his presidential palace this past Saturday. He fled Wednesday out to deep sea aboard a naval vessel, to the Maldives on board a military jet, then to Singapore on a commercial airline. From there he sent his belated resignation Thursday, which enabled some closure so that the nation could look to rebuild from here.
Lonely Planet listed this middle-income country and tropical tourist hotspot as the world’s best nation to visit in 2019. Later that year, Rajapaksa became president by a landslide. He used his military background to great effect to coerce the masses haunted by still-fresh memories of the horrific Easter attacks of April 2019. In less than three years, though, he succeeded in presiding over a catastrophic economic collapse that defies belief.
Experts call it a man-made humanitarian disaster caused by a deadly cocktail of ego, corruption, and reckless government policies in the face of the pandemic. By January, Sri Lanka ran out of foreign reserves and became incapable of sustaining essential imports or servicing its international debt obligations. By April, the Central Bank officially announced that the second-strongest Asian economy of 1948 was effectively bankrupt.
By June, the official inflation rate was reported to be 54.6 percent, but on the ground the situation is much worse. A loaf of bread that cost 60 rupees a year ago is now sold at 190 rupees. Rice, the country’s staple, has gone up by 140 percent, and wheat flour prices by 400 percent. I just returned from talking to someone who felt fortunate to have obtained three liters of petrol for his motorbike after staying in a fuel line for over 72 hours day and night. For millions of farmers, traders, factory owners, and artisans, the lack of fuel has leveled a deathblow to their means of income. It has also kept schools and universities closed for months and has badly hit essential services like transport and health care.
Doctors at the largest children’s hospital have reported that they are seeing alarming numbers of undernourished pregnant women, and several hospitals have suspended routine surgeries due to the unavailability of essential drugs.
The aragalaya or “political struggle” began on March 1, when a handful of conscientious and determined citizens decided to stand each evening at the street corner a few meters from our seminary, holding candles and placards in silent protest. They were calling out President Rajapaksa and the government he had staffed with family members to resign on account of the immense suffering being inflicted on millions of Sri Lankans. He responded with a televised address in which he admitted that many of his policy decisions had been fatally flawed but held on to a bizarre logic that he could not possibly leave office as a “failed president.”
Soon similar protests sprang up all over the country, leading to the first massive march on the president’s private residence on April 1. When the police and military were ordered to violently crack down on the peaceful protesters and arrest dozens, hundreds of members of the Bar Association showed up pro bono to represent those arrested and to secure their release on bail. It was clear that wider civil society was being inspired and galvanized to get behind the movement. The protesters then moved to set up a semipermanent site downtown at Galle Face. The name they playfully called it—Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village)—is now world renowned.
One characteristic of the struggle has been its remarkable egalitarianism. Sri Lanka is a country of rich diversity, whose post-independence history has sadly been marred by class, ethnic, and religious conflicts and an unyielding majoritarianism. Despite being the oldest democracy in Asia, we are not used to a social space where everyone—young and old, poor and rich, people of faith and no faith, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers—can have an equal voice and share a common aspiration for a better future.
Paradoxically, however, the misery of our circumstances has had a soul-cleansing effect on our national consciousness. We are now more aware of our relatedness and interdependence, and are ready to celebrate our diversity. This is what makes me hopeful that now we may have our second chance at independence.
A church of the soil
Where is the church in all this? How does Christian discipleship play out in the public square?
Christianity has had a long history in Sri Lanka. The oldest Christian traditions that survive to the present—Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed, and other Protestants—go back to successive waves of European colonization under the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British, beginning in A.D. 1505. Yet historical sources attest to the presence of viable Christian communities on the island from as early as the fourth century A.D. The clearest evidence of this early Christian presence is in the sixth-century Christian Topography by world traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote, “In the Island of Taprobane (Ceylon), there is a church of the Christians, and clerks and faithful.”
Sadly we hear nothing more of this sixth-century “church of the Christians.” Unlike other ancient Christian communities that thrived in South Asia, the church in Sri Lanka slips quietly out of existence. And 20th-century Sri Lanka witnessed the only instance of church numbers declining in a non-Muslim nation in the global south. The total Christian population declined from 10 percent in 1911 to 7.6 percent in 1981. While reverse conversions and large-scale migration by traditional Christian families may provide pragmatic explanations, this unfortunate trend of church decline was the inevitable result of theological liberalism and Christian complacency that had set in from the end of the 19th century.
But the early 1980s marked a major turning point in the prospects of the Sri Lankan church. The 1981 national census records the bottom of Christian decline. Between 1953 and 1981, the Sri Lankan population grew by 83 percent from 8 million to almost 15 million. During the same period, the Christian community grew only by 56 percent. However between 1981 and 2012, when the overall population grew by 37 percent (from nearly 15 million to more than 20 million), the Christian numbers kept up, growing by 37 percent also.
What factors account for the changed pattern of the Christian demographic?
Two significant trends were set in motion from the early 1970s: a recovery of confidence in the authority of Scripture, and a renewal of passion for the proclamation of the gospel.
Pentecostal and charismatic church movements lent great strength to a renewed conviction that the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ must be made known to everyone. Indigenous movements led by pioneer workers from local churches shared the life-transforming message of Christ with people who had previously been ignored. They were supported by organizations such as Campus Crusade and its Jesus Film teams. The faithful words of these trailblazers backed by a simple lifestyle, spiritual gifts, and prayer gradually resulted in significant numbers coming to faith.
This was accompanied by a renewed confidence in the authority of Scripture. Ministries like Youth for Christ equipped hundreds of young people to become diligent students of the Bible and encouraged them to become loyal members in the local church. Bible camps and conferences and evangelical seminary education soon became standard fare for a community that was rediscovering the excitement of a living faith. These vital ingredients prepared the Sri Lankan church to be proactive and responsive in the face of some of the gravest challenges that would unfold over the next four decades.
One was the devastating civil war between the government and the Tamil separatist movement. Having started in 1983, the longest-running civil war in Asia ended 26 years later in 2009. During these decades, evangelical Christians were forced to grapple with how faith related to the constant reality of violence, insecurity, displacement, human rights abuses, deprivation, and every form of human need. It was possible to see how the proclamation of the good news and the practices that flowed out of a life shaped by the gospel were complementary Christian actions.
A major spinoff of the civil war was the launching of Sri Lanka Unites (SLU) to promote reconciliation among young people of all ethnic and religious communities. Founded by a dynamic young Christian, SLU has influenced thousands of high school youth from all backgrounds and from every part of the country to think in terms of diversity, equality, and peace—with such extraordinary success that the movement has now been replicated in a dozen countries from Sierra Leone to the US. It cannot be a coincidence that the language celebrating diversity used at SLU programs over the years has been echoed by so many in the aragalaya movement.
A second major challenge faced by the church was unprecedented persecution that began in the early 1990s. Fueled by extreme ethnoreligious Buddhist movements, it picked up momentum so that initial discriminatory sentiments against Christians quickly escalated to allegations of unethical conversion, full-on confrontations, attacks on pastors and believers, arsons of church properties, and even a couple of incidents of martyrdom.
Again, this situation became an opportunity for the maturing of the Sri Lankan church, this time bringing about a unity and collaboration not seen before. It was the experience of persecution that opened the church to a new sense of interdependence, including a committee—formed with Catholic and Anglican bishops together with charismatic and Pentecostal pastors—working diligently to stave off some of the graver dangers of rising persecution.
Thus upon reflection, we can see how God’s purpose of Christian maturity has graciously played out through the travails of the church in Sri Lanka. “You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete” (James 1:3–4).
Signs of Christian maturity
How, then, has the church showed a biblically mature response in the context of Sri Lanka’s most recent crisis?
1. By speaking truth to power: Denominational leaders and Christian politicians, journalists, lawyers, and academics have been prominent among the vocal critics of corrupt officials and their ill-advised policies. The Roman Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is today one of the most trusted voices in the country on account of his bold and sustained condemnation of the injustices by the Rajapaksa regime.
2. By participating in solidarity with the struggle: Throughout the agitations that led to the resignation of the Rajapaksa family from the high posts they held in government, the church played a prominent role: whether by standing with the protesters in Gota Go Gama or by organizing its own silent protests, conducting prayer meetings, and being part of important interreligious forums.
3. By serving the needs of those most affected: Millions in Sri Lanka have entered a long period of economic hardship. Increasing numbers are facing shortages of food and medicine. It is heartening to see how Christian families and churches are spontaneously responding to the emergency. For example, my local Methodist church has been giving out weekly cooked lunches for several weeks and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for the hundred or so lunches to be gratefully received. Another team in the church runs a Community Cupboard, collecting dry rations from church members, sorting them, and distributing them to the poor in the community. People line up as early as 5 a.m. to make sure they will be within the 200 beneficiaries given some help that week.
4) By contributing to governance and nation building: It is most important to note that in recent years—and certainly during this crisis—Christian voices have been disproportionately prominent in crucial dialogues within the legislature, with foreign governments, and with international news agencies. Abraham Sumanthiran and Eran Wickramaratne are two influential legislators who left lucrative careers (as a senior lawyer and a CEO of a major bank, respectively) to enter parliament out of a clear Christian commitment to work for social justice. They are today among the most trusted parliamentarians for their integrity and credibility.
Transformations still pending
As much as the church’s witness at this time of crisis has been largely positive and encouraging, there are still some key areas that Sri Lankan Christians will do well to address.
1. The sacred-secular divide that is still alive and well: Many are familiar with this global anomaly where Christians learn to live by an invisible line of partition between some aspects of God’s world and others. In this way of thinking, matters like church attendance, Bible study, and prayer are “sacred” and mandatory for believers. But one’s choice of a job, social justice activity, engagement in society, and concern for the environment are viewed as “secular” and unsuitable for Christians. This unbiblical dualism has stunted the discipleship of many passionate believers and kept them from following the call of Christ to be in the world even as they are not of it.
2. The distortion of prosperity teachings and celebrity-style Christian leaders:This too is a global phenomenon that has imperceptibly spread among urban communities and into the places where pioneer missionaries had established first-generation church communities. Lacking solid biblical teaching, enthusiastic Christians are drawn by the promise of divine blessing if they pledge an uncritical loyalty to an “anointed” man or woman of God. In a country now rocked by economic woes, the contradiction posed by these false teachers’ distortions of the gospel cannot be overstated.
3. A receiving orientation rather than a giving mindset: I like to call this a fixation on the plea of the Macedonian man in Paul’s vision: “Come over … and help us” (Acts 16:9). Sri Lanka has for centuries been a missionary-receiving church. Many Christians here struggle to see how taking care of our own affairs is our responsibility. Sending Sri Lankans as missionaries to bless other nations is a concept conspicuous by its absence in the church here. We would do well to remember another plea by the Macedonian churches: not to ask for help for themselves but to entreat Paul that they might sacrificially give toward the churches in Judea (2 Cor. 8:1–5).
Many around the world look at Sri Lanka today and are understandably appalled. But on July 9, I saw a battered people set out with an unimaginable resolve, their deep pain and frustrations tempered by their commitment to the endgame. As I joined that heaving mass of humanity all the way to the gates of the President’s House, I remembered I was there as an ambassador of Christ. And it wasn’t just me. Here and there, I recognized the clergy of various churches in their clerical garb and the Catholic nuns scattered in the melee: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
Like the years that led to independence from Britain in 1948, this too may get worse before it gets better. A new Sri Lanka is struggling to be born. The struggle this time is for independence from ethnoreligious majoritarianism, divisive politics, and crippling corruption. The process that leads to a safe delivery is fraught with danger and may be painful and messy. Yet it’s a joy to see the church with her sleeves rolled up and ready to assist.
Ivor Poobalan, PhD, is prinicipal of Colombo Theological Seminary in Sri Lanka.
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