The Common Good
March-April 2000

In the Name of the Divine

by Ron Kraybill | March-April 2000

I now understand 'Christian nation' in a whole new way.

"I am very worried about the upcoming election," said a colleague this morning in daily worship. "Let us pray that a party wins that will establish a truly secular government, so that the rights of minorities are protected." I am not accustomed to hearing Christians praying for a "secular" government, but then, I have not been living in India for very long.

Living as a religious minority in a country whose majority religion—here it is Hinduism—includes people publicly agitating to run the country by their own religious principles is an eye-opener for a Christian from the United States. Classical Hinduism is a religion under severe stress. Like all religions it faces the eroding tides of modernism, but additionally it is burdened by linkage to India’s caste system, which holds millions of lower-caste people in desperate poverty. Outlawed in the 1950s, the caste system lives on in the hearts of many. For decades, low-caste Hindus have been converting to Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism for a way out, causing mounting concern for Hindu leaders. A radical fringe has turned aggressive, calling for India to be declared a Hindu nation.

Muslims and Christians are worried, for in recent years this radical "Hindutva" movement has expanded in numbers and in aggressiveness towards religious minorities. In the last 18 months, local goons in the "Hindu belt" have burned churches and mosques, raped Catholic nuns, and murdered several individuals, both Christians and Muslims. In decades past, Muslims bore the brunt of such attacks, but recently Christians have been the main target. Indian human rights groups reported more than 90 attacks against Christians in 1998.

THE VIOLENCE of the last year has coincided with the ascendancy of the BJP, the first nationalist Hindu party to gain control of the Indian parliament. While national leaders of the BJP condemn violence against other religions and speak in terms that are relatively tolerant, in moments of tension mobs carry to a violent conclusion the more benign calls of those leaders to Hinduize the nation. Thus India is witnessing a well-proven principle: When one religious group seeks to impose its vision for society on all, some members of that group inevitably will understand people of other religions as obstacles to be removed in service of the divine.

I think often of conversations at home with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. I was surprised at times by the depth of my friend’s hurt and intimidation at comments or actions by Christians who thoughtlessly assumed everyone around them was also Christian. His anxiety seemed unrelenting, for in every wave he saw reminders of destructive floods from the past and reason to worry about the present and future. Often, his anxieties seemed well-grounded. Other times, where he saw malice I saw nothing more than thoughtlessness.

Now I am in his shoes, part of a minority vulnerable to the caprice of an overwhelming majority. I see in a new way the threat to minorities implied in talk of building a society according to the mold of the dominant religion. No matter what the intention, when people call for making India a "Hindu society," it has an ominous ring to my Christian ears. Why should it sound any less ominous to a Jew or a Muslim in the United States when Christians speak of America as a "Christian nation"? I also see in a new way the impact that leaders from the religious majority can have on their followers, and the responsibility this entails. Every word such leaders utter—or fail to utter—affects large numbers of people, including a fringe element of irresponsible people. A careless phrase in the name of the divine can endanger many.

But the responsibility does not end with careful speech. Religious leaders from the local to the national level must take immediate, decisive, and visible action against gestures of intolerance by their own members against people of other religions. If the moderate Hindu majority hold their silence when extremists call to "Hinduize" this nation, minorities have every reason to tremble. In a moment of religious crisis, when emotions dominate, would there be safe haven anywhere?

Religious minorities should never have to lose a night’s sleep worrying about their safety or their freedom to honor the divine in the ways their faith calls them to do. No one has a greater capacity to assure that freedom from fear than ordinary people of the majority religion, for it is their response to intolerance among others from their own religion that largely determines whether demagoguery takes root and grows or withers and dies. —Ron Kraybill

RON KRAYBILL is associate professor of conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Peacebuilding. From August 1999 to July 2000, he is working in Hyderabad, India, to establish a program for responding to inter-religious and inter-communal conflict.

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