WAITING FOR GODOT – while the Church only too often is as much a club as is the State, protecting and protesting on behalf of only its own, there is a feeling that there are not nearly enough citizens at the barricades these days, with the nation at large seemingly up in arms against government
Fr. Cyril Gamini
Last week, a soft-spoken Catholic priest had to mark his presence in the pleasant offices of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to record – not one, or two, but no less than three – statements regarding his comments on the alleged role of the State military and intelligence services vis-à-vis the Trojan horse we now know as ‘4/21’.
And that the outspoken individual patiently treading the path to his own Calvary of a sort is a man of the cloth is not atypical in a country where personal religion turns into tribal politics soon enough. Like some perverse Cana miracle in reverse. And his sombre tenor – at least on TV – set a nice counterpoint to the strident demands of the State agencies and their sundry apparatuses sensing a Crucifixion on the horizon.
There is much to say – or perhaps more prudently, mull over in silence – when faith speaks truth to power. More pertinently to Sri Lanka’s past and present suffering, when the political arm of a religious movement mobilises against a philosophically agnostic government, it is an agony from which the body politic absents itself at its own peril. And the civilised readers of a conservative journal like this are missing from the debates, as well as MIA at the barricades.
But let the faithful – whether religious or political – judiciously decide where to stand, which placard with whose poignant head shots of the Black Sunday dead to pick up, and choose their words carefully. As The Good Book says, ‘As the sparks fly upward, so surely man is born to trouble.’
The tension between Church and State is an old, historic and complex one. It’s perhaps best characterised as two pillars of society coming into conflict with each other over a shared – and yet, contested – sphere of influence. And the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ have often commingled to the point where even the best of brews is a bitter cup. That speaking truth to power has been a poisoned chalice has been par for the course from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King.
This raising of a clenched fist in a public square by the Roman clergy of Sri Lanka is not quite that. For the intersectionality of their power space is small and rapidly diminishing in the face of rising ethno-nationalistic entrenchment in the deep State.
For all its much vaunted gravitas as a not insignificant segment of the swing vote in decisive elections, the Catholic demographic is increasingly decreasing in its power and its glory in our land. The penchant of Princes of the Church to play politics has contributed in no small measure to the decline and fall of this ‘Roman Empire’ in Sri Lanka.
For one, their Eminences have often arrogated to themselves the role of a stately Kingmaker with an appetite for rank and privilege; rather than a humble Carpenter with a social conscience, and a hunger for justice or a thirst for peace. For another, being more commensurate with popes and palaces, and not the person in the street, it has been easier perhaps for cynical power brokers to run with the rabbit while hunting with the hounds.
Last but by no means least, the number of times that ‘the household of the faithful’ has taken to the streets to plant a stake in the ground against rank injustice and grisly crimes can be counted on the fingers of one nail-scarred hand. While its many silences – like the blood of the martyrs – cry out for justice to be served to the abusers of power and those who colluded with them... even by dint of silence being interpreted as fearful consent or fatuous complaisance.
Head on the stake
Not that Fr. Cyril Gamini’s trial by fire is any the less of a reprehensible showpiece by virtue – or lack of it – of which his head on a stake will hopefully deter civilian dissent against governmental failure to bring full and final and entirely and transparently satisfactory closure to the Easter Sunday massacre.
But that the silence of these lambs in their pure-white innocence of being ‘more sinned against than sinning’ speaks volumes for the selective Protestantism of the dyed-in-the-wool Catholic enclave. After Black Sunday ages ago, yes! And more so, after the continuing controversy over ‘failure to bring justice’ for its victims. Also, over the State’s blithely non-green acquisition of Muthurajawela’s marshy wetland for ‘development’...
But where were these bleeding hearts during the Rathupaswela massacre, Aluthgama/Dharga-town conflagration and the Kandy District riots that nearly set a nation ablaze? Hardly the stuff that Archbishop Oscar Romero was made of!
Sadly, the Church is often no less a club than the State, or the once and future political uni-culture: it’s prone to protect and defend only its own.
These absences also raise the hoary issue of where the other (‘profane’ not ‘sacred’) champions of peace with justice have gone to ground these days. Business minds its own, as maybe it always did. Professionals plough on, except a discredited lot now seeking anonymity – or relegated to political Siberia after speaking out. Academics in the main are academic to civic virtues, with maybe a few or brace of exceptions.
Has civil society – like the crowd before Passover hailing the Man who they assumed would be their political saviour (‘ecce homo’) – now melted away into the crowd in the face of the occupying powers and the iron fist of the legions? No one sings hosannas to either Singapore-style messiahs or mercenaries hankering for a Caliphate of yore today. Have the champions of a prosperous and visionary society done a Pilate and a bunk to boot?
Passion plays plus other ploys
While the soft-spoken/outspoken clergyman has been compelled to carry his cross, the ‘Pax Srilankana’ that prevails these days has ground the mills of its legalistic justice slowly but surely.
The ‘Imperium’ defends its own – especially those of ‘Consular’ or ‘Senatorial’ rank (let the reader understand) – while the poor plebeians are treated once again to the spectacle of gladiatorial scapegoats being administered the dreaded thirty-nine lashes.
In the week after Fr. Cyril’s Trinitarian visit to the CID, the brace of State officials carrying the heavy burden of being accused dereliction of duty – the former Defence Secretary and an erstwhile IGP – have been indicted in the courts on no less than 855 counts vis-a-vis ‘4/21’.
Have the powers that be no sense of proportion or irony, that they offer lambs of apolitical rank and standing, as sacrifices to salve their consciences? Charging these lesser mortals with lower negligence – while overlooking the larger culpability of the political powers that were in the hot seat at the time... that’s the bane of patronage politics, now tinged with paternalism.
Or is this another instance of ‘you scratch my back’ with the thorny birch and I tickle your fancy, forgetful self-serving pardons and failure to impeach?
I trust everyone has forgotten the sop to Cerberus that so-called ‘Good Governance’ offered the public consciousness in crucifying former presidential and treasury secretaries for their blind obeisance to a past regime while the bigger scalier fish avoided being netted – as usual – and are still swimming with the sharks...? In fact, are still the sharks at large! ‘Twas ever thus.’
Sowing the seed
‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’, the patristic writer Tertullian suggested some eighteen centuries ago.
If the State of today reads anything more than gazettes or green manifestoes and giggly policy reversals, it would do well to delve into the historical nexus between unjust regimes that persecute the oppressed and how rapidly socio-political decline can undermine the most robust governments of the day.
And just as no religious dispensation is infallible in this age of the Internet and Artificial Intelligence knocking on humanity’s door, no political administration is invincible when a courageous person and his sympathetic cohorts nail their own ‘95 Theses’ to the State door in broad daylight.
As for civil society, it can no longer afford to skulk about in outer darkness, relieving unbearable tensions by posting occasional telling rants in the sanctity of the Facebook cloister or tweeting desperately in the lost catacombs of Twitter.
We must all realise that truth will out, whether or not it’s ever admitted or ratified by a future ruing class. And what is whispered in the safety of the inner room will be shouted out from the rooftops one day. That’s the perspective history teaches us – in the long run we, and all our cherished ambitions or gryphon-guarded stores of gold, are stone-cold dead...
It is not only a hope for closure with justice that the hurt yearn for or the wounded need. And a healing for which a people and a nation have been desperate for too long now, but afraid of the Assyrian who comes down like a wolf on the fold.
There is a feeling that the countryside these days is littered with a plethora of protests. From farmers facing famine burning government officials in effigy at being starved for traditional fertiliser, to teachers desperately embracing verbal violence at the very least to achieve what seems like mere survival for them. And after the fiasco of the political opposition’s weaponising of sundry angry pockets of marginalised groups of people around the island, there may be a sense that the nation at large is up in arms against incompetence at least and corruption at worst.
Yet, a panoply of the affected citizenry don’t seem disaffected enough to take to the streets. Maybe, hunger and thirst for justice or targeted persecution haven’t coming knocking on their door for now. Perhaps, it’s the pandemic that’s keeping the masses huddled for safety and security at home... Perhaps – although in our heart of hearts, the foreign gods of apathy and ignorance selfishly say otherwise.
Is the time clearly ripe for the cowardly too to draw that circle in the sand? But how to do it creatively, and within the bounds of the law, and the best practices of the critically engaged civil society we used to – or think we used to – be. And how best to demonstrate to the powers of darkness lurking in the corridors of power that citizen dissent is a welcome (not weird or wacko) facet of that so-long-ago dreamt-of disciplined society with vistas of splendour and prosperity...
Say to the dark satanic mills of absence of conflict but with no real peace or justice – here we stand! In case anyone is wont to get carried away... this is not incitement to insurrection or anarchy, or a call to arms... far from it – for as the Pauline exhortation in Romans 13:1-7 has it, citizens must be subject to the governing authorities. But that saint – ironically enough, writing from imperial imprisonment – makes it clear that the governing authorities are themselves subject to a higher Law. And in that context, the discerning governor will recognise that whether Fr. Cyril or a Cardinal or any Christian bowing the knee to cardinal virtue as much as authority, ‘render unto Caesar’ (and the rest of it) holds true. Thus, this humble appeal to restore the fundamental rights of civil society where a questioning citizen seeking to critically engage the powers that be under the ambit of the freedoms and liberties enshrined in the law (as seen in the Constitution) is treated as an independent and not a political tool... or puppet with a vendetta – as the case may be.
Let’s not allow another cynical regime (and God and his mundane governors know we’ve had them up to here in Sri Lanka since independence) to get away with plastering the cracks – after cracking the plaster of the holy place – and blithely assume that ‘time heals all wounds’. When, au contraire, ‘time must wound all heels’ if and when peace with justice is taken on faith.
(Journalist WFH since ‘4/21’ | Ed.-at-Large of LMD | Writer with ‘catholic’ tastes and ‘protestant’ sensibilities)