by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
The United States is not alone in its struggle to come to terms with the surge in violence fueled by race, religion, and a toxic nationalism masquerading as patriotism.
Today, Sri Lankan government declared an emergency and imposed curfew on the city of Kandy and several small towns. Last week, a spate of violent incidents rocked at least three Sri Lankan towns – Ampara, Teldeniya and Digana – where violent mobs of Buddhist extremists went on rampage burning Muslim-owned businesses and mosques. The conflation of the religious-ethnic identity laced with a strong dose of nationalism is the hallmark of extremist Buddhists of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force). This extremist group is led by the monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who has built a name for himself instigating extremist terror on minority communities.
It was only a few days ago that an OMNIA Leadership Team comprising Nigerian Christian Abare Kallah, American Muslim women’s activist Soraya Deen, and myself led an interfaith power-building workshop in Kandy, where 35 grassroots interfaith activists participated. One of three such workshops, the others were in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where 54 religious leaders participated and in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where another group of 35 grassroots interfaith activists participated. The workshops gave participants skills to build power to collaborate across boundaries that usually divide human communities for effective action for justice and peace. Our mission was to create environments where there would be no room for such violence fueled by religio-ethnic nationalism.
While in Colombo, the OMNIA team had a timely meeting with Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister Mano Ganesan, the Minister for Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages, whose primarily responsibility is to build religious and racial harmony, a portfolio that neatly fits OMNIA’s mission. We had a fruitful discussion about ways in which OMNIA can support the Minister’s work. We also had a visit with former Sri Lanka Anglican Bishop Kenneth Fernando, with whom we discussed the violence’s deep political roots.
In that conversation I suggested that the conflation of religious and racial/ethnic identity, as in Sinhala-Buddhist was an election strategy in 1956 by the late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike – one that was so successful in that it gave him a landslide victory. Two years later, following one of the first episodes of anti-Tamil violence in 1958, Bandaranaike recognized that Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious communities had been left out of the Sinhala-Buddhist equation and, to his credit, tried to walk it back. But it was too little too late. He was killed by a nationalistic Buddhist monk in 1959. Bishop Fernando added the observation that Bandaranaike’s Sinhala-Buddhist conflation was the result of 453 years of colonial domination and the brutal suppression of Buddhism by colonial governments motivated by a colonial Christianity.
While such conflation is particularly problematic in Sri Lanka, similar problems occur in Bangladesh, Nigeria and the United States, all places where OMNIA is working to dismantle the “received” traditions that are based on exclusivity and superiority that breed extremism, and to build new understandings that arise from the ground.
While in Sri Lanka we heard the news of the death of American evangelist Billy Graham. More than any other in recent history, Graham impacted Christian theology with his persuasive message of individual salvation that shifted Christianity away from its roots of community and the common good. Graham’s simplistic formula of individual salvation has left popular American theology bereft of any systemic or communal understanding of sin and salvation. Such an individualistic theology cannot deal with the challenges of racism and militarism etc. that are systemic in nature. Ironically, Graham’s theology was utterly militaristic and laced with white nationalism. His counsel to and prayers with President George H.W. Bush on the night that the bombing of Baghdad began on January 19, 1991 was, in my mind, a flagrant misuse of religious authority.
Whether in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or the United States, breaking apart such conflations is a critical task of OMNIA’s training. It dismantles what we called top-down, or “received” traditions, and builds up new learnings that arise from the bottom. For all of us schooled in “traditional” top-down ways of imbibing religious teachings, this provides a new paradigm of learning
OMNIA’s training on building power for collaborative and effective action required us to take one critical issue that arises from the group for analysis. For example, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders wrestled together with the question of gender justice. Over centuries the “received” traditions of religion have provided theological cover for a culture of patriarchy. This legitimation manifests itself not only in male-dominated religious leadership but creates serious problems in the day-to-day lives of women and girls as they navigate the major discriminations and daily micro-aggressions they experience.
In Kandy, grass-roots oriented interfaith leaders explored the lack of opportunities for young people for education and employment. The group recognized that religion, once a powerful advocate of education, no longer holds government accountable to equitable education. The group envisioned how religious communities could work together to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.
The Colombo workshop brought together interfaith leaders from the North and East of Sri Lanka (areas ravaged by the brutal 30 year-long war) to address issues of war-widows and missing persons. The government’s inadequate responses to these continuing humanitarian crises have forced these leaders to count on the power latent in religious communities to act effectively.
We cannot do the same things we have done all along and expect different results. OMNIA’s method indicates a paradigm shift in the way people of faith and values contribute to the common good. Religion does not need to capitulate to the demands of those who have political or economic power. Religious communities can themselves build power, but not to dominate over others, rather to build structures that lead to justice and peace. This is our task.
The next OMNIA Leadership Summit will be in Chicago, April 25,26 and 27. Please go here for more information, and join us for this transformative experience.