Thursday Theology #539
October 9, 2008
Topic: Luther's Theology of the Cross and its Relevance for South Asia.
This week amidst world-wide fiscal crisis [remember: "crisis" is the Greek
word for "judgment"], a book review about Luther's theology and Asia. Is that
relevant? You decide.
Remembering also that the Best News for facing God's "crisis" is God's
(His) Peace and Joy!
Christ as Sacrament and Example. Luther's Theology of the Cross and its Relevance for South Asia.
By Jhakmak Neeraj Ekka
Minneapolis: Lutheran Univ. Press
2007 217 pp., paper, $15.00
The two-line title says it all. Luther's theology of the cross is indeed
relevant for South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan).
Christ-as-Sacrament and Christ-as-Example are the author's code words for the center
of Luther's theology of the cross. In that cross-theology
Christ-as-Sacrament designates God's mercy-move to sinners in Christ-crucified.
Christ-as-Example calls such forgiven sinners into the world as "little Christs," a favored
term of Luther's.
The South Asian context is also a two-faceted reality. One is "massive
poverty: a pervasive reality." The other is "Multi-religiosity: a distinctive
characteristic of South Asia."
Right at the outset Ekka tells us: "We defend the thesis that it is in the
affirmation of Luther's theology of the cross, with its exclusive claims of
God's final revelation in the vulnerability of the cross of Jesus Christ of
Nazareth, one is able to be truly open to the other faith as well as become
genuinely concerned for the poor people." (22)
The path for the project is this. 1) The Context Delineated. A survey of the
world of South Asia and a survey of the theology of the cross from Biblical
times to the modern period. 2) Ekka's own understanding and presentation of
Luther's theology of the cross. 3) The present debate--a broad spectrum--in
interpreting Luther's theology of the cross and where Ekka takes his place in
that debate. 4) M.M.Thomas and Aloysius Pieris--two eminent South Asian
theologians and their theologies of the cross. Coming to closure, Ekka's own
construction in chapter 5: The theology of the cross amidst many religions and many
poor. And finally 6) The markers of a South Asian theology of the cross,
concluding in Ekka's constructive proposal: Theology of the cross as a "Theology of
Chapter 4 is Ekka's dialogue with two classic South Asian theologians, M.M.
Thomas (Protestant) and Aloysius Pieris (Roman Catholic). He values their
work, but finds their respective versions of cross-theology "not good enough" when
measured by Christ-as-Sacrament and Christ-as-Example, the two anchor points
of Luther's theology of the cross.
For Thomas "humanization" is the code word for the good news of Christ's
cross. With help from Bonhoeffer's "Christ the man for others," Thomas's
"understanding of Christ's New Humanity based on the resurrection of Christ led him
to assert the presence of Christ's transforming power in secular movements and
religious traditions [in India]."
Measured by Luther's cross-theology, says Ekka, Thomas overvalues human
action by moving it into the realm of "Christ-as-sacrament," God's redemption
project to bring lost children (aka sinners) home. Under Luther's "sacrament"
rubric --God's mercy-act to and for sinners--it is Christ and Christ alone who
exercises this specific "transforming power." Luther finds all "secular
movements"-- and even "religious traditions among Christians!" yes, even "humanizing"
Christian religious traditions--incapable of such sacramental power, and
surely not automatically so.
With reference to Luther's other touchstone, Thomas doesn't appropriate
"Christ-as-Example" radically and fully enough even with "his unrelenting stress on
humanization." Thomas's Indian dialog-partners were the educated elite of
contemporary Hinduism, the establishment voices in Brahman culture. With
reference to the vast population of "truly oppressed communities of his country,
namely, Dalit and tribal communities, . . . wronged and marginalized for
centuries, Thomas is unable to speak powerfully on their behalf, about the injustice
often inflicted upon them by those who profess to represent them." (115) In
newly emerging "Dalit theology," an expanding voice among Indian Christians,
Thomas is not seen as an ally. He valued Hinduism too highly and didn't address
the "serious issue of Hinduism's religious apartheid," which places "Dalits,
tribals, fisher folk, etc." into permanent chains of nobody-ness. That is the
very opposite of humanization.
Christ-as-Example in Luther's cross-theology is not merely the "man for
others," as Bonhoeffer tells us. Christ is the "man for ALL others," millions of
nobodies everywhere. Also in India
Considerably farther "left" on today's spectrum of South Asia's Christian
theology is Aloysius Pieris, Roman Catholic, a Sri Lankan Jesuit priest. His is
a radical liberation theology, going well beyond the Latin Americans who
taught us the term decades ago. In order for "the church IN Asia to be the church
OF Asia" (Pieris' mantra) he intensifies and Asian-izes liberation theology's
"option for the poor" into a "radical option for the poor." He rallies us to
two "signature phrases"-- the "Calvary of Asian poverty" and the "Jordan of
The "Calvary of Asian poverty" designates the crucifixion of the poor in
Asia, just as was true of Jesus in Jerusalem. And in both cases at the hands of
the rich and powerful whose God is Mammon. Mammon and Mammon-worshippers--the
power center as never before of today's global capitalism--constitute THE
enemy in Pieris' cross-theology. Therefore in the light of Asia's overwhelming
poverty [aka Calvary], Pieris proclaims "the hard gospel demand for
renunciation, 'denying oneself,' the 'taking up the cross,' as the absolute requirement
of true discipleship." (119)
The "Jordan of Asian Religions" links Pieris' theology to Jesus at the
Jordan. In accepting John's baptism ata the Jordan Jesus "identified with the
religious poor," discovered his own "prophetic asceticism," the "point of
departure for his own prophetic ministry." The Jordan-parallel in Asia for the "two
streams" intersecting at Jesus' baptism (prophetic asceticism and the religious
poor) is the "twofold spiritualities of the monks and the peasants in Asia."
Though these two spiritualities are specific to Asian contexts, they reach
far beyond. He calls them "the metacosmic spirituality of the monks and the
cosmic spirituality of the peasants."
In Pieris's reading of Jesus, from baptism to Calvary he struggles against
but one enemy, "mammon with all tis principalities and powers." The agenda for
the church, to be the church OF Asia, is "to demolish mammon that stands
against the liberation of the people and hence against the Kingdom of God."(123)
Ekka concludes "Pieris interprets the cross as planted on Calvary by 'the
money-polluted religiosity of his day,' helped by 'a foreign colonial power.'
Thus for him, the cross exclusively refers to the empowerment of the poor for
the one and only purpose of liberation." In Luther's cross-theology the
message is quite different. At Calvary "God was in Christ reconciling the world
unto himself, not counting trespasses [of both the rich and the poor], but
bestowing on them the very righteousness of God." Pieris has no antennae for
Calvary as an event that changes God's relationship with Asian sinners, nor with
sinners of any age or context. Christ-as-sacrament (understood as Ekka hears
Luther proclaiming it) has no place at all in Pieris's program.
Christ-as-example is the whole story. But even that limps in Pieris's cross-theology.
For Christ's unique ":example," where Christ is exemplary indeed, is
precisely his life and work and word as God's "sacrament" of rescue at the
divine-human interface. So by ignoring, even negating, Christ's sacramental self--his
reconciling sinners to God -- Pieris (unwittingly?) also downgrades Christ's
exemplary self "cosmically," and, yes, "metacosmically." Pieris's
Christ-as-example with no Christ-as-sacrament is shriveled--even as example.
Ekka's shows us in his own constructive proposal how Pieris could REALLY be
radical if he rediscovered Christ-as-sacrament in the paradigm of Luther's
cross-theology. In similar fashion he shows us how M.M.Thomas could have a more
expansive program of "humanization," were he too to exploit Luther's
Christ-as-Sacrament, where the blood was shed "for ALL." This is the unique
"universalism" of Christ-as-sacrament, and from this Christic universalism (for all),
Thomas too could have a Christ-as-example "for ALL others," embracing also the
nobodies that Thomas never quite got to.
In conclusion Ekka takes the pregnant Indian religious term "marga" (the way)
and links it to THE WAY, a favored term in the NT for the Gospel as Christ's
own "way" into the world, into ALL the world. His final sentences are: "An
Asian theology of the cross will take shape in daily encounter with and
confession of Christ the way and draw believers to the way the Savior lived and died.
The proclamation and practice of this Way . . . promise true Christian
identity and relevance in South Asia. Indeed, the theology of the cross is the
theology of the way."(180)
I think that there is even more in Luther's cross-theology than Ekka has yet
mined for his project. E.g., the centrality of promise and the role of faith.
But this he has solidly documented: Luther's cross-theology is very good
news for God's people living in South Asia.