“In my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount … I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.” Mahatma Gandhi
by Fr. Benny Aguiar
What did Jesus mean to Gandhi? Did he have any influence on Gandhi’s life and teaching? What according to Gandhi was the essence of Christ’s message? Was Gandhi a secret Christian? What is the challenge that Gandhi presents to Christians and Christianity today?
Answers to these questions may be found in a recent book, ‘Gandhi and Christianity’ edited by Robert Ellsberg and published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This book is an anthology of the speeches and writings of Gandhi on the subject as well as responses to Gandhi’s challenge by various Christian scholars. It should be a valuable reference book on the ongoing dialogue between Christians and representatives of other religions.
Early in his life, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had been reading the Bible to keep a promise he had made to a friend. He found the Old Testament extremely difficult going. He disliked the Book of Numbers. But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to his heart. The verses about not resisting evil but offering the other cheek and giving the cloak to one who asked for one’s coat delighted him beyond measure. They reminded him about something he had learned in his childhood about returning with gladness good for evil done.
“I did once seriously think of embracing the Christian faith,” Gandhi told Millie Polak, the wife of one of his earliest disciples. “The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retailate when abused or struck, but to turn the other cheek, I thought it was a beautiful example of the perfect man…”
However, on another occasion, he said he could accept Jesus “as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept.”
“The message of Jesus as I understand it,” said Gandhi, “is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole… If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’ But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount… I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.”
Gandhi could speak beautifully about the message and personality of Jesus. Talking about the Gospel passage of the rich young man, he said, “St. Mark has vividly described the scene. Jesus is in his solemn mood. He is earnest. He talks about eternity. He knows the world about him. He is himself the greatest economist of his time. He succeeded in sermonising time and space – He transcends them. It is to him at the best that one comes running, kneels down and asks, “Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said unto him, “One thing thou lackest. Go thy way, sell what thou hast and give it to the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven – come, take up the cross and follow me.” Here you have an eternal rule of life stated in the noblest words the English language is capable of producing.” Gandhi went on to say that he could quote even stronger passages from the Hindu scriptures and the lesson he wanted to draw was that if we could clean our houses, palaces and temples of the attributes of wealth and show in them the attributes of morality we could fight all hostile forces without military strength. Let us seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, he said, and the irrevocable promise is that everything will be added upon us. “These are real economics. May you and I treasure them and enforce them in our daily life.”
Poverty, suffering, the Crosss, non-violence, morality – all these were part of the Kingdom of God. But for Gandhi what struck him most in the Sermon on the Mount was Christ’s teaching on non-retaliation, or non-resistance to evil. “Of all the things I have read what remained with me forever was that Jesus came almost to give a new law – not an eye for an eye but to receive two blows when only one was given, and to go two miles when they were asked to go one. I came to see that the Sermon on the Mount was the whole of Christianity for him who wanted to live a Christian life. It is that sermon that has endeared Jesus to me.”
“Jesus occupies in my heart,” said Gandhi, “the place of one of the greatest teachers who have had a considerable influence on my life. I shall say to the Hindus that your life will be incomplete unless you reverentially study the teachings of Jesus… Make this world the kingdom of God and his righteousness and everything will be added unto you. I tell you that if you will understand, appreciate, and act up to the spirit of this passage, you won’t need to know what place Jesus or any other teacher occupies in your heart.”
For Gandhi, Jesus was the prince of Satyagrahists. “The example of Jesus suffering is a factor in the composition of my un-dying faith in non-violence. What then does Jesus mean to me? To me, He was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.” For Gandhi, to say that Jesus was the only begotten son of God was to say that “in Jesus’ own life was the key of his nearness to God, that he expressed as no other could, the spirit and will of God… I do believe that something of the spirit that Jesus exemplified in the highest measure, in its most profound human sense exist… If I did not believe it, I should be a sceptic, and to be a sceptic is to live a life that is empty and lacking moral content. Or, what is the same thing, to condemn the human race to a negative end.”
Gandhi believed that in every man there was an impulse for good and a compassion that is the spark of divinity that will one day burst into the full flower that is the hope of all mankind. An example of this flowering, he said, may be found in the figure and in the life of Jesus. “I refuse to believe that there not exists or has ever existed a person that has not made use of his example to lessen his sins, even though he may have done so without realising it. The lives of all have, in some greater or lesser degree, been changed by His presence, His actions and the words spoken by His divine voice… I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world; to all races and people, it matters litle under what flag, name or doctrine they may work, profess a faith or worship a God inherited from their ancestors.”
For Gandhi Jesus was the true satyagrahist who passed the test of non-violence even if he seemed to be otherwise a failure. “The virtues of mercy, non-violence, love and truth in any man can be truly tested when they are pitted against ruthlessness, violence, hate and untruth… This is the true test of Ahimsa … He who when being killed bears no anger against his murderer and even asks God ot forgive him is truly non-violent. History relates this of Jesus Christ. With his dying breath on the Cross, he is reported to have said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what to do.”
According to the theory of Satyagraha, said Gandhi, an adequate appeal to the heart never fails. “Seeming failure is not of the law of Satyagraha but of incompetence of the Satyagrahist by whatever cause induced. The name of Jesus at once comes to the lips. It is an instance of brillant failure. And he has been acclaimed in the west as the prince of passive resisters. I showed years ago in South Africa that the adjective ‘passive’ was a misnomer, at least as applied to Jesus. He was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.”
Editorial by Fr. Benny Aguiar, in the Examiner, the official organ of the Bombay (Mumbai) diocese of the New Church, 26th September 1992
Gandhi and Jesus – The Saving Power of Non-violence, download PDF here…..
Here is a quote from E. Stanley Jones’ reflections on a conversation he had with Gandhi (as recorded in The Christ of the Indian Road). Jones says of his life-long friendship with Gandhiji, “Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu – a deeply Christianized Hindu, more Christianized than most Christians, and I was a Christian, at least a Christian in the making.” Of his first encounter with the great soul, Jones, who befriended Gandhi as a missionary in India, asked the great leader what would be required for Christianity to be “naturalized” in India. Gandhi had a four part response, which I’ll directly relay as Jones did. His words are timeless, and as true for Christianity in America today as they were for India then:
1. I would suggest, first, that all of you Christians, missionaries, and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ.
2. Second, I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down.
3. Third, I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity.
4. 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.
Gandhi constantly said to the Indian Christians and missionaries: “Don’t talk about it. The rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth and people are drawn to it. Don’t talk about it. Live it. And people will come to see the source of your power.”
Jones reflecting on interpreting Christ in India:
Jesus is the gospel. We therefore bring him to the East and West and say: Take him direct. You don’t have to take our interpretation of Christ, except as you find it helpful in forming your own. Go straight to the gospels to discover Jesus anew, and if you show us a better interpretation we shall sit at your feet. The system which we have built up around Christ in the West may be useful and helpful as embodying a collective experience, but it is no integral part of the gospel. Create out of your own experience the corporate expression of that experience. Christ is universal but he uses local forms to express that universality. We expect you in India out of your rich cultural and religious past to bring to the interpretation of the universal Christ something which will greatly enrich the total expression. Especially now that Gandhi has lived and died we think you can interpret Christ in terms that are lacking in the West.
A movement that was fighting the West was showing to the West its own Saviour in a new way. A Hindu summed it up for me in these words. ” We Hindus and you Christians should change [exchange] sacred books. The Bhagavad Gita gives philosophic reasons for war while the New Testament teaches peace, and yet we are more peace minded and you are more war minded. If we change [exchange] sacred books it would suit us both better.”
Jesus and Gandhi
Reflecting on what Gandhi, a confirmed Hindu, took from the life and teachings of Jesus is very illuminating for a Christian.
Today we will highlight just two of the key lessons Gandhi took from Christianity: the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the symbol of the Cross.
He did not always value Christianity. During his childhood, advocates of India’s various religions, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, were all welcome in his father’s house. As a child, Gandhi was put off only by Christianity. Christian missionaries stood on the corner of his grade school loudly deriding the gods and beliefs of Hinduism. Converts to Christianity were “denationalized,” and “Britishized.” Christianity was “beef and brandy.” It was the religion of the “sahib.”
As a young adult, he began to study various religions including his own. He was studying for the bar exams in London when he was given the New Testament to read. He later wrote: “the Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart… the verses, ‘But I say to you, resist not evil: but whosoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away your coat, let him have your cloak as well,’ delighted me beyond measure” The Sermon on the Mount inspired him for the rest of his life.
How did he understand the Sermon on the Mount? First, he heard it with Hindu ears. He learned a Gujurati poem at a young age, for example, that echoed the “turn the other cheek” message. It concluded “But the truly noble know all men as one, and return with gladness good for evil done.” Overcome evil with good.
Secondly, he heard it as a son of the soil of India. Until you visit India you have no idea how religion soaks the daily life of people. The sense of the reverence for life jumps out at you – as a town elephant wanders through a business district and is given breakfast offerings by each shop owner. As, first thing in the morning at the front doors of their simple dwellings, people put out breadcrumbs in an elaborate mandala design as an offering, which the ants will then eat. All life is sacred and all life is one. The basic spirit of ahimsa, “do no harm to life” permeates the culture. Gandhi brought that sensibility to his reading of the New Testament.
Gandhi understood the return good for evil, love for hate, nonviolence for violence message of the Sermon on the Mount much as contemporary exegesis does today. The words for him, and for contemporary scholars, are not just the expression of a lofty moral ideal. They are, as Roger Tannehill writes in the Harvard Biblical Review, a particular kind of language, focal instances. Jesus is putting his listeners in situations of oppression that are very recognizable to them, a master striking his slave with the back of the left hand; an occupying roman Soldier pressing a Jew into service to carry his pack; a debtor taking a person to court to take away even the last garment in which a poor person slept out tin the cold – and is asking them to imagine how they might creatively and nonviolently oppose the oppression and surprise the oppressors, inviting them to changes. Turning the other cheek signifies to the master that the one struck is not cowed. He looks the oppressor in the eye and says do it again. It will not overawe me. Think again about what you are doing. Voluntarily going an extra mile will surprise and throw that soldier, and force him to see you as a human being. Give the cloak to the one taking you for every last dime. Walk out of the law court naked. It will dramatize just how rotten the whole moneylender, stealing-the-land-from-the-peasants system really is.
For Gandhi the message of “turn the other cheek” was the reverse of “passivism” (double s); it was heroic, brave, and creative action. It was the only way to break through the circle of violence that kept people oppressed and convert the oppressors. He later had to coin the word satyagraha to separate out what he heard in the Sermon on the Mount and saw as he world’s best and last hope, from ideas of “passive resistance,” or “pacifism” or mere “civil disobedience.” Satyagraha subsumes the message of Jesus (and Hinduism as he understood it) and applies it to politics and relations between masses of people. It is not just a personal ethic; it is the way of people nonviolently fighting against oppression and evil in this world.
It disturbed Gandhi greatly when he heard Christians put aside the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount as impractical or dreamy idealism or to be practiced only by the very few as a personal ethic – the typical ways Catholics and Protestants make the Sermon on the Mount irrelevant to daily life and realpolitik. He wrote:
“For many of them contend that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to mundane things, and that it was only meant for the twelve disciples. Well I do not believe this. I think the Sermon on the Mount has no meaning if it is not of vital use in everyday life to everyone.”
For him a commitment to nonviolence was at the center of what Jesus taught and lived and died for. He could not understand how one could be a disciple of Jesus if one was not fundamentally committed to nonviolence. He wrote:
“Christianity is no Christianity in which a vast number of Christians believe in governments based on brute force and are denying Christ every day of their lives…. Just now Christianity comes to a yearning humankind in a tainted form.”
He spent the whole of his life demonstrating that the Sermon on the Mount could be eminently practical politics – as he nonviolently opposed a ruthless and globe-spanning Empire, as he nonviolently opposed the thousands of years old injustice of untouchability, as he labored nonviolently to raise up the lives of his cherished “dumb millions,” in the villages of India. He continues to hope that Christianity would some day be authentically lived and that the West would come to the message of he Sermon on the Mount afresh. He was intent, through “experiments with truth,” to demonstrate its workability in a whole range of situations of violence.
The second lesson, of many, that Gandhi took from Christianity was embodied in the symbol of the Cross-.
It a famous scene, captured on film, Gandhi had stopped at the Vatican on his way back from the Roundtable Conference in London, when he happened to see a rough crucifix. His reaction was immediate and emotional. He wrote:
“Chance threw Rome in my way. And I was able to see something of that great and ancient city … and what would not I have given to bow my head before the living image at the Vatican of Christ crucified. It was not without a wrench that I could tear myself away from that scene of living tragedy. I saw there at once that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of the cross and in no other way. Joy comes not out of infliction of pain on others, but out of pain voluntarily borne by oneself.”
Gandhi’s understanding of the cross was that when one lived the life that Jesus lived, he would probably end up in conflict with the powers that be. He saw that Jesus befriended eh poor and stood with those whom society considered outsiders. Furthermore, he tried to get those responsible for oppression, both religious and civil leadership, to change. They rejected his efforts and found him to be a threat =. Why did Jesus die? Because of the way he lived. The cross was the result of his living out this way of life to the end.
The theology of atonement that has held sway for a thousand years, the “penal substitution theory” which has the Father offering up his Son in a bloody sacrifice for forgiveness of humanity’s sins, was revolting to Gandhi. Gandhi understood the cross, not metaphysically but politically and historically, as the final step and consequence of a way of life, a life spent befriending those in need and resisting oppression and violence.
As Stanly Jones, an American missionary wrote:
“Never in human history has so much light been shed on the cross as has been shed through this one mans and that man not even a Christian.”
I trust than tin these remarks it is clear just how much Gandhi treasured the life and death and teaching of Jesus. What I hope is even more clear is just how much we, as Christians, owe to Gandhi.
Terrence J. Rynne