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Jesus is beyond insults, the faith of his followers can survive a mere play

John Dayal | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:20 IST

The row

  • Catholics Bishops Conference of India has demanded a ban on the play Agnes of God
  • It claims the play is insulting towards nuns
  • John Dayal says that Christian faith has survived many schisms, it can\'t be shaken by a play

The culture of offence

  • Voicing outrage citing hurt religious sentiments and demanding bans has become common
  • Rather than asking for a ban, the church should have educated people about the issue
  • Such matters are best left to the government and bodies like the Censor Board

More in the story

  • The demand for a ban on Agnes of God has been slammed by Christians themselves
  • What happened when the government considered banning The Da Vinci Code?

In January this year, in the wake of the horrendous massacre of the editors of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis called freedom of expression a basic human right. According to the Associated Press news agency, he implored people to speak their minds for the common good.

"I think freedom of religion and freedom of expression are both fundamental human rights," he was quoted by Reuters as saying. "Everyone has not only the freedom and the right but the obligation to say what he thinks for the common good . we have the right to have this freedom openly [but] without offending." The massacre was said to be an Islamic fundamentalist group's retaliation to sustained ridicule of the religion by the cartoonists and caricaturists of the magazine.

The limits of provocation

The Pontiff who is revolutionising the Catholic faith with his words and his actions, which include sacking the top brass of the Vatican Bank and Cardinals suspected of sheltering pedophiles, did not issue a list of what he considered "offending'.

He did say many people speak ill faith and "make a game out of the religions of others." It is this, he said, that is problematic. "They are provocateurs. There is a limit." He ruled out retaliatory violence in any form. But, again, he did not define the limit.

Come to think of it, neither does the Indian Penal Code, which has several sections on libel, hurting religious sentiments, and seeking to create discord between communities. If there were such a definitive list and if the law was implemented strictly, all too many people, including much of the membership of the current Union Council of Ministers and Parliament and the legislatures of the country, would be in jail.

Questioning dogma and the conduct of religious personnel is the very essence of reforms in any faith

By the way, some of these Sections of the Penal code, which was enacted during the British Raj, are known in Pakistan as the Blasphemy Laws. A few Christians, including the poor woman Asia Bibi, are on death row on the mere suspicion of having committed the crime.

Suspicion is a terrible thing. A Muslim artisan in Dadri, near the national capital of New Delhi, was lynched by a mob egged on by local political activists. This father of a member of the Indian Air Force lost his life because he was "suspected" to have stored beef in his refrigerator. His other son is fighting for his own life in the intensive care unit of a hospital.

Christianity has survived

It is all to the good that some terms are not defined, including ephemeral ones on dogma and doctrine, for that would foreclose all chances of evolution and reform even within religions. Reformists would be lynched. The questioning of dogma, doctrines and the conduct of religious personnel is the very essence of reforms, while leaving the kernel of faith intact.

Christianity, and the persona and teachings of Jesus Christ have survived two millennia of very close scrutiny. The Bible has undergone the processes of exegeses and hermeneutics, each sentence has been parsed, contradictions recorded. Reform movements have ripped apart old dogmas. Schisms have arisen, and died. The faith has survived.

This ability to critique and analyse religions is also important to create the democratic space where discourse becomes possible, for finding common grounds for co-existence, mistakenly called "tolerance". This also gives the opportunity to people of all faiths to weigh their options and make decisions if they want to remain in the religion they were born in, or make an adult, informed choice of the faith they want to follow.

Agnes of God

Like most, if not almost all, Christians in India, I have not yet read Agnes of God. I have also not seen the play, or the film based on it. It was shown to critical acclaim several years ago in Europe and the Americas, which can be deemed to be "Christian" countries despite the decline in the numbers of the churchgoers.

I know there have been many research papers on the subject of the religious commitment as well as the human nature of religious persons, priests and nuns or Women Religious, as we Catholics call them. I have read reviews of at least one doctoral thesis on the depiction of nuns in popular Hollywood and European cinema, covering Agnes as well as films about heroic and popular religious women.

Some argue that Europe today is permissive and does not care. But the Synod of the Family shows that it is church-going devout Catholics who are seeking, demanding, some revolutionary changes in the church.

I have the humility to know that I am not here to defend Jesus Christ. It is Christ who defends me

The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Cardinal Cleemis, has written to Union Home minister. Rajnath Singh, seeking reconsideration of government permissions to the producers to stage the play in Mumbai and elsewhere.

He has argued his case well, saying that the church is against any form of art and media that target the clergy and religious men and women of any religion, "as we believe that Indian culture respects all faith and religions". Allowing the play "will be an encouragement for such vicious minds to come out with similar plays, based on other religions, and the reaction need not be always peaceful and tolerant, leading to destroying religious harmony".

There have, of course, been many plays and films, which have portrayed the human dilemmas, including sexuality, of clergy of other faiths, especially Hinduism. Samsakara, the Kannada masterpiece, comes to mind, for one. There are others, interesting counterpoints to pious mythological film and plays. It is also true that rationalists and reformers have been murdered, and the life and liberty of others has been threatened.

The play

The Cardinal's letter has provoked an open letter from Catholic priest Fr. Jacob Peenikaparambil of the Carmelites order. Fr. Jacob writes "By staging the play Agnes of God at a few places, I don't think that people all over India are going to believe that the thousands of clergy, who are committed to a life celibacy, are fraud.

A film or a play could be a criticism of an evil, weakness or aberration in society and the intent of the author or producer could be dissuading people from committing evil. Instead of demanding a ban on the play, the Church could have used the occasion to educate the people about the issue through social media and the print and electronic media.

In fact we Christians should oppose the culture of banning books, films and plays on flimsy grounds. Our faith is not so weak that a book or play can destroy it. On the contrary such controversies can further strengthen the faith, if the leaders are able to give proper guidance to the people."

I share Fr. Jacob's point view. Personally, I too think the Christian faith I chose to follow by a conscious decision a few decades ago - though I was born in a Christian family - is strong enough to survive critique and criticism. As a Christian of the Catholic variety, I believe in miracles as promised in the Bible, and the healing ministry.

But as a student of science, I also appreciate rational inquiry. I know that while I cannot explain what was there before God, rationalists cannot explain what was there before the Big Bang. I have very high opinion of Women Religious. Not just because of Mother Teresa, but also because of Sister Valsa John, the many who have been raped in Gajraula, Kandhamal, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and the priests murdered in Odisha and elsewhere. Their lives, their sacrifices and their martyrdom have strengthened my resolve.

Leave it to the Censor Board

In the past, particularly when there was a controversy about Dan Brown's book and the film based on it, I had to tell the UPA government that the Central Board of Film Certification should take a call on what to do. It could not call on the Christian community to make a demand for a ban. It could not use our shoulders to ban it, putting the blame on the community, pointing to the Christians as an intolerant, over reacting, fundamentalist, lot.

In the end, the film was shown with the addition of a disclaimer that was a work of fiction, which of course it was. The film went away in the blink or en eye, so to say. No one remembers it. Christianity did not suffer one whit. Agnes will not make a difference. If the director and actors have erred and have not been professionally competent, they will be booed out. And forgotten. The controversy is currently keeping the spotlight on them.

The real threat is from the Hindutva Parivar. They poison minds using criminal manipulation

The government's certification agencies and control systems will have to be transparent, fair and equitable in their decision making with standards that are uniform and do not favour one group, usually the majority one, over another. Unfortunately, more than religious groups or creative artistes and performers, it is the government that is found wanting.

I have the humility to also know that I am not here to defend Jesus Christ. I am a Christian in my belief that Christ defends me, promises me salvation. That was my view after I read Sita Ram Goel and his ilk, and that remained my view after going through Arun Shourie's fulminations in his turgid and massive volume. I, of course, do not believe in violence of any sort. That is why I oppose capital punishment; and am worried about stem cell and human genetic engineering experiments.

The Hindutva threat

The danger to Christianity, and to Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and other religious minorities - and perhaps mainstream Hinduism - is from religious nationalism. Especially the violent and intolerant brand practiced and preached by what is popularly called the Sangh Parivar or the Hindutva Parivar, their allies and their camp followers.

They pervert philosophy and poison minds by criminal manipulation. They emulate people from the history of Christianity and Islam, as well as from their own, to foment xenophobia. Their quest for political power demands polarisation of people and the pitting of communities against each other.

These religio-political elements pose a challenge to the Idea of India founded on secularism, democracy and republicanism. Much blood has been shed. Fear stalks many swathes of our land. The sense of impunity, the patent complicity of those in power and the instruments of the state such as the police, aggravate the situation.

We struggle against these forces. If they succeed, we will be able to survive only as an underground church, as in some other countries where political holds sway. But we have never called for a ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh or any of its progeny groups.

I cannot in my faith find reason to call for a ban on a mere play.

First published: 5 October 2015, 12:11 IST