Rev. M.J. Joseph passed away early hours of July 12, after a brief hosipitalization for respiratory ailments, in Thirualla, Kerala, according to a message from the Centre for Social Studies and Culture (CSSC), Kottayam. He was 78. He leaves behind his wife Annamma Joseph, and children Asha, Shobha and Vijayan.
Funeral will take place on July 14.
The following is an obituary prepared by ‘Friends of MJ’
The Rev. M. J. Joseph (“MJ”) was one of those rare individuals who combined deep spirituality with radical social and political action. In the current Indian context, the combination of religion and politics has often deadly consequences. MJ, however, believed and practiced a brand of spirituality that was self-critical of the institutionalization and hypocrisy of his religion and by extension, other religions as well. He also believed that the primary purpose of religion is to strive for a better world where justice and peace would prevail. He advocated a form of spirituality, not transcendental, but that transcends religion and acquires a secular character deeply rooted in the struggles of the people for justice, peace and a meaningful life. He found this spirituality in the struggles of the dalits, adivasis, women, fisherpeople and in the art forms and songs of the oppressed. He advocated “peoples’ theology” as an empowering and liberating tool for action and reflection.
In the idealism that prevailed in the post-independence period of the 1960s, MJ as a young man chose the vocation of a Christian priest. At a time when the response of not only the Church but also the State to social problems was “developmental work”, MJ and others raised fundamental questions. They argued that such acts would make the people more dependent on the benevolence and goodwill of others and instead, what was needed was radical social action where the people are not mere recipients of charity but define their own destinies. As the Development Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the 1970s, MJ put his vision into practice even as the traditional leadership of the Church frowned upon these “radical” ideas.
The National Emergency (1975-’77) was a turning point in the lives of MJ and several others of the period. They felt that democracy and civil liberties cannot be taken for granted - even in India - and that there is the need to be eternally vigilant against all threats to basic human and political rights. MJ, however, went beyond most others and argued that the denial of basic necessities - such as food, decent habitat and employment - to a vast section of the people too is a scandal to democracy. As such, political action cannot be separated from radical social action. He also believed that what the poor need are not charities bestowed on them by the State or the rich but rights to be wrestled by prolonged struggles. The Dynamic Action, Programme for Social Action and several other organizations MJ spearheaded bear witness to his passionate commitment to such the vision of a new social order. He was among the founder editors of “Dynamic Action”, a Malayalam monthly, which developed into a medium that debated issues of political economy and politics of development from the perspectives of the poor and the oppressed. While “Programme for Social Action” promoted and knit together faith inspired radical voices in different parts of India, “Navchethna” became the abode of experimentations in cultural and artistic articulations of resistances.
Another defining moment in his life has been in his active involvement in the mobilization of dalits in a high caste dominated Church. The formation, in the late 80’s and early 90’s , of “People’s Movement of Faith for Liberation” and representative democracy in the Central Kerala Diocese of Church of South India brought him into direct confrontation with the vested interests, which eventually led to he being ostracized by the Church.
As a Christian priest and as a fellow-traveller of the Left, MJ repeatedly challenged both the Church and the political apparatus to keep in focus the struggles of the people. He often paid a heavy price for his uncompromising positions. As a priest ostracized by the Church for his radical views and as a leftist who was suspect in the eyes of the party leadership, MJ was permanently in the opposition. Through the long decades of his life and service he, however, was consistent in arguing that the primary task of religion and politics is to strive for a world of justice and peace.
MJ is last to leave among trio visionaries – Dr. M. M. Thomas and Bishop Paulose Mar Paulose being the others - who worked together and challenged and influenced the thinking processes of generations of youth.
An avid reader of books, MJ authored many books, articles and songs, and in the last few years, took up painting and held exhibitions in many places. Friends from different walks of life, civil society organizations and people’s movements in different parts of the country would miss his compassion, camaraderie, counsel, and gentleness.
Centre for Social Studies and Culture (CSSC)
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