A few years ago, while worshipping at my church in Sri Lanka, I heard a sermon preached about the importance of unity within the church. To explain this further, the pastor recounted how during the civil war a soldier came up to him and told him how shocked he was that Tamil and Sinhalese Christians were worshipping together peacefully in the church. For context, Sri Lanka suffered a 26 year civil war between the majority Sinhalese government and a Tamil terrorist organization, during which thousands of innocent civilians were targeted and killed. The pastor used this analogy to talk about how the church and the gospel had the ability to bridge such violent ethnic divides between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil people. When I first heard this story I thought it was beautiful, and I was glad that the church was able to witness to that soldier and provide a safe space for minority groups. However, recently after researching more into the brutality of the civil war and hearing first-hand reports from my parents on their sufferings, I have changed my optimistic views on the story. While I still think that diversity within the church is beautiful, I can no longer appreciate this while knowing that the church remained silent about violence that minorities faced in Sri Lanka. I believe that this silence comes from the self-appointed narrative that the church somehow transcends earthly divides – of race, class, gender etc. - and therefore need not speak out about them.
I find this narrative, that the church is beyond these struggles, extremely damaging and hurtful. While the Sri Lankan Church was praising itself for its unity and diversity within the church, innocent Tamil people were being murdered and the church was silent. As a Tamil Sri Lankan myself, the hurt, knowing that the Sri Lankan Churches didn’t speak out or stand up for our lives and against our oppression, is unexplainable. Even to this day, as systemic racism against minority groups in Sri Lanka continues, it has chosen to remain silent, consoling itself that the ‘unity’ within the church is enough. But it is not enough. It is not enough to pray for peace; it is not enough to encourage unity within the church; it is not enough to have a diverse congregation. While these are all great, they mean nothing if the church does not acknowledge or speak out about the struggles that certain segments of its’ congregation faces. Diversity does not always mean unity, even though many churches conflate the two. I do not feel united to others in my church when they refuse to help me in my struggles.
The church should be championing the fight for justice. It should be actively fighting against oppression and using its powerful voice to speak out against racism. This isn’t just something I believe, this is what God commands us to do – to “seek justice”, “correct oppression”, “defend the rights of the poor and needy”, “open [our] mouths for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute”. Right now I don’t see the church obeying these commandments; I see it being silent and complicit in the pain and oppression of those of us who don’t have the voices and platforms to speak out. I see it so alienated from my reality, and the reality of others who have suffered far more than me, which I do not believe God would condone.
While my personal experience has been with the Sri Lankan Church, I see the same in churches worldwide, especially Western churches. With the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, few churches spoke up with the movement, but even fewer used their voices to actively challenge people to fight against racism within their own ranks, or to speak out against racist institutions. The church should be championing and starting these social justice movements, not performatively reacting to them or only praying for deliverance of those in oppression. God calls us to action, and while the church continues to pray, it should at the same time be on the frontlines fighting for justice.
My love for social justice comes from Christianity. I have seen Jesus pray to the Father, and follow that prayer with actively fighting for those who are oppressed and voiceless. He spoke out for the socially outcast at the time – the prostitutes, the poor, the Samaritans (racial outcasts) – and broke down walls of race, gender, and class division. I know that He wants me and all other Christians to do the same. I hope that the church rises to take on a more active and leading role in social justice movements, realizing that the love of Christ and the gospel necessitates and naturally produces believers who hate and actively fight oppression.
Cynthia's talk from the conference 2021.
Part two of Damian Young's story of starting a new church community.