Gandhi's message to Christians
Our contemporary world is in need of true witnesses and not just noisemakers or orators whose theories do not reflect their actions. The Bible exhorts all Christians to translate what they hear into what they practice. "Be doers of the Word and not just mere hearers lest you deceive yourselves" (Jas 1:22). Continuing in this same vein, an adage goes that: "actions speak louder than words". All these imply that it is not just enough to say "I am a Christian". "By our way of life, people should be able to say: "this is a follower of Christ". Jesus himself insists that people will be known by their fruits (Mtt 7: 15-20). It is interesting to note that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Cf. Ac11:26). The word Christian means follower of Christ or being like Christ. In other words, a Christian is one whose life is based on the teachings of Christ. With such a definition, any non-Christian who has read the life of Jesus Christ, especially as presented in the Gospels and other biblical references, will expect to see Christians living up to, if not nearer to, such principles. Gandhi, a non Christian had this same experience.
After reading the life of Christ as presented in the Bible and in the writings of some renowned Christian authors, Gandhi admired the Sermon on the Mount (which shaped his whole philosophy of life) and hoped to see Christians live up to its standards. While living with Christians in England, South Africa and India, Gandhi expected to experience qualities like unconditional love, forgiveness, willingness to sacrifice, meekness, etc (Qualities of Christ). To his utmost dismay, Christians in his era never lived up to the standards preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and on the Cross.
Seeing Gandhi live, the Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones asked him: "Mr Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower (Christian)"? The latter's reply was clear: "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ". At this juncture, many questions pass in our mind: What led Gandhi to make such a statement which is at the same time a call for concern and an eye opener for any contemporary Christian? What can we take from this statement and what are our fears? In a very succinct presentation, we will see the implication of this affirmation to our contemporary Christians. On this note, we will see the criticisms and advice given by Gandhi on Christianity. Drawing from these premises, we will evaluate the importance of this affirmation to our contemporary Christians. The intention in the last part of this paragraph is to show that with the current situation of Christians in Africa and especially in Cameroon, the Gandhian affirmation remains a pertinent interpellation.
Gandhi's Contact with Christ: Jesus was for Gandhi, a nonviolent prophet
During his studies in England, Gandhi became interested in the Christian faith. He had been reading the Bible to keep a promise he had made to a friend. He had difficulties understanding the Old Testament because in it, "he found out so much that he could not reconcile with the bidding of returning good for evil."1 He was studying for the bar exams in London when he was given the New Testament to read. This made a positive impression on him. The Sermon on the Mount as he said "went straight to my heart". In this sermon, he was fascinated by these words: "But I say to you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."2 He insisted always that Jesus occupied in his heart the place of one of the greatest teachers who have had a considerable influence in his life... the message of Jesus as he understood in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole. Gandhi got two key words from Christianity: the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the Symbol of the cross.3 Gandhi described the Sermon on the Mount as the whole of Christianity for him who wanted to live a Christian life. Gandhi often affirmed: "It is that sermon which has endeared Jesus to me.4 But what does Jesus mean to Gandhi? He revealed this to us in these words: "I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity"5. What really attracted Gandhi to Jesus' life and message is the aspect of Jesus' suffering. Suffering for others form one of the pillars of Gandhi's Message to the world. It is worth noting that Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence -satyagraha as already affirmed above has three principles: Truth- Sat/Satya, Nonviolence- Ahimsa and self-suffering- Tapasya. These are called the pillars of Satyagraha. Failure to grasp them is a handicap to the understanding of Gandhi's nonviolence. Gandhi saw all these principles in Jesus' life and the one that really attracted him was the third aspect that is Tapasya - willingness to self-sacrifice or suffering. On this note Gandhi declares: "the example of Jesus' suffering is a factor in the composition of my undying faith in nonviolence which rules all my actions, worldly and temporal."6 He kept hanging in his little hut a black and white print of Christ on which was written "he is our peace". The picture of the crucified Christ wearing only a loin cloth such as is worn by millions of poor men in Indian villages, had touched Gandhi's heart very deeply. It was in the Vatican in 1931, after returning from the Roundtable conference in London that Gandhi saw a life size crucifix and immediately had an emotional reaction towards it. After gazing at it, he declared: "I saw there, many nations, like individuals, could only be made through the agony of the cross and no other way. Joy comes not by the infliction of pain on others, but the pain voluntarily borne by oneself."7 He understood the cross and believed that when one lived the life Jesus lived, he would probably end up in conflict with the powers that be. For him, Jesus died because of the way he lived. The cross of Christ was therefore the result of his living out his way of life to the end. On the cross, Gandhi saw the perfection of virtue. Living like Christ means a living a life of the cross, without it, life is long dead. For Gandhi, JESUS DIED IN VAIN if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.
Without going too deep into his many points of divergence with Christ, it is good to insist that he found in Christ the greatest source of spiritual strength that man has never known. For him, Jesus Christ is the highest example of one who wished to give everything, asking for nothing in return. Jesus Christ belongs not sorely to Christianity but to the entire world. Jesus was for him the prince of satyagrahi (a nonviolence activist). His suffering is a factor in the composition of his undying faith in nonviolence. Just as Christ passed through the test of nonviolence through his virtues of mercy, nonviolence, love, truth, forgiveness of his murderer etc., Gandhi's followers were trained to forgive and thank the jail keeper for performing the arrest. Gandhi equally admired the gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, and so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused but turn the other cheek.
The basis of Gandhi's hate for Christians
I love your Christ but I hate your Christians because your Christians are unlike your Christ.
After such a doctrine well founded doctrine on Christ, Gandhi will obviously expect Christians to be like Christ. Unfortunately, he never got it. The bone of contention here is to get the hermeneutics of what Gandhi meant. In fact, it is necessary to have faith to be saved but following Christ cannot be theoretical. It must be shown in action and in deeds. Before continuing, it is worth noting at the back of our minds that Jesus had warned in Mt 7: 21-23 that: "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers".
Where can we situate the terminus ad qu of Gandhi's rejection of Christianity? His rejection grew out of an experience he had in South Africa. After reading the Bible and the life of Jesus, he was eager to exploring becoming a Christian. He decided thus to attend a church service. When he reached the door, the church elder asked "where do you think you are going, kaffir....There is no room for kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I'll have my assistants throw you down the steps". This is one who was just from reading the life of Christ as an epitome of love, unity, etc. Gandhi did not hesitate to confront Christendom with the principles of Christ. What is the Basis therefore of Gandhi's hate for the Christians? They are unlike Christ, they do not put into practice their religious principles, they do not favour inculturation and enculturation, they are more westernised etc. Gandhi does not end in criticisms. He presents a package of advice to contemporary Christians!
6.3. Gandhi's Advice to the contemporary Christian
"You Christians, especially missionaries, should begin to live more like Christ. You should spread more of the gospel of love and you should study non-Christian faiths to have more sympathetic understanding of their faiths."8
This citation summarises Gandhi's advice for the contemporary Christians. We ought to be true imitators of Christ and by so doing; we should also seek to understand other religions. The Catholic Church is really doing so today through her clarion call for ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. Most of the Christian groups that preached to Gandhi quoted John 3:16 and forced people to believe. Gandhi felt that Christians should not just preach, but should put into practice what they preached.
To live the gospel is the most effective in the beginning, in the middle and in the end... a life of service and uttermost simplicity is the best preaching... you quote instead John 3:16 and ask them to believe it. That has no appeal to me... where there has been acceptance of the gospel through preaching, my complaint is that there has been some motive... A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon.9
For Gandhi, how we treat other tells the people more about what we believe. A better Christian follows Jesus in words and deeds. It is thus not just enough to distribute tracts or deliver sound sermons.
Pastor Mike Powel in his sermon insisted that Gandhi loved the teachings of Jesus Christ and the wisdom contained in the Bible, but he did not feel Christians lived up to these standards. The feeling that Christians do not measure up to the Golden Rule they extol, causes non-Christians to see them as hypocrites. Christians by the nature of bearing that name are expected to be righteous, kind and pure. When Christians do not show those qualities, it is a disappointment to everyone. Christians need to realise that they are as imperfect as everyone else and as a result of this, they should truly repent. In the past, Christians have not measured up to the ideals set forth by Jesus Christ. Sometimes, Christians have fallen short of ideals that it fills an onlooker with embarrassment.10 In essence, Gandhi accepted Christianity but rejected "churchianity" in a very vocal manner11
From his childhood, Christian missionaries stood on the corner of his grade school loudly deriding the gods and beliefs of Hinduism. Converts to Christianity were "denationalised", "Britishised". Christianity was "beef and brandy" (most Hindus are vegetarians). He was greatly disturbed when he heard Christians put aside the Sermon on the Mount as impractical or a dreamy idealism. He believes that, what is lived as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount. He criticised mostly Christianity as practiced by Europe and the rest of the West. He criticised Christianity's cultural imperialism. He perceived this phenomenon to be a destroyer of the Indian culture with its aggressive missionary work. His plea was for Christians to become more Christian. For Gandhi, Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West. The frightful outrage that was going on in Europe during his time (war, colonialism) showed that "the message of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of peace has been little understood in Europe, and that light upon it may have to be shown from the East."12 In Gandhi's era, those who called themselves Christians (Europe) were just from taking part and consenting into two World Wars! This is a very big scandal for a nonviolence activist. "It is a very curious commentary on the West that although it professes Christianity, there is no Christianity or Christ in the West or there should have been no war."13Here is his clear criticism for Christianity:
I ask my Christian brethren...not to take their Christianity as it is interpreted in the West. There, we know, they fight with one another as never before. After all, Jesus was an Asiatic depicted as wearing the Arabian flowing robe. He was the essence of meekness. I hope that the Christians of India will express in their lives Jesus the crucified, of the Bible, and not as interpreted in the West with her blood-stained fingers. I have no desire to criticize the West. I know and value the many virtues of the West. But I am bound to point out that Jesus of Asia is misrepresented in the West except in individuals.14
Thomas Merton bought Gandhi's idea when he constantly asked himself: "What has Gandhi to do with Christianity?" From this question, he insisted vehemently thateveryone knows that the Orient has venerated Christ and distrusted Christians since the first colonizers and missionaries came from the West. Western Christians often assume without much examination that this oriental respect for Christ is simply a vague, syncretistic and perhaps romantic evasion of the challenge of the Gospel: an attempt to absorb the Christian message into the confusion and inertia which are thought to be characteristic of Asia.It is true that Gandhi expressly dissociated himself from Christianity in its visible and institutional forms.But it is also true that he built his whole life and all his activity upon what he conceived to be the law of Christ.In fact, he died for this law which was at the heart of his belief.Gandhi was indisputably sincere and right in his moral commitment to the law of love and truth.A Christian can do nothing greater than follow his own conscience with fidelity. Gandhi obeyed what he believed to be the voice of God.15
Relevance of Gandhi to the Contemporary Christian
It is worth noting that Gandhi influenced and keeps influencing Christians. We shall not propose that the contemporary Christian becomes a Hindu like Gandhi before becoming "like Christ". The ball has already been set rolling by Gandhi's life and message. If a non Christian can honour and imitate Jesus in this way, what more of those who call themselves, and really are, Christians?
Gandhi's relevance for the contemporary Christian can be shown from what happened at the Westminster Abbey in London on the 17th of February 1948. Just like John Paul II whose funeral mass saw united together around his remains political and religious leaders whom he had been trying to put together during his lifetime, the message of Gandhi to imitate Christ and to unite was well understood. The cathedral was full and in a festive mood. The rector of the cathedral took up the floor and said "today this service is in memory of Mahatma Gandhi who has just been assassinated. He intoned a hymn and the populace responded. Here is a paraphrased translation from the French version of what he said:
We give thanks to you O lord for the witnessingOf Mahatma Gandhi to the Truth Of the Sermon on the Mount And for his life of service And for his defence of the poor... And for his action of peace And for his hatred of violence And for the witnessing which he has given That love and sacrifice Have a saving power.16
I am sure, without renouncing in any way any catholic dogma, that if Gandhi were to be a catholic Christian, we should have been thinking of calling him "Saint Gandhi". This thinking is not supported by all. Robert Ellsberg criticises Gandhi on the grounds that the latter only "accepts the Sermon on Mount thinking it supports his principle of nonviolence and denies the rest of Jesus' teachings and claims."17 Nevertheless, what we can learn from Gandhi is how to put to practice what we profess. In fact his life should be a painful reminder to Christians. His' was not mere intellectual appreciation of the teachings of Jesus. His understanding was grounded in the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount where some of this partners and adversaries professed to be Christians with whom he was engaged for over fifty years. In the process, he has left us two edited works: "What Jesus means to me" and "The Jesus I love".
What is certainly true is that Gandhi not only understood the ethic of the Gospel as well, if not in some ways better, than most Christians, but he is one of the very few men of our time who applied Gospel principles to the problems of a political and social existence in such a way that his approach to these problems was inseparably religious and political at the same time. Christians understand the theology of the cross, while Gandhi puts it into practice. The missionary, Stanley Jones gives his own personal view of what he learned from Gandhi: "Gandhi has taught me more of the Sprit of Christ than has others in the East or West... The world which calls itself Christian talk of truth but Gandhi puts it in practice. Here is the difference... Never in human history has much light been thrown on the cross. It is only through this man who was not a Christian."
Criticisms of the affirmation: "I love your Christ but I hate your Christians..."
All what we have been trying to put together concerning the relevance of the Gandhian affirmation "I love your Christ but I hate your Christians because your Christians are unlike your Christ" to the contemporary Christian boil down tothe fact that, the contemporary Christian should imbibe and synthesise the dialectic between discourse (thesis) and praxis (antithesis). This implies putting into practice the words which we profess vocally. It is not enough to say Christ. It is better to be like Christ and by our fruits people will say "these are Christians"!
What does the contemporary Christian interpret in the word sacrifice? We are in a society where capitalism and egoism cut through the fabric of Christendom. How many of us can sacrifice ourselves for others in this contemporary world. True enough Maximillian Kolbe did so in Poland. Martin Luther King Jr. did same in the USA. Oscar Romero did so in El Savador. Contemporary Christians should follow suit. The cross of Christ should be our guide. In a contemporary world where revenge and unforgiveness even among Christians remain the order of the day, Gandhi teaches us to imitate Christ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. If we do so then Gandhi can give the following message to Christians: "I love your Christ and I LOVE your Christians because your Christians are making efforts to be like your Christ".
Gandhi essentially came to view Christianity, especially Western Christianity, as a betrayal of everything that Christ stood for. He saw someone such as Tolstoy as embodying what he understood to be the teachings of Christ; after Constantine, it is Gandhi's view, the institutionalization of Christianity delivered a death blow to Christ's teachings.
6.7. The Catholic Church and Nonviolence
The Catholic Church has always tried to defend the rights of the poor and defend the world against violence. Despite its persecutions on some individuals in the medieval era, the Catholic Social Teaching today consists primarily of a theology of peace. The Church is gradually embracing nonviolence. Through her catechisms and other documents, the church promotes virtues like peace, justice, inter-religious dialogues, Ecumenism, etc. The Papal Encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII regarded the need for a new world order based on peace and common good.
The Pope John Paul II commenting on the Pacem in Terris commended the U.N. and called for a new constitutional organization of the human family, truly capable of ensuring peace and harmony between peoples as well as their integral human development. Pope John Paul II has always preached nonviolence. He is of the opinion that "Those who built their lives on nonviolence have gives us a luminous example of integrity and loyalty, often to the point of martyrdom, have provided us with rich and splendid lesson".19
In his address on January 1st 2005, the Holy Father exhorted us to abandon violence and embrace nonviolence, in order to build a society based on peace and common good. He puts it thus:
To attain the good of peace, there must be a clear and conscious acknowledgement that violence is an unacceptable evil and that it never solves problems... Fostering peace by overcoming evil with good requires careful reflection on the common good and on its social and political implications.20
The Catholic Bishops of many dioceses have preached nonviolence either single handedly or collectively. One has to admire with awe Arch Bishop Oscar Romero who fought vigorously and nonviolently for the cause of the poor.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops acknowledge the impact of Gandhi on Christian thoughts thus: "In the twentieth century, presiding from the non-Christian witness of a Mahatma Gandhi and its worldwide impact, the nonviolent witness of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King has had profound impact upon the life of the church... "21
Back here in Africa, the Church has been highly concerned with the use of nonviolence. In Cameroon, the efforts of Christian Cardinal Tumi, in opposing the wrong deeds of Presidents Ahmadou Ahhidjo and Paul Biya nonviolently cannot be neglected. The Cameroonian Bishops have not failed in their duties to ring a correction bell to the government. Since 1977, the Bishops of Bamenda and Buea had charged Cardinal Tumi, then Rector of the Major Seminary in Bambui to form an ecumenical group called "Christian Study Group" with aim to analyse the socio-political events in Cameroon in the light of the Gospel of Christ. As a result of their findings the Bishops, on the 27th of February 1977 published a pastoral letter entitled: "The Fight against Corruption in Cameroon"22. They willingly showed that there exist in Cameroon a high rate of Bribery and corruption. Material wealth has become the supreme and highest good for some of us camerooninans.
In recent years, Cardinal Tumi as shown in the preceding chapters has been one of Cameroon's most outspoken voices, demanding an end to government corruption and restrictions on press freedoms. He also has accused the country's police force of torture and carrying out summary executions. In a September 2004 speech delivered in Milan, Italy, the cardinal said his country was ruled by "the law of the strongest" and that elections were continually marred by ballot rigging. He said "the facade of democracy" in Cameroon "exists more for creating a pleasing, external image than for promoting individual and collective liberties. The proof is (found in) electoral fraud."22 Soon after the election results handed President Biya a third consecutive term of office in October 2004, Tumi fumed that since independence from France and Great Britain in 1961, Cameroon has never had transparent elections. The cardinal, along with the nation's other bishops, has repeatedly called on Biya in power since 1982 to let the country move toward political pluralism. Cardinal Tumi has always hammered that it is the duty of the church to denounce the dishonesty of some government officials since the church has a duty to educate people about honesty.
There is real need for Justice and peace perpetrated by the Christians here in Cameroon. Song Eugene observes that:
Such an image is a far-fetched dream in Christian Cameroon if one were to go by the alarming cases of injustices, violence, discrimination, corruption and "god-fatherism" that have eaten deep into the fabrics of the society. This shows how shallow Christianity has penetrated the life of this people... they have not yet learnt to live as brothers and sisters in a church family of God. There is deep rooted hatred amongst the people... With this gloomy picture, we have the impression that the church as family in Cameroon is not a hamlet of peace, love and care.23
An immediate reaction to this is to say, Fr. Eugene Song is too hard on the Cameroonian Christians. Looking at it from another perspective however, one notices that he proves there are rivalries and squabbles among tribes and ethnic groups which have eaten into the fabrics of the Church. A glaring example which he potrays is the event that took place on the 17th, July 1999 when Mgr. A. Wouking (RIP) from the Bamileke tribe was appointed as archbishop of Yaounde. As Fr. Eugene Song observes, there was open rejection by the "Christians of Yaounde under the conspiracy of some diocesan priests and politicians... Priests claiming to be indigenes of the archdiocese wrote to the Vatican saying 'le pape a fait une erreur', that is, the Pope has made a mistake."24Cameroonian Christians need Gandhi's! The situation of our country is really deplorable. We need a nonviolent prophet who will stand up and fight the alarming rate of Bribery and corruption, ethnic and tribal wars which invade our country. We need Gandhi in Africa as shown by the AECAWA.
The inter-religious Dialogue Commission of the Association of Episcopal Conference of Anglophone West Africa (AECAWA) has presented many study papers to preach inter-religious Dialogue and the need for nonviolence in Africa. They are:(1) Inter-religious Dialogue and Nation Building Ibadan, 3-6 October 2000.
(2)Religion, Violence and Peace in West Africa Accra, 7-10 October 2002.
Vincent Boi Nai a member of AECAWA highlighted the role played by great figures like Gandhi. He attests that:
People like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela have taken history in a new direction. They have shown the power of nonviolence. Though they did not achieve their goals 100%, nevertheless, they showed a way that is worth following.25