Sunday, August 16, 2009:
Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots? (Jer.13:23, NRSV)
The rest of that verse reads, “Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.”
When travelling internationally, I am ashamed to be an Indian. Here are my reasons. While waiting for our flight to be announced, an earlier flight is announcing its “last boarding call” asking Ms Rukmani Das, Mrs Rani Chatterjee, Mr Raj Chatterjee and Mr Deepak Rajsekar to get to the gate immediately as the flight is ready to leave. The “last boarding call” is made several times. After about ten minutes of this four persons are seen rushing to the gate, loaded with shopping bags of stuff they’ve bought at the duty free shops. And this is typical. If it is a flight to Delhi or any Indian airport there will definitely be such last calls, and 9 times out of 10, the missing people are Indians.
After our flight has been boarded, and we’ve settled in our seats, there are announcements about switching off mobile phones, laptops and similar electronic devices that would interfere with the aircraft’s systems. Close by is a smart young Indian guy with a fancy mobile phone who ignores the announcement and continues to talk to his contact. The flight attendant approaches him and asks him to please switch off the phone. He nods and indicates that he is doing it, but when the attendant moves on, continues to talk. The attendant returns to repeat her request. This time he raises his palm and indicates that he will do it in a minute. The airhostess hasn’t moved on, and repeats her request. This time there is an edge to her voice. Finally, 7 minutes after the announcement was made the man switches off his phone. This too is typical. In the movie Love Aaj Kal, Deepika Padukone is shown talking on her mobile phone and the flight attendant having to repeatedly request her to switch off her phone. The producer of the movie probably wasn’t showing that to correct any behaviour but to suggest the intensity of her relationship with Saif Al i Khan whom she is talking to. Still the producer did capture an Indian trait. On any flight headed toward India, there are always some Indians who will behave in this manner.
The head attendant makes the announcement that our flight is approaching Delhi. She also adds that everyone is to remain seated until the seat belt sign is switched off. But the moment the announcement is over, two or three men have sprung up from their seats to open the overhead storage bins and retrieve their hand baggage. The attendant makes a strident announcement that everyone is to not open the storage bins and to immediately return to their seats. In one case, a flight attendant had to go up to the person and insist on immediate compliance.
Some may sheepishly grin and make light of it: “We are like that only.” But I cannot take this lightly. I say that at the least, this kind of behaviour is inconsiderate, and at the worst it is dangerous—for others.
In my view, the reason Indians behave this way is that we are a nation in “civil disobedience mode”. India won its independence through Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement against the British. It was passive resistance. He called it satyagraha. The term literally means “truth force.”
The principles of satyagraha are:
Sat—openness, honesty, fairness: Truth. Ahimsa —refusal to inflict injury on others. Tapasya —willingness for self-sacrifice.
Gandhi’s ideas on civil disobedience were not original, though his attempts gained him more prominence than the original propagator. In 1849 Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay to explain his reasons for refusing to pay a poll tax that the American government had imposed on citizens in to order to finance a war against Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.
Martin Luther King picked up Gandhi’s example when he led the revolt against laws that kept blacks oppressed and suppressed in the US of A. Later on blacks in South Africa along with whites who had a sense of justice resorted to civil disobedience methods to overthrow apartheid. American students stopped the Vietnam War with their non-cooperative sit-ins.
What we need to understand is that civil disobedience involves a conscientious objection to a law. Civil disobedience announces its intention to disobey, and accepts that, as long as the law remains unchanged, such disobedience merits punishment.
As “descendants” of freedom fighters our people are in civil disobedience mode. But it’s just a mode. They are just being modish, that is, fashionable.
Our notions of freedom are that we are free from rules. Most Indians have the attitude that rules are not for them, but they believe that it is for everyone else.
The Bible Says
The Christian’s Bible has another take on the law. The Bible says that the law in summary is aiming at everyone loving their fellow humans. What the law does is to prevent any one person exceeding the limits of liberty and intruding in someone else’s space. It prevents us from treading on another’s toes.
This notion comes from the Lord Jesus who described Himself as having come, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt.5:17). Jesus said that all God’s law could be “hung” on just two: love God and love neighbour (Matt.22:40).
Paul followed with an elaboration of this idea, when he wrote that the entire law is summed up in one commandment—to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Rom.13:1-7).
The Bible is clear:
Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (Pro.14:34).
How shameful it is when, year after year, we read that according to Transparency International, the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption, India is way at the bottom of the list. We are ranked among the most corrupt of the world. Come let’s break the mould. Let’s not be “like that only.” Let us show that there is another kind of Indian—the kind that is a pleasure to live with and work with, because we are followers of Jesus, who said,
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matt.22:21).
We have a call to be the most law-abiding people in the country. Peter wrote:
For the Lord’s sake, respect all human authority…It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king (1 Pet.2:13-17. NLT).
To get the thrust of what Peter said understand that we are to
- Do good.
- Live free.
- Live as God’s servants
Peter spelt out that living as God’s servants involved
- Showing proper respect for authority
- Loving God’s faithful ones
- Fearing God
- Honouring those in authority
Between AD 125-200, an unknown Christian wrote to a government official named Diognetus, wrote as follows to explain the distinctiveness of Christians:
Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh." They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity. To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world. The soul, which is invisible, is kept under guard in the visible body; in the same way, Christians are recognised when they are in the world...The flesh hates the soul and treats it as an enemy, even though it has suffered no wrong, because it is prevented from enjoying its pleasures; so too the world hates Christians, even though it suffers no wrong at their hands, because they range themselves against its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and its members; in the same way, Christians love those who hate them. The soul is shut up in the body, and yet itself holds the body together; while Christians are restrained in the world as in a prison, and yet themselves hold the world together. The soul, which is immortal, is housed in a mortal dwelling; while Christians are settled among corruptible things, to wait for the incorruptibility that will be theirs in heaven. The soul, when faring badly as to food and drink, grows better; so too Christians, when punished, day by day increase more and more. It is to no less a post than this that God has ordered them, and they must not try to evade it.
While we may not agree entirely with the theology regarding the relationship between the soul and the body, we can understand from the context that the author wrote to show that Christians were the breath of fresh air that comes to revive a nation. Our Lord said they serve as salt that preserves and flavours our food (Matt.5:12), and light that shows the way to those on the inside, but are not hidden from those on the outside, for they are the city set on a hill—the hill of Calvary (5:13-16). No doubt, Calvary is a very small hill, but from the point of view of human history, there is no higher peak than Calvary. That is why everyone expects more from Christians, and when Christians disappoint them, it is the light in our lives that is dimmed.