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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Works of Love in the Midst of Hate

A Perspective on Reconciliation By Bishop Joab Lohara

Child from India
In the past, the Indian state of Orissa has been ravaged by cyclones. In recent years, it has suffered a different sort of storm: violence agaist Christians.
The Eastern state of Orissa has witnessed the most gruesome violence against Christians on Indian soil since December 2007. Christian faith is under fire.

In a fresh outbreak of violence against Christians, at least 1,100 villages were attacked and 78,000 people displaced during August 2008. The frenzied, arsonist mob engaged in a pogrom that desecrated and destroyed 1,100 church buildings in the region.

The helpless Christians had to flee while their houses were set on fire, possessions plundered, women abused, and holy objects vandalized on church premises. Most of those who fled their villages have had to spend weeks in the jungle with their little ones in hunger and thirst while some found a place in the relief camps with wounds suppurating and tension simmering in the region.

Following the 2007 Christmas carnage, Christians returned to their villages after a few months of sojourn to find nothing left but the charred remains of their homes.

Not enough. Some local neighbors humiliated and insulted them. They raised objections to their return and the rebuilding of their homes. The ideology of hate and violence had percolated so deeply that reconciliation seemed like a distant dream.

The Christian community was thrown into a state of isolation, their friendships with neighbors ended. Someone needed to step forward and initiate a reconciliation process.

Jesus’ story about the prodigal son is a study in reconciliation initiated by a wrongdoer. A conflict over wealth took the younger son far away from home, bent upon exploring pleasures beyond the family fence. Neither the father’s counsel nor his love could dissuade the son from leaving. He enjoyed the newfound pleasure for a time, no doubt. But as C.S. Lewis reminded us, nothing that is created or finite can ever satisfy our spiritual longing. Our hunger for Jesus is better than all the fullness of this world.

Frustrated, dejected, and dissatisfied, the remorseful young man returned home, willing to be a servant to his father’s servants. The process of reconciliation had begun. The magnanimous response of the father made a full circle by giving way to joyful celebration and happy reunion.

But what can be done in a situation such as the persecution of Christians in India, where the offenders are not convinced of their wrongdoing, and words of forgiveness from the harmed sound like feeble expressions of a people with no power to retaliate?

We have an example in Saul of Tarsus of someone who took pride in persecuting the followers of Christ and was legally authorized to do so. In Acts 7, we see Saul consent to the death of Stephen and guard the clothes of those who stoned him to death. But we learn that works of love with a heart of forgiveness do not go to waste. The words of forgiveness uttered by the saintly Stephen initially do not seem to have an effect on anyone. But soon we find Saul apprehended by the light of the Risen Lord and submitting to do his will.

I came across a great definition of forgiveness some years back: Forgiveness is like the fragrance that the rose petals give out when they are brutally crushed. Christians need to keep on spreading this fragrance, not only when they are blooming in faith, but also when they are crushed for their faith.

With more than 10,000 of our members displaced under severe persecution, the Free Methodist Church in India is very much involved in providing relief and rehabilitation to the victims of violence. The church’s rehabilitation teams also explore opportunities to build bridges of friendship in the riot-torn areas.

One of the ways we can do this is to dig “Friendship Wells.” Our teams have identified 25 villages where the Christian community lives under threat and is not allowed to fetch water from the common wells, the only source of water. Friendship Wells are dug in such villages to provide clean drinking water. People of all communities — irrespective of their caste and religion — are invited to collect water from these wells. We hope these wells will foster goodwill and friendship.

Further, the rehabilitation teams look at the possibility of meeting with village heads in an effort to organize peace committees. Those who are hurting and aggrieved are counseled to begin peace initiatives. It is sometimes difficult and humiliating to shake hands with perpetrators, but graceful and divine if the cross of Jesus is our motive for reconciliation.

When the perpetrators burned Christian houses, other houses in the hamlets could not escape the flame. Our rehabilitation teams are therefore commissioned not to differentiate a Christian house from a non-Christian house. As they engage in rebuilding homes for Christian victims, they also extend support to others. It isn’t long before the neighborhoods take notice of such works of compassion emanating from hearts ruled by the Reconciler, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The people who are reconciled to God carry the glorious message of reconciliation and can become a kingdom force. If God has put us into a new relationship with our neighbor, we are to break through the barriers of anger, bitterness, and distrust and serve as agents of reconciliation in a multiracial and multireligious world. When human relationships are broken in a family, or in a community, it calls for these transformed agents to take the “extra mile” initiative and offer healing and peace — just as God took the divine initiative and called the apostate human beings back into communion with him.

Reconciliation for a Christian, therefore, is not just a matter of ignoring differences or finding the middle way of compromise. It involves the renewal of love and trust, a cessation of resentment and guilt, and a willingness to resume the risks of relating with each other.

Joab Lohara is a bishop of the Free Methodist Church in India, responsible for 750 churches in the Immanuel Conference. He also oversees service projects offering hope and help to India’s Dalits, the poorest of the world’s poor. During his 27-year ministry, Lohara has witnessed intermittent persecution of the Christian community in India, and has advocated for justice and equality for all people in a caste-based society.

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