29 May 2016 Listening to the Voice of the Plying Shuttle
Listen to “the voice of the shuttle.”—Sophocles. Photo: Amixstudio/Shutterstock
Glory E. Dharmaraj (PhD) a member of World Association of Christian Communication-North America and retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women reflects on A Reflection on the Twin Consultation, Reformation—Education—Transformation that took place in Halle, Germany, 18-22 May 2016.
Sophocles, a famous Greek writer of 5th century BCE, urges that readers listen to “the voice of the shuttle,” when a person such as Philomela, a victim of violence, plies her loom in order to weave her own story of crime against her in a tapestry, since all her means of communication are cut off by her perpetrator.1 In transformative mission, too, we are enjoined to listen deeply, discern the presence of vocal silences, and live into the questions in times such as this, while being embarked on our Godward journey addressing systemic evil and gross human rights violation on earth.
Towards the 500th anniversary of Reformation in 2017
Participants from more than 40 countries from the Global North and Global South brought their varied scholarship, wide-ranging confessional/theological perspectives, diverse lived experiences, and disparate realities from their respective contexts to the Twin Consultation held in Halle on May 18-May 22 at the Francke Foundation and the adjacent Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg. I was privileged to represent WACC-NA in this event.
Participants explored how theological instruments of Reformation traditions can help meet the challenges ahead of us. At one level, the participants are a community of a pilgrim people journeying towards the 500th anniversary of Reformation in 2017. At another level, they are leaders in their own contexts enjoined to challenge themselves and their constituents to live into questions that lead to transformation: What does Reformation mean today in one’s own context? Are we on a transformative journey towards the kingdom of God?2
Interfaith and Public Theology
I was invited by the organizers to offer a research paper in a workshop on “Public Theology: Making a Difference Amidst the Plurality of Worldviews, Religious Indifference or Fundamentalism,” a topic which was not addressed in the first Twin Consultation in Brazil in 2015. Therefore, at the Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, I explored the twin-question, God question and neighbor-question, and the two timeless challenges: What is it to witness to Christ today in the public sphere? What is it to be a good neighbor in today’s context? I lifted up the code sheet on monitoring news coverage of religion in mainstream news media that was used in North America a few years back. These code sheets were designed on the model of Global Media Monitoring Project.
Personal roots to Reformation
In Halle, at the August Hermann Francke Foundation building where the plenaries took place, there is an archive which houses books and artifacts. There I saw the first copy of the Bible in Tamil, my mother tongue, translated from the original languages by Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, one of the first Protestant missionaries who arrived in India in 1706, along with his colleague, Henry Plutschau. Ziegenbalg was a student of Francke. The latter revolutionized education in his days for the students in Halle, both poor and rich.
When Ziegenbalg went to India, he found it difficult to explain who and what a missionary is in a land that had not experienced a missionary presence before. When asked by the local people, “Pray, Sir, who and what are you?” Ziegenbalg said, “I am a minister or servant of the Living God, who created Heaven and Earth, sent to you to warn to leave the idols of your own making, and to turn to the Worship of the true God.”3 Underlying this question-response is forging a new category. How does it feel to encounter a world which has not imagined you?
To institutionalize deep listening
It is a question that baffles the simplistic notion of sender-receiver paradigm in communication. It is an identity question as well. What does Christian communication look like? What is it to listen to God, listen to one another, and listen in community when the institutionalize church is on the decline in the Global North? Professor Rudolf von Sinner, Faculdades EST São Leopoldo, lifted up a hard truth saying, “Protestant movement is the victim of its own success.”4
Listening to the voice of the plying shuttle, be it voiced silence or enabled dialogue, is a way to create spaces for new agents of transformation to emerge. To institutionalize deep listening is a call for the day, in the midst of criminalization of migration, stirring of prejudices, misuse of religion, and fragmentation of communities.
“Can-we- institutionalize-hope?” is, also, a question raised in the consultation. It was left to the participants to live into this question and embody hope in their respective contexts.
From left: WACC members, Dr Stephen Brown, Dr Glory Dharmaraj and the Rev Akuila Yabaki, participants at the Twin Consultation in Halle, Germany Photo: contributed
1. Aristotle’s Poetics 16. 4. Quoted in Patricia Klindienst Joplin’s “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours” in Rape and Representation, eds. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 48.
2. Some use the phrase, the “kin-dom” of God,” first coined by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. It emphasizes relationality, community, and equity as the basis of God’s reign. It is an obvious contrast to systems of oppression and relations of domination.
3. Richard Fox Young in “Some Hindu Perspectives on Christian Missionaries in the Indic World of the Mid-Nineteenth Century” in Christians, Cultural Interactions, and India’s Religious Traditions. Eds., Judith M. Brown and Robert Eric Frykenberg (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 40.
4. In the workshop on 1.1.“Public Theology and the Churches’ Social Witness” on May 19, 2016.