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Freedom of Belief
6 min read

The month of May(hem) in Manipur

On the 27th May, Archbishop Justin Welby tweeted about the violence unfolding in Manipur. Belle Tindall re-winds the clock to May 3rd and tracks the events that led to his tweet.
A church interior glowing red as parts of its furniture burn. A man walks down the aisel
A video still of a church interior on fire, during violent clashes in Manipur, India.
Open Doors.

 

A note to our readers: this article includes reports that some readers may find particularly distressing. 

On 27th May, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted about his concern at what has been, and still is, unfolding in Manipur in India. He wrote, 

‘I’ve been distressed to hear about the attacks on the indigenous tribal Christians of Manipur, India, and of the churches that have been destroyed in recent weeks. 

Kailean Khongsai is training for ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England, and is from Manipur. I join him in praying regional authorities would protect all minority groups, including Christians and their places of worship, and that justice and peace would prevail.’ 

In doing so, Archbishop Justin pointed the world in the direction of those who are facing extreme pressure, discrimination, and violence in their home of Manipur. Therefore, allow me to paint a fuller picture of what has been happening (largely unnoticed) for weeks now – let’s rewind to May 3rd.  

May 3rd  

On the streets of Manipur, a state in the northeast of India, indigenous communities protested the (apparent) impending accreditation of Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiti community. Let me provide some context as to why this would be a development to protest about.  

Manipur is a self-governed state. A state that is home to the Meiti community, who make up around 53 per cent of the population, and other indigenous communities – the largest of which are the Kuki community, to the south, and the Naga community to the north. There is, and has long been, friction between these neighbouring people groups. The Kuki and Naga communities, being minority groups, have Scheduled Tribal status, thus ensuring that they have a right to protection (particularly regarding the reservations they call home) and representation. The Meiti people, being the state’s majority demographic, do not have such a status… yet.  

Despite their legal protection, the Kuki people, in particular, have already faced ongoing evictions from their homes in the hill regions that they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Their expectation is that this is only the beginning. The fear is that, if the Meiti people were to be granted a similar Tribe status, it would result in the Kuki people further losing the right to keep and protect their spaces in both the hills and the forests. It would also pave the way for the Meiti people to assert more societal dominance, as they would be entitled to increased governmental representation; the imbalance would no longer be countered. 

 And so, on May 3rd, people from both the Kuki and Naga communities took to the streets and marched for ‘tribal solidarity’.  

Within a matter of hours, a peaceful protest was transformed into riotous violence as the people marching were met with a wall of resistance. Since that Wednesday afternoon, whole villages have been burnt down, around 15,000 people have been made homeless, hundreds have been injured, the price of essentials has risen to unprecedented levels, schools and public facilities have been closed, internet has been suspended, and although numbers are proving a challenge to confirm, it is thought that anywhere between thirty to seventy people have been killed. Some media outlets are perceiving this violence as the rumblings of an impending civil war; while the Kuki and Naga communities are placing the entirety of the blame upon the Meiti people, The Meiti community are directing all blame toward the tribal communities. And the violence continues to rage on.     

May 4th 

Recent footage has emerged of a particularly heinous incident taking place on 4th May, one that has re-caught the world's attention and thus prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence, declaring that the attack has 'shamed India'. 

Two women, both of whom belonging to the Kuki community, were taken from a police van, stripped, publicly paraded and sexually assaulted in broad daylight. Two men, the younger woman's brother and father, were killed while trying to protect them. It is now being reported that this attack was carried out by armed Meiti men, none of which were arrested until astonishingly recently, more than two months after the attack took place. 

Manipur is imploding, and the violent ramifications are devastating.

But there is just one more piece of context that undergirds the Archbishop’s tweet, one more thing to note about the societal dynamics at play in Manipur: while the Meiti community are a majority Hindu people group, the various indigenous groups are almost entirely Christian. As such, Open Doors have reported that the women who were subjected to to the afore-mentioned attack were Christian women.   

A complex ethno-religious conflict  

The goings-on in Manipur are anything but simple; and so, it is not my intention to reduce the geographic, political, and historic complexities of this conflict, nor to wholly define it as a war between religions. Following Archbishop Justin’s lead, it is with particular caution that I speak of violence being inflicted particularly on Christians in Manipur, acknowledging that it is not the only identity marker that is proving to be targetable.  

Nevertheless, it is being widely reported that Christians are being singled out; their Christianity used as a target to aim at, their identity wielded as a weapon against them. Whether it be as the means or the end, as the goal or merely the tactic: it is happening.  

 According to further Open Doors’ reports, derived from their partners in Manipur, around three hundred churches have been burnt down thus far, one of which still had people in it when it was set alight. A further one hundred public Christian buildings have been destroyed, while one thousand homes which were owned/inhabited by Christian people were ruined, while neighbouring properties remained untouched.  

And it isn’t only the Kuki Christians who are facing such discrimination, the (very few) Meiti Christians are also facing particular difficulties as a result of their unusual ethno-religious identity. Noticing this, one Indian news publication is reporting that from the perspective of the Meiti Hindus, Meiti Christians are somewhat of an oxymoron, personified. It is believed that to be Christian is to have converted to a tribal way of living (assimilating the Kuki and Naga people), and therefore comes with assumptions of deep betrayal. And yet, the publication also observes that ‘if their [Christian] faith is making them feel insecure in the valley, it has not come to their rescue in the hills either. The Kukis have made no distinction between them and other Meiteis’. They are, subsequently, a community that are ‘sandwiched’ in conflict.  

While the conflict is undoubtedly spilling over ethnic and religious lines, Manipur has just become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a Christian. In yet another part of the world, it is now a hazardous faith.  

And so, back to Archbishop Justin’s tweet.  

The need to be seen  

One only needs to spend thirty or so seconds tracking the comments generated by this particular tweet to get a sense of how powerful it is to be seen. To be noticed when in distress, to be acknowledged when in chaos, to be advocated for when in danger.  

In many ways, social media is a genie that we wish we were able to squeeze back into the bottle. And as justified as such feelings often are, in this case, as in many others in our recent history, it has proved to be a way in which our eyes are opened to what is happening in the most remote corners of our world. Archbishop Justin has publically called for protection, justice, and peace, and in doing so, has made it difficult for the conflict to continue to rumble on unnoticed.  

It is now on all of us to refuse to look away. The people of Manipur, Christian and otherwise, need us to continue to look in their direction. 

 

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Belief
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Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.