There are many people who often think that we have to compromise our diversity to work together. This is the western model. Because of their homogeneous structures they are able to have this model. For instance all most all the British people are able to speak to each other in English. Therefore they can use English as their focus for unity by accepting other languages as diversity.


This model want suit us in Sri Lanka. Not only for the languages. But also for our cultures, religions and thought forms this model creates more problems then solutions. That’s why we have to emphasise diversity in unity. A classic example for his comes from the passion narrative in the gospel of John. According to the writer of this gospel when Jesus was crucified his offence on the top of the cross was written in 3 languages. This was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

What was reason for this:



“Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire; it represented human government, power, and conquest. Greek was the international language of culture; it represented human wisdom, art, and commerce. Hebrew was the religious language of the Jews; it represented the Covenant Race, the Law of God, and the means by which God made Himself known to man. In the providence of God, all of these human and divine institutions were addressed when Jesus was crucified”



Most probably Jesus spoke Aramaic at home. His religious language was Hebrew. Official language of the Roman Empire was Latin and the Universal Language of that era was Greek.


We have a similar situation in Sri Lanka. For instance one language is enough to live in a remote village, to go to the next village one needs two languages. To venture out anywhere beyond you need 3 languages.


All these realities remind us the necessity to emphasise the diversity in unity. In a country like Sri Lanka, in a college like ours we have to comprehend and be familiarise with our diversity if we are to create unity. 

Christianity and Ethnicity

A sociological interpretation with theological implications and repercussions

© Keerthisiri Fernando

Introduction, Objectives and Methodology

This study seeks to analyse the nexus between Christianity[1] as a religion and the ethnicities of the people who happen to be Christians, using the Sri Lankan context, by taking its some global and local impacts into consideration. Here the effort is made to use sociological tools to stimulate theological articulation in order to strengthen the empirical significance of theology in society at large. At the same time sociological understanding of theology is taken into consideration to make theology more meaningful and relevant in society.

Up to the mid 1970s ethnicity was mainly a subject for academic fields such as anthropology. In these previous studies of ethnicity, religion was often given little attention and at times confined to footnotes.[2] But in the recent past it has been very visible in the global scene that these two variables, namely ethnicity and religion, are internally and integrally connected to each other. Middle Eastern issues between Muslims and Jews and concepts such as “Sinhala Buddhist” in the inflammatory tension between Sinhala and Tamil people can be given as visible and existential examples. Under these circumstances it is necessary to investigate the links, relationships, integration and assimilation between these phenomena called Christianity as a religion and ethnicity to obtain a lucid picture of these realities in society.

From the latter part of the 1970s academics of the social sciences such as Hans Mol, F. Yang and H. E. Ebaugh have been doing research on this field mainly from the sociological and anthropological point of view.[3] Therefore their research mainly comes under etic perspectives. (The etic perspective, again according to Pike, relies upon the extrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for scientific observation. [4]) But in this study the effort is being made to take both emic and etic perspectives into consideration to keep the tension and balance between both the objectivity and the subjectivity of this research.(.the emic perspective focuses on the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society. [5]) Therefore as a result of this stance, this study may produce “theology of sociology” and “sociology of theology” which could be useful in both academic disciples of sociology and theology.

So through this research it is expected to expand the area of research on ethnicity and religion to make this discipline of research clearer and more coherent for the future researchers who would embark on the task of contributing to the knowledge of the academic fields such as anthropology, theology and sociology.

A brief introduction to the social history of the Christian community in Sri Lanka

Although there are evidences to show that Christian influences were in Sri Lanka at least from the 6th century, the continued history of the present Christian community starts form the beginning of the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505CE.[6] Under the Portuguese regime their brand of Christianity (Roman Catholicism) was introduced to the coastal areas, which were under their control in Sri Lanka. The Roman Catholic Church is centred around Rome with the Bishop of Rome or the Pope as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. [7]

When the Portuguese power diminished in Sri Lanka in the mid 17th century the Dutch trade companies gradually took control of the areas controlled by the Portuguese. Their religion was a product of the Western Reformation, and called the Dutch Reformed Church, which was on the opposite side of the Western Latin Roman Catholic Church. So the Dutch took every possible step to eradicate Roman Catholicism from Sri Lanka by prohibiting not only Roman Catholicism but also all the other religions in Sri Lanka. During the Dutch persecution of Roman Catholics some Oratorian Priests, headed by Jacome Gonsalves and Jose Vaas form India, looked after Roman Catholics in Sri Lanka by indigenising Roman Catholicism in Sri Lanka. [8]

In 1796 CE the coastal areas ruled by the Dutch people were handed over the British power in the area. Right from the beginning of their rule the British adopted a liberal attitude towards religions and gave people of all faiths freedom to function in society. With this freedom Roman Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus were gradually able function freely in society. During this period many British denominations such as Anglican, Methodist and Baptist were introduced to Sri Lanka. Among them the Anglican Church, being the state religion of the British Empire, had the privileged position with power and prestige.[9] In the latter part of the 19th century Buddhists and Hindus were involved in a revival by imitating Christian strategies.[10] Through this revival they were able to introduce features such as Buddhist schools and Sunday schools, organizations of the nature of the Young Men’s Buddhists Association[11] and aesthetic aspects to make Buddhism more effective and relevant for that time.[12] 

After independence in 1948 Christians gradually lost the privileges enjoyed under colonial regimes. As Christians of various denominations kept on losing their ties with their central organizations in Europe they faced the challenge of becoming more Sri Lankan and working together as “Sri Lankan Christians” in Sri Lanka. In the 1960s the government took over the basic school network mainly managed by the Christians, thereby weakening the influence of Christians in the sphere of education in society.

In the mid 1970s with the introduction of a market economy in Sri Lanka Christians again began to enjoy more ties with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Globalization accelerated the speed of infiltration of new Christian denominations, which are in a way in tune with the global economy in the postmodern era.

Hence, broadly speaking today in Sri Lanka there are three categories of Christian churches, namely the Roman Catholic church, the main Protestant denominations such as Anglican and Methodists, and the new free and charismatic churches which are active and alive in society. [13]

The problem

A religion such as Christianity makes universal claims of the nature of “the Christ is the saviour of the world”. Although theologically Christians are delighted to make such claims, these pronouncements have basic sociological dilemmas which should be addressed. On one hand this is a subjective statement of believers of that particular religion which has no or less implication for others. At the same time, in extreme conditions these beliefs could force the believers of a particular religion to implement arrogant methods of evangelism to try to convert the rest of the members of the community to their own religion. 

In the field of sociology there is generally a dearth of research to analyze the link between these universal theological statements and the group identities of the people who make these claims. For instance, when the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British missionaries made statements of this nature, these statements were not just mere religious utterances confined to the faith arena. They had sociological impacts which created tensions between existing local realities. All these colonial powers in Sri Lanka had superior attitudes connected to their ethnic and religious identities, which made them believe that they had a responsibility to put the so-called “natives” in the colony on the correct path. Here sociologically and theologically it is important to investigate the evolvement of this superiority attitude related to the ethnicity and religion of the colonial regimes.

Regarding these types of colonial and post-colonial ethnocentrism P.B. Horton and C.L. Hunt have noted,

 The history of colonialism offers many illustrations of the blunders into which ethnocentrism leads. The nineteenth century saw the development of colonialism, a philosophy which calmly assumed that Western nations as the carriers of a superior culture had an obligation to take over the government of Asian and African regions. The ethnocentrism which made the colonial officials so obnoxious to the natives also made these officials unable to recognize how deeply they were resented. (They knew that their presence benefited the natives; why couldn’t the stupid natives see their conquerors’ superiority?) Colonialism has therefore ended with a startling abruptness; and Western ethnocentrism is now being replaced by a still more rigid and intolerant native ethnocentrism of the African and Asian peoples[14]

This statement highlights how colonial ethnocentrisms have been replaced by still more rigid native ethnocentrism. A typical example of this is the development of “Sinhala Buddhism” in Sri Lanka, which has been playing a crucial role in the ethnic tension in Sri Lanka.[15] Although there are many research and studies done on this aforementioned Sinhala Buddhism there is a dearth of literature in the academic arena on the ethnic tendencies of Sinhala and Tamil Christians in Sri Lanka. Therefore it is required to study and analyse what happened to the colonial ethnocentrism of Christians after independence in 1948 and now how local ethnicities are intertwined with Christianity in Sri Lanka to determine the behaviour of Christians in Sri Lanka.

Theoretical Framework 

No living religion is an island, which exists in isolation. Religions survive in the society by reacting, responding and reinforcing other phenomena in the context in which they function as a living faith. This is very well taken into consideration in the academics arenas such as sociology, theology, and anthropology. For instance the influence of culture and traditions on religions is well documented in the above-mentioned disciplines. On the same line of thought a few sociologists and anthropologists have begun to investigate the influence of religion on ethnicity and vice versa. In this regard the following explanation given by F. Yang and H.E. Ebaugh. is capable of highlighting the complexity and importance of this issue.

 First is “ethnic fusion,” where religion is the foundation of ethnicity, or, ethnicity equals religion, such as in the case of the Amish and Jews. The second pattern is that of “ethnic religion,” where religion is one of several foundations of ethnicity. The Greek or Russian orthodox and the Dutch reformed are examples of this type. In this pattern, ethnic identification can be claimed without claiming the religious identification but the reverse is rare. The third form, “religious ethnicity,” occurs where an ethnic group is linked to a religious tradition that is shared by other ethnic groups. The Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics are such cases. In this pattern, religious identification can be claimed without claiming ethnic identification.[16]

In this study these three categories of nexus between religion and ethnicity are used as initial stimulators to begin analysis of the Sri Lankan issue of Christianity and ethnicity. For this study, first of all, as background knowledge it is useful to comprehend the categories created by other religions on ethno religious line. The first category, ethnic fusion, can be seen among Muslims in Sri Lanka. Although the majority of them speak Tamil with slight variations they don’t ethnically identify with the Tamil ethnic group. They maintain a Muslim identity for both ethnic and religious categories.

The majority of Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus maintain the pattern of ethnic religion where they consider religion as one of the foundations of their ethnicity. There are minorities of Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka who are adherents of the category of religious ethnicity and believe that their religious identity can be claimed without ethnic association.[17]

The above generalisation is possible with the fact that almost all the Buddhists and Hindus belong to the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups respectively. This kind of generalisation has become intricate on Christians in Sri Lanka mainly due to two reasons. First of all the colonial and imperial origin of Christians has made matters complicated as they were forced to shift their loyalties from a colonial ethnic identity to a local one. Secondly the almost equal composition of Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups in the Christian community in Sri Lanka in the context of the mono-ethnic association of Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus has created a complex scene of ethno religious identities of Christians in Sri Lanka.

Whether it is secular, religious or a mixture of both, people create categories of the aforementioned nature to maintain their identities in society. Therefore in the framework of this study it is necessary to have a definition for identity for analysis and evaluation. For this research this framework is created on the following statement by Mol from his extensive research on identity model of religion. 

 The term “identity” may refer to individual identity, group identity, or social identity. On all these levels identity has something to do with a tendency toward “sameness” or stability, with a tendency toward “wholeness” or integration of traits, or with a strengthening of boundaries around the unit in question. [18]


Hence in this research, on this definition, the boundary maintenance and change handling of Christians who belong to various ethnic groups are taken into consideration with their identities such as group or social in the society. With the creation of these identities tension often develops among the groups with a sense of relative deprivation. 

With the group identities people from various categories feel deprivation in a variety of ways. In the analysis of this study it is appropriate to apply the theory of relative deprivation. According to the interpretation of scholars such as Dion, [19] Palmer,[20] and Vaughan & Hogg, [21] the mindset in which people feel that in relation to others they have less than what they are entitled to is called relative deprivation. To apply this to various groups living in the same society Dion has come out with two forms of relative deprivation, which are beneficial for this study. According to her, these two forms are egotistic and fraternalistic. Explaining this, Dion has said that the feeling of individuals who consider they have been deprived in relation to others in their own group can be called egotistic relative deprivation. Dion states ‘on the other hand, fraternalistic relative deprivation occurs when an individual’s ingroup is perceived to be at a disadvantage compared to an outgroup’.[22] 

In the present post-modern era with intense external and internal migrations when various religions and cultures meet in the same market place more than ever, there is an expectation that gradually people integrate into a melting pot where people create a “new identity for civic unity”.[23] But in his research Warner has found that instead of creating a melting pot, people have been strengthening their respective identities to define who they are in the society.  In this new identity creation, according to him, ethnicities and religions have become vital and decisive.[24] Under these circumstances where people try to recreate their ethnic and religious traditions, invention of tradition[25], introduced by Hobsbawm, becomes evident. In this regard Hobsbawm has noted,

 But Hobsbawm made it clear that also much more small-scale and perhaps less dramatic novelties qualify as 'invented traditions'. He mentioned not only adaptations and new uses of old traditions for new purposes, but also the re-use of ancient elements in new contexts. 'Extinct' traditions too can become '(re)invented traditions', when they are revived[26] 

According to Hobsbawm this “invented tradition” is not confined to general adaptations like the use of old languages for new purposes as in the case of preaching the Christian gospel in Sinhala, the language of the majority of people in Sri Lanka (about 72%). In this case old elements, which may be extinct, have been reinvented to revive various elements of their identity.

An analysis

Christians as a community have been living in Sri Lanka for the last 5 centuries. Christians mainly belong to two main ethnic groups, Sinhala and Tamil, with a small percentage of Eurasians called Burghers in Sri Lanka. Of the 72% of the Sinhala numerical majority there is about 3-4% who are religiously Christian, while about 69% are Buddhists. In the case of the 18% of Tamils, about 4% are religiously Christian and the rest are Hindus. There is a tiny minority of Eurasian Christians who are less than 1% of the total population of Sri Lanka.[27]

During the colonial era beginning from the 16th century the identities of Christians were integrally connected to the imperial powers, except in a few cases such as in the ministry headed by Joseph Vaas and Jacome Gonsalves in the latter part of the 17th century and the 18th century.[28] But in the mid 20th century with the erosion of colonial supremacy Christians were faced with the challenge of redefining their identity to become a living and meaningful entity in Sri Lanka. With political independence in 1948 Christian leaders such as Bishop Lakdasa de Mel[29] of the Anglican Church and Bishop Edmund Peiris[30] of the Roman Catholic Church were busy with the process of indigenisation and inculturation to recreate new boundaries for Christians to handle the drastic changes of this era. Through this process Christians had up to a certain extent to sacrifice the colonial homogeneous universality of Christianity in order to maintain local boundaries to become effective in Sri Lanka.  As Hobsbawm has said, this became “invented tradition” with “re-use of ancient elements in new contexts”[31]. In this process, in the Christian church, aspects such as Sri Lankan traditional architecture, traditional music and dances were used liturgically and socially in an appropriate manner. The classic example for this is the way in which folk music was instrumental in a liturgical revival in the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka. [32]

Through this process pioneers expected to create a Christian identity in Sri Lanka by using both Sinhala and Tamil indigenous and cultural elements together. [33] But with the intensification of the ethnic tension gradually but progressively from 1960s this process was able to create a fertile ground for Christians to look in the direction of two separate identities as Sinhala and Tamil Christians in Sri Lanka. In this manner, in the latter half of the 20th century, as a by-product of this indigenisation, the ethnic partition widened between Sinhala and Tamil Christians in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile between Sinhala and Tamil speaking Christians, colonial ethno centrism started shifting to kinds of Sinhala and Tamil ethnocentrism respectively.  As a result of this, theologies have been immerging in the form of indigenous theology with ethnic flavour. This has had the consequence of creating tension not only between Christians but also among other people with global and local repercussions. [34]

The process called interfaith dialogue, which began little over a half a century ago, has been making its contribution towards the ethnic tendencies inside the Christian community. Although this perhaps happened unwittingly it is important to have a critical analysis on this issue in order to have a clear understanding of the ethnic inclinations inside the Christian community. The beginning of this process could be associated with the diminishing of the British Empire. With this diminishing Christians in the British Empire began to search for new identities along with other religions in their respective regions.  In Sri Lanka, at the beginning they got involved in this process with a national Sri Lankan identity. This was possible with the pioneers of this movement who being Colonial English educated had an imperial identity with English rather than Sri Lankan ethnic identities. [35] But with the increase of ethnic tension in the country, and the fact that most of the children were being educated in Sinhala and Tamil with ethnic identities, this process took an ethnic stance. For instance Sinhala Christian clergy began to study Buddhism thoroughly while Tamil Christian clergy did the same thing with Hinduism. 

It should be taken into consideration that through this process of interfaith dialogue an understanding between religions was created up to a certain extent. Although this understanding was not powerful enough to sustain an effective lasting impact on peace; on ethnic lines it was able to make a significant contribution. Through this process Sinhala Christians who chose to be anti-Tamil were able to identify more with Sinhala Buddhists. On the other hand this dialogue became an inspiration to Tamil Christians who decided to support the Tamil ethnic cause and were able to strengthen their bonds with Tamil Hindus

With processes such as indigenisation and interfaith dialogue in the context of increasing ethnic tension in Sri Lanka, ethnocentrism progressively augmented among Christians in numerous ways in various contexts in Sri Lanka. According to Fernando, Christians have created main cultures in carpentry and fishing areas, subcultures in urban areas and countercultures in agricultural areas in Sri Lanka.[36] In the Sri Lankan context it is visible that Christians in these different categories of culture have been having diffusion with ethnicities in multiplicity of ways.

In the fishing areas where Christians have created exclusive Tamil and Sinhala cultures respectively, ethnocentrism has been visible in many ways for many reasons.  The fact that they are mainly monolingual and have created main cultures with their profession fishing, they have been sharing many concerns of their counterparts. Sinhala Christians in these areas have been sharing the ethnocentric tendencies of Sinhala Buddhists, while Tamil Christians have been behaving in a similar way with Tamil Hindus. However the ethno-religious tendencies of both Tamil and Sinhala Christians in these areas have been different from Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus respectively. The main visible reasons for this have been the shared faith and profession called Christianity and fishing respectively, which have created common ground for them to have some understanding of each other.

In the urban areas where many subcultures exist close to each other, Sinhala Christians, Tamil Christians, bilingual or trilingual Christians from Sinhala, Tamil and Eurasian ethnic groups (Sinhala & Tamil, Sinhala & English, Tamil & English and Tamil, English and Sinhala) have been professing their Christian faith in monolingual, bilingual and trilingual manner. It is visible here that many bilingual and trilingual Christians have been emphasising their Christian identity more than their ethnic identity. In a way they have preferred the category of “Christian Sinhala or Tamil” than “Sinhala or Tamil Christians”.[37] It is observed, that among them, there are mixed marriages between ethnic groups more than in other traditional rural areas in Sri Lanka.

In both Sinhala and Tamil agricultural areas, minority Christians have been creating counter cultures since their faith has little to do with the culture in which they live. In the agricultural areas, although often people physically live apart from each other, psychologically they are close to each other. The reasons for this reality is well explained in the following observations by P.B. Horton & C.L. Hunt

 AGRICULTURAL EMPLOYMENT. Nearly all were engaged in agriculture, while even the minister, doctor, teacher, and storekeeper were deeply involved in an agricultural way of life. The agricultural practices were highly traditional, allowing very little experimentation or trial–and–error method. All faced common problems, performed common tasks, and shared a common helplessness before the awesome natural forces which man cannot control. Rural people are often said to be more religious than city dwellers, possibly because of this closeness to overpowering natural forces. The city dweller, surrounded by man-made buildings, streets, and elevators, and automobiles, operating smoothly on a man-made schedule, may have a less compelling sense of his utter dependence upon God than the farmer who watches the tender green shoots shrivel in drought or wash away in flood. In any event, all shared common tasks and common fears, and developed those common reactions which made the rural locality a true community.[38]  

 At the introduction of Christianity, since Tamil and Sinhala people in agricultural areas were generally settled with philosophies from Hinduism and Buddhism respectively, Christians were forced to exist outside the structures these Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists had created to face challenges faced by them in their surroundings. Under these conditions Christianity has been existing as a “member’s only club” in these agricultural areas. Perhaps this separation enhanced Christian minorities to exist as counter counters in these traditional agricultural areas in Sri Lanka. Ethnically these Christians often share the same views as their Tamil or Sinhala counterparts respectively. Occasionally these Christians were sympathetic towards the other ethnic groups as they met Christians of other ethnic groups in some religious gatherings.

It is very visible that relative deprivation has been playing its part in the ethno-religious making of Christians in Sri Lanka. As Sinhala Christians ethnically share Sinhalaness with Sinhala Buddhists they have been experiencing egoistic relative deprivation with the sense of feeling that they have been deprived of their rights in relation to other Sinhala people in the Sri Lankan society. This has been increasing in the recent past with anti-Christian activities such as the attacking of churches in some parts of Sri Lanka. This deprivation has been contributing to the widening of ethno religious category of Sinhala Christians in Sri Lanka.

In the case of Tamil Christians the abovementioned similar tendency has not been very visible in the recent past. For the past two decades at least Tamil Christians have not been having a strong sense of relative egoistic deprivation (although there were minor incidents between Tamil Hindus and Tamil Christians) in relation of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the fact that Tamils are a minority and that they face similar issues as Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka are contributory factors to this reality. At the same time the way in which some Tamil Christians are involved in the Tamil ethnic issues also may be another reason of this reality in the society. 

On the common Christian identity Tamil Christians have been feeling relative deprivation in relation to their Sinhala counterparts. Although Tamil Christians identify with Sinhala Christians on a religious level since Sinhala Buddhists generally suspect all Tamils irrespective of their religious category, Sinhala Christians are often forced to make a choice to take the popular Sinhala side or popular Tamil side in the intense division on ethnic lines. Here often what has happened is that as Sinhala Christians share a common general culture, history and language with Sinhala Buddhists they are left with the option to identify with Sinhala Buddhists for their relatively safe survival.

Generally Christians as a group irrespective of ethnic affiliation (whether Sinhala, Tamil or Eurasians) have been having a sense of fraternalistic relative deprivation compared to the privileges enjoyed by the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The tensions between Christians and Sinhala Buddhists and proposed Anti-Conversion Bill to the Parliament have been intensifying this feeling in the recent past.

In his writings Ranaweera Banda has shown that although there is an assertion in the context of globalisation with the transnational tendencies that homogeneity would be promoted rather than heterogeneity, people in local areas have been trying to construct “distinct boundaries with    imagined cultural identities” through their religious festivals.[39] This is visible in certain cases even among Christians. A strong example of this is the festivals at the Madu sanctuary of Christians, close to Mannar and the LTTE-controlled areas in Sri Lanka. Because this sanctuary has been important for Christians irrespective of ethnic associations to construct “distinct boundaries with    imagined cultural identities” in the context of ethnic tension, this place of worship has become strategic for both the LTTE militants and government military. This was evident in the way in which government forces captured this sanctuary from LTTE control and announced that they had  liberated this holy place from the LTTE clutches. This has created a confusing situation not only among Christians but also in the minds of others concerning the way in which this place is used as a place for important religious festivals.[40]

In the context of ethnic tension in Sri Lanka, theologies of Tamil and Sinhala Christians have been making both global and local impact. In this regard T. Fernando, a Sri Lankan immigrant in London, has noted,

 Revd Father S. J. Emmanuel’s comparison of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran to Jesus Christ has generated a feeling of resentment among various sections of the Sri Lankan expatriate community living in London. They claim that such a statement is a sacrilege deserving condemnation by all Christians and co-religionists. They say that to compare ruthless terrorist - as described recently in the London Times as a remorseless megalomaniac - with the Great Redeemer venerated by millions throughout the world for his message of love and compassion to friends and foes alike is the greatest insult.[41]

 Contemplating on the writings of S.J. Emmanuel, a Tamil Christian priest from Sri Lanka, some immigrants (especially some Sinhala people in the UK) have concluded that he was not critical enough of internal ethnic extremism in his respective ethnic category. Their complaint was that he has endorsed this ethnic extremism by supplying a theological premise for further divisive action with the blessing of at least a section of the Christian church. 

At times people make use of certain happenings in their own way to make their case clear and coherent. The following statement in the aforementioned article on an action of Tissa Balasuriya, a Sinhala Christian priest from Sri Lanka, makes this point clear.

 Father Balasuriya has been spearheading a campaign to settle the ethnic conflict by building bridges for peace and reconciliation. It is relevant to refer here to a well attended meeting held in London, a few years ago, where the audience comprised Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher expatriates settled in the UK. The Revd. Fr. Balasuriya did not whip up communal feelings¸ the group say; instead he appealed to those present to do whatever they could to bring peace to the war torn Sri Lanka. [42]

 Here the writer had pointed out the goodness of a Sinhala Christian theologian comparing him with a Tamil counterpart. It is not certain whether Father Tissa wanted someone to interpret his action in this manner. However this occurrence shows how ethnic tendencies could be strengthened through Christian theologies intentionally or unintentionally.

Today in some situations such as in some urban areas, liberation theologies created in particular backgrounds are becoming less important in the society. The observation by Davie in the British context, “Believing without belonging,” is in some way becoming visible in Sri Lanka as well.[43] In this regard in Sri Lanka beliefs and belongings are shifting and changing. If you take Christians for instance, there are some Christians, especially in the urban areas, who keep their traditional identity with a mainline denomination such as Anglican or Methodist and attend the services and fellowships of new and charismatic churches. Here we see how old theologies are dying off and new relevant theologies are yet to be born. Today in this lacuna between dying off and yet to be born extremism of ethnic and fundamentalist theologies are competing each other to become effective among ordinary Christians in Sri Lanka. As Christians of this sort of behaviour keep on changing their identity and ideas it has been difficult to put them into categories to comprehend their ethnic relations for analysis.

“Disproportionate representation”[44] of Christians in Sri Lanka and in other countries is another important factor that has been having an effect on ethnoreligious line. In Sri Lanka, although the Christian percentage is about 7% of the total population, Christian representation is very visible in all professions and geographical areas in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the culture of education and the international associations with the knowledge of English that they inherited from their colonial forefathers more than the other ordinary people in Sri Lanka are the main factors for this reality. However this factor of Disproportionate representation has been creating egoistic relative deprivation in some Hindu Tamils and Sinhala Buddhists among Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhala people respectively. Even among immigrants in countries such as England, Tamil Christian and Sinhala Christian percentages are higher than the percentages of these ethno religious categories in Sri Lanka.[45]

Tamil Christians in the war torn areas such as the North and the East of Sri Lanka have mainly made two religious responses in order to come to terms with the volatile situation they are forced to live in. The first category has made efforts to bring the reflection of the realities of living conditions into their religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, in these efforts ethnic beliefs have been intertwining with the new theologies that they have been creating in the mono ethnic context in which they have done these reflections.

The second category has chosen to “spiritualize” their intricate experiences in the context of war by disregarding the living realities. In this spiritualization they have often given a prominent place to their emotions rather than to intelligence. However this category has used less ethnic sentiments in their practice of the religion called Christianity. Although ecclesiastically they were careful to keep their distance with ethnic tendencies a few individuals of this group have been involved in the activities of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Although there should be some connection with their faith and these activities, presently it is hard to analyse this with available literature.


This study shows that generally Christianity and ethnicity are influencing and reshaping each other, making a significant impact in the society. Through this research it is evident that this nexus between Christianity and ethnicity does not exist in a stereotype manner. In fact all the contextual realities have been playing a part in creating these multiplicity types of nexus between these two variables called Christianity and ethnicity. This study highlights the necessity to revisit the post colonial and modern processes such as inculturation and interfaith dialogue in this postmodern era to comprehend the unexpected effects of these developments on ethnic line that have become significant in the Sri Lankan society. Hence it could be suggested that it would be meaningful for Christians to have a paradigm shift from concepts such as indigenisation, inculturation and interfaith dialogue to contextualisation, which would enable them to wrestle with the realities that surrounded them. In this process the following definition given by Chandrakanthan on contextualization can be considered useful,

 … that critical assessment of what makes the context really significant in the light of Missio Dei. It is the missiological discernment of the signs of the times, seeing where God is at work and calling us to participate in it. It is the conscientization of the contexts in the particular historic moment, assessing the peculiarity of the context in the light of the mission of the church as it is called to participate in Missio Dei. [46]

Here it can be observed that Chandrakanthan’s definition creates space to accommodate the issues raised and analysed here for Christians to be more realistic and benevolent in the Sri Lankan society.

Perhaps today it is vital for Christians to read the Bible with ethnic eyes in order to realize the necessity to grasp the so-called Christian gospel in a particular background. This would enable Christians to grapple with ethnicity, which is unavoidable in Sri Lankan society. This can be compared to the vaccine given through injections to prevent certain diseases. By giving a small dose of the disease the body creates immunity to fight the disease, and this protects the body from the disease. This has become necessary, as today in ordinary circumstances Christians are hardly aware of the implication of ethnicity on their religion, Christianity. One of the main reasons for this is that inside the institutional Christian Church, her theological and missiological claims generally give the impression that Christians are free from ethnic boundaries.

In this particular set up the reading of the Bible with ethnic eyes should be followed by the reconsideration of missiological concepts such as unity in diversity. When we talk about unity in diversity, we normally emphasise unity and create less space for diversity. On the other hand at times we stress diversity for the sake of diversity and this creates less space for unity. There is hardly any meeting point. Indigenisation and interfaith dialogue have been stressing unity as Sri Lankan Christians but resulted in diversity mainly as Sinhala and Tamil Christians, which has increased ethnocentrism among both Sinhala, and Tamil Christians.  But it is high time to emphasise diversity with contextual realities to look for unity. Therefore here it is proposed that Christians embark on contextualisation with diversity in unity to be more realistic with empirical realties in Sri Lanka. 

In relation to this study the diversity in unity can be started with the acknowledgement of ethnic diversity. This acknowledgement should not be confined to mere tolerance or compromise                     but this diversity should be celebrated unconditionally. This unconditional celebration would lead us to create a heterogeneous culture for unity. To foster this unity certain shifts and understandings are necessary. For instance the language called English, which was the colonial language of the British Empire, should be used as an international and a link language to bring various ethnic groups together in Sri Lanka. Steps should be taken to prevent people becoming slaves of English but to encourage them to use English as their servant. Theologically and sociologically English should be used to promote a heterogeneous set up rather than a homogeneous culture. 

One of the dangerous things that could be promoted through diversity in unity is that people may think locally and try to act globally in this postmodern era. Here as a remedial measure Christians could be exposed to the global nature of the Christian Church to help them to think globally. This would facilitate them to avoid inward-looking, introvert and selfish tendencies. As a result Christians may be enhanced to think globally and act locally.

Hence this paper invites other researchers to embark on this issue of ethnicity and Christianity and to criticize, evaluate, analyse and promote the hypothesis presented on contextualisation and diversity in unity to enrich this academic arena.



[1] In this article the word “Christian” is used without any denominational association to identify Christians belonging to all denominations.

[2] Yang, F. & Ebaugh, H.E. ( 2001 Sept), ‘Religion and Ethnicity Among New Immigrants :The Impact of Majority/Minority Status in Home and Host Countries’, Journal for Scientific Study of Religion, 40:3 p.369 & Greeley A. M. (1971) Why Can’t They be Like Us? America’s White Ethnic Groups, New York:Praeger, USA.

[3] Mol, Hans (1979), The Identity Model of Religion: How It Compares with Nine Other Theories of Religion and How It Might Apply to Japan, March–June 1979, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.

[4] Lett, J. (1996), Emic/Etic Distinctions, Professor James Lett’s Faculty WebPage, Florida Atlantic University, 

<> >

[5] Ibid

[6] There are some archaeological artefacts and literature which suggest that there were some Christian influences in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. The artefacts are a Nestorian cross most probably belonging to 5th or 6th century, which was unearthed in 1912 in Anuradhapura, the Ancient Kingdom of Sri Lanka, and presently kept at Anuradhapura museum, and a Baptismal font excavated in Mannar, which is presently kept at Vaunia museum in Sri Lanka. Two literary evidences are a book called “Christian topography” written in Greek by a person called Cosmos in the 6th century where he records the existence of a Christian church and a community in Sri Lanka in the 6th century and an account of a minister called Migara from India in the 6th century (in the Chulawamsa, the Supplement of the Sinhala great chronicle Mahavamsa). According to the first Sri Lankan archaeological commissioner of Sri Lanka, S. Paranavitarana, this minister Migara was a Christian who tried to spread Christianity in Sri Lanka.

Ref:-  Geiger, Wilhelm (Translator),(1953), Culavamsa, Volume I, The Ceylon Government Information Department, Colombo, p.43

Somaratna, G. P. V. (1992), Sri Lankan Church History (In Sinhala), Marga Sahodaratvaya, Nugegoda, p.2 [Quotation is from – Paranavitarana, S. (1972), Story of Sigiri , Colombo, pp 45-46.]

Perera, S.G. (1962), Historical Sketches(Ceylon Church History),The Literature Committee, Colombo Catholic Diocesan Union, Colombo,pp.9-10 [Quotation from Migne Patrol Grae, Vol.88: J.W. McCrindle, The Christian Topography.]

[7] Somaratna, G. P. V. (1992), Sri Lankan Church History (In Sinhala) , Marga Sahodaratvaya, Nugegoda. Sri Lanka.

[8] Somaratna, G. P. V. (1992), Sri Lankan Church History (In Sinhala) , Marga Sahodaratvaya, Nugegoda. Sri Lanka.

[9] Somaratna, G. P. V. (1992), Sri Lankan Church History (In Sinhala) , Marga Sahodaratvaya, Nugegoda. Sri Lanka.

[10] Obeyesekere, G. (1979), Collective Identities, Nationalism and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Edited by Roberts, M., Marga Institute, 61, Isipatana Mawatha, Colombo 5, Sri Lanka, p. 311.

[11] Bond, G. D. (1988), The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi, p.45.

[12] Obeyesekere, G.  (1970), Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon Vol.I, No. I, Sri Lanka, pp 43-46.

[13]  Fernando, W.W.M.W.D.K (2001), Integrity and Integration of Christian Community in Sri Lanka – A Sociological Analysis, Unpublished thesis, University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

[14] Horton P.B. & Hunt C.L. (1964), Sociology, McGraw–Hill Book Company, London. pp.84 & 85

[15] Bartholomeusz, T. J.  & De Silva, C. R. (Eds), (1998), Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY,

[16] Yang, F. & Ebaugh, H.E. ( 2001 Sept), ‘Religion and Ethnicity Among New Immigrants :The Impact of Majority/Minority Status in Home and Host Countries’, Journal for Scientific Study of Religion, 40:3 p.369.

[17] Fernando, W.W.M.W.D.K.(2005) Religion and Identity : Comparing Sinhala Buddhists and Christians in and around London, Unpublished thesis, University of Kent, UK.

[18] Mol, Hans (1979), The Identity Model of Religion: How It Compares with Nine Other Theories of Religion and How It Might Apply to Japan, March–June 1979, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.

[19] Dion, K. L. (2002), The Social Psychology of Perceived Prejudice and Discrimination. American Psychological Association, 43 (1),pp.1–10

[20] Palmer, L. P. (1996), Determinants of Canadian Attitudes Toward Immigration: More than Just Racism?, Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, p. 28

[21] Vaughan, G. M., & Hogg, M. A. (2002), Introduction to Social Psychology (3rd edition), Prentice Hall, Sydney

[22] Dion, K. L. (2002), The Social Psychology of Perceived Prejudice and Discrimination, American Psychological Association, 43 (1),pp.1–10

[23] Kimon, H. Sargeant (2001), Religion and New Immigrant, The Pew Charitable Trusts,


[24] Warner, R. S. (2000), The New Immigrant Religion: An Update and Appraisal, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago,>   

& Kimon, H. Sargeant (2001), Religion and New Immigrant, The Pew Charitable Trusts


[25] Holtorf, C. (1996), The Invention of Tradition, <> >

[26] Hobsbawm, Eric (1983) Introduction: Inventing Tradition. In: Hobsbawm and Ranger, pp. 5-8.

[27] Chandrakanthan, A.J.V. (1995), Catholic Revival in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka, Social and Economic Development Centre Colombo, Sri Lanka.

[31] Hobsbawm, Eric (1983) Introduction: Inventing Tradition, Hobsbawm and Ranger, pp. 5-8.

[32] SuryaSena  D.(1978) OF SRI LANKA I SING,  Ranco Printers & Publishers Limited,   Galle Road, Colombo 8, pp. 66-69

[33] Chandrakanthan, A.J.V. (1995), Catholic Revival in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka, Social and Economic Development Centre Colombo, Sri Lanka.

[34] Fernando, T. (1997), Father Emmanuel’s Comparison of Prabakaran to Jesus Christ is a Sacrilege, London Diary,


[35] de Silva, L. (1980), Buddhism : Beliefs and Practices in Sri Lanka, Ecumenical Institute, 490/5, Havelock Road, Colombo 6, Sri Lanka , p.63.

[36]  Fernando, W.W.M.W.D.K (2001), Integrity and Integration of Christian Community in Sri Lanka – A Sociological Analysis, Unpublished thesis, University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

[37] Fernando, W.W.M.W.D.K. (2005) Religion and Identity : Comparing Sinhala Buddhists and Christians in and around London, Unpublished thesis, University of Kent, UK.

[38] Horton P.B. & Hunt C.L. (1964), Sociology, McGraw–Hill Book Company London. p.456

[39] Ranaweera Banda (2006), Boundaries and identities: construction of identities through religious festivals (article), Department of Sociology, University of Ruhuna, Matara, Sri Lanka


[41] Fernando, T. (1997), Father Emmanuel’s Comparison of Prabakaran to Jesus Christ is a Sacrilege, London Diary,


[42] Ibid

[43] Davie, G. (1994), Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging, Blackwell, Oxford University Press, UK. 

[44] Warner, R. S. (2000), The New Immigrant Religion: An Update and Appraisal, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago,>   

& Kimon, H. Sargeant (2001), Religion and New Immigrant, The Pew Charitable Trusts


[45] Fernando, W.W.M.W.D.K. (2005) Religion and Identity : Comparing Sinhala Buddhists and Christians in and around London, Unpublished thesis, University of Kent, UK.

[46] Chandrakanthan, A.J.V. (1995), Catholic Revival in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka, Social and Economic Development Centre, Colombo, Sri Lanka, p.13.

Christians in Sr Lanka

Crisis of languages
A language is a system of verbal and written symbols, with rules for putting them together. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of language in the development, elaboration, and transmission of culture. Language enables people to store meanings and experiences and to pass this heritage on to new generations……..

The study of different langu...ages has yielded numerous insights into culture. For example, the number of words available to describe an object, event, or concept in a language indicates how important it is to a people. Arabs, for example, have hundreds of words to describe camels….

When the first colonial power, namely the Portuguese, arrived in Sri Lanka, there were three major religions being practised by the people of this land. At that time each religion was identified with a language. Buddhists identified themselves with Sinhala, Hindus identified themselves with Tamil, and although many Muslims spoke Tamil they identified themselves with their heavenly language, Arabic.

When the Portuguese introduced Christianity to Sri Lanka there was no such identity with one language. Yet in the Sri Lankan context of each religion identifying with a particular language Christianity was identified with Portuguese. During the Dutch era identification was shifted towards the Dutch language, and when the British took over the whole island, more than the earlier colonial powers had done, Christianity was identified with the English language. This identification came from two sides. People in Sri Lanka identified Christianity with English. At the same time those who became Christians in order to gain power and privileges also identified Christianity with English. As a result, although there were many Sri Lankan Christians during the British era who were not fluent in English, the powerful Christians did not allow a change in the Christian identity with English. When a community is brought up in a particular language that language influences them in many ways. For example, the tenses used to denote time differ from one language to another. Regarding this, D. Light Jr. and S. Keller have noted,

“There are no tenses in the Hopi language, as there are in English, and no nouns for times, days, or years. As a result, the Hopi tend to think in terms of continuous movement, of becoming. In contrast, the English language provides numerous ways of marking or counting time, as if hours and days were things or objects. The necessity to choose one of several tenses makes English-speaking people acutely conscious of time and time passing. English-speaking people think of linear progressions. ”

Where the Tamil and Sinhala languages are concerned, Sinhala- and Tamil-speaking people do not think of linear progressions. Instead they think in cyclic progressions, mainly because of the influence of agriculture on the language. The Sinhala and Tamil languages are greatly shaped by the cyclic seasons of the agricultural year. In this regard English-speaking people, thinking in linear progression, found it difficult to understand and accommodate Sinhala- and Tamil-speaking Christian people who are accustomed to a cyclic nature in their activities.

This became one of the main contributory factors for Sinhala- and Tamil-speaking Christians not getting involved in the decision-making process of the Christian Church. Even when Sinhala and Tamil were used these languages were given the secondary or subordinate place. Often Sinhala services were held only for the domestic servants of the rich Christians. Consequently within the Church English gained the unofficial status of being the heavenly language. This state of affairs did not change much even after political independence. English continues to dominate the matters of the Church.

Within the Christian Church, the use of English is not just for communication; it is a way of showing one’s status of life. This has given some members of the Church psychological satisfaction in living in the post-colonial era. This is seen clearly in the fact that some local congregations still use Victorian English with Oxford pronunciation in their liturgies. In the light of the above, even though Sinhala and Tamil are widely used in the affairs of the Church today, they don’t have enough prominence to influence the central matters of the Church.

After Independence there were number of practical reasons why the use of English was retained in the central government of the Church. The church is comprised of both the Sinhala and Tamil people of Sri Lanka. When they come together, apart from a small minority from both communities, they are not competent in each other’s languages. This is worse among Christians who belong to the Sinhala ethnic group. Most of the Sinhala and Tamil Christians who in the decision-making bodies of the Christian church have a considerable knowledge of English.

Even today such Christians prefer to use English as a practical means of coming together, but they are almost ignorant of the fact that by this they exclude poor Christians from both communities who are confined to their respective language. Christians who speak only Sinhala or Tamil become objects of pity within the church. Most of the people who are fluent in only one language are poor people who belong to the less-privileged sector of our country.

After the 1970s, with the arrival of the open or market economy, the English language once again became an integral aspect of the day-to-day matters of Sri Lanka. Advances in modern technology and communication have made English more and more important. The migration of Sri Lankans to Middle Eastern and European countries for employment has raised the demand for fluency in the English language among the ordinary people of this land. Globalisation and the affairs of the whole world coming closer to each other have improved the importance of the international languages.

It is natural, therefore, that the use of the international language most closely linked with Sri Lanka, English, is becoming wide-spread as a necessity of the day. Considering the emphasis on English in the present realities of Sri Lanka, the Christian church, which was always closely associated with the English language, benefits from the present state of affairs, which has once again given the Christian church an important place with regard to English. In the light of the above importance of English there is a clear phenomenon of some common people drawing closer to the Christian Church in order to improve their English. It is important to note that this mostly happens either in urban areas or in the urbanising areas of Sri Lanka.

With regard to the language issue, even when Sinhala and Tamil are used in the Christian Church there’s a remarkable difference in the use of these two languages by the Christian Church and by the ordinary people of Sri Lanka. For instance, the Sinhala word anugrahaya is used by ordinary people in Sri Lanka to mean a favour given by someone in society. However, for the Christians in Moratuwa it means the “grace of God” which is necessary for human existence. This shift in meaning is mainly due to the fact that when the foreign Christian missionaries introduced Christianity to the common people, they firmly believed that the demonic elements of the local languages should be removed in order to use these languages to express the Christian faith.

The especially meaningful words used by the Sinhala and the Tamil people came from the background of Buddhism and Hinduism. According to the foreign Christian missionaries these meaningful words were therefore demonic, and local Christians were advised to rid their vocabulary of such words. That is why even today there is a considerable group of Christians who think that it goes against the faith of Christians to use the same words popularly used by Buddhists and Hindus. For example, some Christians in Moratuwa reject Sinhala words such as Maittri (compassionate love) or Vimukti (salvation or liberation).