When Thomas Kocherry, a Redemptorist priest in Kerala, India, died May 3 this year at age seventy-three, he was remembered as a champion for social and environmental justice. His personal writings show a man whose love for the poor and tireless advocacy stemmed from a radical understanding of the gospel.
In 1971 Kocherry began serving as a priest in Poothura, a poor fishing village in Kerala. Soon he was accompanying local fishermen out to sea, running traditional nets from small catamarans made of wood tied with rope. He witnessed firsthand the suffering of the villagers as their livelihood was threatened by large trawlers operated by multinational fishing corporations.
Kocherry had been introduced to liberation theology in seminary, and the villagers’ suffering opened his eyes to the realities of globalized capitalism. He had earned a law degree before seminary, and now used his legal expertise to organize the fishing people of the coastal villages into trade unions and cooperatives. Many of them had been taken advantage of because of their lack of education, so he set up schools and adult literacy programs.
Soon Kocherry became a national figure as head of the National Fishworkers Forum. In 1983 he fasted for twenty-one days, achieving a ban on international trawlers during the monsoon spawning season that remains in effect to this day, protecting the livelihoods of traditional fishing peoples. In 1997 he was elected coordinator of the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, becoming a spokesperson for over a hundred million poor fisherfolk worldwide.
His public activism made him a hero of the people, but a thorn in the flesh to corporations and political leaders. He was jailed no less than thirteen times. A man of conviction, he once turned down a $150,000 Pew Foundation award for marine conservation because it was funded by an international oil company.
For Kocherry, human rights and environmental concerns were inseparable: “I want people who live close to the earth to be protected from those who have detached themselves from the earth.” He protested the pollution of the ocean and campaigned against nuclear power stations. Months before his death, he was still protesting the construction of a Russian nuclear power plant in a small Indian fishing village.
Critics said Kocherry’s activism was inappropriate for a priest. His social conscience, however, stemmed from a vision of God’s kingdom here on earth. During his last year he drafted a personal statement of faith, titled "Faith in Jesus: A Passionate Call for Liberation." In it he writes:
There are many movements in India working toward a better and classless society. Many of these struggles are secular in nature, but we experience the reign of God in each of them, working towards the realization of the kingdom of God and its justice. It is here that our faith becomes real and tangible.
Kocherry’s priestly and activist roles were deeply linked and ultimately indistinguishable. To him, corporate exploitation of the environment and the poor were evils, and “the church of today is not the church of Christ if it does not demonstrate the courage to protest against the evils that are going on today.”
The “fall” in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time was a radical shift from our original trust in God, of living and working with God, to our taking control of our lives and managing the world our way. In modern times, we describe this as “civilization,” where sinister powers rule the world.…The forces of globalization, neoliberalism and militarism are manifestations of these powers that have transformed us into such selfish consumers, destroyers of nature and life….Jesus came to free us from these powers and principalities and reestablish our trust in God.
In his war against systemic economic and environmental evils, Kocherry did not turn a blind eye to personal sin and guilt. He quotes Archbishop Oscar Romero:
There can be no true liberation until people are freed from sin….The first liberation to be proposed by any political group that truly wants the people’s liberation must be to freedom from sin. While one is a slave of sin – of selfishness, violence, cruelty, and hatred – one is not fitted for the people’s liberation.
Kocherry made many Christians uncomfortable: “If we are true followers of Jesus we will be like Jesus. We should be poor like Jesus.” He imagined popular social movements joining together to call for a biblical jubilee.
Sabbath was created for the freedom of slaves, who had no rest but were forced to work all seven days of the week.… Every fiftieth year was to be a jubilee year, “the acceptable year of the Lord,” when all the slaves were freed, their debts written off, and each of them got her or his land back (Lev. 25). Jesus saw his mission as proclaiming this acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18). In fact, he came to fulfil the law and to recapture the original, radical dimension of the Sabbath law.…
…It is a denial of God the Creator if we amass land that actually belongs to all who have no land. It is time that through people’s movements we proclaim the “acceptable year of the Lord,” the jubilee year.
Jesus opened up the struggle against private property. He himself had left all that was his own; he had abandoned all privileges and given up all he possessed in order to go the way of love and sacrifice (Matt. 8:20). He is our example because he wanted no property. From the manger to the cross, he was the poorest.
Thomas Kocherry’s part in the struggle to defend the downtrodden and creation is over, but the struggle itself goes on. He concludes his statement with this prayer:
We are at the end of the final battle, caught in the tussle between life and death. Remain, then, under God’s command. The old world is overthrown and Jesus’ kingdom, it alone, arises from the ruins. May his kingdom come on earth for all people and for the planet. Amen.