Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Clergy lead Sri Lanka May Day parade

Workers Christian Fellowship seeks to meld Christianity, Marxism and Buddhism

The former Bishop of Kurunegala and other members of the Workers Christian Fellowship (WCF) held their annual May Day march in Colombo last week, in defiance of objections raised by the Sri Lankan government.

Wearing stoles and a cope covered with the hammer and sickle symbol, the Rt. Rev. Kumara Illangasinghe, who served as the fourth bishop of Kurunegala in the Church of Ceylon from 2000 to 2010 and was a member of the Anglican Consultative Council’s Standing Committee, and clergy from the Diocese of Colombo, along with trade unionists marched on May 1 in the Colombo’s Fort area to mark International Workers’ Day.

The government had asked the May Day ceremonies be moved to May 7, after Buddhist clergy asked the Workers Christian Fellowship to reschedule the march so that it would not take place on the Buddhist Vesak festival.

“We did not want to cow down to any pressure from the government. We did not want to change the International Workers’ Day. Workers have come in huge numbers today,” said Linus Jayatilleke, president of the United Federation of Labour told The Hindu.

Formed in 1958, the WCF seeks to combine Marxist principles with an indigenous Sri Lankan Christian sensitivity. A 1984 pamphlet released by the WCF entitled “For a real Sri Lankan Christianity” urged Ceylonese Christians to use the island’s Buddhist heritage to interpret the Christian faith.

In its discussion of the sacraments, the WCF wrote:

We have already made the point that the Living Christ is at work in the faiths and movements for human liberation. Christ is the Word or expression of God, the Logos, the Dharma and the Dynamic of History, who provides all human beings coming into existence with the means of salvation, the path of liberation in their own religio-cultural contexts. Thus when for instance a Buddhist or Hindu finds salvation, it is by the grace of Christ as we would term it that this happens and he is incorporated then into the new life of God’s Kingdom even if he knows nothing of Christianity. And it is through the sacraments of Buddhism and Hinduism, through the message of morality and the self-giving life that such salvation is normally transmitted and received. Our Asian societies have been basically corporate in their nature. This has been greatly influenced by their traditional religions and salvation has necessarily to be collective and social if it is to be understood and transmitted and have any meaning for the mass of the Asian people. That is also why in our Asian situation it becomes “crucial” for us to recognise the working of Christ’s spirit within these religio-cultural traditions. And it is only when through the working of Christ, the spiritual treasures found in these ancient religious streams and Christianity merge in a single river, that we will discover the face of a truly Asian Christ. What the Church as the Body of Christ will look like then can only be a matter for conjecture. But we would do well to distinguish the present image of the Christian Church from the Asian Church that is yet to be!


It is important that we clarify what is meant when we talk about the dynamic action of Christ in our world. This dynamic action is described in St. John’s Gospel as the “Logos” (i.e. “Word” in John 1 1-3, 14), which term has been rightly rendered in the new Sinhala (Sri Lankan) and Burmese Bible translations as “Dharma” personalised. In our Buddhist-Hindu tradition, Dharma (“rta”) is essentially that which gives meaning to and holds all life together and which leads the world from darkness to light, from death to immortality. This can only be considered in terms of the great struggle for liberation (“vimukthi”) of all beings. Dharma is basically, identified with justice and righteousness and the fight [15/16] against evil in all its forms. “Christ” is the Judeo-Christian account (“Myth”) of this divine disclosure in the events of history (Exodus–Corinthians. 10: 1-4).


Although the Bible unfolds the story of “Dharmic” action in Jewish history, it recognises that the scope of the Dharma’s liberating action goes far beyond the confines of Jewish and Christian history (Amos 9: 7; Isaiah 19: 24-25; Micah 4: 1-5; Romans 8: 18-23). Unfortunately, this profound insight has been by and large lost sight of by the Semitic-European religious traditions and their missionary endeavours. The true Asian Church in formation must therefore allow itself to be transfigured through and through until it shows forth the unparalleled beauty of the Dharma in its fulness.


Meanwhile, as part of the Christian Church’s mission in the world and in the context of the mass struggles that characterise the world of the poor and oppressed, we have to emphasise the social and corporate nature of the Church’s sacraments, which are also the instruments of God’s grace. We may note at once that no real Sacrament is magical. But Sacraments do have a special strength because of their link with the will and action of God. Thus the efficacy of the Christian sacraments does not come from the sacraments themselves, but is in fact dependent on the action of God within them. And indeed, these Sacraments are only different aspects, signs and symbols of the only Sacrament of the New Testament, which is the Church as a whole and ultimately Christ himself (Ephesians 1: 4-10; 3: 3-6; Colossians 1: 25-27; 2: 2-3).

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