October 02, 2015

India: Joseph Dias claims to be offended on behalf of Mumbai’s Christians ‒ but he doesn't speak for me (Lindsay Pereira for scroll.in)


Joseph Dias claims to be offended on behalf of Mumbai’s Christians ‒ but he doesn't speak for me
He and his organisation want a ban on a play because it is 'anti-Catholic'. This isn't the first time he is outraged on behalf of the community.

[by] Lindsay Pereira

Joseph Dias is an angry man. He has been one for a while now, possibly because upon his able shoulders lies the burden of making sure the Christian faith in India is safe from any form of attack.

These attacks can come from anywhere, apparently. In August, 2012, for instance, they came in the form of a Hindi film called Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum which, according to the honourable Mr Dias and the organisation he represents – the Catholic Secular Forum – outraged the sentiments of the Christian community. There was no evidence of this: no windowpanes were broken, effigies burnt, or good footwear wasted by being hurled at the filmmakers. And yet, Dias insisted, the film had upset the community.

In April 2012, the Catholic Secular Forum asked Maharashtra’s chief minister to intervene after a church was not granted permission to hold a prayer meet at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan. Was there no other ground available? He did not say. In January that same year, there were media reports about messages allegedly emailed to the Forum’s members, urging them to guard against “fundamentalist forces which were planning to infiltrate churches… and then pass on information attained to extremist organisations”. None of this involved the community at large. In fact, it’s fairly safe to assume that a majority were unaware of these battles being fought on their behalf.

Now, Dias is angry again. Earlier this week, he was offended by a play scheduled to be staged on October 4. Titled Agnes of God, it was written by American playwright John Pielmeier in 1979 and adapted for a movie in 1985, starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly. Thirty-six years after it first saw the light of day, it managed to offend Dias. It’s “anti-Catholic,” he told The Indian Express, and an attempt to “make fast buck at the cost of Catholic faith [sic]”.

Credit: YouTube.com

Apparently, parts of the play were inspired by a real-life incident in New York. It tells the story of a novice nun called Agnes who gives birth, then insists the child is the result of a virgin conception. There is a clash between a psychiatrist called Martha, the nun and her convent’s Mother Superior. Eventually, the psychiatrist discovers that, contrary to the nun’s claims, she slept with a man. The case moves to court, where Agnes is deemed to be of unsound mind.

Agnes of God has had several successful runs around the world over the past three decades. It grapples with the eternal conflict between faith and science, one that has been raging in our country more than ever over the past year. It also looks at religion’s place in society, and questions our approach to sex – both issues of enormous importance to contemporary India.

None of this matters to Dias or the Catholic Secular Forum though, worried as they are about the play disrupting “the secular fabric”. This brings me to the name of the organisation, specifically its use of the word secular. Is it a reference to the fact that the Catholic Secular Forum has nothing to do with spiritual matters? Is it meant to signify that it isn’t bound by religious rule, or is not representative of any order? If so, how can it take offence on behalf of a community that is, in effect, bound to a religious order? Its website doesn’t explain.

What I did manage to learn from it, however, is that Joseph Dias is better known as Bro Joe, a spectacular name I recommend for anyone interested in becoming India’s first Christian rapper.

Bro Joe is the founder of the Catholic Secular Forum, has been a Christian activist for 25 years and, most importantly, is a businessman who gives 10% of his income to God’s work. The site doesn’t say when he began doing this, sadly, but points out that his generosity sorted out a whole lot of other troubles he had. It lists other achievements, many of which have allegedly been covered by the national and international media. I found no trace of them, unfortunately, probably because the only tool I had at my disposal was the most powerful search engine online called Google.

Strength of your faith

Dias was asked why the Christian community needed to protest against the play. “India is not yet culturally or socially ready for such freedoms that West or Americas have [sic],” he replied. This is a convenient and fashionable excuse to throw up these days, to blame our insecurities and prejudices on foreign influences, to hide our sexual repression under the garb of cultural protectionism, to blur the lines between nationalism and jingoism on purpose. What Dias and others like him fail to understand is that this inability to accept other voices, this denial of other questions, eventually prevents us from knowing ourselves – or our faith – better.

Paul Johannes Tillich, the Christian existentialist philosopher, had an interesting thing to say to people just like Bro Joe: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

I can’t speak for the community, of course. I can’t comment on the play in detail either because I no longer have the option of watching it. All I can say is that we are becoming a less tolerant nation instead of a mature one that encourages questions, embraces dissent and thrives on debate.

Joseph Dias believes India is not ready for anything that makes us question a 2,000-year-old faith. My question to him is, if a play threatens your beliefs, how weak is your faith?