LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE BEFORE MEN….
An appeal to Indian Christian conscience
Christians in India are unique: not only did the first Christian community in the world establish itself in India – the Syrian Christians of Kerala in the 1st century AD – but before the arrival of the Jesuits with Vasco de Gama in the 16th century, they developed an extraordinary religious pluralism, adopting some of the local customs, while retaining their faith in Christ and accepting the existence of other religious practices. It should also be said that Christians are amongst the most educated Indians and even though they constitute only less than 3% of the population, they wield an enormous influence in India through education mainly, as many of India’s top educational institutions are managed by Christians and also because of the quality care in Christian hospitals and nursing homes. Finally, Indian Christians are often gentle, soft-spoken, friendly and God-fearing.
Very often Christians in India have to depend not so much on their rights as on the goodwill and generosity of the powerful majority Hindu community. Christians in India are dependent in a double sense, on the goodwill of the Hindus and on the Churches in the West whose fellowship sustains them and whose affluence often supports them. Judging from numbers there is hardly any equality in relationship. But Christians in India can play a creative and critical role in the life of our nation. What matters most is the quality of their life as Christians and the courage of their faith.
In a religiously plural India the mission of the Church is not to make other people Christian but to invite people to enter the Kingdom of God. If the Christian churches recongnise that real conversion is not from one religion to another but from unbelief to God, and that “mission” is not the Church’s work but God’s, then the implications of this in the context of religious pluralism must be more openly acknowledged.
The Kingdom is present wherever people are being transformed by Jesus Christ, showing ‘the marks of love and self-sacrifice in their commitment of human liberation’, even if for many in countries such as India, such transformation does not lead to baptised membership of the institutional Church. “Christ’s call to conversion as a turning towards God stands; what it need not imply is conversion to Christianity”
The Commission to preach the gospel is usually quoted by all Christian groups. But, they conveniently ignore the fact that there are other very important elements in the teachings of Christ. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust do corrupt but lay up your treasures in heaven…You cannot serve God and Mammon. Forgive your brother not seven times but seventy times seven…Love one another as I have loved you…”
Such teachings should have led to the formation of a distinctive lifestyle based on simplicity and integrity and total non-acquisitiveness. But, we do not find Christians any different from others. They go to law over property disputes. They sell their sons and daughters for specific sums of money in the marriage market. They accept bribes and play the game of money and power, as assiduously as anyone else.
Unless Christians in this country share the sufferings of the people they have no word of the gospel to them, whatever true things they might say. Revival songs they sing, long prayers they pray and long sermons they preach amount to lip religion and at the same time they swallow widow’s houses. This is how Jesus Christ characterises hypocrisy.
This is an old phenomenon where integrity of life and the truth of words don’t conform to one another. Life does not confirm the words that Christians speak.
If Christians as a community took the teachings of Christ seriously, then they would be justified in preaching. To preach what they do not practise is to put the cart before the horse. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.”
Raimon Panikkar averred that "if the Church wishes to live, it should not be afraid of assimilating elements that come from other religious traditions, whose existence it can today no longer ignore".
Almost in the same vein, a brilliant Danish Professor, Dr. Kaaj Baago, in the United Theological College, Bangalore, made history when he said in the 1960s: “Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists should never give up their religion to join the Christian Church”. On the other hand the Church should humble itself and find ways of identifying itself with other groups, taking Christ with them. Christ, he said, was not the chairman of the Christian party. If God is the Lord of the universe he will work through every culture and religion. We must give up the crusading spirit of the colonial era and stop singing weird hymns like “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war”. This will lead to Hindu Christianity or Buddhist Christianity.
It must involve the disappearance of the Indian Christian community, but he reminded us: “a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls to the ground and dies”. Needless to say, the Indian Christians were furious. He left the College, the Church and the mission and took refuge with the Danish Foreign Service!!
He later returned to India as his country’s Ambassador and died in harness in 1988.
Founder & Coordinator
Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue