What, you ask? Didn’t Gandhi die in 1948. How could he possibly have any insight into America for Christians living in 2021 (over 70 years later)? I too was surprised when I pulled E. Stanley Jones’s The Christ of the Indian Road off of my shelf the other day. In it, I read that Jones one day asked Gandhi the following question: “Mahatma Gandhi, I am very anxious to see Christianity naturalized in India, so that it shall be no longer a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift and redemption. What would you suggest that we do to make that possible?”
Gandhi’s response not only had insight and value for colonialized India in the twentieth century, but the same four observations would be beneficial for Christians to adopt in post-Christian America. I agree with the sentiment of the Chief Justice of the High Court of North India when he heard Gandhi’s recommendations: “He could not have put his finger on four more important issues. It took spiritual genius and insight to do that.”
So how do we “naturalize” Christianity for the United States, a country that is no longer majority Christian?
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Live Like Jesus
Gandhi’s thoughtful response began, “I would suggest, first, that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ.” Isn’t this the calling all Christians have? Certainly, we all say we want to do this. Saying is one thing; doing is the hard part. In fact, Gandhi purportedly said Christians not living like Christ is why he never could convert to the Christian faith, though he loved Jesus and sought to practice his teachings.
Unfortunately, too many Christians are anything but Christ-like. In post-Christian America, there too often has been a tendency to fight and argue. Some claim this is following Jesus. After all, didn’t he take up a whip in the temple and overturn tables? But we see the act and not the motive. Jesus was not seeking power for himself or for his tribe. Jesus was angry the Court of the Gentiles was not a place of solace and prayer for the non-Jews but a noisy place of commerce for the Jewish people. He was angry with his own tribe–not those outside his tribe. Jesus did speak out against the powerful of his day, but again it was for the sake of the poor and dispossessed. Not for himself or for his own. When on trial, Jesus was “oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa 53:7; cf. Mt 26:62-63).
Too many Christians today are more like James Madison than Jesus Christ. American Christians demand their rights and fight against those they perceive to hinder their rights, but Paul told the Corinthians that they should not demand rights even thought in Christ they are free. Paul noted all the “rights” he could claim, then declared, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19). Paul understood what it meant to truly live like Jesus, and so he later encouraged the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Instead of fighting our enemies, Jesus called us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” (Mt 5:45). Do we serve our fellow humans or dictate to them what we think they should do to deserve our service? Do we love them despite their sins or lecture them about their failings? Do we pray for those who persecute us or do we seek to fight fire with fire? The reason so many Americans today are turning away from Christianity is not because of Jesus. They are compelled by the life and teaching of Jesus . . . but they unfortunately are often repelled by those who claim his name but do not live by his calling to deny ourselves by taking up our crosses so we can live for others.
Yes, you read this correctly. Second, Gandhi said, “I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down.” Is there anything more notable about American Christianity in recent decades than the frequent attempts to “blend in” or “make attractive” Christian worship and practice? This began with the “seeker-friendly” approach that sought to cater to what was assumed to be the need of non-Christians. It can be seen in some forms of worship music or platforms that feel more like a rock concert than a worship celebration. (I am not against contemporary elements in worship, but sadly some lyrics have no theological weightiness to them. Songs used to be the primary method of proclaiming–as well as teaching–Christian beliefs.) Another recent trend has been the removal of denominational labels on church promotional materials and signage, even though the church itself maintains its denominational connections.
Paul is sometimes pointed to as the reason for toning down the Christian faith. Some will point to his statement in 1 Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22). Yet Paul makes this comment in the very letter where he also talks about the importance of “boasting in the Lord” as specifically emphasizing nothing other than Jesus Christ as the crucified one (1:26-2:5; cf. Jer 9:23-24, on which Paul is elaborating). He sought to emphasize only the crucified and risen Jesus, knowing that it was a “stumbling block” to Jews and “foolishness” to Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).
This is neither a call to some fundamentalist approach to the Christian faith nor is it a call to liberating the gospel from its historic roots. It is a calling to faithful words and actions based on the life of Christ. It is a call to proclaim his Lordship over all areas of our life as rightful king. Liberalism frequently waters down the gospel to fit societal expectations or contemporary trends. In reaction to this, fundamentalism often seeks power through arrogant claims of higher knowledge and coercive demands for uniformity of beliefs and practice. Gandhi asked Christians to be unwavering in the practice of their faith, but as we shall see, he also points us toward a demonstration of love and humility, once again demonstrating his astute insight into the character and teachings of Jesus. As Peter puts it, we should always be ready to give an explanation for the hope we have in Jesus as our Lord, but we should always do it “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). Too frequently, I do not see any gentleness or respect on social media from American Christians.
Gandhi’s third recommendation was, “I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity.” Here, Gandhi saw the key feature of the Christian faith that sometimes eludes even some Christian leaders. Paul certainly had concerns for proper doctrine (right beliefs), but the overarching emphasis in his letters was on love and Christian unity. This is why he was so against the Jewish Christians who treated Gentile believers as if they were second-class for not following the Jewish rituals and dietary rules. He saw the Judaizers’ requirement for uniformity not as a “salvation by works” but as a detrimental impediment to the Christian vision of a new people rising up from the many nations (the meaning of the word “Gentile”) while still maintaining their “many-ness” (Eph 2:16). Yes, Paul later speaks of “one faith,” but that statement is not intended to be a weapon to batter down those who do not fully share your own doctrinal beliefs. It is part of a larger call to unity (seven times repeating the word “one” for emphasis), one of seven ways of explaining why we are to “be completely humble and gentle; [to] be patient, bearing with one another in love . . . [and to] make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-6). Paul’s vision of loving unity extended also to male and female, free and slave (Gal 3:28).
This call to unity and, in love, bearing with one another’s differences was the very desire of Jesus himself. Hours before his death, Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23). Does the world know us by our love for one another or for our infighting on regular and social media? Are we known for loving our enemies or for always talking bad about certain groups and what is wrong with some movements? Using the language of Paul, are we known as people who follow the Christ who “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) or as advocates for the status quo of homogeneous church communities or for building a wall to keep “those people” in their place? Christ paid all debts for us except one, “the continuing debt to love one another,” for all of God’s law is summed up in the saying, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10).
Celebrate the Good
Finally, Gandhi concluded, “Fourth, I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” For many, this may be the most controversial of the four statements by Gandhi. Some think truth is only found in Christianity. This creates an arrogance that is off-putting to most if not all non-Christians, whether they live in India as part of another faith or in America as part of the “religious nones.” Yet if we truly live more like Jesus, seeking the needs of others rather than demanding our rights or enhancing personal power; if we hold fast to our faith and do not water it down; and if we genuinely learn to love one another and love our neighbors as well as our enemies; . . . then these things naturally will enable us to learn to be more sympathetic to others and open to listening first to their desires, hopes, and beliefs before we declare to them what we ourselves believe.
In Gandhi’s day, Christianity was identified with British colonial rule. There unfortunately was an arrogance and preference for all things British that permeated the actions and attitudes of many Christians, including many converts. In post-Christian America, there are many Christians who engage in unnecessary culture wars to bring back “the good old days.” Rightly or wrongly, this comes across as arrogant posturing to reclaim power over those who feel Christianity’s days are past. Instead, we need to demonstrate sympathy, which includes acknowledging uncomfortable truths that not everything in the old days was “good” as we claim.
If Jesus is the Truth (Jn 14:6) as well as the Light enlightening all humans (Jn 1:9), then wherever we find truth, we can celebrate it and reclaim it for Christ. (Augustine preferred the image of the Israelites, who received gold from the Egyptians in the Passover, using it to build the Ark and Tabernacle later on.) The good in non-Christian cultures is not only seen in Paul’s refusal for Jewish Christians to force their own culture upon the Gentiles, but in the gospels themselves. Matthew emphasizes the magi over the biblical scholars (Mt 2:1-11), the Roman centurion over the disciples (Mt 8:10, 26), and the Canaanite woman over both Peter and the Pharisees (Mt 15:7, 14, 16, 28).
God’s love for all people includes their diverse cultures and backgrounds, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 5:9; 7:9). We should learn about these cultures and ideas before immediately throwing them out as wrong or incorrect. The redemption of the Lord Jesus Christ includes the redemption of the good and the truth from each and every culture, so we should approach these with humility first. This is not to say that we should accept all cultural practices as equal. Paul quoted Greek philosophers at times (e.g., Tit 1:12; Acts 17:28), but he knows does not simply accept a culture whole cloth. After affirming Gentiles for not having to adopt all Jewish practices, he admonishes them not to continue in “darkened” or “ignorant” ways (Eph 4:17).
Too often in America, we allow politicians, media commentators, and even some ministers to prey on our fears in order to manipulate our actions. There is a reason that the admonition not to be afraid is one of the most repeated in the Bible! We should live a life of reasonable, thoughtful worship (Rom 12:1) and not one guided by reactionary fear. Christians should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (Jas 1:19). Why are many American Evangelical Christians so quick to angry speech? If we are not willing to listen first to why someone has concerns about Christianity or supports a movement we don’t agree with, why should we expect them to listen to the Good News of Christ Jesus? We need to find the good within cultures and movements and celebrate those things even as we lovingly point out the issues or concerns with the movement as a whole.
If we want to reach a post-Christian America, we need to stop the culture wars (which does not sympathize with the good). We need to stop living in fear (which is not the way of Jesus). We need to not make pompous pronouncements on social media (which does not demonstrate love). Gandhi’s observations for naturalizing Christianity in British-colonial India are just as relevant to naturalizing Christianity in post-Christian America. Live more like Jesus (by not living in fear but praying to the Father and being led by the Spirit). Do not water down the distinctives of Christian faith (but be willing to discuss why others don’t share these with you). Emphasize love (through acts of compassion and seeking unity rather than division). Seek the truth and the good wherever it can be found (by listening first and being slow to speech and anger).
Quotations from E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (New York: Abingdon Press, 1925; 1953), 118-20.