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Indian theologian celebrated Jesus as liberator

By JANINA GOMES

Wen the Indian Catholic theologian George Soares Prabhu died in a tragic accident a few years ago, the greatness of his achievements had just begun to register in the international world. His contribution to Indian Christian theology is now seen as path-breaking, and a book in his honor has been brought out called The Dharma of Jesus. His writings are also being compiled in four volumes and will form part of the precious literature that has marked theological learning in India in the post-colonization period.

Soares Prabhu proposed a uniquely Indian approach to the Bible that would combine an Indian social reading in socio-economic terms with an Indian religious reading, in which Christian scriptural texts would be informed by India’s rich religious tradition.

In The Dharma of Jesus, his fellow Jesuit Keith D’Souza analyzes Soares Prabhu’s thought. His teachings on the “Abba experience” of Jesus dwell on God’s unconditional love. It was this experience that made Jesus supremely free. A logical consequence of this was to experience every human being as brother and sister. “Born of an experience of God as unconditional love for us, the freedom of the Kingdom finds its fulfillment in our unconditional love for others.”

Soares Prabhu presents to us a Jesus who radically transformed the understanding of ethics from being a law-based to a love-based norm of life. His teaching was not so much the imparting of sound doctrine as the communication of an experience of love.

The theme of liberation for the poor and the oppressed is a key concept in Soares Prabhu’s work. The oppressed in the Old Testament are the materially needy, the socially oppressed or the spiritually low. The experience of God as liberator dominates the consciousness of the Hebrews.

As Soares Prabhu points out, the term poor in the New Testament was even more comprehensive and includes the destitute, the illiterate, the social outcast, the physically handicapped and mentally ill -- all of whom are victims and are reduced to a condition of diminished capacity and worth. Jesus comes as liberator of the oppressed in life.

According to Soares Prabhu, Jesus identified himself with poor people to show them an active and effective concern. Such a concern looked toward the ending of their social poverty while calling for spiritual poverty that would set them and their rich exploiters free from “mammon,” the compulsive urge to possess. However, just as Jesus blessed poor people but not their poverty because it is dehumanizing, so also he condemned riches, because it dehumanizes through greed and pride, but did not condemn rich people.

Soares Prabhu says that Jesus identified himself with poor people because he experienced God as an “Abba” who loves unconditionally. He sided with the oppressed, and by doing this he knew that this would ultimately achieve liberation for both the oppressors and the oppressed. In his option for the oppressed, Jesus employed a two-pronged attack: against Mammon (attachment to riches) and against Satan (oppressive social systems). Soares Prabhu saw oppression as not merely a sociological problem, but rather as a socio-spiritual and theological problem.

Two thousand years later, what should our option be? Soares Prabhu proposes a vision of Christian faith and mission for the contemporary world.

Soares Prabhu also emphasizes the responsibility of the world community to the marginalized. He is therefore, as D’Souza writes, not so much concerned with the evolution of theology for its own sake, as he is with providing a re-vision of faith that does justice to the needs of the world. He provides us with a world-view that cuts through the sacred-secular, faith-justice, contemplation-action divide. He also provides us with a world-view that pays attention to the material, intellectual and spiritual aspects of our collective human experience.

Soares Prabhu’s sense of mission goes beyond the narrow sense of recruiting more members for the Christian community and calls for a life of radical detachment from possessions and family ties, for a radical trust in God and a radical fidelity to Jesus in all the conflicts and persecutions that following him in mission will bring.

Janina Gomes is communications manager at the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mumbai, India. She contributes regularly to the “Speaking Tree” column of the Times of India, a column devoted to philosophy and religion. Her e-mail address is janinagomes@hotmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000