Violence, turmoil, anger, heartache, dread: A peaceful society in a verdant land was torn apart and militarized. The world watched as a society’s descent into uncompromising polarization disenfranchised increasingly large numbers of citizens, eventually turning them against one another.
Civil discourse reached the breaking point and failed, resulting in suspicion, fear, hurt, and anguish. The fracturing of Sri Lankan society spanned generations, metastasizing to civil war and a virulent terrorism that reached far beyond the island’s shores. For hundreds of years, Tamil-Hindus, Sinhalese-Buddhists,Muslims, and Christians in Sri Lanka lived in harmony. This concord unraveled throughout the 20th century, moving through increasing stages of ethnic strife until a full-scale civil war erupted in 1983. The fighting stopped in 2009, 26 years later, after the Sri Lankan government corralled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the north of the island and crushed their insurgency.
Both sides committed atrocities during the war, including extrajudicial killings by the government. More broadly, the large Tamil diaspora in North America, Europe, and South Asia was intimidated by Tamil Tigers who collected payments to support their terrorist activities at home. A friend of mine related the experience: a knock on the door at a home in Toronto, a demand for a large sum of money, a threat against the family if they withheld payment. They were terrified.
The Tamil Tigers amassed hundreds of millions of dollars each year through such worldwide fundraising. They used the money to purchase weapons, equipping an army, navy, and air force replete with innovations such as explosive belts, vests, and bras for suicide bombers. Women’s conservative dress, modesty, and decorum—such an important aspect of Sri Lankan society—enabled a dreadful outcome for this lovely country and the world. Sri Lanka, producer of delicious Ceylon tea, also produced the world’s first female suicide bomber.By 2009, estimates reveal the civil war had resulted in more than 100,000 killed and 300,000 displaced from their homes—a nation of 20 million forever impacted.
What can the rest of the world—and the church—learn from the human disaster in Sri Lanka?
People are social creatures with a deep need for meaningful relationships with others. Paul’s letters tell Christians to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in the assembly of believers (Eph. 4:1, 3). Moreover, we are called to shine as lights in the midst of the world (Phil. 2:15).
Civil society is the framework for engaging with humanity, near and far. It comprises the associations and organizations that people belong to for social, religious, and political reasons. Civil society is essential to human discourse, as it establishes a balance to governments and bridges cultural differences by providing mechanisms for groups to peacefully interact. It includes churches, community groups, service organizations, special interest groups, and academic institutions.
Sri Lanka is graced with beauty and abundant resources; surely, it could have prospered. On the other hand, a weak and unhealthy civil society resulted in appalling consequences. How did the atrocities come about? Located south of India, the island was populated thousands of years before Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. It became a British colony in the early 19th century. The British policy of “divide and rule” favored Tamils, a minority, for positions in the colonial bureaucracy, impeding involvement of the majority Sinhalese. The country’s rulers pitted Tamils against Sinhalese, at the same time disenfranchising Muslims and Christians. This approach to governing led to a breakdown in relationships, inciting friction between those who had favored jobs and those who did not.
Sri Lanka achieved independence from Britain in 1948, but festering ethnic and social tensions overwhelmed its democracy, leading to tensions that exploded into civil war 35 years later. After less than 170 years under colonial rule, Sri Lanka’s civil society fell apart. The island was left open for disruptions by outsiders including military incursions, economic manipulation, and meddling by the Tamil diaspora.
Without a doubt, the government and citizens endured humiliation, deprivation, and violence throughout the civil war. The pent-up frustration was expelled in the final months of the war as the Tamil Tigers were pursued without mercy. Civilian non-combatants suffered horribly, many gravely harmed or killed, as the government brought the civil war to a bloody conclusion.
Of course, lasting peace can only result from God’s redemptive grace and goodwill; mankind’s actions cannot undo the result of our sinful natures. Nonetheless, Sri Lanka provides a view into the role of civil society in facilitating human discourse, something that cannot be achieved by government programs. Obedience to Jesus’ great commandment is the foundation of a healthy civil society.
In Matthew 22, Jesus explained the importance of how we treat our neighbors: “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”
Regarding our neighbors with respect, communicating with them, and caring for them are the basis for a durable and vibrant civil society. Engaging our communities provides opportunities to be His ambassadors and show the fruits of the Spirit; we must have a deep understanding of our beliefs and solid conviction of God’s truth. A vibrant, civil society is not a quest for a social gospel; instead, it is a respectful discourse and unfearful relationship with our neighbors so, in the words of Matthew’s Gospel, they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.
There are issues we can appropriately address: community needs for safety, care, education, and health. On the other hand, the United States may be at a tipping point as conflicting interests are becoming deeply and irreconcilably polarized. It is imperative that we heed the warning: engagement with civil society from a biblical worldview is tremendously important. We must commit ourselves to a respectful conversation, listening, consulting, evaluating, and working together with and for our neighbors.
Mark Gaspar serves as an associate professor in Cairn’s School of Business and oversees Cairn’s Enactus program as the Sam Walton Fellow. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.