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Solidarity with poor is key to vision

In many ways, Fr. A. Alangaram of Chennai, India, author of Christ of the Asian Peoples, (Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore, India, 1999) is representative of Indian theologians today.

In his late 30s, he is relatively young and energetic. He has devoted his life to awakening his homeland to the message of Jesus Christ. He sees Jesus as a liberator and savior. He sees his mission as building the reign of God on Earth. This requires, he explains, a church that bonds with the people and grows out of its culture. Since most of India’s people live in abject poverty, it means bonding with the poorest of the poor.

Christians make up only 2.4 percent of the Indian people. Alangaram, professor of theology at the Jesuit regional theologate, says his mission requires working with those among the other 97.6 percent of the Indian population who have similarly been inspired by the Spirit. Little can get done, Alangaram explains, without deep respect and understanding for the other religious traditions of India.

This, in turn, requires dialogue. The Asian theologians call this the “triple dialogue” -- dialogue with culture, religion and the poor. Ask any Asian theologian for evangelical direction and he or she will almost certainly point to the triple dialogue as the pathway into the future. It is a pathway that has been embraced in Asia now for some 30 years -- and the Asian Catholics are proud of it.

Don’t think this is a marginal matter. Understanding the triple dialogue is fundamental to understanding the Asian Catholic scene. It is also at the center of some of the most exciting theological reflections coming out of the church today.

What makes Asian theology even more interesting is that it does not always emerge from lofty academic quarters. Rather it is coming from the minds and experiences of people like Alangaram. They live, work and do theology on the edge.

Consider the Indian theologians today. They are vulnerable and without patrons. They are exposed and under attack from two sides. Hindu nationalists accuse them of selling out to the West, Rome in particular. Vatican prelates accuse them of selling out to the East, to Indian cultural pressures. Few on either side offer them the encouragement and praise they richly deserve and they ponder, confront and mobilize on behalf of the poor of India.

In this light, the triple dialogue becomes even more important. It represents their collective Asian response to both local cultural and international ecclessial pressures. Moreover, it is their authentic evangelical response to the challenge of spreading the Christian mission in Asia.

Despite the challenges, Alangaram remains characteristically optimistic. His focus on the poverty around him seems to be a source of his energy. That poverty, he says, sets the primary context for India’s theological and pastoral reflections today.

Alangaram represents the Asian bishops and theologians who, at least in their writings, have unmistakably aligned themselves with the poor. In Alangaram’s case, he lives by the words, living modestly.

The Jesuits who study under his direction spend months at a time living and working with the poor in regional villages. They go there not to preach, but to learn. They perform social work in organizations advocating for the poor. They do it, they say, not because it will give them an edge in future conversion efforts, but rather because this is where they will most clearly hear the voice of God.

In his recent book, Alangaram writes that at every stage in history the church is called to discern the will of God and to respond. He quotes from a document written by the Asian bishops stating that the Asia church is “unreservedly committed to the poor man of Asia,” so much so, “she is ready to suffer and to die like her Lord if only the poor in Asia would live.”

For us in the West, it can be easy to underestimate the power and full meaning of this Asian episcopal commitment. It is the first post-colonial, authentically Asian approach to being church.

One can dream here. If the local churches of Asia gain more momentum, they will have an even more significant impact on life in Asia. Moreover, it is possible that their young energy and fresh vision will spread -- if allowed -- and it could just infect the rest of us, moving through the universal church -- and beyond.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001