Jesus and Gandhi

Saturday October 1, 2005

This article appears on my website, courtesy of Professor Terrence J. Rynne of Marquette University, the colleague of a ‘woodpile’ cousin of mine. For those of you who do not recognize the term, ‘woodpile’ applies to someone with whom I am related through marriage. In this case, the daughter of this ‘woodpile’ cousin is married to my second cousin.

This presentation was delivered at “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: A Conference on the Vocation of Peacemaking in a World of Many Faiths” on September 22 – 24, 2005 at Marquette University.


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
Marquette University

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