As well as questions about Jesus and the Christian faith, you may have questions about Christianity and South Asia – its history and religious practices. Some of the common questions (and answers) are below.
Is there a link between Christianity and South Asia?
If you go on a tour of Kerala, in south west India, one of the stops will be a beautiful beach, where it is believed the Apostle Thomas landed in the first century after Christ.
Thomas was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, the inner circle. After Jesus’ death and resurrection they scattered in different directions to preach his revolutionary message of love and forgiveness. Peter and Paul, the best known, travelled west through the Mediterranean world, and eventually to Rome. Thomas travelled east, following the trade routes to India, especially the spice route. One early document refers to his going to north India; others refer to the south.
Historians tell us it can’t be proved that Thomas actually came, but it is entirely possible. There was constant traffic between south India and the Mediterranean at that time. Plenty of Roman coins from the period have been found in Kerala. If he came on the southern route he would have had a 20 day journey by sailing ship, carrying horses and other cargo on the way out, spices on the return. Thomas would probably have slept in the hold with the horses, in smelly conditions.
He is believed to have preached on the western Malabar coast and then travelled to the Coromandel coast on the east, where he preached and was killed. San Thome Cathedral in Chennai marks the place of his preaching, and St Thomas Mount marks the spot of his death.
What was the historical development of Christianity in the Indian sub-continent?
The Syrian connection
There is clear historical evidence of the Christian community in Kerala from the 3rd century onwards, probably going back much earlier to the time of Thomas. After some initial resistance they seem to have been accepted by local society and remained as a self-contained group for centuries. They had connections with the church of Antioch, in Syria, and so became known as Syrian Christians. Today the churches in Kerala are distributed in three major divisions: the old Orthodox Syrian tradition (now divided into several groups), the Roman Catholics and a range of independent Protestant groups.
The teaching of Christ may have gone to other parts of India in those early centuries. Apart from the northern tradition already mentioned, there are fascinating parallels and connections with devotional movements in Hinduism and with writings like the Bhagavad Gita or the Thirukkural, the Tamil book of wisdom by Thiruvalluvar.
The Roman Catholics
Very little is known of any developments until the 16th century, when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived. Their mission in Goa was closely linked to the Portuguese colonial occupation. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, also preached in south India among the fishermen of the coast (1542-45 and again in 1552). Another Jesuit, Robert de Nobili, who arrived in India in 1605, settled in Madurai in the south and identified himself with the local scholars and teachers (mostly Brahmin) seeking to communicate his message in their cultural context.
The first Protestant Christian missionary was the German Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, who landed in 1705 in Tharangambadi (Tranquebar), a Danish colony on the Tamil Nadu coast. He began translating the Bible into Tamil and encouraging literacy. He also provided education and found himself increasingly drawn into the social needs of people. For example, he discovered that there was no provision for girls to be educated, except the devadasis, who learned music and dance. He started the first school for girls.
Following Ziegenbalg, European missionaries were involved in a range of social activities, along with their preaching and Bible translation work. They were not allowed to work in the territories controlled by the East India Company until 1830 (the Company feared any possible interference in its commercial enterprise).. Response to their message varied greatly, depending on social and cultural, as well as spiritual factors. A similar pattern can be seen across the sub-continent, including Sri Lanka, but not Nepal at this time.
Towards the end of the 19th century and early years of the 20th large groups of people in India became Christian, the majority from the lowest levels of the caste system.
Post independence and partition
Following the end of colonial rule and the partition of the sub-continent, Christian faith continued to grow.
Today Christians are found in all the South Asian countries. Leadership of the churches is in the hands of the local people, who continue to wrestle with the big issues of the sub-continent: inequality and religious pluralism. How do Christ’s followers work out his message both in caring for individuals and also engaging with social and economic structures? How do they express their faith through their South Asian culture, in the context of many other religions?
% of Christians in South Asian nations:
Maldives: no figures available
Sri Lanka: 7.5%
Is Christianity the same as Western culture?
Many people think of Christians as white – Europeans or Americans – and link Christianity with Western culture. ‘If you are a white British person, you must be Christian.’ Indeed, in the 2011 census 59.3% of people stated that they were Christian regardless of their knowledge of actual practice of the faith. Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in the proportion of people who identify as Christian and an increase in those reporting to have no religion (25%).
Most people would extend their view of Christians to include Black people from Africa and the Caribbean. For some, Christians are people from low caste backgrounds in South Asia, who converted in order to improve their social and economic status.
When Rajesh, a psychiatrist, was in his final year at medical school he decided to follow Jesus. When he told his father he was very upset. ‘Have you become a Christian now?’ he asked. ‘I suppose that means you’re going to eat beef, drink whisky and live an immoral life…?’
Many South Asians react in the same way. They associate Christians and Christianity with the permissive behaviour they see in the media and in Western society in general. Others point to the behaviour of Christians in the past, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the political power of the Catholic Church, or apparently ‘forced’ conversions in South America or India. None of this really represents Jesus’ teachings. It’s not surprising that they conclude that while Jesus may be OK, his followers are not always that great.
That’s why some Christians prefer to call themselves ‘followers of Christ’. They don’t want to identify their faith with one particular culture but want to emphasise the relationship with Christ, rather than cultural and institutional structures, which can be misleading.
Isn’t there a link between Christianity and colonialism?
Like the connection with Western culture, the answer is not simple. The most recent major period of colonialism, in the 17th to 19th centuries, was from European countries to other parts of the world. The European powers were all in some sense ‘Christian’.
As they encountered people of other cultures, defeated them in battle or gained the advantage economically, they were tempted to assume that their own culture and civilisation was superior. In different ways, almost all Europeans assumed this and for some it was explicitly part of their mission to spread what they saw as the benefits of their civilisation.
Many of them included Christianity as part of these benefits. So there was a link between Christian mission and the Western colonial enterprise. However, two things need to be remembered…
> Many European Christians were critical of the colonial enterprise.
Though they might have welcomed its benefits, their aims were different and their close contact with people brought changes in their attitudes as they learned more about their culture and language (missionaries often pioneered the translation and preservation of local languages). They did not approve of what they saw as against the teaching of the Bible. Some found themselves caught between the failures they could see in both cultures – their own culture and the culture of the people to whom they had come.
Others openly opposed the colonial powers, especially in economic and social matters. For example they opposed the injustices of the indigo traders in India, the opium trade in China and above all European participation in the slave trade. This was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 through the continued pressure of Christians, both black and white.
Brijraj Singh examines these issues closely in his study: Ziegenbalg; The First Protestant Missionary to India. He concludes that Ziegenbalg, ‘though not without colonial leanings, [was] not a colonialist.’
> When the European colonial era came to an end after the Second World War, the spread of Christian faith actually increased, now that it was freed from the colonial connection.
In his book Whose Religion is Christianity? Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian who teaches at Yale Divinity School, distinguishes post-Western Christianity from European Christendom. He calls it ‘World’ Christianity, which has emerged with explosive force in the last several decades. It is made up of previously non-Christian societies and cultures who have accepted and adopted the Gospel in and through their own unique idioms. This has happened mostly since the post-colonial period began, and ‘without Western organizational structures, including academic recognition, and …amidst widespread political instability and the collapse of public institutions.’
In other words, Christian mission and the Christian faith were not simply equated with the European colonial enterprise.
Is Christianity responsible for racist attitudes?
Christians have supported apartheid and slavery, based on the Bible. Does the Bible teach racism?
The South African apartheid regime was backed and supported by Christians. So were the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and segregation in the southern states of the United States. Racism and slavery are not the same, but have been closely linked, as we see below.
White Christians opposed efforts of the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. African-Caribbean and Asian people who came to Britain faced discrimination in the churches as well as in society. Christians in Europe over the centuries have engaged in anti-Semitic activities. Mahatma Gandhi was deeply alienated by the racism of white Christians in South Africa.
These monumental historical events would appear to suggest that the Christian faith not only supports but sanctions racism. Yet the Bible teaches the most radical and revolutionary message of unity: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). The Bible opens with the same message: all human beings were created equal by the one God. Early churches such as the one in Antioch had members and leaders from different ethnic and social backgrounds (Acts 11:20; 13:1).
Why have this teaching and practice been turned on their heads in the various events listed above? Of the many books addressing this issue, one of the most helpful is The Curse of Ham by David Goldenberg. He makes the following key points…
1. No negative evaluations of black people were found in either biblical or post-biblical sources.
2. While the colour black symbolised sin and evil, this did not lead to antipathy toward black Africans.
3. Since many black Africans in Arabia, Greece, Rome and Israel were slaves, this created a ready association of black and slave. The association of black with slave led to an erroneous re-reading of the Bible in a way that led people to believe that when Noah cursed his grandson Canaan – “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9: 25) – God subjected all dark-skinned people to serve as slaves.
4. The curse was known as the curse of Ham and was relied on more and more as black slaves increased in number.
5. Originally, skin colour was used to describe an individual or community’s complexion. Later, as Arabs began to conquer people of darker complexion, skin colour was used as a visible marker to differentiate between ethnic groups. In the 16th century, the English also did this when they encountered non-whites; it was a way to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This ethnic designation by colour was forced into the biblical text.
6. As white European Christians captured and colonised other parts of the world, and as they traded in black African slaves, they conquered and subjugated people of colour. The very act of conquering those of a different skin colour led them to justify their economic, political and cultural domination and exploitation of the ‘other’ with darker skin.
It is a universal human tendency to seek power and resources for ‘our’ people, and to exploit those who are different. As part of this process it is convenient to use their supposed inferiority as justification. Examples can be found throughout history.
Economics played a key part in reinforcing racism as the subjugation and exploitation of those of a different skin colour led to the increasing wealth of the West. Bernard Lewis, emeritus professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, makes the point that racism, ethnic purity, economics and white European conquest of people with darker skin led white people to acquire a sense of their superiority over those of darker skin colour.
The classification of ‘races’ from the Enlightenment period endorsed such beliefs. These in turn further reinforced erroneous biblical interpretation and justification of black slavery.
But we must remember that Christians played the major role in bringing an end to the transatlantic slave trade, an end to segregation in the American south and the dismantling of the apartheid regime. White Christians in America, Britain and South Africa have recognised and repented of their racism. In Britain, many churches are working hard to overcome racism and to embrace and enjoy ethnic diversity. They want to demonstrate the Christian message of reconciliation, not just in words but action as well.
Sadly, there are still some Christians who have racist attitudes, but most know and understand that there is no room for racism within Christianity. The Christian message condemns racism and embraces the diversity that God created. So Christians need to work hard to practise Christ’s message of reconciliation.
What is Christian Mission?
Christian mission is to follow the example of Jesus Christ, and to share the good news of his coming, by word and action.
Jesus came into the world to demonstrate God’s character of love and justice and to open the way to God. He did this by telling people the good news about God’s love, declaring God’s rule, healing the sick, showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised, and confronting injustice and wrongdoing. He gave his life on the cross to show God’s love and open the way to God, by bridging the great gap between us and God.
Christ’s followers celebrate this good news of Jesus. They want to obey his command to ‘go into all the world and preach the good news to everyone’ (Gospel of Mark 16.15). They also want to follow his example and teaching by serving people as he did.
They do this with respect for people of all faiths and none and they also look for ways of working together for the common good. Domination, superiority or forcing one’s views have no place in this mission.
How has it worked out in practice?
History shows both the power of this loving message to transform individuals and societies – and the mistakes that have been made by those proclaiming the message.
People have had their personal agendas. Or they have sought power and prestige for their institution or their country. Sometimes they have exercised cultural domination (consciously or unconsciously). Or they have been paternalistic. Sometimes Christians have used coercion, or even military force, in the name of faith.
All this shows how easy it is to lose sight of the message and of the purpose of serving others. DT Niles, a Sri Lankan preacher, once said that the work of Christian mission is ‘one beggar telling another where to get bread’. The missionary has nothing to be superior about. He or she is just as much in need of forgiveness as anybody else. That is why Jesus died – for all people.
Christian mission and Christian service begin from this perspective. Those who follow Christ need to remember this and pray that they will follow his example in practice.
Why do Christians try to serve others?
Christians serve others because Jesus did. It should be a natural outcome of their commitment to Christ. He expects his followers to respond to fundamental human needs of every kind – spiritual, social, physical.
Jesus told his followers to follow his example by preaching the good news of God’s kingdom (Matthew 9:35; 10:7-8), and also by feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25:35-40). Serving others demonstrates God’s love for all. It points to the greatest demonstration of that love in the death of Jesus.
What kind of service?
This service takes different forms according to the situation. In the UK’s welfare state, for example, it isn’t always obvious – many people are affluent; most health and social needs are taken care of. But there are in fact many different needs and the challenge is to know how best to respond to them. In South Asia, physical and social needs are sometimes the most obvious.
Everyone has spiritual needs. These are in fact the deepest needs. But the challenge is to serve people as whole people, not neglecting any aspect. Concern for spiritual needs alone can leave people struggling because of their social or economic situation. But social and economic change isn’t only external. Outside intervention may be needed to initiate and catalyse change, working in partnership. But for long term change to take place people’s inner motivation and self-understanding are involved. And that ultimately includes the spiritual.
So we need to care for people as a whole.
Isn’t there an ulterior motive?
Sometimes service can be misunderstood. When people are looking for spiritual change, especially those who are disadvantaged economically or socially, there can be temptations:
> Those who are serving can take advantage of others’ needs.
> People outside can misunderstand motives: ‘These people are responding because they simply want benefits.’ Or, ‘These people are exploiting the poor. Their real motive is to change them to their own beliefs and way of thinking.’ Some people in countries such as India and China became known as Rice Christians, based on this perception.
> People can become dependent or manipulate those who are seeking to serve them. We can see this in any culture, including the modern welfare state.
Whenever individuals or communities experience change, especially through outside intervention, there is a whole range of factors at work. Those who seek to intervene must be sensitive to these factors and the possible consequences of their intervention.
Such questions arise wherever aid or development workers are involved. There are no simple answers. This is particularly the case when the question of religious conversion comes up.
Where does the name ‘Christian’ come from?
It seems to have been a nickname – Christianoi, ‘the people belonging to Christ’. At the beginning Jesus’ followers were mostly Jews. People did not notice any difference – they were just another sect.
But within a few years they began to share their experience with non-Jews and in the city of Antioch (the third largest in the Roman Empire) significant numbers began to follow Christ. Now they came from different cultures and faith backgrounds. People noticed them and gave them a nickname.
Gradually the nickname stuck and became the most common name. But this name was not essential. Usually Jesus’ followers were called disciples, or believers, or brothers.
So the word Christian simply means ‘somebody who follows Christ’. It did not originally mean ‘somebody from a particular country or community’. But over 20 centuries it has acquired a lot of historical and cultural connotations.
That’s why many today prefer to call themselves followers of Christ, in order to emphasise that you can follow Christ without changing your culture, because Christ is for people of all cultures. They don’t reject the name ‘Christian’, but they acknowledge that it needs to be properly understood.
The book of Acts in the Bible contains the first reference to the word ‘Christians’. It says that in the town of Antioch, ‘a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord… The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ (Acts 11:21 and 26).
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