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Developing a Culture of Encounter: An Imperative in Asia

By: Shalini Mulackal

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

Christianity was born in Asia and has existed in some countries like India from the very beginning. Yet Christians constitute less than 3% of the Asian population today with the exception of Philippines. What is important is not the number but how the “little flock” is keeping the memory of Jesus alive in this vast continent of diverse cultures, religions, languages, and ethnicities. The Catholic Church in Asia is entrusted with the responsibility of furthering the reign of God which Jesus inaugurated two millennia ago in the Asian soil of Palestine.

A few decades ago when the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC) came into existence, the bishops identified three characteristic aspects of Asia: the poverty of the masses, the multiplicity of cultures, and the diversity of religious traditions. Accordingly they proposed triple dialogue along these three dimensions as a new way of being Church in Asia and a new method of evangelization in the continent. Triple dialogue indeed is a beautiful concept. But how far the Church in Asia entered into this triple dialogue is another question. Of course, the Church is known for its charitable works for the poor and its work for their empowerment in various ways. But the question remains: does the Church really encounter the poor, encounter the diverse cultures, and encounter other religious traditions in Asia?

India is one of the Asian countries where the realities of poverty, cultural diversity, and religious pluralism are greatly noticeable. Indians are divided on the basis of class, caste, gender, religion, language, ethnicity, etc. Various political parties tend to polarize the people further to mobilize the vote, and the present ruling party exploits religious sentiments of the majority to the maximum. They promote and impose cultural nationalism with one culture, one religion, one nation, one language, and one ideology, with religious minorities relegated to a second-class status.

Christians are a tiny minority in India. Though they are only 2.3% of the total population, their contribution to the nation in the field of education, health care, and social services provided for the poor and disadvantaged is far beyond their numerical strength. The practice of the caste system, where human persons are considered inferior or superior depending on the caste one is born into, is very peculiar to this country. The Hindu scriptures justify such an unequal system as ordered by God from the time of creation.

The practice of caste divisions and the attendant discrimination is found not only among Hindus but also among others who follow other religious traditions, including Christians. There are the so-called “caste Christians” and “Dalit Christians.” More than 60% of Indian Christians are the so-called Dalits who occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy. However, they are not proportionately represented in the leadership roles within the Church. Unfortunately caste distinctions are maintained through various practices in some local churches just as they are perpetuated in the general society.

Pope Francis’ call to develop a culture of encounter in this context is not only relevant but is imperative for Christians in Asia. Creating a culture of encounter goes way beyond having a dialogue with another person or a group. In a dialogue a person representing a particular religious or cultural group shares the opinion of that particular group on a given topic. Dialogue therefore is more of a sharing of ideas and thoughts. At the end the dialogue partners gain knowledge about the other, and that knowledge need not bring about a mutual transformation.

Truly encountering the other is a different experience altogether. The one who encounters the other allows him/herself to be transformed. There is readiness to expose oneself, one’s identity, and one’s convictions in life to the experience of the “otherness” of the other. In the process one engages with one’s discomfort, which is evoked in the presence of the other. Often such discomfort is based on certain prejudices about the other. Engaging with one’s discomfort will give way to accepting the other as other without any conditions. In this process something new begins to emerge. A new culture begins to grow.

But why should I as a Christian be concerned about creating a culture of encounter? As Pope Francis says, my Christian faith itself is a result of an encounter, an encounter with the risen Jesus. That encounter has changed my life from being self-centered to other-centered. I live not for myself but for the Lord and for his kingdom/kindom which he inaugurated. He lived that “kindom”’ where everyone is kith and kin, brothers and sisters of one family. Through his words and deeds Jesus showed us how to live as one family accepting everyone and excluding no one. By my baptism I am part of the mystical body of Christ. I am called to continue the mission of Jesus in this world.

In order to be authentic to my Christian calling, I have no choice but to promote a culture of encounter in a world which is divided and fragmented on many counts. There is North-South divide, division based on economic categories of developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries. Humanity today is further divided based on the colour of one’s skin, one’s sex and sexual orientation, culture and religion, the wealth and assets one possesses, the educational qualification one has gained, the type of job one is doing, etc. It is in this context of division that my Christian calling to build one human family becomes significant and meaningful.

To create a culture of encounter, the first step is to have respect for the other and see the other as a dignified human person created in the image and likeness of God. In a patriarchal society like India, we have to go a long way to accept that women, too, are created in the image and likeness of God and that they, too, share the dignity befitting a human being. In a caste-ridden society where caste values are internalized, I as a Christian need to de-caste myself and see the so-called low castes and out castes as children of the same God with equal dignity and value.