Malankara Orthodox Church and Mission
Prof. Joseph K.Alexander
Director of Collegiate Edn, Kerala. (Retd)
When three or more Orthodox Christians of Kerala sit together, it is fashionable to decry their Church leadership for all failures. They are all well-meaning and their anxiety is that the Church does not live up to their aspirations and ideals.Hence their crtitical remarks. One such most innocuous complaint is about the failure of evangelism.
While Europe, which received Christianity only by 1500 AD, was able to evangelize the whole of Africa, Asia and America and create more X’ians in the colonies than their number in Europe in just 500 years; we who have been Christians ever since St.Thomas preached to us in 52 AD, have failed to carry the Good News and proselyte the rest of Indians; not even the rest of the Keralites. This is their lament.
Only when we critically understand the historicity and the contexity of Malankara X’ians we will be able to pardon ourselves for this lacuna.
In fact X’ian evangelicalism and observance of the verse in St. Mathew 28:19 can be done in at least 4 or 5 different ways.
1. By preaching the good news of “Imminent Heaven at hand” and healing the sick and the needy and even proselyte the willing hearers, as was done by St. Paul and other Apostles.
2. Mirroring Christ by one’s own life like the Judaic Christian sanyasis. They did so because Jews were the chosen priestly class of God. So by tradition they cannot mingle with others. They were thus silently christianizing the society without insisting on nominal conversions to X’ian names and rituals,
3. Proselyte by persuasion. This can be by offering rewards like free food and other amenities of life, employment or other forms of economic, social or even political dispensations.
4. Militant Proselytism as Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, did during the colonial period 1500 to 1950. Bishop Tutu of Africa complained:” They gave us the Bible and took away our land “.
5. The latest in the Western evangelicalism is the mass evangelism of great preachers likes Billy Graham, Thanku brother in Kottayam, and the creation of Electronic Church through television by Oral Roberts in 1954, by Pat Robertson founding the Christian Broadcasting network in 1960. and Paul Dinakaran in 1970s.
A basic difference between Western and Eastern Christianity is that while the West believe in Proselytism and increasing the number of Christians and expanding the Church by hook or crook (example: Francis Xavier in the 1560s and Bishop Menses in Udayamperor Synod), the original Eastern Christianity do not practice this method. They believe in the 2nd method of Christianizing the World by their life and preaching.
Eastern Orthodox Sages were following the Semitic and thus Judaic practice of exclusivism. They were against spreading their religion and laws to non-Hebrew heathens. They reclused into West Asian desert caves. They were praying for their Church and humanity.They were spiritual dynamos disseminating spirituality and love for their brethren. They were not advertisers of Christ. Fr. Bijesh Philip, Professor of Nagpur Orthodox Seminary writes in "Theosis and Mission" a recently published book, "Mission is not a Christian commercial. It is a witnes and an act of love. It implies love for those whom it is directed, and love means self-giving, not simply giving something." This proves that the Eastern Orthodox Churches (including we) were poor evangelists in the modern or western sense.This is one reason why the Easterners have not been able to spread out like colonialist Christians. At the same time we cannot forget the 6th and 7th century missionary work of the Nestorian Nisibis School teachers and missionaries of Persia journeying to reach out to China, Indo China, Philippines and other farthest points of the Far East to spread their version of Christianity.
The historical and social background of Kerala St. Thomas Christians is in this context very relevant.
1. There is truth in the tradition that some of the St. Thomas’s converts of 52 AD were Brahmins. To deny this for want of documentary evidence is naivety. Sometimes tradition is truer than (concocted) documents and many a time we rely on traditions for lack of documentary evidence. St. Thomas tradition is such an undisputable truth. One who questions it at this length of time has ulterior motives.
2. These convert Christians (Jews and Keralites) and their associates had contact with the West Asia / Persian merchants and their language and perhaps even were involved in facilitation of foreign trade with them. So it was easy for them to imbibe the Judaic customs including their exclusivism and the teachings of St. Thomas the Apostle.
3. The more enterprising of them even entered into foreign trade in the early centuries with West Asia and later with the Far East and Ceylon and still later with the Portuguese and the English and made them rich. Some became quite rich even to finance the Rajas and Chieftains of the post-10th century Kerala. In general they were trade associates and financially sound.
4. When there was persecution of Christians in Persia the Christian emigrants who came to Kerala in 345 AD and in the 7th and 8th centuries were received warmly by Kerala Rajas and chieftains, who had an eye for the income from spices trade with the west. They offered them special privileges like the” 72 pathavikal “. These emigrants brought their exclusivism to further strengthen this Judaic trait of the Christians. Kerala.Knanaya Christians is a typical example
5. The exclusiveness of the Savarna-Avarna divisions of the caste system pervaded the Kerala society from the 7th centuryAD. This helped the Kerala Christians to perserve this exclusivism.
6. The Christian catechism and preachings made most of them honest, upright, dependable and trust worthy
7. Kerala Christians used to get military training in the “Kalaries” from the early age of eight onwards and hence were dependable warriors. Due to their dependability and Kalari training the army chieftains of many of the petty kingdoms in the post 10th Century melee of Kerala, were Christians
8. These factors and specially the 72 “pathavikal” made Kerala Christians to be on a par with the Savarna Brahmins.They were a separate social, economical and politically respectable group outside the four Varnas.
It was these historical and contextual factors that made Kerala Christians an exclusive upper class that could not mix with the gentiles and evangelise Christ to the lower castes in Kerala and make them their own brethren. .
The St. Thomas Syrian Christians and emigrants from Persia constituted the main stream Christians till the coming of the Portuguese. They were called Nazarenes L.K.Ananthakrishna Iyer in his famous book “Anthropology of the Syrian Christians” explains in detail about their indigenous aristocratic customs and manners. They refused to mingle with the lower castes or have intermarriages with others. I am not citing this as a virtue but as a historical fact.
Dr.C.Issac in his article “The spread of Christianity and Islam in Keralam” published in Itihas Darpan, New Delhi, Vol VIII, No.1, Nov. 2001, pp 41-48, argue that they intermarried and imbibed Hindu customs. This is not correct in the case of the excluvist Nazarenes. This is true only about the converts of St. Francis Xavier and the Portuguese.So Dr. Isaac’s statement, after quoting G.T.Mckenzie “Christianity in Travancore”, that they were Sudra Jathis like Nairs, Elavas doing “uliam” work, applies only to the new converts by the Portuguese.
The stranglehold of the Caste system has eased in this century. Moreover large amount of westernism have been imported during the last four centuries into the Malankara Christians. Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Churches of various hues have all emerged. All of them believe in evangelism and proselytism. Even the Kerala Orthodox Christians have been persuaded to ease their stand on the caste consciousness. We also started evangelism. The first proclaimed Indian Saint St. Parumala Mar Gregorios converted a few dalits to our Church. H.G. Pathros Mar Ostathios continued that work in a bigger manner in the 1940s and later actively followed by H.G Geevarghese Mar Osthathios.
The point made by Denny Jacob in ICON on 19 Jul, 2008 that the Brahmawar Mission of Bishop Julius Alvaris in S. Karnataka converted a number of poor dalit farmers is true. But that was a post- Portuguese practice and was not in Kerala.
But let it be remembered that even now we do not believe in or practice militant evangelism or proselytism. But Kerala Orthodox Christian expatriates in USA, Gulf, Europe, Malayasia, Australia and other parts of the World have globalised our church with parishes in different parts of the world. Kerala Christians have thus evolved a new type of evangelism that can be termed as “Global Evangelism”.