Bishop Mor Coorilos Green liberation theologian
Text and photos by Wilbert van Saane
Ecology a matter of justice
Since my student days in Bangalore, I have taken an interest in ecological questions. I had always been influenced by the socialist political tradition. I had a leftist orientation throughout.
Ecological concerns, however, were never part of my agenda. When I did my B.D. in Bangalore, we were all sent to a particular place in Bangalore to get exposed to ecological problems. There was a nuclear reactor planned in the place that I was sent to. And that was my first exposure to a concrete environment issue. There were people’s movements there, trying to resist the nuclear project. I got involved with that struggle in a real sense.
The victims of all these projects were actually people at the margins, the indigenous, tribal people, and particularly the women among them. They got displaced from their homes, where they used to live in close proximity to forested areas and a river on which they relied. And it was exactly in that area where the newly developed projects were to come.
t is easy to uproot these people, because they are taken for granted. But once they get uprooted from their homeland, they are also uprooted from their very culture and everything they believe in. They are deeply, internally related to their environment. They have their gods there. Their culture is very much related to their habitat. In most cases, they were not compensated and not given another place to live in. This taught me that the immediate victims of environmental degradation are the poorest of the poor. In that sense, these are issues of justice: economic justice and therefore ecological justice.
Chalcedon used to divide the church. But we have come a long way since Chalcedon. Now we understand that these were things of misunderstanding rather than real theological debates. There is, however, a strand of dualism in Western thinking after Chalcedon. To separate the reality into entirely opposite aspects and then giving one a higher status, that is the philosophical ground to dualism.
For me, it is inconceivable to separate the human and the divine in Christ. That is one of my problems with liberation theology, although I consider myself as a liberation theologian. One of the failures of Christian theology is the overemphasise of the human aspect of Christ at the expense of the divine. In my thinking, it should go together. This non-dualistic understanding of reality is very much part of my considerations.
In Orthodox theology, theology is our discourse on the Holy Trinity. Everything else is not theology in the strict sense of the word. Our understanding of God is a communitarian God. God is not an individual, but a community, a family, a collective community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, perceived as a mother in the oriental tradition. Trinity is an ecological concept, because both trinity and ecology are interconnected. This vision of interconnectedness provides inspiration for us for a model of ecological mission today. In Shankara’s thoughts, this is a cosmo-theandric vision. Sometimes this is misunderstood as pantheism, as if creation would be worshipped. It is panentheism rather than pantheism, it is more biblical than you think it is. The Creator is encountered in the reality of creation.
Much of Western thought is derived from our Greek dualistic inheritance. Soul-body, male-female. All these oppositions are alien to Indian thinking and also to Orthodox theology. Shankara developed the concept of advaita: non-dualism. Do not confuse this for monism. In the Syrian Orthodox Church, we do not follow the dualism of Christology introduced by Chalcedon. The non-separatist vision of reality, the non-dichotomous is very important.
Beyond traditional liberation theology
My context has impacted my theology greatly, seeing the poorest of the poor marginalised in the name of development. That made me realise that the liberation theologies that we had were not sufficient. During the 1970s, when I was in seminary, we were heavily influenced by Latin American liberation theologians. I was thrown into that with my socialist background. But I realised that the Latin American approach to theology was not relevant enough for the Indian context.
Latin American liberation theology relied heavily on Marxist social analysis which is very economically deterministic. Radical Dalit theology followed that approach. But the great Dalit thinker Dr. Ambedkar challenged Marxism. You cannot explain the reality of caste, which is the dominant reality in India, through the lens of class, he said. He developed a caste analysis which Marxism will not appreciate. There is more than class and economics! The reality is that if you are a rich Dalit, you are still a Dalit and you are still discriminated against on the basis of your caste. It is like racism. That is one of the reasons why Marxism has not picked up so much in the Indian context. So that necessitated the emergence of Dalit theology. It was clear that liberation theology as such would not work in India. Real liberation theology had to be Dalit theology, which would have to have a different lens of analysis, more focused on caste. It will not discard class analysis completely, but the priority is on caste analysis.
In most liberation theology, however, the issue of ecology was not at all addressed. But the fact remained that deep down, under all the exploitation, the issue of environment is a fundamental one. So that is the reason why I thought we need a green version of liberation theology.
There is a traditional misinterpretation of the biblical word ‘dominion’. Today we try to correct it by referring to stewardship. But in the Orthodox theology mastery has always been complemented by mystery. Kenotic anthropocentrism is a concept I developed in my Green Liberation. You cannot deny anthropocentrism: humans are at the heart of creation. But it is always kenotic anthropocentrism. Jesus emptied himself of all his dominion. That is precisely the model we have to follow today. The challenge is for us to empty ourselves of our dominion and exercise that dominion in the way of a servant. Kenotic anthropocentrism is a useful corrective in today’s world of consumerism.
Initially there were very negative reactions, even from progressive circles. Discourse on ecology was considered too western, too elitist and it had nothing to do with justice. It is natural that at that time ecological issues were perceived as such. But this has changed. Ecological issues have become a mainstream concern for almost everybody these days, also for liberation theology. There is a distinctive aspect to the green versions of liberation theology that I talk about – or the liberationist versions of green theology. Mainstrea
m green theologies talk about ecology in general terms and in cosmetic terms. They point out that recycling is important – and it is – but they do not address the structural issues that cause the environmental crisis: capitalism and its model of development. You may be using bicycles here, but what about multinational companies like Coca Cola? What do you have to say about the United States that is not willing to reduce its emissions? So all these structural issues have to be tackled.
I hope the WCC can remain the main body to bring Christians together. I don’t think any other body has played that role so far. We talk about the Global Christian Forum these days, but that is an initiative of a different nature. I don’t think any other body in the future will take that prophetic role which WCC has played in the past. My own sense today is that even WCC is going very weak on some of these emphases. It is becoming less prophetic than in the past. There are several factors that cause these changes, finance is one. Like everywhere else major organisations are facing a huge economic crisis.