‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’. Marx thus wrote hundred and sixty years ago. This directly reflects the life of Professor Dr. Bastiaan Wielenga, radical Marxist and liberation theologian of our age, who died last December, the month in which Christ was born, as per traditional belief of people. ‘Bas’ Annan, literally meaning Brother, sometimes with the intonation as Bass, we call him affectionately at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary (TTS), Madurai. He responded instantly with kind grin to anyone who smiled at him. He once introduced himself to the students in the class room, who mostly come from the Tamil speaking quarters, ‘I am Bas not Boss, don’t confuse the spelling’,. Dr. Carr, former principal and colleague of Bastiaan Wielenga at TTS, spoke at his funeral service held at the chapel of TTS. He pondered ‘can Marxist be a believer of God? Then added, ‘Yes, being a Marxist was his significant contribution; He was deeply pious and a Biblical scholar’. It could be a paradox for some; not for those who knew him as a pacesetter of theologizing Christian ethos with Marxist interpretation.
Bas was born in 1936 in Netherland, son of a priest and elder brother of four sisters and a brother. Bas naturally had interest in studying theology as his father was a clergyman, even so he was rooted in Marxism. In the 70s, much of the focus worldwide was paid to the religious politics of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East or the politics of Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine. However, Bas and Gabriele chose to come to India. That was the time, when people were stunned by the brutal atrocity against 44 Dalits who were burnt alive in a small hut for demanding their rights in Kilvenmani, Tamilnadu. Soon after his arrival, though he was not a literati or loquacious or fiery orator, he became a rage among social activists and movements for his eminence, intellect, simplicity and dexterity. We were all ears to his speech and wherever he spoke, even if it was an informal talk. He elevated, as a professor, our thought process and the theological debates to new heights. Bas , until the end of his life, used to ride in his tiny- slim bicycle or used public transportation like government buses or trains and cycle rickshaws. For him, those were relatively harmless means of transportations, as other transports were ecologically hazardous and used non-renewable energy. He opined strongly to the theological world that the clergy and laypersons could contribute to this society by not using polluting motorized vehicle. They should instead walk or use cycle. He practiced in his personal life what he taught us and to the world.
Bas had been a voracious reader till he could no longer do so. He always discussed, in his writings and the conversations that took place with students or faculties, about the livelihood issues of working classes of third world countries. He was bibliophile throughout his life and, along with Gabriele Dietrich, collected thousands of books in English and German at his home and office. As a positive outcome of their strenuous labour, Center for Social Analysis was initiated which later on developed into a Department of TTS, affiliated to Serampore University, Calcutta. It has a huge library which has many rare collections of books, journals, pamphlets, booklets, documentaries and paper clips on social issues like caste, class, ecology and gender. Most of the books and journals in the library have been classified by Bas himself. Some thirty years ago(now it has become much easier to access any international newspaper online) he subscribed to The Guardian paper and other foreign journals of New Internationalist, Race and Class, New left review, Ad-busters etc for students and general public. Anyone going through them could see opinions and key points, written in his handwriting, on the margins . John Wilson, former librarian of Center for Social Analysis, met Bas last year in Madurai. Bas, even in his waning health status asked him if he had read the current issue of Frontline yet.
16 years ago once we, as students were eating together in the Sunday community meal, noticed that Bas had only two idlies for his dinner. Later we asked him, “Why don’t you take some more idly Annan?” He replied politely as usual, “I am stealing another person’s food if I took some more idlies”. All of us were shocked on hearing his idealistic Marxian response. He might have been born in Netherlands but lived as an Indian and Tamilian, who followed Christianity but as an earnest disciple of Marx. Gabriele Dietrich, his partner, shared her memories of him at the chapel. She recalled that their children (christened with Indian names Karuna and Prashad) did not learn either Dutch or German, but speak Tamil fluently as typical Tamil children. We could see the Indian cultural influences in their family life, attires, food and language etc.
Bas completely challenged, questioned the ‘popular’ Christian beliefs and rejected the conventional ways of defining Biblical texts and especially the exegetical methods. At the same time, he used Marxian notions to delineate stories, allegories, parables and the events. He analyzed every key passage from Marxist standpoint which helped us, as young scholars, to understand the scripture not as a religious book but as political text. He reiterated in his writings and class room teachings that the Bible and the Church play a political role whether we accept it or not. As liberation theology asserts God is on the side of powerless and the oppressed, Dalit Theology too affirms so. He also emphasized using the Marxian idiom that God is with the working class labourers and the exploited.
He used his re-reading of Bible to articulate biblical perspectives of labour, economy and ecological crisis . He wrote hundred and fifty odd articles and five major works such as; Marxist views on India in historical perspective (1976), Introduction to Marxism (1991), It is a long road to freedom (1998) , Towards understanding Indian society(1998) , Towards an Eco-Just society(1999), the last book being co-authored with feminist and activist companion Gabrielle Dietrich. In all of his books and writings, he used very simple language with less jargons and jaded quotations. His work on Marxist Theology is quoted widely by scholars, like the author of the path breaking book Marx at Margins, Keven Anderson. He never restricted his vision to theology but extended to Ambedkar, caste, patriarchy, war, globalization and developmental issues.
Bas echoed constantly, in the same way, the concepts of other liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez elsewhere in the world. Boff and Gutierrez have asserted in their work that the theology which is born out of the struggles of the poor – the exploited classes, marginalized ethnic groups, and scorned cultures – should be a key point to understand the meaning of Liberation.
In the general sense, theology speaks only of religious experiences. In a pluralistic Indian situation, Bas was keen to combine faith traditions with the social experiences of the underprivileged in order to explore and realize the existence of God. He guided us to perceive God in the lives of revolutionaries, who unmasked the imperialistic activities of the dominant. Thus, he indeed strove to bridge the two diverse intellectual arenas – Marxism and Theology.
That lack of distribution is the root cause for poverty has become a cliché nowadays, but for Bas, it is the lack of ‘power’ to get a share of the resources. Even when he discusses Marx’s concept of dehumanization of labour by doing class analysis he never failed to analyse the caste factors, which many lefts and leftist intellectuals omit in India. Dehumanization of labour in the highly stratified caste society, for Bas, was not just cruel, but also played a role in augmenting economic, social and political power of higher castes or landlords. He believed strongly that only organized power can overthrow the capitalist system. The system cannot survive without the cooperation of working class and dalits. He gives confidence to our working class and dalit labourers to be critical and militant for changing the older structures, in order to take hold of the power.
Bas seeked to define the role of the Church, which once functioned as a social institution, and played a role; that was divisive, conservative, anti revolutionary and anti- science. The church, he proclaimed, is not the place for political slogans and agitations, but it should be a place where ultimate questions of our social existence and activities can be articulated and faced. For him it is an economic institution which runs many schools, hospitals, colleges, shops, rental buildings, development projects and having land sources. Thus he prepared us to look to the church in the socio –politico and communal context.
Along with writing intellectual articles on nuclear threat, climate change and Koodankulam project, he involved himself in many agitations and protests by emphasizing ‘we have to defend the rights of the poor, falits, women, adivasis, workers, and have to be on the side of the victims of violence. One thing is sure that he conscientiously aroused Indian Christians, who are still asleep, by interlacing issues of marginal communities with theology. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Tamil and Indian Theological world has lost its soul and one of its idealists. The best way to pay tribute him is to follow his ideals , as Gabriele akka concluded at the funeral service, through which we can make this world socially just, peaceful, and infused with new life .
B.Prabakaran is Alumni of Tamilnadu Theological Seminary.
(the author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)