February 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Evolutionary 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.

Evolutionary Decline

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 forgotten.

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