THE ORTHODOX FACTION IS WASTING A GREAT OPPORTUNITY / REV. VALSON THAMPU

The Orthodox faction has, undeniably, won legally in its long-standing feud with the Jacobite faction. Regrettably, this unedifying public skirmish, pursued with perverse pugnacity by both sides, is now a household gossip in Kerala to the utter scandalization of the Christian community across denominations. To the public at large, this is not a domestic and private quarrel between the two quarrelsome sections of a particular denomination. It is viewed, as it has been for a while now, as a public display of the hypocrisy inherent in the Christian community that goes all out to preach high ideals but flouts them at home as expediency demands.

I am sure that, as usual, bishops of the Orthodox and Jacobite factions have washed and kissed a few feet as a religious tax paid on Maundy Thursdays. But tell them what the spirit of Maundy Thursday demands and ask them to apply it to their dispute, they will forget their holy cloth and drive you out of sight. The heart of Maundy Thursday is the new Commandment: that we should love one another. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples against a background of the spirit of competition brewing among them as to who is foremost among them. To Jesus, this spirit of domination denoted a failure in love. Hence the new Commandment.

Can we ask Christians to love another, despite denominational barriers? Well, lay Christians will have no problem with that. Rather, they are sure to find this a natural thing to do. But will their denominational leaders -prelates and priests- tolerate this? Good heavens, NO! But ask any one of them to preach on a Maundy Thursday. They will wax eloquent on the duty to love one another and will cap it with a feet-washing ceremony. Very likely, they’d cap their convincing sermons with the quotation: “perfect love casts out a multitude of sins”.

Basic to the spirituality of Jesus is the insistence that we must rise above the letter of the law. “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus said, “you shall in no wise enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Scribes and Pharisees were so zealous about the letter of the law that they became deaf and blind to the spirit of the law; quite reminiscent of the current Orthodox-Jacobite situation.

What the Supreme Court has done is to give a decision based on the letter of the law. The Court is a legal entity, not a spiritual institution. It is, after all, only a court of law, which need not be the same as the court of justice; though we assume that the two become identical in judicial pronouncements.

The Orthodox faction in this feud has won the legal battle. That should have enabled it to aim at a larger, and more enduring, victory -the spiritual victory. Spiritual victories are won by exceeding, or going beyond, legal prescriptions and sacrificing, if need be, material entitlements. Only the victor, unlike the vanquished, can practise clemency and deal with the situation in a spirit of generosity.

Jesus, in his teachings, emphasized the duty to practice leniency towards those who are in situations of disadvantage. The parable of the unforgiving servant is an example of it. The fact that, as per the Supreme Court verdict, the Orthodox faction is entitled to a few churches and their assets currently under the possession of the Jacobite faction, does not prevent it from showing greatness of spirit in dealing with their fellow believers who were, for decades, their own sisters and brothers.

While it may be legally and technically legitimate for the Orthodox faction to annex the churches in dispute, it is spiritually iniquitous for it to do so. The reason is simple. These churches were built by members of the Jacobite faction. Legally they may have now become the property of the Orthodox faction; but historically and factually they will always remain the assets of the Jacobite faction. That being the case, commandeering them by might and main is tantamount to, at best, legalized theft. This is a dishonourable thing to do. The Orthodox faction will be poorer for annexing them.

There are times when the spiritual mettle of individuals and institutions are put to the test. Ironically, it is victory, not defeat, that sets up the stage for it. Will the Orthodox faction have the spiritual dignity and maturity to handle its legal victory as Christians are mandated to do: in mutual love and in accountability to the God of justice? Or, will it defeat itself spiritually precisely because it has won legally?

We have had enough already of this scandalous, unedifying public display of rancor and ill-will, wholly incompatible with the ethos of the biblical faith. Even as both factions observe the liturgy of the Holy Week, will they show themselves spiritually free and honest enough to uphold the meaning and relevance of Jesus’ suffering and sacrificial death by exercising the spiritual freedom they have squandered, via prolonged litigation, to love each other?

The world around is watching. Nobody is fooled. Everyone knows what’s what. It is foolish to shut one’s eyes and assume that it is night. No, it is broad, blinding daylight. And the public at large are discerning enough to know the chaff from the grain. No amount of playacting spirituality will wash away the stain of being hypocritical about what it dem
ands in day to day life.

The fact that one pretends to be sorrowful about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, does not mean that one would not crucify him for the sake of mundane gains. As Justice Potti observed, while hearing this case at its early stage, how is this different from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? The continuing venomous factional fight between the two groups amounts to an ongoing, contemporary crucifixion of Jesus Christ, even as crocodile tears are shed about his suffering and martyrdom two thousand years ago.

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Rev. Valson Thampu is an Indian educator, Christian theologian, who was a Principal of St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, Delhi, from 2008 to February 2016.