There is a place in Co. Limerick, in Ireland called, ‘Plassey’. It is an old and enchanting landed estate of magnificent beauty accessed by a riverbank walk. Once frequented by generations of locals it is now the campus of the University of Limerick. In my youth it was an angler’s paradise, a lovers retreat, a place where children frolicked in the summer sun and families had picnics.
Among the young lovers who dreamed of their future lives together, as they walked hand in hand, were my sweetheart and I. We were young believers in love with Christ and with each other. Often we sat in a favorite spot in the shade beneath the canopy of mature beeches and elms with our bare feet dangling in the cool stream of the River Maigue. Around that time I read the story of Sadhu Sundar Sing, the Indian Sikh who converted to Christ and suffered rejection and persecution for his newfound faith in Jesus. We talked about him and his courage and the mystical land of India. Our hearts were excited with the idea that God had plans for us that would one day allow us to follow in Carey’s footsteps to minister in India.
Plassey was once the Ballykilty estate and manor house owned by Thomas McMahon, until it was acquired by Robert Clive and took on its peculiar name. The story of how it came to be called ‘Plassey’ is interesting. On 23rd of June, 1757 Robert Clive (an officer in the British army) led the final battle in the conquest of India, which took place in the village of Plassey, near Calcutta. The outcome of this decisive conflict determined India’s place in the British Empire and secured great wealth for Clive.
On his return to England in 1760 he received a cordial welcome from King George II and shortly afterwards was conferred with an honorary degree from Oxford. Yet he was denied the honor of an English title for his loyal service to the Empire. Instead he would be granted an Irish title, which (unlike an English one) did not entitle the holder to a seat in the House of Lords. To qualify for this dubious honor he first had to purchase an estate in Ireland. The reason for this lukewarm reception for the homecoming hero appears to be that he fell out of favor with several directors of the East India Company.
The retired military officer bought properties in Limerick and Clare consisting of several thousands of acres in a disjointed estate, thus securing an appropriate holding for the new landlord to become, ‘Baron Clive of Plassey, Co. Clare, Ireland’.
Continuity with Carey
William Carey (1761-1834) was founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, with thirteen other men, in 1792. His conviction that the gospel should be made known throughout the world led him to set sail for India the following year, never to return to his native England. For over forty years he engaged in preaching, lecturing, translating and publishing. He had many heartbreaking disappointments which tested his faith. But through it all he proved that God is faithful to those who obey his call. The impact of his work is evident today on the sub-continent and beyond. Many Indian Christians today are spreading the gospel in neighboring countries that are hostile to the gospel (such as Myanmar, formerly Burma).
Calcutta Bible Seminary
Today India does not welcome missionaries. So those from outside the country who desire to spread the gospel in that land cannot apply for a visa as a ‘missionary’ because it would not be granted. Carey and his contemporaries had to contend with the hostility of the East India Company (who had the right to grant or refuse permission to reside in India), who did not want missionaries in India.
On that score not much had changed in over two-hundred years. The Lord has graciously allowed me to minister in India where I had the privilege to teach at the Calcutta Bible Seminary (CBS) in West Bengal. Their courses are accredited by the Senate of the Serampore where William Carey was the first principal.
The students at CBS spend most of their free time (after lectures) in the library and when the library is closed it is a moving sight to see dozens of pairs of sandals outside the prayer rooms where the students spend hours on their knees talking to God. Carey lit a fire that is blazing in the hearts of native believers today.
It is hard to comprehend the amount of languages spoken in India. For example each of the sixteen tribes of Nagaland has its own language. The local community speaks Bengali. Some of the students from Chennai (formerly Madras) in the state of Tamil-Nadu speak Tamil (their mother-tongue). Many also speak English, which is taught in school and Hindi, which is the national language. Carey’s contribution to the translation of Scripture into so many of these languages is truly remarkable. One Sunday evening I preached to the local community with a Bengali interpreter. He read the passage from the Bible, first translated into Bengali by Carey! I had an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the awesome work of Carey. What an amazing legacy he has left in that land!
In recent years the neighboring state of Orissa has been in the grip of gory anti-Christian riots. Scores of Christians have been burnt alive. Countless churches, houses and shops have been gutted. Even Christian orphanages were not spared. In one village Hindu extremists attacked Christian dwellings with guns and bombs. Hindu extremists were involved in torturing church members, especially leaders. They forced Christians into falsely confessing to crimes, or compelled them to make false accusations against other communities. Christians have been tortured in an attempt to have them renounce their faith. Buildings used for worship or prayer meetings have been destroyed. Bibles and other Christian literature have been confiscated and Christians have been beaten up by police and government officials. Orissa and other parts of India are still volatile today. The faith and fortitude that characterized Carey is evident the lives of Indian Christians today. One of my recently graduated students (Osiplilli Yesudas: second from the left in the photograph below) has now taken on ministry in Orissa. He is willing to face hardship, persecution and even death for the sake of the gospel!
What is the state of mission in this post-Carey world and how can we best imitate Carey’s example in mission? Today’s world (as distinct from Carey’s) cannot be as easily or neatly divided into Christian and non-Christian regions. The contemporary missionary frontier is not framed by longitude or latitude. Rather it is the line that separates belief from unbelief. Most communities in Western culture now have many Asians (including Indians) living among them.
The 10/40 window
Nevertheless it has to be acknowledged that the ‘10/40 Window’ remains as a challenge to mission. This is a geographical area which refers to regions of the eastern hemisphere located between ten and forty degrees north of the equator. It has the highest level of socio-economic challenges on the planet and least access to the Christian message. The ‘10/40 Window’ concept brings into the church’s radar an area of the world, with great poverty and lack of access to Christian resources. This area encompasses Saharan and North Africa as well as almost all of Asia. Roughly two-thirds of the world population lives in this region. It is inhabited by people who are predominantly Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Animist, Jewish or Atheist. Many governments in the ‘10/40 Window’ (including the Indian government) are formally or informally opposed to Christian work of any kind within their borders. Understandably many Christians want to prioritize mission in this region.
A country of contrasts
India is a country of magnificent beauty and terrible ugliness. In Calcutta there are the splendid architectural reminders of its colonial past (such as the Victoria Memorial) and the shocking slum dwellings. Environmental pollution is evident everywhere. There are extremes of wealth and poverty.
One of my more memorable experiences was shortly after arrival in India when I was taken on a relief mission to the Sunderban Islands, where Carey once had a piece of land at Debhatta and occupied a bungalow owned by the Salt Department. It is a place where cobras slither in the tall grass and many people are killed each year by man-eating tigers that live in the surrounding jungle. People in the region dig large ponds beside their homes (mud huts with straw roofs). In these artificial lakes they keep fish. The water is stagnant and many people have skin diseases from bathing in these ponds. A typhoon brought salt water to these ponds and the surrounding land which killed the fish and destroyed crops. The team distributed parcels of food and clothing to Hindus and Christians and it was a little testimony to the great love of the Lord.
The scale and pace of growth
Hindu horn blowing, bell-ringing and chanting is common in India and so too are the Muslim calls to prayer. The domes of Hindu temples and minarets of mosques are ever-present on the skyline. What must it have been like for Carey, coming from eighteenth century England (long before the days of multiculturalism) to the sub-continent? But the scale and pace of spiritual growth in India is phenomenal. There are hundreds of thousands of conversions each year, thousands of adult believers baptized and thousands of new churches planted. There is also a great deal of work being done in terms of leadership training.
It is wonderful to witness the work, commenced by Carey, continuing apace in India where individuals and entire families are converting to Christ. Carey was a keen gardener, horticulturist and botanist. He loved to plant seeds and to watch them grow and admire their magnificent colors and individual splendor. But above all he loved to sow the seed of the Word of God and see new life come to fruition. The seeds that Carey planted (watered in weeping and prayer) have germinated, taken root and grown to produce fruit bearing churches all over India.
On the Sunderban Islands I met a family of three generations that had been recently converted to Christ. They once had a Hindu shrine on their land beside their house but knocked it down and all that remains is the plinth. On the other side of their house is the site for the construction of a church building on land donated by this family.
An inspiring experience
In a visit to Serampore University (where Carey was the first principal, 1818-1832) I saw the desk on which he translated the Scriptures into many Indian languages. People often quote Carey: ‘expect great things from God, attempt great things for God’, but he was certainly a man who practiced that in his life and it is a challenge to all of us. I felt ashamed of how little I had achieved and my lack of vision. Is there reluctance on the part of God’s people today to take the gospel to distant and difficult places?
Previous generations have made heroic sacrifices to enter the mission field. When a missionary left his native homeland it was with a certain knowledge that he would be overseas for many years and might not ever return. Such journeys took several months. Correspondence between mission field and home for Carey took eighteen months to complete the circle. These were the days before flights, cheap air-fares, email, internet, mobile phones, laptop computers, air-conditioning, effective medications against tropical diseases and CNN and Sky News on television. It is a sad fact that many Christian people today have no interest in what is happening beyond the boundaries of their narrow horizons. The greatest obstacle to be overcome in fulfilling the missionary mandate is not opposition from those outside the church but rather the selfish indifference of God’s people. A church devoid of missionary vision is a flickering light in danger of being snuffed out.
How can we best follow Carey today?
The apostle Paul urged the Corinthians, ‘Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). The word ‘followers’ here literally means ‘imitators’. Following Carey means imitating him. We can do this confidently because he imitated Christ. Christ was a missionary who left heaven and came to earth. Jesus left the realms of glory to be born in lowly circumstances. He left the mansion of heaven to be born in a manger and live much of his life as a homeless person. Jesus became poor so that those who believe in him might become rich. When we think of what Jesus set aside in order that we might become rich it is quite astonishing. He set aside his privileged place and position in heaven. In the light of this, Christian complacency about mission is an offence to God. Everything in the humiliation of Christ is for our sakes. He left heaven so that we could go to heaven. He was rejected so that we might be accepted. He was born in flesh so that we might be born of the Spirit. He became a servant so that we might become sons. He died so that we might have eternal life. These truths demand our attention and call for a response.
If we are called to follow the example of Carey what attitudes must we cultivate and what actions must we emulate? It was Carey’s vision to reach the lost in India that put mission back on the spiritual agenda in a church that had lost this vision. Following Carey will mean keeping the idea of mission central to church life.
Carey was focused, determined and consciously dependant on God. His commitment to the gospel was sacrificial. The world was opening up at the time of Carey; new lands were being discovered. This new geographical frontier presented new opportunities and new challenges for the spread of the gospel. Today we are in a new frontier situation with mission in a postmodern world and a new pioneering attitude is needed to engage with and evangelize this world. Thus the gospel needs to be translated afresh in this generation with the vision and values that inspired and motivated Carey.
Ironically, Carey faced more opposition from within the church than the world. But he sought to develop understanding as a basis for supporting the work. He did not blaze a trail on his own, though he might have been tempted to do so. We might tend to see Carey as a trailblazer but he saw himself as a plodder, ‘If anyone should think it worth his while to write my life, if he give me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. I can plod…to this I owe everything’
The situation in India today is that 3%-6% of the population is deemed to be Christian, depending on how one counts heads.
The threats to the health of the church in India are similar to those things which threaten the health of the church in the West: nominalism, syncretism, pluralism and ecumenism. As India aspires to a Western economic model of development we can expect materialism to be added to this list.
The missionary enterprise undertaken by Carey involved great personal sacrifice. How many today are willing to put mission before their own interests, careers and comforts? Carey had an unshakeable conviction that the gospel needed to be preached throughout the world. He let no discouragement stand in his way. In seeking how we might best follow Carey we must look to the God in whom Carey believed. He had his disappointments and heartbreaks and so his faith was refined by fire but he proved that God never fails those who obey his call. His was a life invested in God and his legacy to mission is very significant because there are now large numbers of Indian missionaries in other parts of Asia and beyond.
Following Carey must mean a willingness to bear the reproach of the cross. A verse of Scripture that inspired and motivated Carey was: ‘Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured’ (Hebrews 13:13). This sacrificial attitude was evident in every aspect of Carey’s life. His desire to identify with Christ and to proclaim Christ was paramount.
When Carey was a schoolteacher he was often in tears when teaching geography because he was aware that many people in the world were lost souls. Today there is paganism all around us. Not, necessarily the crude variety of idol worship evident in primitive societies but certainly an idolization of things that displace God. But how do we respond? Do we see them as Carey saw them? Sadly, many do not. The world map he made for his classroom wall had statistics added regularly (population, religion etc.) and this map became his prayer chart. He began to see the world as God sees it and he began to love the world as God loves it and he decided to follow Jesus, who was the greatest missionary! Part of the problem is that eternal judgment and hell are not given proportionate emphasis in preaching today. As a consequence the church does not properly understand the seriousness of the situation.
Following Carey will involve obedience to God. He read a pamphlet written by Andrew Fuller: ‘It is the duty of those who are entrusted with the Gospel to endeavor to make it known among the nations’ and was persuaded to fulfill that duty. He understood that those who are called and converted to Christ are also commissioned. For Jesus commanded (not advised): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). That commission has not been rescinded.
Carey responded to the call of the Lord in spite of the fact that there would be killer tropical diseases like malaria as well as cholera and dysentery to contend with. These diseases killed many of his contemporaries and colleagues. There would be financial difficulties, language barriers, translation problems. He published: ‘An enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathens’ (known simply as Enquiry). Obedience and obligation were central themes in Enquiry; themes that need to be stressed again today. Carey was resilient and courageous in the face of adversity and in this he is an example to all believers today. In faith he left family, friends and fatherland like the patriarch, Abraham. In doing this he was following the Lord, whom he loved. He once said, ‘Few people know what may be done, ‘till they try and persevere in what they have undertaken.’
Mission involves the whole purpose of God for humanity, including spiritual salvation. This means that Christian mission should encompass issues related to: ecology, health, education, social justice (poverty, race and gender issues). The church’s mission is about presenting the unique and universal claims of Jesus. It is about calling people to repentance, faith and community relationship which involves worship of God.
Political parties produce manifestos. In these ambitious documents they publish their aspirations and policies. We get an understanding of their position and purpose from their manifestos. These statements spell out their intentions and sets out the agenda for the future direction. It states what they want to achieve and how they intend to go about it.
In our cynical and disillusioned world there is a breakdown of community, widespread poverty, violence and racism. The church needs to put justice and compassion into action. When Jesus stood up to read the Scriptures in the synagogue at Nazareth He read words from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD” (Luke 4:18-19)
These words constitute a public statement setting the agenda for his ministry. Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth and to the synagogue to great acclaim. But the welcome he received soon turned to anger. What was it that turned the people against Jesus so very quickly? Why did they so decisively reject the prophet whom they had so enthusiastically welcomed? What did he say that was so offensive?
The mood changed when Jesus began to tell them that God loved those beyond the walls of their own community. The people loved Jesus until he started to talk about foreigners and how God loved them too. The wealthy loved Jesus until he started to talk about loving the poor. Citizens love Jesus until he starts to talk about loving outsiders. The difficulty comes when Jesus challenges us to reach out to those on the edge.
The Lord wants to operate through the church in establishing and extending the kingdom of God. This means preaching the gospel to the poor, ministering to the brokenhearted and leading those who are spiritual captives to freedom in Christ. The gospel is about leading the spiritually blind to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But it also means speaking out on behalf of the oppressed and working toward a fairer and more just society. Those who work in the cause of the kingdom in India today may find that they encounter the hostility of those who want to protect their own interests. Who has the courage for that sort of mission?
Are we lining ourselves up with God’s priorities? He invites us to join him in this program. We are so familiar with this manifesto that we fail to fully realize the radical nature of it. God invites us to play our part in his kingdom enterprise. We need to make his manifesto our manifesto. Christians must not turn a blind eye to the miserable conditions under which three quarters of the world’s population live their lives.
The work that Carey commenced is continuing but by no means complete in the land of India (or, indeed in any land). But in the Indian context the fields are white unto harvest. The caste system causes complications for those involved in evangelism in that land. But it is only the power of the gospel that can deliver people from the spiritual darkness which is so evident in Hinduism and its caste system.
There are approximately 200 million Dalits (outcasts) in India. They have been outcasts for centuries. They live in appalling conditions and are deemed by the dharma (Hindu moral law) to be defiled from birth. If they work at all it is for the higher castes that view them with disdain and treat them contemptuously. They engage in menial labor such as sweeping the streets, removing the carcasses of dead animals and cleaning toilets. The Dalits have no choice and are not adequately compensated for their work. They are relegated to life outside the boundaries of civilized human society. They are the untouchable, social lepers of India. Their culture is despised and they are deprived of housing and education.
The rising tide of economic prosperity in India will not lift the Dalits boats. No matter how prosperous India becomes a Dalit will always be a Dalit. It will take the transforming power of the gospel to change this. These people are susceptible to disease, suffer from malnutrition and sometimes starve to death. They are an oppressed and powerless people characterized by hopelessness. They believe that they are under such conditions because of their faults in a previous life. They believe the more severe the conditions into which they are born the greater the possibility of being elevated to a higher form of existence in a future life. Because of this they tend to be fatalistically resigned to their circumstances. Therefore they accept servile work under humiliating, degrading and exploitative conditions. The standard of living has not improved for Dalits in India’s post-independence era. It is wonderful when Dalits are converted to Christ but in Indian culture they remain Dalits.
The spread of the gospel and the creation of Christian communities will inevitably assist in the subversion of political and religious structures and dominant cultural customs as it facilitates the liberation and transformation of people’s lives. The gospel is subversive and radical but we have allowed it to become conservative. The gospel must enable Dalits to find their identity, dignity and freedom as members of the family of God. Christians in such a context must work toward a more egalitarian social order. Casteism must be rejected in the creation of alternative Christian communities (churches). To the world this kind of interference is postcolonial anathema because it professes that all cultures must be respected.
Christians who resist the saffronisation of society (i.e. the move toward a traditional Hindu society) in India are resented as colonialists and sometimes suffer severe consequences but they have not only the right to resist and oppose such moves but the moral duty to do so.
The magnitude of the poverty (illiteracy, unemployment etc.) faced by Dalits is difficult for people in the West to comprehend. The Dalits have been conditioned within the context of an oppressive religious framework to think of themselves as sub-human. The gospel can address their psychological condition and reconstruct their psyches, thereby liberating them from feelings of inferiority and shame. The gospel proclaims in this context that their condition is neither natural nor willed by God. It is rather the yoke of religious, cultural and political oppression.
To the shame of Christianity it has to be acknowledged that Dalits suffered discrimination at the hands of Christians. A policy of apartheid was applied whereby they were obliged to sit separately from other Christians in church buildings. They could receive communion only after higher caste Christians and they had to have separate grounds for burial.
Proclaiming the gospel in such a context will necessarily involve rejecting as false the world-view of karmasamsara (successive rebirths based on karma). It will also involve a rejection of the notion of a hierarchical society based on the caste system which claims divine origin. Will this offend? Yes! Is this dangerous? Yes! Is this radical? Yes! Is this subversive? Yes! Is it the gospel? Yes! This is not a ‘social gospel’ but in certain contexts the gospel will have unavoidable social implications.
Postmodernists say that Christianity is an oppressive metanarrative (‘meta’ = great; ‘narrative’ = story) but Christianity in such a context is not exploitative but potentially liberating and profoundly relevant. Imagine what the grace of the gospel can do in such circumstances. Christians must re-imagine the gospel in all its potency as a force for individual and societal transformation. The gospel in such a context must offer emancipation and alleviation of poverty. It is our responsibility in the West to assist as best we can to that end. Surely the gospel demands our solidarity with such people.
The oppressors of the Dalit people also need to be set free from the ideation that binds them to their place in this oppressive system. Only the gospel can do this. Until the caste system is abolished there can be no freedom for Dalits. Until then a (bhangi) sweeper must scavenge because he is not allowed find alternative employment. But the caste system has its vested interests.
The Dalit people need to be respected and positively affirmed in counter-cultural Christian communities. The gospel can be both liberating and empowering for the Dalits only when others in society are also transformed by the gospel. Dalits need to be set free from their superstitious view that their suffering is atonement. Mission directed towards Dalits is not just about social and economic improvement, it is also about the emancipation of minds that have been enslaved to the cultural norms and the healing of hearts that have been wounded.
The church must preach salvation: by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. It must proclaim how Christ’s death secures the salvation of those who believe. It must proclaim biblical doctrine and hold forth the eschatological hope of all believers. But the church must not over-spiritualize (allegorize) the Nazareth Manifesto and eviscerate it of its potency.
The caste system remains a challenge in the Indian Christian context. The Christian church has, in the past, capitulated to a form of syncretism which discriminated against the Dalits. All this was a serious departure from the scriptural values of Carey. It is clear that the egalitarian principles of the gospel (that we are all one in Christ) is attractive to Dalits because it is liberating but it is equally clear that it is perceived as a threat to the higher castes, who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. But the story of Krishna Pal shows what the gospel can do. Krishna Pal, the first convert in Carey’s mission was a carpenter. His daughter (a Christian) married the first Brahmin (highest caste) convert. One of the missionaries wrote in a letter home that this ‘was a glorious triumph over caste.’ The Christian funerals in Carey’s day were a great testimony to unity and equality among Christians. One such burial, of a Bengali Christian, was public evidence of the power of the gospel. Officiating at that funeral were Marshman (fellow missionary), Felix (Carey’s son), a former Hindu (Brahmin) and a Muslim. The local Hindus would have nothing to do with it but they witnessed the unifying love of Christ. Christian unity was also evident at public baptisms.
The torch that Carey carried to the Indian sub-continent is still burning brightly. Many have lit their torches from that flame and spread the fire throughout the land. But we are still facing an unfinished task in India and other lands. Who will heed the call to go with the gospel in all its potent force as a redeeming and transformative power?