Nuggets From Shanta Premawardhana's Call
Posted by Diana Badger on Sep 18, 2021
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Shanta Premawardhana realized early that received theology – deriving from text, scripture and tradition – could be limited in guiding how to live, compared to the theological questions that arise from the contexts of people’s daily lives. “What shall I eat tomorrow? How shall I find health care for my child? Those are in the end theological questions,” he says. “At that point, it doesn’t matter what is your faith.” Shanta is President of the Chicago-based OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership, which has trained over 3500 peacemakers organized into 158 Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. OMNIA seeks to dismantle top-down "received" theologies of exclusivity and superiority, and build bottom-up "contextual" theologies -- turning the mission paradigm upside down where those on the margins teach those in the privileged center.
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
How his family came to be Christian in Sri Lanka: His paternal grandfather was a "rather militant Buddhist." "Because of the colonial heritage, there were many militant Buddhist at the time, who thought that the missionary movement was a direct existential threat to Buddhism, and some turned to militancy -- and my grandfather was one of those." His grandfather had an arranged marriage with a Christian woman: "there was no issue here, the woman was supposed to convert to the man's religion, there was absolutely no question about that, but she refused." Her tenaciousness "led him to a series of questions that caused his conversion to Christianity. And so from being a militant Buddhist he became a rather engaged Christian , becoming a Baptist minister. And following him. my father and my uncle were both Baptist ministers, and I became one too, and then, I have a son, who was also ordained, so it sort of began to run in the family at that point in time."
"Christianity came to Sri Lanka and other colonial countries with colonial power, and therefore colonial opportunities. And because of his conversion I don't have any doubt about that. we all -- all his children and his grandchildren and others following -- benefited in the fact that ... I am who I am today, living in the United States, doing the kind of work that I really enjoy doing -- has its beginnings in that conversion story."
Re-embracing the understanding of other indigenous religions: Even though he went to Christian missionary schools, most of his friends were Buddhists, and he came to see how they lived, and their commitment to their faith. This led him to begin "to ask hard questions. I imbibed the faith that was exclusivity, growing up in a Baptist church, and exclusivism that says Jesus is the only way to the truth." That discrepancy of seeing the humanity of other religionists around him, and the exclusivity in which he experienced his own faith, led him to seminary "to discover a little bit more about what faith means -- both from my own Christian standpoint, but then to explore what does it mean to the other, my neighbors who have different religions."
His father's interest in learning about Buddhism was a bit different: "[My father] felt that among some of his peers there was a discrepancy in our Christianity. That it was brought to Sri Lanka by foreign missionaries, and was a foreign religion, brought to a Buddhist land; and therefore we needed to indigenize our religious tradition within the Buddhist context. How can we root our Christianity in the Buddhist context? To do that, we have to ask how do we understand Buddhism? It was said that the British brought the Gospel like a potted plant, and our task now is to break the pot and plant it in the ground. How do you do this if you don’t know what the soil is?...For me, it [learning about Buddhism and Hinduism] was about understanding my own self, and of the ultimate reality, my authenticity – I wanted to be able to use Buddhist understanding and practices as best I could in understanding my own self."
His rootedness in Christianity allows him to branch out and see other paths as legitimate, and reject the attempt to limit God to one framework: "I’m a deeply rooted Christian. It’s because of this that I can do [the work I do]. From the early days in my family we were very rooted in the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer, and attending church. All of those were very firmly rooted in us. The practices helped me to understand two things: one is a rootedness in love that I think our family provided – even the broader family. By the rootedness I mean a sort of a foundation – they’re not going to let you fall. They’re going to somehow old you up. On the other side, there was this thing called God, that was all-encompassing, all around, loving and compassionate, and caring – for ME! That somehow, even if family fails, or friends, God is not going to let me down."
"Here’s why that’s important – when you read the Bible you come to understand that God is a love of caring and abundance. Here’s what the assurance does – it tells you God is not going to let you down, and therefore you can take risks. You can step out and do things that you think are impossible to do, because you’re gong to be okay at the end, somehow. That is the rootedness of my Christian faith."
"I found meaning and purpose from from the part that I grew up in. And I want to recognize that my Buddhist friends or my Hindu friends find meaning and purpose from the paths that they are in, which is very legitimate. The thing is that we cannot -- none of us can contain God. Our imaginations, our thoughts, our concepts, our words, our ideas cannot possibly contain God. If we think that they do, we I think do blasphemy against God because you've immediately limited God to something that you can imagine, something that can be contained within your framework.
"I don't want to do that and therefore one of the important statements from the Bible comes from the famous chapter on love called from first Corinthians 13 -- When I was a child, I spoke like a child, but now I have given up childish things. Then I saw as through a glass darkly, then I will see face to face. In other words, we don’t know all of it – we can never know all of it. We still see through a glass darkly. That’s the mystery of God. Who am I to say that my Buddhist or Muslim friend cannot experience God in the way I can?"
His work at OMNIA and the focus on contextual theology: "This is my life now, [the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership]. I came about 10 years ago now, from the World Council of Churches, to this organization of 12 Christian seminaries, from a variety of traditions. We said to these seminaries, what you have [been teaching] is what we call received theologies – theologies that come from the past. The great theologies like those of Augustine, Luther, Calvin -- that’s what we study in seminary. Sometimes we give them greater authority than they ought to receive. Because, like me, they were children of their context, and they spoke to their context. So we have to look at any theologies from their context. Then we have to ask, What is our theology? Where does that emerge from? So we said, rather than received theology, send us our students to the streets of the city--which was Chicago, which means, to the struggles in our neighborhoods. Go talk to people, listen to their questions, their struggles. And those questions become the starting point for our theology. It’s a theology that begins from the ground up, not the top down. These are threatening questions to the institution of the church. But the pastors of today need to ask these questions, because they are living in a very different world than our previous generation."
OMNIA's work in training and serving together with peace-builders in regions of conflict: "We started to think about religious extremism as the biggest challenge in our world today. We had a faculty member from Nigeria at the time. He said you can start in northeast Nigeria, so we started training there in 2017, where Muslims and Christians had longstanding antagonisms between each other. Our understanding is that in the gaps like that, groups like Boko Haram take root. If we can bring them together and work together, then we can go a long way to alleviating this problem. We created interfaith peacemaker teams, groups of religious leaders, pastor, imams, and also lay people. They would learn 3 things: 1) how to collaborate with each other across faith and sometimes tribal differences 2) how to build power, because we want people to do things, which you do by organizing people and organizing money and 3) to act strategically, meaning understanding the amount of power you have, and what is it you can undertake – how you can cut a thin slice that is urgent, relevant, and winnable. If you can win something, then the community is going to look at you and see they have actually achieved something, Muslims and Christians working together -- that creates a change where culture change is possible, where people can affirm pluralistic ways of being.
"The key is this: a fundamental commitment of OMNIA -- of my own and of others who are religious people -- is that you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind, is the First Commandment, and love your neighbor as yourself is the Second. First is the spiritual part, the spiritual grounding. The second is, loving your neighbor. If you do, you’ll have to stand in solidarity with your neighbor in his or her need for justice."
"Nobody is going into a situation to try to save them. I don’t go to Nigeria to save the people there. I go to agitate the religious people there, to release the power that is within and among them, so that they can address the questions that are in their community. I am only an agitator for their power. We must never go with a savior mentality. We are not doing anything for other people, we are doing with other people. Standing in solidarity means working with, not for."
Regarding flipping the old paradigm of mission: "In the northern suburbs of Chicago, we at the church I was part of noticed there were lots of South Asians moving into that community. There are particular needs within that community, primarily the older generation of immigrants, who wanted to maintain their cultural ways of doing things, and their children were rebelling against that. This was a constant struggle for many families. We said, “Let’s try to find a way to talk about it, with the broader community.” We discovered they were Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians, and we began spiritual reflection groups, where we sat down in peoples’ living rooms and had conversations about our faith journeys, and what we can learn form each other. They were very meaningful conversations, and looked like what used to be called ashrams.. It lasted for 6 years, because we ran out of money and my family had to move. The mission point was, here are some people with a need, and maybe we can bring some people to address that need, so let’s do that."
"I don't think anybody was shy about sharing their faith, but there was no sort of big conversion agenda. Anytime you get into a dialogical relationship, if the dialogue is to be meaningful, there has to be some level of conversion going on. It doesn't have to be a change of identity -- you and I in this conversation are able to help each other move from one level of understanding to another level of understanding -- so small levels of conversion go on at any dialogical situation."
Our received theologies are flawed, so we need to flip many paradigms through contextual theology: An African American Christian once asked after the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, "What is wrong with Christianity that 50 years after Martin Luther King, 50 years after Selma (after Bloody Sunday), 50 years after voting rights legislation, we still have to deal with this kind of blatant racism?" A German Lutheran minister responded, that though "German theology has now changed, it was baptized Christians who did the killing [during the Holocaust] -- because of their faith, not in spite of their faith." Shanta then recalled a Muslim female professor who at a different meeting said, "Christianity has never not been the same since the Holocaust. Islam has not been the same since 9/11 -- Muslim theology has changed. But all those atrocities were committed by men, so why is male dominated theology still the same?"
So Shanta reflected: "Our theologies are so screwed up. That's because it is trying to maintain old institutional patriarchy, supremacies. That's our problem. The only way to deal with that is to look at theology from the other side, from the alternative paradigm of the context."
"My heart is in creating peacemaker teams, people who are committed to justice, committed to peace, committed to working to working with each other, in solidarity with each other. Working with people in the margins -- listening to, learning from, and living in deep solidarity with them -- and in doing so, building a world that is different from the one that we inherited. Gosh that's a huge thing, but we got to take it one step at a time."
How to connect with the margins? "All of us have a certain level of marginality and certain level of privilege in some sense. So we need to be able to identify those areas of marginality and privilege that we have and recognize how we might connect with those who are other, who are different from us."
The beauty of other faiths: "When I look at Muslims and think about the disciplines that they have praying five times a day, fasting for a month, giving zakat religiously -- all of those things are disciplines that are very important and useful for any religious person to follow.
"When I think about Jews, I think about the fact that Sabbath discipline is a very critical thing for the Jewish people -- how it is a sense of confidence in God's abundance that somehow God will provide for seven days of sustenance with six days of work. That is a very important understanding, and that understanding leads to what you call a Jubilee understanding: We are the earth and human beings, human societies come back to the original place that was intended for by the Creator.
"My Buddhist friends teach me a lot of things, including that all life is impermanent, that we should not take ourselves too seriously, that in fact life is a journey. That journey is not so much about a destination, but about the journey itself -- that the journey is to be cherished and enjoyed and that you need to find meaning in it.
"From my Hindu friends, I recognize the multiplicity of ways of speaking about the divine -- that we cannot speak about the divine in one way, but there could be at a million ways of talking about the divine, that life in itself is a complex of movement from one world to a rebirth that creates hundreds of opportunities. When you think about the way Western societies or Western life thinks about life -- as moving in a linear direction with a beginning and an end, you have a certain sense of tension and wanting to accomplish everything in this one lifetime. Hindus don't have that problem because they got multiple lives to accomplish whatever they want to accomplish, and that gives them a sense of relaxation and ease about life. It has its own problems, but but for many of us who are in the rat race of economic progress, Hinduism provides really good alternative."
Greed is a spiritual problem: and we need religions to address it, Shanta says. But "many Christian seems to have embraced greed, because our institutional theologies have allowed us to do that, because the Church is so enmeshed in greed itself." When some people embrace greed, it creates violence against others. Christians can learn more from Buddhists in this, and especially from the Second Noble Truth -- that the origination of unsatisfactory illness or suffering is greed -- identifying greed as the origin point, the big problem. Islam also has prohibitions against usury. The Jewish Sabbath is really a practice that goes against greed.
"Because we live in a capitalistic society, religion must stand against that, and all religions have resources to stand against that. ... At the end of the day, those evils that I talked to you about -- the question of war and violence, the question of economic injustice, the question of climate change -- they all are based on greed at some level or the other, and religion has something very strong to say and must have something really strong to say about them."
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!