What would it look like for the church to undergo a purge similar to what is taking place on a larger scale in the political system in Sri Lanka? It would be presumptuous to think that the Sri Lankan church does not mirror similar systemic problems within its own ecclesial structures. If as Peter says, “judgment must begin with God’s household (1 Peter 4:17)” then with the “awakening” that is unfolding, self-critique and self-examination are non-negotiable obligations for the Sri Lankan church.
“Old guard,” Gerontocracy, Nepotism, and Cronyism are some of the key terms being used to describe and decry the structural problems that are plaguing the country. The dynastic rule of the Rajapaksas that led to the systematic consolidation of power and breakdown of the government’s first and foremost fidelity to its people has brought deep suspicion to a culture of favoritism and preferential treatment. What were once accepted forms of privileges to those in power are no longer tenable in a democratic society that is marked by equity and equal opportunity. The young and old have taken to the streets with the realization that Sri Lanka should no longer be held back by the greed of a few.
A plethora of reasons can be given for how we ended up in a situation where a single family and their cronies were able to run the country into a rut: Not least of which are the conditions and traditions entrenched in the Sri Lankan worldview that allows for capitalizing on the goodwill of people, of whom the majority lack agency. Therefore, the incredible people’s movement behind the popular slogan #gotagohome is very much a recovery of agency and active citizenship by the disenfranchised.
This welcome change in the mindset of Sri Lankans is long overdue. While compelling arguments can be made for retaining old practices like hereditary succession and oligarchical rule, history continues to insist on progress. The collapse of monarchies and empires, and the rise of nation-states and democratic electoral systems are transitions forged in the blood and struggles of people’s resistances. Yet the subtle regress in the 21st century toward totalitarian forms of governments and leadership has proved disastrous and has spurred revolutions all over the globe.
However, these developments cannot be understood apart from the positive and negative influence of the digital space and the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The unprecedented access provided by these mediums has also created new modes of social cohesion. Just as social media helped orchestrate the insurrection at Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. in 2021, it has also helped spread awareness of the gruesome and horrifying atrocities by Russian forces in Ukraine. With regard to the Sri Lankan context, young folk are able to share information and organize themselves around progressive ideologies like secularization through social media quite apart from traditional means like organized religion and party politics. This also means that the standard of accountability and scrutiny has increased for those in positions of authority. Unlike the traditional media outlets who are often seen as less credible, puppets of the governing authorities, the social media space allows for uninhibited discussion and criticisms.
If these kinds of changes have captured the mainstream imagination, how much longer can churches, especially the fast growing independent churches and Pentecostal churches, resist the necessary democratization within their own structures. In other words, this ongoing revolution in Sri Lanka signifies an important shift in the popular imagination where no one and no institution can no longer be above accountability. For instance, even though Sri Lanka is a strong bulwark of Theravada Buddhism in all of Asia and has a very high reverence for its clergy, videos that emerged in the last few weeks depict the bold acrimony against Buddhist Bhikkus who have evidenced duplicity and moral compromise. Such is the drastic nature of the changes taking place.
Nevertheless, the church has a unique opportunity to get ahead of what is coming in humble self-correction and self-renovation. Else, the Sri Lankan church will face a similar fate to that of American Evangelicalism which is undergoing severe ruptures having lost its moral ground to secular accountability movements like the #metoo movement and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. It is especially noteworthy that it was the #metoo movement that inspired the #churchtoo movement and therefore, it is entirely possible for the #gotagohome movement to generate a #churchgohome movement.
Soon the public, young people, and the disenfranchised within the church will stop turning a blind eye to Christian pastors who justify luxurious cars and houses on a pastor’s salary, the disproportionate wealth of the leaders to the demography they serve, pastor’s children who enjoy special privileges and are elevated to important positions without the necessary qualifications, churches who are loose with how they allocate their incoming funds, ministry brands that exploit the desperate and vulnerable through spiritualized pyramid schemes, “sexual, spiritual, and psychological” abuse that is regularly swept under the rug, and so on and so forth. These are not the rare idiosyncrasies of a few churches in an otherwise thoroughly sincere religious community; The above characteristics are dominant features of many churches, especially independent and pentecostal churches, who are now quickly becoming the face of Sri Lankan Christianity.
Is There a Solution?
Here I propose a few considerations that the church in Sri Lanka must attend to urgently:
- Along with the general public’s newfound consciousness of the subtle and sinister ways in which political rhetoric and disingenuous narratives are used as manipulative strategies, Christians must also challenge the theological and Scriptural language that is frequently employed to legitimize and normalize autocratic and exploitative forms of church leadership and practices.
- Self-aggrandizing, gloating, flexing, and self-promotion are vices that were often overlooked in the past and are commonplace in Christian discourses. Yet Scripture sharply rebukes boasting of any kind. Christian leaders, pastors, priests, and preachers must reserve the pulpit for the ministry of the word, just as politicians are being called to reserve their parliamentary addresses for the advocacy of their constituents and not for smart-alecky and self-service.
- Individualistic goals of success and personal ambition that make us naive and sometimes oblivious to the obvious inconsistencies must be replaced by collective pursuits of holiness and the common good. This is not just a recovery of orthodoxy, but also orthopraxy (right practice) and orthopathy (right affections). In fact, Protestants need not go to other places but to their own history to recover the importance of both theological and ethical truth which undergirded the protest against and subsequent exodus from the captivity of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
- The rapid westernization and modernization of churches must be weighed against increasing secular sentiments. A large sector of the church in Sri Lanka is favoring missional models that have failed in places like North America. The egregious investments into building big churches, state-of-the-art equipment for worship performances, and various expenditures in sustaining the consumer-culture Christianity have come under intense scrutiny in America. Therefore, such aspirations in Sri Lanka will not withstand the criticisms against leadership and lifestyles based on corporate models of success and upward mobility. Progressive ideologies, despite their faults, rightly emphasize the recovery of a “collective good” and morality over a self-indulgent mindset.
- Stringent and thorough processes must be introduced into church polity to avoid churches being run like a “family business” and such that no individual personality or family can exert an inordinate amount of power. This also means that Christian leaders exemplify Christ-like servant leadership and understand their role as a means to an end and not the end in and of itself.
- Christians must think seriously and spiritually about wealth. Christian leaders must embody simplicity rather than opulence and extravagance. Moreover, Sri Lankan Christianity must recover its primal identity as a servant of the poor, the widows, and the orphans.
- Churches must care about the urgent needs that are plaguing the country and the world. If the church is to remain relevant and grounded, a servant of the “city of Man” as it looks for the “city of God,” it cannot be selective about what it deems as social concerns and dismiss any form of public outcry out of hand. In fact, environmental and humanitarian concerns must be important factors in how we develop our missional paradigms and not merely truncated concerns like ‘how do we save souls into heaven.’
- The Sri Lankan church must also lead the way in racial reconciliation conversations. This includes facilitating spaces and mediums for lamenting the evils of the past and addressing the underlying concerns that created the ethnic conflict in the first place. Eschatological escapism in the form of historical amnesia represses the Scriptural vision of “Kingdom come.”
- Finally, the Christian church must shed its colonial roots and find fresh ways of understanding and embodying the Gospel that is not an extension of the Western-modern church. As long as Sri Lankan Christians continue to embody a sectarian identity, Christ will remain alien and non-Incarnate.
I am in no way delusional that this kind of analysis will be welcomed by the majority of leaders of the Sri Lankan church, further proving the significant influence of the “old guard” that is disinterested in any change that might require the relinquishing of power. Yet, as observed earlier, it will not be long before we are forced to self-assess. At that point, it may be too late and the Christian witness may have been entirely diminished. The Scriptures warn us about prophets who preach peace for their own benefit or when God has not told them to do so (Micah 3:5; Ezekiel 13:16). Like those incompetent ministers (politicians) who refused to prepare the country for the impending economic deterioration and instead spun false narratives that “all is well,” we must be beware of Christian leaders who are indifferent and ignorant to such trajectories within the church. If a country can plunge into a dire crisis due to the actions of a few and the inaction of many, the church in Sri Lanka is no exception.