Decline and the Ascent of Human Resilience in Sri Lanka
Bishop Duleep de Chickera
Bishop Duleep de Chickera
(Photo from the Colombo Telegraph)
The weeks leading to Independence Day on Feb. 4 were
filled with intense debate on the legality and morality of the
impeachment of the chief justice of Sri Lanka. The debate centered on
the interpretation of the law and the political motives behind it. The
government finally had its way, and the chief justice was impeached.
The beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday on Feb. 13) followed closely after
these events. Since Lent is a time for inner scrutiny, repentance and a
return to integrity amidst the harsh realities of life, any realistic
preparation to celebrate Easter as the Festival of Ascent is called to
wrestle with these events.
The episode of the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake is
not to be seen as an isolated incident. It is part of a wider design in
governance—strong and predictable enough to be identified as
evolutionary decline—evolutionary because it grows on us, decline
because it pulls us down.
Evolutionary decline operates in cyclic form. At regular intervals,
serious irregularities of public and national importance that demand
government accountability stir the nation. Some are serious enough to
call for the resignation of those in high places. But, as expected, no
one resigns or is asked to resign because, if one goes, one will not go
alone. And so to the contrary, those responsible stubbornly close ranks
and sit it out with predictable rhetoric until the irregular is
inevitably incorporated into the system.
As the system absorbs more and more irregularities, its very nature
becomes irregular. From here, the regular becomes strange and is
caricatured because it exposes the irregular, and the nation finds
itself in a dangerous state of moral decline which neither National Day
parades nor the occasional outburst when a little girl is arrested for
stealing coconuts can conceal.
Alternative People’s Resilience
Thankfully, this trend is not the end of the story. Evolutionary decline
inevitably breeds an alternative people’s resilience which refuses to
succumb to the former. This people’s resilience, vibrant and alive in
all corners of the country, exposes the irregular system by sifting and
sustaining the truth in the security of twos and threes when doing so
publicly could be costly. When evolutionary decline threatens to engulf
all, it is this ability to engage in critique and interpretation across
all ethnic, political, religious and class barriers that safeguards
human dignity and the national image.
This people’s resilience also functions as informal people’s tribunals
when justice is distorted. In fact, it is these tribunals that recently
ruled that Chief Justice Bandaranayake did not receive justice. Like
many individuals who put public service first in spite of knowing what
was coming, she will be remembered long after those who hurt her are
The verdicts of these people’s tribunals often prove to be more just
than official rulings under evolutionary decline. All legislators and
judges are to bear in mind the sense of natural justice within the
people, which spontaneously scrutinizes the integrity of the legal
process. This scrutiny is simple and straightforward. It probes whether
constitutions and the rule of law liberate and benefit people as a whole
or whether they mostly benefit those in power and hinder and harass the
people instead. In application, it serves as the final democratic word,
judging both the judgment and those who pronounce judgment long after
the work of parliaments and law courts is done.
The ability to sustain this people’s integrity when it runs counter to
evolutionary decline is then the essence of human freedom. The ability
to recognize, protect and foster this integrity is the test of true
democratic leadership in an independent nation.
The Teaching of Christ
The teaching of Christ is best understood when it is applicable to all
and not just Christians and when it is applied to difficult times and
not merely the routine. In fact, Christ’s teaching loses its freshness
when restricted for long periods to the general interpretation and
application of religion within the Church only.
It is from this perspective that Christ’s teaching on the life-affirming
character of people’s gatherings in “twos and threes” is of relevance
for today. To restrict this teaching to religious gatherings is to
deflect its impact. It much more anticipates a mechanism of survival and
counterinfluence at a time when credible alternatives to exclusive
governance are seen as intrigue. Thus, those within the tradition of
people’s resilience are to take heart. The universal Christ is present
in the “twos and threes” to endorse and empower such gatherings.
Set Free to Free
People’s resilience eventually has a spillover effect. Its association
with and assertion of the truth frees people from self- and sectarian
interest to recognize responsibility for the freedom of others. It is
this liberating influence that has historically disturbed and compelled
many to pick up the anxieties of the helpless (those oppressed by
structural injustice and violence) and the harassed (those also
oppressed by visible injustice and violence) and to cross borders to
stand in human solidarity with those deprived of justice.
In practical terms, this standing point means that the harassed Jaffna
University students; the simmering antagonism towards the Muslim
community; those immersed in poverty, like the little girl who stole
coconuts; the prisoners who were allegedly killed after the Welikada
Prison riot; the lawyers who received threats, etc., are not to be left
to their own fate or the anxieties and concerns of their immediate
families, communities and groups only. The hurt and insecurity of these
Sri Lankans are to be seen as invitations to counter their isolation
through a demonstration of human solidarity by others.
National Integration and Reconciliation
While the manner in which such a tradition is to be built into the
social fabric of a nation is best left to the integrity of those who
respond, one thing is certain. Even though at the outset it appears to
be so, cross-border human solidarity does not remain an initiative of
the strong towards the weak. It is, to the contrary, of mutual benefit.
Through the ensuing interaction, both the ones who dare to cross
boundaries as well as those isolated beyond boundaries taste freedom.
For, if freedom means anything in circumstances of structural
suppression and exclusion, it is the freedom to remain ever vigilant and
caring in the service of each other. These relationships are what
national integration is all about.
It is from such a consolidation of people’s resilience and people’s
solidarity that we will be best equipped to address the deeper wounds of
reconciliation that the national agenda wishes to bypass. These wounds
include devolution; dealing with the atrocities, pain and division of
the past; and development with a sensitive bias for the victims of
poverty, war and violence, all of which received visionary endorsement
in the recommendations of the presidential Lessons Learnt and
Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
* Bishop Duleep de Chickera is the Anglican bishop of Colombo.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong published this
article on Feb. 26, 2013.