Sometimes you meet people who can really challenge your paradigms or challenge some of your assumptions that you may not even know you have. Recently, my spouse and I had just such an opportunity by hosting Rev. Saman Perara for a week. Saman is a Presbyterian pastor from Sir Lanka. Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal. It has a population of over 22 million people made up of 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and only 7 percent Christian. After independence from Great Britain in 1948 and before 2009, the country went through 30 years of armed conflict between the Tamil tigers and the government forces. Although the armed conflict has ended, Sri Lanka remains a challenged multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual pluralistic country. Ethnicity, religion, group political rights and nationalism have come to be intertwined. Rev. Perara pointed out that in Sri Lanka, as in many other societies, religions are called upon to play multiple roles. Religion as a faith is a framework of spirituality. Religions presents and develops a system of ethical norms and practices, and a value framework guiding the worldly well-being of the community. Religion of course has its own doctrines of salvation.
Majority/minority relations continue in a context of confrontation and competing ethnic and religious identities. Buddhism of the majority is built into Sri Lanka’s Constitution. Its 1972 Constitution says, “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18(I), (d).” The subsection 18 does say, “Every citizen shall have the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Neglect of this subsection by the majority-controlled government has led to very real challenges to the Christian churches and other minorities. Co-existence is moving toward confrontation and community toward fragmentation. Challenges now faced by minority religious communities include restrictions on conversion to faith other than Buddhism; registration requirements for minority places of worship and Sunday schools; severe limitations on new places of worship; and mandatory Buddhist education in schools.
Yet in this environment, Rev. Perara and his church of 300 members tries to be a beacon of Christian hope, love and tolerance. Their outreach programs include a much-needed preschool open to all faiths. They are doing service projects in less developed parts of the country, even though it brings them at risk of being mislabeled as supporters of the defeated Tamil’s. Their mission is to be a body that promotes a harmonious blend of peoples in the country by crossing boundaries, creating collaboration for the purpose if collective interventions.
I think we, in our country, can learn much by observing the response of the Christian minority community in Sri Lanka and persons committed to peace like Rev. Perara. Our context is very different, yet many of our issues are very similar. The challenge of majority/minority relations being in the forefront. As we experience what seems to be rising signs of divisiveness, of intolerance and violence among and between even within our own religious communities, the question for us is can our churches, temples, mosques, or varying religious expression come to together to support each other and take collective responsibility for the future that best fits the values of our nation? Sometimes, it really helps to spend some time with others from a very different context to open our eyes to our own, sometimes hidden, assumptions, and the way we express our values.
Robert J. Gustafson, Ph.D., P.E, is pastor of West Berlin Presbyterian Church, 2911 Berlin Station Road, and vice president of the Delaware Ministerial Association.