Christianity in Sri Lanka today is simultaneously vigorous, fragile, and persecuted. The social effects of a long civil war make Christian living difficult. Buddhist nationalism dubs evangelism as colonialism and conversion as treason. New non-denominational churches are vulnerable to mismanagement, personality cults, and false teaching. Established denominational churches struggle with the legacy of theological liberalism and complacency. However, committed leadership and inter-denominational cooperation are forging a path for the future.
European colonisation and mainstream denominations
Christianity came to Sri Lanka during the time of European colonialism:
- In 1505, the Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism.
- In the mid-1600s, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and brought the Dutch Reformed Church.
- The Dutch ceded control of their territory to the British in 1802. The British introduced Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Salvation Army churches, which have ongoing ministries in evangelism and church planting, church schools, and social services.
Since independence in 1948, three social forces were overlaid atop this European history: the Sinhala-Tamil civil war; a resurgent Buddhist nationalism; and an evangelical revival led by new, independent churches.
Social impact of civil war
The Sinhalese and Tamils are Sri Lanka’s two major ethnic groups. The Sinhalese consider themselves indigenous to the country. The Tamils are descended from the south Indian province of Tamilnadu, but having lived in Sri Lanka some 2,000 years, identify strongly as ‘Sri Lankan’ Tamils.
Independence from British rule brought a surge of Sinhalese nationalism, which resented any public sign of Tamil ‘success’ or ‘privilege’. The government was Sinhala dominated. It steadily enacted policies that advantaged Sinhalese and disadvantaged Tamils.
Tamils resented these racist policies. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conducted an armed struggle to claim the north and east of Sri Lanka as an independent ‘homeland’ – Tamil, eelam – for Tamils. This civil war lasted from 1983-2009 and cost some 80,000-100,000 lives.
During the war, both sides carried out human rights violations1 and media manipulation:
- The police and military carried out extra-judicial arrests, interrogations, punishments, and even executions.
- The LTTE carried out acts of intimidation, assassination, and hostage taking.
- Independent reporting was suppressed.
It therefore became easy to use deceit and violence to settle personal grievances:
- Those in powerful positions in the government or military, or with such connections, could have their enemies assaulted or assassinated and then have the issue ‘hushed up’.
- It steadily became accepted that individuals’ wealth and social status had less to do with their character and actions than their social connections, and how far they were willing to manipulate them for their own benefit.
Today, churches and individual Christians face the counter-cultural task of standing for truth and justice, in the name of the one who is Truth incarnate:
- It involves speaking the truth and encouraging others to do so and to give each other a proper reward for what they have done. It touches all aspects of life, from queuing to conduct at work. This requires a high degree of individual, interpersonal, and corporate-social insight.
- Such honesty is no longer socially normal. It involves opposing culturally entrenched power structures and established ways of behaving. People will respond with indifference and even hostility.
Therefore, it is tempting for churches to be characterised by nepotism, bribery, even intimidation, rather than by Christ-like truthfulness and humble service.
However, godliness is essential if we are to communicate the gospel. God demands truth in our inner parts, but we have all sinned and fall short. This is why we need the external, atoning work of Christ to justify the ungodly. To communicate this, the church and individual Christians must resist the pressure to conform to the surrounding culture and seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness instead.
Such risky, counter-cultural public stands for truthfulness have indeed happened:
- During the civil war, the church consistently stood for inter-ethnic peace.
- After riots in 1983 left hundreds of Tamils homeless, churches opened their doors to house them.
- The Anglican Bishop of Colombo recently called for a day of prayer in light of the recent trend towards lack of social and governmental transparency and accountability.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism
Following the defeat of the LTTE, Sinhalese nationalism came to be expressed as an increasingly militant movement to make Sri Lanka a dharmarajya – a Buddhist righteous state. Sinhalese Buddhist mythology asserts that the Buddha personally visited the island and sanctified it to become an icon of himself. Every Buddhist is duty-bound to protect such icons.
Buddhist monks have become politically active in attempts to mandate Buddhist worship and lifestyle nationwide and marginalise other religions:
- In 2004, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) (National Heritage Party) – a political party led by Buddhist monks – introduced an anti-conversion bill.
- Under the guise of prohibiting ‘incentives’ to ‘entice’ people to change religions, the bill criminalised Christian humanitarian aid and would have made it easy to harass Christians through unsubstantiated allegations of ‘illegal enticement’. However, the bill was shelved.
In 2005, the JHU became part of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Its role in political activism has been taken over by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) (Buddhist Power Force), which has been involved in violence and intimidation against both Christians and Muslims.
Such Buddhist nationalistic aggression has been denounced by government ministers and Buddhist clergy. Nevertheless, BBS represents the popular nationalism founded in religious conviction.
Freedom of religion and conscience are not taken for granted in Sri Lankan culture:
- Sinhalese Buddhists tie together national, ethnic, and religious identity.
- To be a ‘real’ Sri Lankan is to be a Sinhalese Buddhist; anyone who is not is a ‘foreigner’, a second-class citizen, who is only welcome as long as he or she does not threaten Buddhist cultural superiority.
- Any challenge to Buddhist superiority – such as suggesting individuals change their religion – is an act of triple treason: an attack on the Buddhist religion, Sinhala ethnic identity, and the nation of Sri Lanka.
- Attempts to counter this through asserting ‘human rights’ or ‘democracy’ only reinforce the prejudice that the ‘Christian West’ is trying to ‘re-colonise’ Sri Lanka, and that these notions prepare the way for churches to spread this new imperialism by enticing or manipulating good Sri Lankan Buddhists to become Westernised Christians.
The best response to this anti-Christian religious and cultural domination is the New Testament’s model of godly citizenship: fully inhabiting our Sri Lankan national identity, without compromising our faithfulness to Christ:
- Christ is creator God; therefore, the Christian way of life agrees with our created being. It will therefore demonstrably be the best, healthiest, most harmonious way to live.
- It will also be in harmony with the best and healthiest elements of any culture – including Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist culture. Most elements of traditional Sri Lankan and Buddhist culture are not against biblical, Christian values. For instance, both Christianity and Buddhism value family, education, and religious devotion.
Another way to work against accusations of Western imperialism is to expose and criticise the anti-Christian aspects of contemporary Western culture that traditional Sri Lankan Buddhism also considers degenerate, such as sexual promiscuity, on-demand abortion, conspicuous wealth, and wasteful consumption. To go even further, we could, like the Apostle Paul, be all things to all people through adopting cultural practices such as vegetarianism.
During the early to mid 20th century, theological liberalism emptied the mainline denominational churches of their evangelistic vigour. Its stunted gospel, which rejected any sense of the uniqueness of Christ and therefore Christianity, led to Christianity becoming merely a traditional religion that you were born into – just as others were born into Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. Christianity therefore became harmless to Sri Lankan culture, and the church was left at peace – as long as it did not proclaim Christ as unique saviour and Lord.
The late 20th century international evangelical revival impacted Sri Lanka mainly through the growth of independent, non-denominational or new-denominational evangelism, such as the Assemblies of God,2 Island Gospel League – a branch of India Gospel League3 – and Gospel For Asia.4
These new churches and movements face much local opposition, mainly because they are effective – people are actually becoming Christians:
- Their novelty makes them even more vulnerable to being seen as forces of Western colonialism.
- Their lack of traditional denominational structure, accountability, and doctrinal standards makes them vulnerable to mismanagement, personality cults, and false teaching.
These churches certainly possess evangelistic vigour; they need assistance to persevere in theological orthodoxy. This challenge is not new; it is the same problem that led to most of the New Testament letters being written.
Recently, established churches have begun catching up with these new movements through starting their own evangelistic and church-planting endeavours. However, they face significant challenges of theology and church culture:
- All mainline Protestant denominations train their ministers at the Theological College of Lanka.5 This college is still under the residual impact of theological liberalism, and does not therefore always encourage biblical depth and evangelistic fervour.
- Mainstream churches have been around long enough to be culturally accepted – as long as they do not evangelise. If they begin proclaiming Christ as unique saviour and Lord, they will lose this cultural safe zone, and suffer the same opposition as the new churches. The question is whether their ministers, lay leaders, and congregation members have the courage and conviction to do so.
Sri Lankan church leaders are well aware of these challenges:
- Organisations like the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)6 are trying to bring cohesion and theological stability to the new churches.
- Lanka Bible College7 and Colombo Theological Seminary8 are confessionally evangelical, inter-denominational colleges that seek to enhance the biblical-theological depth of all churches, and network gospel-centred churches, ministers, and evangelists with each other.
- International organisations like Langham Partnership9 are investing in theological scholarship and teaching.
- Ajith Fernando10 and Vinoth Ramachandra11 are contemporary Sri Lankan theologians of international stature.
Many of the issues facing churches in Sri Lanka arise in slightly different forms in other countries. There are thus lessons to be learned from the Sri Lankan context:
- One should never underestimate the world’s ability to infiltrate the church under the guise of socially ‘normal’ ways of thinking and behaviour. The kingdom of God challenges them. The church and individual Christians should meditate upon Scripture in such depth that our instinctive ways of thinking and acting conform to it and not the ways of the world.
- The identity-forming power of non-Christian religion, especially when allied with nationalism, has often overcome the effects of Western-style education, particularly in post-colonial contexts where everything ‘Western’ is dismissed as necessarily oppressive.
- The faithful church will therefore be a ‘cruciform’ one: loving the world in a godly way and suffering the irrational hatred of a world that despises godliness. It will proclaim Christ as universal Lord and be persecuted for it. It will live counter-culturally in God’s way and be persecuted for that. In doing so, it will institute ‘shalom’ and therefore bless the culture and society. However, the presence of sin means this peace will be met with war.
In addition to praying for Christians in Sri Lanka, Christians globally could:
- support evangelical inter-denominational ministries such as Lanka Bible College, Colombo Theological Seminary, and Youth for Christ12, and international organisations such as Langham that seek to resource the Sri Lankan church;
- use church or denominational networks to identify emerging Sri Lankan church leaders and invest in their training and formation in partnership with such ministries;
- use these networks to establish long-term partnerships with Sri Lankan ministries including church plants, youth ministries, schools, and student ministries;
- demonstrate consistent encultured godliness both personally and in their ministry leadership and insist on the same transparency and accountability in those they support; and
- encourage true fellowship by inviting Sri Lankan church leaders to visit them to share their insights and what they have learned.
1 For example, see these news releases: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/05/world/asia/new-inquiry-on-sri-lanka-points-to-possible-war-crimes.html and http://www.piac.asn.au/news/2014/02/new-evidence-war-crimes-sri-lankan-civil-war.