As we walk together in Delhi's Ashoka Park early in the morning, my friend tells me adamantly that all the religions teach the same thing. The essential message, he affirms, is that we must love one another. He explains to me that if we would all be more religious, the world would be a better place.
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.