Illustrations by Pearl Lee
editor's letter
Liturgies and Hope
Reflections From a Tamil (Indian) Christian

There is a difference between hope and hoping. I prefer using the active form “hoping”, rather than the static noun, for its present, continuous form; hoping is a mode of resisting the oppressor’s marginalizations from without as well as resisting the personal forces from within. Institutional, cultural, and economic systems are in a continuous dialogue with the internal dynamics, thereby making liberations more challenging. I treat hoping as a force that deals with the realities of the external and the internal, for it cannot be contained in the mere self/other dichotomy.

Speaking from the South Asian vantage point, hope is a powerful, personal, and collective noun and a reality that continues to uphold the lives of many minorities, especially religious minorities in the context of a cultural majority. This is true for Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs in the Indian mainland who face the majoritarian forces of the Hindus’ rule in the cultural, economical, and institutional realms, and also for Christians as minorities in Pakistan. Here, I treat Christians in the Indian nation-state as citizens who are denied the rights that are accessible for the normative Indian citizen or the Hindu. I find myself looking to the Christians in India and how their act of hoping through liturgy has relevance here in the U.S. for the people of color who face constant domination.

Hope is a powerful, personal, and collective noun and a reality that continues to uphold the lives of many minorities.

A context not conducive to hope

I am one among the 2.5 percentage of Christians in the India nation-state. India is home to 94 percent of the world’s Hindu fraternity as of 2010. Therefore, I am bound to dwell for some time on the sources of powerful resistance against the majoritarian forces that keep us in the margins.

Practicing Hindus and those who have denounced their Hindu religious practices continue to retain their cultural power. Hinduism is a totalizing force that bestows the dominating religious group with cultural, economical, and existential privileges. Without a basic understanding of the Indian-Hindu life, it is impossible to have a broader outlook about the South Asian groups that vie for a slice of power and privilege here in the North American context, where multiculturalism might push everyone from the non-U.S. context to occupy some mode of marginalized and powerless position. The majority of Indians cannot continue to play the marginalized card while forgetting their complicities in the Indian context.

Darwinian social ethics — and its subsequent golden rule “survival of the fittest” — has been rebranded for the present day as “survival of the most brutal”. It can mean pro-whiteness, pro-heteronormative patriarchy, pro-evangelicalism (in a fundamentalist sense), pro-RW Hinduism, and more. Such manifestations in the Indian context are enacted by the patriarchal, feudal, anti-minority Hindu extremists, and to some extent, by Hindu liberals, providing a moral rationale through their affiliation to caste privileges while simultaneously enjoying the perception as a hardworking “marginalized” group in the U.S. context, a half-true myth. Indians in India can be agnostics or atheists, but they continue to be cultural Hindus and derive power from the regime of Hindu hegemony in the Indian subcontinent, and therefore cannot be termed in a blanket manner as oppressed or marginalized.

Darwinian social ethics — and its subsequent golden rule “survival of the fittest” — has been rebranded for the present day as “survival of the most brutal”.

But to be a Christian and Tamil, resisting the idea of what is Indian, forces one to assume minority status in the Indian nation-state, amounting to a life that is lived in the edges even as the institutional privileges for the Christians cannot be dismissed, thanks to the missionaries. We Christians in India struggle through the daily reality of facing the subtle cultural blockades enforced by the colonizing modes of Hindu modernity.

When I had once occupied the comforts of home in India, I now sojourn in the edges of another lifeworld in the U.S. I am beginning to see similar patterns of marginalization of Christians in India and persons of color in the U.S. and I am reminded of the power of liturgies as a counterforce to empire.

To be a Christian and Tamil forces one to assume minority status in the Indian nation-state.

In India: Christians hoping through liturgy

Liturgy oftentimes can be seen as serious or intimidating. Often, I have felt the same about rituals and did not realize their power, but I am waking up in another landscape to the force of this routine that, for the Christian, is seemingly mundane. I am beginning to feel the deeper meaning liturgies can provide citizens of a nation-state whose faith places them outside civic discourse. Participation in liturgies involves performances that involve citizenship in a micro-community that offers a corrective vision to the citizenship denied in the macro-community, specifically the nation-state.

In India, liturgies on Sundays are powerful antidotes to the marginalization that happens in our lives as Christians. Liturgy can involve readings of the Bible, the chanting of hallelujahs, the silence of the congregation, the testimonies of the church members, and the fellowship lunches. I point to food as liturgical hospitality because it contains within itself the power to initiate conversations or emotions that cannot be expressed in the usual worship mode, as well as the power to be mindful of economic injustices that deny food to countless Christians. Liturgies are not mere Christian expressions of a purely spiritual nature; liturgies act as tools that encounter systemic injustices through the expressions of common people appealing to the divine for justice and for divine solidarity.

Liturgies on Sundays are powerful antidotes to the marginalization that happens in our lives as Christians.

The common person is forced to be invisible six days a week and 10 hours a day in a dog-eat-dog corporate space or made weary in a construction site or in the fields. Bewildered, torn, and performing invisibility throughout the week can be daunting and energy-draining while also existing in the continuous marginalities of the civic lifeworld as a Christian. Yet liturgies act as a radical method for those who do not belong to these spaces, acknowledging them as complete citizens who belong and can flourish. Liturgies offer relief and energy for people who have toiled during the week but can come to the spaces of the transcendent to face and question a God who is also invisible, but powerful and on their side, and who receives their rhythms, chants, silences, and sharing of food.

Liturgies act as tools that encounter systemic injustices through the expressions of common people appealing to the divine for justice and for divine solidarity.

In the U.S.: Liturgy creating space for hope

Liturgy can be hope for something out of nothing and provide the ability to look at the powerful world through the lens of a nonexistent world. That is the energy of hope, of thinking and existing in a way where liberations are possible. This is why hope is radical, subversive, and confusing; it is not confined to what is seen through our immediate realities.

Liturgies act as a radical method for those who do not belong to these spaces, acknowledging them as complete citizens who belong and can flourish.

We can only come to terms with hope in a limited, human sense and cannot live out hope’s fullest potential until we use it as a dialogue with a transcendent power for the sake of every marginalized person without regard for boundaries and nations. Liturgies allow for a conversation that is otherwise impossible. Esther, Ruth, and Job remind me of these powerful encounters, and especially with Moses and Isaiah, these encounters are explicit. Yahweh even asked Isaiah to reason with the transcendent. Liturgies assume this role.

Liturgy thus provides a meeting ground for Christian communities that have little voice in the realm of politics and the larger public sphere. Christians who do not have a say in the daily affairs of their own country can personally and collectively experience agency and power by elevating themselves from nothing to the highest levels of citizenship and identity formation. Liturgies bring into conversation both ordinary human reality and the transcendent force of God, providing hope for and from the ordinary by elevating the human condition to engage with a liberative God.

Christians who do not have a say in the daily affairs of their own country can personally and collectively experience agency and power.

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