My friend is sincere, but I don’t think I can agree with him. I believe in love, but I am increasingly skeptical of religion, whether it be Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Even though many people around the world have a strong faith in religion, I don’t necessarily see this translating into a stronger motivation to love.
Religion, in my opinion, is limited, at best. It may provide us with some moral standards for living, but does it really enable us to live up to those standards? It may affirm belief in God, and even our need for God, but does it really bring us the experience of forgiveness and fellowship with God that we so desperately need? It seems too often that religion, in and of itself, promises us what it cannot deliver, and we are therefore left with a false sense of security. And we need not expound on the worst of religion, and how it has been used today and throughout history to manipulate, to exploit and to inflict terror. Time and again, religion in its many and varied forms has been found wanting and proven guilty.
When it comes to religion, I take my cue from Jesus. We don’t have to look too far into his life to see how disappointed he was with the religious leaders of his time. His hope for them came only when they were willing to move beyond religion. Some did just that and embraced the freedom that Jesus was offering. Others, keenly religious, stubbornly resisted. It was these that were tormented by Jesus and, in the end, arranged for his murder.
Similarly, the hope that I see in people today, and even in myself, comes either when they are fed up with religion or when their religion is pushing them to ask questions that it does not necessarily have answers for. In both cases, I see Jesus with arms open wide, ready to receive us.
Like many of my friends here in India, my friend in the park knows about Jesus. As a child, he attended a Catholic school and was introduced to the Bible and to the ways of Christian religious devotion. But it seems to me that he was not introduced to the Person of Jesus. And so when he talks about the teachings of Jesus so confidently, I am grieved with how little he actually knows. I get much more excited when my friends here tell me how little they know about and how eager they are eager to learn more. My hope is that they will encounter not another religion, but the Person of Jesus Christ.
Some may think that I am being unfair on religion. Perhaps there are different kinds of religion, but what I am speaking about here is the dry, impersonal belief that is often called religion. I think we do well to put the emphasis on who we believe in rather than simply what we believe. We are all looking for someone to follow, someone to show us the way. That’s why I prefer to call myself a Jesus-follower rather than a Christian. Most of the time, the latter description seems to only associate me with a religion – and that, by birth, not so much by choice. But saying that I am a Jesus-follower associates me with a Person and a particular lifestyle that that Person is calling me to. It rightly emphasizes that I have a living relationship with Jesus.
So I ask, Who are you following? And when it comes to something as important as loving one another, what kind of love are you talking about? If you answer, generically, the love of God, then tell me about your god or your guru, and give me an example of how they love. Tell me about the love of Krishna or Shiva. Tell me about the love of the Prophet Mohammed. Then I will tell you the story of Jesus and how he loved his enemies and gave his life for them, and how he calls us to do the same.
Fortunately, there are some prominent examples of Jesus-followers in India’s recent past who loved like Jesus loved – Mother Teresa and Graham Staines. Even though they both died in the past decade, they endure as examples of the love of Jesus. Each of them loved India and gave themselves self-sacrificially to India’s poor. Mother Teresa lived and worked among the poorest of the poor in the city of Calcutta, and Graham Staines gave his life for the lepers of Orissa. In the case of Staines, he died as a martyr at the hands of Hindu extremists in 1999. When his wife Gladys openly forgave her husband’s murderers, India was gifted with another clear window into the heart of Jesus.
The love that Mother Teresa and the Staines family exemplified is somehow more basic than religion. This is the kind of love that glows in the hearts of all who follow Jesus. I want nothing more than to be a living testimony of that love. It is my conviction that religion of itself cannot deliver this kind of love. Therefore, I am not interested in following some religion, even Christian religion. I want only to follow Jesus and to experience His love. It is from that basis, then, that I will love others and do good in this world.
Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28).
"I saw this kind of love in action one day during Afghanistan’s civil war, when I was working in a hospital in Kabul. Intense fighting had broken out on the city streets. As was our custom on such day, some of us at the hospital who were foreigners gave the national workers rides home, as most public transport had stopped. On this occasion, Bill, a coworker of mine from New York, and I were dropping off an Afghan coworker when we found ourselves amidst a violent skirmish. As we began to retreat, we saw our Afghan friend being accosted by a local soldier. Immediately Bill and I recognized that the soldier was a member of the ethnic group within the country that had been responsible for recent kidnappings and killings, an effort to cleanse the nation of a rival group. Our friend was from that rival group, and this soldier appeared intent on dealing cruelly with him. We also saw the fear in our friend’s eyes. Realizing that this situation would most likely end in the execution of our friend and coworker, Bill and I chose to intervene. We got out of our car and attempted to retrieve our friend, but the soldier held on to him firmly. He then turned his RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) directly at us and commanded us to leave at once. With the RPG pointed right at our heads, Bill looked the soldier in the eye and noticed that it was bloodshot. Realizing that he had some eye drops from the hospital in his pocket, Bill asked the soldier, "Does your eye itch?"
With a look of bewilderment the soldier answered, "Yes." Bill pulled the medication out of his pocket and offered it to the soldier. Setting his gun aside, the soldier reached out his hand to receive the eye drops. Other soldiers, looking on with envy, gathered around to receive medication also. Right there on the street, Bill and I were hosting an eye clinic. Only moments before we had been face to face with an angry and armed soldier. We distributed eye medication to five soldiers, and all of them immediately began to feel better. Not only that, of course, but their moods had been completely transformed. They apologized profusely to us, released our friend, and then invited us for tea."
to experience the Exodus
and endure the Exile.
I have walked in the Garden,
and worshiped at the Holy Mountain.
I have heard the call of Abraham,
setting me apart,
tearing me apart,
leaving me alone
and without the comfort of my father.
I have assumed a kind of homelessness,
suffered a kind of restlessness,
acknowledged a kind of barrenness,
I have welcomed a kind of helplessness,
treasured a kind of emptiness,
and found in the stillness
a kind of holiness.
Despite the fact that their name and history unite them, the Mennonite church worldwide is certainly not an organized or unified whole. There are numerous branches among those who call themselves by this name, and there is also a great variety of practice from one congregation to another. That said, Mennonites generally agree on several key points – adult baptism, personal repentance and discipleship, the centrality of the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, the free gathering together of believers, refusal to bear arms and to take oaths, and the commitment to a simple lifestyle.
Although Mennonites originate in Europe, they spread to South Asia as early as the late 1800s. It was the missionary outlook among the Mennonite Brethren in the Ukraine that led the church there to send Abraham and Miriam Friesen as missionaries to South India, in what is now Andhra Pradesh. Although the Friesens worked initially under the auspices of the American Baptist Missionary Society, by 1898 their work was linked to the American Mennonite Brethren Mission. By 2006, the Mennonite Brethren in South India have become the largest Mennonite conference in Asia with over 100,000 members.
Mennonites have traditionally placed a strong emphasis on voluntary service and have earned an international distinction among Christian denominations in disaster relief. This emphasis among Mennonites in America led to an involvement in various relief projects in South Asia. In 1896-97, American Mennonites responded to a widespread famine in India and sent aid. A couple years later, in 1899, the Emergency Relief Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church also carried on a similar work in India. These projects resulted in the founding of two India Mennonite missions, the Mennonite Church in 1899 and the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1900.
According to current statistics provided by the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), there are nine organized bodies of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in India with a total of 1217 congregations and 146,095 members. In addition, there are 594 members in 24 congregations in Nepal.
Efforts to unite all Mennonites around the world have largely been unsuccessful, though the MWC has formed a global community of 95 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ church conferences from 51 countries on six continents. As well, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has enabled various branches of the Mennonite church worldwide to cooperate in a variety of relief and development activities around the world, including projects in South Asia. MCC is currently working in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
1) Bender, Harold S. and C. H. Smith, ed., The Mennonite Encyclopedia. vol. I—IV
(1955—59); Pennsylvania: Herald Press. 2) Driedger, Leo. 2000. Mennonites in the Global Village. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 3) Dyck, Cornelius J. ed. 1981. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Pennsylvania: Herald Press.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. http://www.gameo.org/
Mennonite Central Committee. http://www.mcc.org/
Mennonite World Conference. http://www.mwc-cmm.org/
Third Way Café. http://www.thirdway.com/