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A blow for freedom must be used for freedom

MUMBAI (UCAN): This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, an event which changed the history of western Europe and much of the rest of the world.

At its heart is Martin Luther’s claim that the individual could seek and find God in the depths of his soul, not through obedience to a corrupt external Church structure. The first blow for freedom of choice, for freedom of conscience was struck here.

But Luther’s revolution has grown far beyond its origins, so that today, freedom has become the paramount value in modern society, clashing with every system of structural control, whether in the family or the state.

The rights of individual man inspired the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, which also celebrates its centenary this year, right down to this decade’s Arab Spring.

Sadly, there is no freedom without bloodshed. The Reformation led to violent strife between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and elsewhere, divisions which lasted centuries.

This is one reason why the theme for this year’s ecumenical meet between Catholics and Lutherans is Reconciliation: The love of Christ impels us.

In From Conflict to Communion, both traditions, Catholic and Protestant, realise that much has changed since the 1500s. Today’s age is ecumenical, not polemic; and a new understanding of each other’s history, theology and social structures offers multiple opportunities for reconciliation and cooperation.

This should be especially so in the countries of Asia, where the different Churches only inherited the tensions of their mother Churches from Europe: they did not create them.

Whatever the reasons for suspicion and hostility among Christian faith communities in Asia, theological differences are only secondary.

The Vatican Council introduced us to ecumenical dialogue, that is, to speak to and to listen to all the others belonging to the vast Christian oikumene (civilised world).

But our challenge in Asia is slightly different. It is interfaith dialogue: reaching out to appreciate the world religions and understanding their different ways of approaching God and society.

In India, for example, much has been done by way of adapting to Hinduism, Islam and even tribal religions, but the rise of fundamentalism everywhere threatens these precarious relations.

In fact, dialogue with Islam has become more urgent than ever. This is because so many Muslims identify the west with a Christendom which exists only in their fantasy and so many Christians will not ask forgiveness for their exploitation of Muslim societies in the past.

But there remains yet another area of dialogue, dialogue with the world. This refers to the secular values and beliefs which have become a whole value system for our contemporaries, independently of religion.

Like the great religions, secularism too has positive and negative aspects. To be of this world is to live rationally, to embrace the scientific spirit and its technological outreach, to overcome prejudice based on gender, caste and race. All these are positive.

But there is a darker side to the secular: its godlessness and arrogance; its practice of injustice, oppression, violence and hatred; its lust for financial power and contempt for the deprived millions across the globe.

To engage in dialogue with this means confronting the social evils of caste, communalism, gender discrimination and violence, the displacement of peoples, consumerism and ecological crime.

Such dialogue cannot be the work of a single uniform community, but a larger communion of communities which may be religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse, but united and focussed in seeking an equitable and peaceful society.

Take gender issues for example: we need to see how from time immemorial all societies have discriminated against women, kept them poor and dependent, and practiced violence against them, and all in the name of God and family honour.

And finally, is there yet another dialogue called for today? There is. It is the dialogue—or reconciliation—with Mother Earth and all creation.

When the World Council of Churches prayed for peace, justice and the integrity of creation, it is this which was in mind. And in Praise Be; On care for our common home (Laudato Si’), Pope Francis decries humanity’s sinful treatment of Mother Earth and of those who dwell upon it.

Earth’s multiple crises—pollution, climate, water scarcity, acid rain, biodiversity loss, inequality, continuing poverty, disease, alienation—are stated with clarity.

We’ve come a long way from Luther’s split with the Church. And yet perhaps not such a long way after all.

Luther’s aim was to encourage the direct experience of God and to relativise the religious structures of his age. Our contemporaries yearn for a similar experience—a restoration and a reclaiming of the Cosmos.

The task of reconciliation was never more vital, within communities, across societies and religions, between humanity and the rest of creation.

May the ecumenical celebration begun this year take this progressively further forward.


Father Myron Pereira SJ

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