When opportunity knocked last December, Paul Knitter answered. He was one of two foreign theologians invited to participate in a symposium in Pune, India. Not only did it give the theology professor a chance to speak on the topic “The Church in Mission: Universal Mandate and Local Concerns,” it was an opportunity for Knitter to reconnect with his former order, the Society of the Divine Word.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Ishvani Kendra, a Christian research center run by the Society of the Divine Word, held a Silver Jubilee conference. “They invited me, and I felt very privileged to be involved because this was a meeting of almost all Indian Catholics—priests, nuns, lay people—who are involved in some way in teaching with the Church in India,” says Knitter.
The symposium’s topic was “What is the role of Christian churches in India?” Knitter’s response came in his presentation “The Abiding Task of the Church in Mission: To Proclaim the Uniqueness of Jesus,” in which he talked about how churches traditionally preach that Jesus is the only savior, but how their mission ought to focus on what Jesus preached: love of others and love of the poor.
“What makes Jesus unique and special is his particular concern of the marginalized,” says Knitter. “Jesus preaches of a God who has a special love of the poor and oppressed. Christians, when they meet with the poor of other religions, should not only talk of him as a savior, but of his special love of the poor. That’s what we have to preach.
“The other things that distinguishes Jesus are his self-giving love for everyone, and his call for us to love even our enemies and not to hate. So when followers of Jesus follow his example, they will have to challenge the wealthy and the powerful. Love of the poor and nonviolence: That is what Christians should announce, not that God saves only through Jesus.”
Knitter feared he might upset others with his ideas. He soon discovered, however, the opposite was true. “I was overwhelmed and surprised how well it was received. They incorporated the content of my paper into the conclusion of the conference. They took to the ideas of Christian mission and how, if Christians want to preach the uniqueness of Jesus, they have to prophesize the love of the poor, the use of nonviolence and the love of everyone.”
The other foreign theologian was Elisabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza, a professor at Harvard and well-known feminist Christian theologian, who talked about the equality of disciples and how Jesus preached that no one—regardless of status, income, skin color or gender—is better than anyone else. “There were 150 people at the conference with an openness and eagerness to dialogue,” says Knitter. “It was encouraging to see this example of the Catholic church in India. I was so inspired and encouraged at what I experienced.”
Since Christians in India are a minority, it provided Knitter with a different perspective on Christianity. “Some of the most exciting thoughts going on in the Catholic church are in Asia. They have to ask themselves how to be good Christians with Hindu and Muslim neighbors.”
This wasn’t Knitter’s first trip to Asia, previously spending a six-month sabbatical there. “I was glad for the opportunity to return to India,” he says. “India is a place where all kind of new discoveries are being made. I needed to return to be nourished. It also gave me a chance to reconnect with my Society of the Divine Word family. As I get older I realize how much I owe to that family. I may have moved to another part of town, but my family bonds still remain.”