The Centre for Society and Religion was originally established in August 1971. It was co-founded by the late Bishop Leo Nanayakkara OSB and Fr. Tissa Balasuriya OMI. Social and economic problems of the country were then becoming increasingly grave. A few persons were convinced that Sri Lanka was at the cross roads trying to decide its ideology, political, economic and social structures and cultural orientations. They decided that they should devote more of their times to the transformations of persons, relationships and structures in society so as to render life more worthwhile for all the people of our country.
With pro-capitalist, market-oriented economic policies replacing the centrally-planned economic policies, and the ‘trickle-down’ development policies pursued by successive governments at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the country was once again being subjugated to a new form of colonialism. While the relative merits of socialism and free-market economy were hotly debated elsewhere, CSR firmly held the view that the real problem faced by the people of Sri Lanka and Asia was not the battle for supremacy between the two dominant ideologies but the people’s struggle for life with dignity, This fundamental problem demanded an equitable distribution of land and resources and superseded religion, culture and ideology. But the values, relationships, social structures and religions in the country could offer neither alternatives nor analysis and this could only exacerbate the already grave injustices.
Lamenting the failure of the country’s tradition-bound religions to be concerned with justice issues that dehumanize the victims, CSR consistently stressed the inseparable link between justice and spirituality. The attempt of the Vatican II to bring the Church squarely into the arena of human struggles and promote dialogue with other faiths gave a new impetus to the CSR’s own endeavours to harness the liberative resources of religions in the people’s struggles for full humanity. The very name ‘Centre for Society & Religion’ underscored the close inter- link between the two spheres. CSR vigorously promoted the new thinking of the Vatican II in Church forums like the National Pastoral Convention and the National Synod, hoping to bring the Church to be more concerned with the poor and the marginalized people, but it evoked only a lukewarm response from the Church leadership. Undaunted, CSR continued to be guided by this new line of thinking.
However, the CSR’s stance vis-à-vis justice issues was not apolitical. CSR was very much conscious of the fact that the prophetic mission of the Church was necessarily political and was based on justice. Gustavo Gutierrez’ ground-breaking work, ‘A Theology of Liberation’ and the writings of other liberation theologians that presented a new paradigm for the Church to be actively (politically) involved in the liberation of the poor had a marked influence on the vision and mission of CSR. Thus, the mission of CSR came to be modeled on that of Jesus who not only went about doing good but ardently desired the growth of people as truly liberated persons.
This socio-spiritual vision energized the involvement of CSR in social justice issues and also undergirded its pioneering efforts in promoting a Sri Lankan theology and spirituality of liberation. CSR continued to challenge the Church to go back to the roots in order to rediscover its mission and also to be open to the liberative elements of other faiths in our multi-religious society in the Church’s efforts toward human liberation. CSR accepted the liberative elements of other faiths as well as those of humanist and political ideologies like Marxism and socialism. But, unlike these ideologies which rejected religion as an opiate, CSR recognized the importance of harnessing the liberative thrust of religions, the Biblical vision of human liberation as personified in the life of Jesus and the humanistic values of Marxism.
Instead of getting involved in run-of-the-mill social and welfare work, CSR opted to promote a vision of human liberation based on social justice and economic development. It was a vision informed and nurtured by spiritual and cultural values and openness to different ideologies. In this task, CSR was firmly convinced that religious and cultural values can play a meaningful role in social transformation and also that religions in turn can learn much by listening to the poor. All personal, social and human transformations must take place based on values of justice, freedom, sharing, equality, participation and peace.
This vision led CSR to work toward the human liberation of the urban poor, the rural poor, the plantation workers, the ethnic minorities and people displaced by mega development projects. Research publications and workshops, seminars and discussions organized by CSR on the plight of these people have put the spotlight on the injustices visited on them, and have even succeeded in changing some of the policies of the State. In 1976, the slum dwellers along the main roads of Colombo were forcibly removed to Mattakkuliya in order to spruce up the city for the Non-Aligned Nations’ Summit. The Summit-displaced people are still there completely forgotten by the authorities. But CSR has been working with these people since their arrival in what has now come to known as ‘Summit Pura’. The work with the urban poor extends to other slum areas in Dematagoda as well as the street families and street children in the vicinity of the Town Hall.
The objective of the Centre for Society and Religion is to help in the integral human liberation and fulfillment of the people of our country by their realization of human values in economic development with social justice, and the deepening of our cultural and spiritual values. We are convinced that Sri Lanka needs a fundamental reform of its socio-economic relations and structures in order to meet the urgent needs and legitimate aspirations of the masses of our country.
Since the experience of the social orders based on different ideologies have in spite of their achievements many unsatisfactory features in their excesses specially in the neglect of human equality, freedom and dignity, we wish to work for a continual renewal of our society beyond such limitations towards one in which human freedom and equity in the sharing of the earthly goods.
There is a need for a mental and moral revolution which can be brought about only by changing the convictions and values of the persons, especially towards accepting the dignity and rights of all. At the same time there has to be a change in the relationships and structures of society to enable human being to live as free and responsible persons in a just society.
Within the Sri Lankan context we believe this objective can best be achieved by accepting the pluralistic nature of our society with human freedom, equity and distributive justice as its norms.