Evangelical Christianity & Sri Lanka State Formation

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A review of The Effects of Evangelical Christianity on State Formation in Sri Lanka, by Oshan Fernando.

Oshan Fernando’s The Effects of Evangelical Christianity on State Formation in Sri Lanka is a compelling account of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony and the crisis of legitimacy in Sri Lanka. The way he succeeds in producing such an account is by looking at evangelical Christianity as an “exteriority” within the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated state (p. 160). While Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has been part of state formation in Sri Lanka throughout the twentieth century, it is during the past decade that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has become most manifest and the political power of Buddhist monks is greatest. Anti-evangelical Christianity rhetoric is an important element of today’s Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse and this in turn implies that there is “the unresolved/unresolvable tension between oft-assumed dualities such as ‘religion/secularism’ and ‘state/civil society’” (pp. 269-270).

The group of evangelical Christians among whom Fernando conducted his fifteen-month-long fieldwork (2007-2008) are mostly Sinhalese converts from Buddhism who live in southern Sri Lanka in one of the most significant centers of Sinhala Buddhist pilgrimage called the Tissamaharamaya District. It was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that the group came to settle in the district as a part of the government’s rural agricultural development scheme, whose purpose was to give land to landless Sinhalese families and create “an idyllic, agrarian rurality, purged of colonial influences, and flourishing under the auspices of a welfare state” (p. 322). The group later converted to evangelical Christianity under the leadership of a Buddhist monk-turned-evangelical pastor of an Assembly of God church.

Chapter 1 sets the dissertation’s primary intellectual genealogy. Fernando’s theses are built upon recent anthropological approaches to the state: “a theoretical shift away from conceptualization of the ‘state’ as a reified, overarching entity imbued with certain definable characteristics” (pp. 2-3). This new approach to the state suggests that the state is a “mask which prevents our seeing political practice for what it is” (Philip Abrams, “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State,” Journal of Historical Sociology 1, 1988, pp. 58-89 at p. 82). Drawing upon the work of theorists such as Althusser, Gramsci, and Foucault, Fernando explains that his goal is “to reveal the kinds of political power that [the state] appears to mask” (p. 3) and investigate the technologies of this masking. Particularly interesting is the manner in which the state’s modern development project is introduced in the guise of tradition; the manner in which Buddhist clerics participate in politics as elected members of the Parliament in the guise of the secular; and the manner in which civil society becomes a platform for propagating the state’s political agenda. These techniques of masking make it appear as if there were a secular state governing a Sinhala Buddhist nation following the footsteps of ancient Sinhala kings.

Chapter 2 first traces the genealogy of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, beginning with early twentieth-century Protestant missionary education under British rule, which gave birth to a literate public consisting of native elites, who in turn led the independence movement. In post-independence Sri Lanka, the vision of the Sinhala Buddhist welfare state and the linking of Sinhala Buddhist ideology to governmentality have been essential to state formation. The real crisis of legitimacy, according to Fernando, began with economic liberalization in 1978 and with a large influx of foreign development aid. Thereafter the state, with its open-market economic policies, has been incapable of effectively reproducing the image of the Sinhala Buddhist welfare state. Indeed, it is because of the inability of the state to continue providing welfare services to the island’s Sinhalese majority that the ruling Sinhala elites determinedly insist upon their commitment to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Fernando suggests that it was about the same time that evangelical Christianity and faith-based NGOs (such as World Vision International) expanded their missions. The criticism of evangelical Christianity and the drafting of the anti-conversion bill have become effective elements of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist practices.

Chapter 3 is a detailed history of the Assembly of God church in Tissamaharamaya (Tissa). The 57thcolony, Fernando’s main field site, was created as a part of the Kirindi Oya Irrigation and Settlement Program (KOISP). The project, launched in the late 1970s, is marked by failure and corruption. In 2007 when Fernando began his fieldwork, most of the children of the 57thcolony were receiving financial support from foreign donors through World Vision International, and the KOISP project land was a part of the government’s reacquisition plan to construct a modern airport. The second half of the chapter investigates how this reacquisition of the land by the government is legitimized by the ruling elites through the discursive practice of the Vap Magula (farming ceremony). This political “performance” (p. 136) to remind poor Sinhala subjects of the ruling elites’ commitment to the vision of agrarian modernity in the 2000s in Tissa resembles what Charles Piot writes about Tongo in West Africa: “the culture of the postcolony is one of excess: of performance, rumor, deception, the double-coded message, talk that masks reality, appearance and disappearance/s, paranoia and conspiracy, utter cynicism and uproarious laughter” (Charles Piot, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa After the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 42). The similarity between the case of Togo and that of Sri Lanka is significant because the farming ceremony in Tissa was happening under a state of emergency as a war on terror was being fought by the government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north, where Tamil people were getting displaced, killed and made to disappear.

Chapter 4 explores evangelical Christian subjectivities in Tissa. Fernando refutes the popular discourse often applied to evangelical Christianity that converts are selling their souls to foreign religious enterprise in exchange for monetary benefit. This compensatory narrative of religious conversions fails to account for the noticeable diligence on the part of these Buddhist converts to Christianity in adhering to their newly acquired faith, despite the fact that “their conversion to Christianity involved the accommodation of a much-maligned social location when apprehended through Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse” (p. 329). According to Fernando, conversion involves what he calls “experimenting with evangelical Christianity,” a process through which the person comes to experience the power of prayer in bringing about God’s power (balaya) to intervene in this-worldly affairs such as a recovery from illness and securing one’s stall in the local market to sell vegetables. Conversion is a gradual process, does not happen in a vacuum, and involves a habitus change, such as a change from the custom of greeting in the Buddhist way, “Budu saranai” [May you find refuge in the Buddha!] to that of greeting in the Sinhala Christian way, “Yēsu pihiṭai” [Jesus bless you!] (p. 202).

Chapter 5 is a detailed account of the effect of conversion on the believer’s interaction with late-socialist statecraft. The newly acquired conceptual framework of evangelical Christianity places God’s power above the power of the deities of popular Buddhism and both of these two supernatural powers above that of late socialist statecraft. This new worldview (which renders the deities of popular Buddhism Satanic) has the potential to render the hegemonic welfarist discourse of the state irrelevant. While the state is no longer capable of providing welfare services, evangelical Christians claim to be able to fill this void. Moreover, the new world view based on biblical history deems the hegemonic vision of the past promoted by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as “false.” One of Fernando’s interlocutors tells him about Noah’s flood, referring to the archaeological ruins in Sri Lanka where ancient irrigation systems were excavated. The glorious past of the Sinhala Buddhist civilization is understood by his evangelical Christian interlocutor as a sinful nation upon which, during the time of Noah, God’s wrath fell.

Chapter 6 examines the broader implication of evangelical Christian practices in Sri Lanka. Fernando suggests that due to their numerical minority status evangelical Christians have little direct effect on statecraft. Rather, their broader effects lie in the ways they “catalyze political contestations,” such as prompting anti-conversion discourse, anti-West, anti-neocolonialism, and anti-neoliberalism discourses. In other words, evangelical Christianity, being a popular object of hatred, sets a political stage for Sinhala politicians across the political spectrum to outdo their rivals in reiterating their commitment to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Overall, the dissertation is an extraordinary accomplishment; the evangelical Christian practices of the informants are compassionately observed and carefully narrated, without rendering their beliefs as superstitions. By looking at a small group of evangelical Christians in impoverished rural Sri Lanka, Fernando is able to paint a big picture of the contemporary crisis of legitimacy in Sri Lanka. The kind of mimesis that he presents between the hegemonic vision of Sinhala Buddhist agrarian modernity and the biblical history of salvation, and the ways in which his evangelical Christian interlocutors have shed the former and embraced the latter, were the most eye-opening parts of the dissertation. I believe therein lies the greatest contribution of the work to the field of Sri Lankan studies. More broadly, the dissertation will contribute to the fields of South Asia studies, anthropology of religion, anthropology of the state, and the anthropology of Pentecostalism.

Kaori Hatsumi
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
Kalamazoo College
khatsumi@kzoo.edu

Primary Sources

Field Interviews
Sri Lanka Ministry of Buddha Sasana, 2005, Freedom of Religion Act / Cabinet Memorandum
The Government of Sri Lanka, 2004, Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion. The Gazette, ed, Vol. Supplement, Part 2
Asian Development Bank, Project Reports on the Kirindi Oya Irrigation and Settlement Program
Websites and reports of The Assembly of God in Sri Lanka and World Vision International in Sri Lanka

Dissertation Information

University of California, Santa Barbara. 2011. 347 pp. Primary Advisor: Mary Hancock.

 

Image: Photograph by Oshan Fernando.