Two Saturday nights ago now, I had one of those, “How did I get here?” moments. I was with a friend of mine, Amit Dahiyabadshah, the founder of a citywide poetry movement (see my October 24, 2009 post entitled, “The Tiger Poet of New Delhi”). Earlier that week, he had asked me to help him with a song he was writing for a special event. Amit is the type of guy who makes things happen. He reminds me of that quote from George Bernard Shaw that says, “You see things that are and say, Why? But I dream things that never were, and I say, Why not?” I told Amit that I wasn’t sure that the guitar suited his song. He said, “Why not?” So I tried some basic finger picking on two chords, and it worked. Then I said I wasn’t sure I could learn the lines in Hindi. Amit said, “Why not?” And so he repeated them over and over again to me until I got them. Almost before I knew it, Amit had roped me in to helping him perform it. The special event? A commemorative function of the Indian army. So, there I was with my guitar walking into this auditorium filled with Indian military dignitaries and joining Amit on the stage to perform a song (in Hindi) in honor of the martyrs of the armed forces. I was the only foreigner in attendance, and, I’m quite sure, the only Mennonite as well.
Yes, I’m a Mennonite. I realize that not everyone reading this will readily know what that means. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to find out. It’s sort of an ethnic-religious designation. The term itself doesn’t define me, but it does describe an aspect of my identity. I value my Mennonite heritage and the affiliations that it affords me. It locates me within a particular history and a particular church denomination. But most of all, I value the faith convictions that I share with other Mennonites about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In the end, if being a Mennonite doesn’t inform and inspire my relationship with Jesus, then it’s worth side-lining completely.
I have written about Mennonites in an earlier blog entry (see the February 1, 2008 post called, “Mennonites in South Asia”) and pointed out there that one of the key distinctives of these people, historically, has been their commitment to pacifism and to non-violent peacemaking initiatives. They have sought to take seriously Jesus’ commands to “love your enemies” and to “do good to those who persecute you.”
So, as I sang the song with Amit at this military function, I took note of the small irony and smiled. But what to do? Amit is my friend, and he asked for help, and I believe in courage and country and in the honor of laying down your life for a cause, if not for war exactly. I felt privileged to be there, and entirely comfortable, even as an avowed pacifist among those who believe in achieving peace by other means.
A few nights later, I found myself at the American Center in downtown Delhi. They were featuring a Book Discussion with an author from Mumbai named Dilip D’Souza and his new non-fiction release entitled, Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America (Harper Collins India 2009).
I hadn’t read the book, nor had I heard of the author, but as a fan of travel writing in general I really liked the concept behind the book. Besides, I happen to be a card-carrying member of the American Center Library and had received an invitation to the event. I also looked forward to seeing again one of the people that would be on the panel, another travel writer named Stephen Alter who has written extensively about his own American quest in India.
As an aspiring writer myself, with a special interest in travel writing, I was hoping for some inspiration. And I was not disappointed. Early on in the Book Discussion, it was Alter who asked D’Souza about a specific aspect of his adventure in the US that had to do with his careful attention to the relationship between religion and patriotism, a theme that is apparently common in the author’s other writings. It was a good question and D’Souza’s thoughtful response intrigued me. In fact, it was enough to sell me on the book. Call me a sucker, but I had not planned to buy the book. I had been a pillar of strength on my way into the hall and walked right past the book table. I had heard my wife’s voice in my head saying, “Why don’t you finish one of those books on your nightstand before you buy another one?”
But D’Souza impressed me. He seemed honest and sincere and insightful, and I really liked his vision for travel writing. For him, it appeared to be a peace-making venture, a bridge-building mission. His goal, with this book specifically, was to engage the American people, to learn from them and understand them, to appreciate similarities and respect differences, and in the process to get to know himself. His keen interest in matters of religion and faith, even as a devoted agnostic, made his quest even more intriguing for me. In some ways, D’Souza did, in the US, what I have tried to do in India, albeit in a smaller way. How could I pass up on reading someone like that who was writing on stuff like that? So I bought the book on the way out.
The following day, when I opened the pages of Roadrunner, I heard D’Souza saying again what he had said from the stage during the Discussion, that ultimately he didn’t find Americans to be that different from Indians. It seems a simple truth, but it is perhaps the strongest basis for achieving peace. It was not hard to enjoy his writing, his perspective and his generous spirit. I would recommend the book without hesitation.
For me, one of the finest features of Roadrunner was D’Souza’s assessment of religion in America. First, it was refreshing not to be given sweeping generalizations, but to uncover his insights as I followed his interaction with individuals. As he engaged Christians, he found, not surprisingly, a wide variety of specimens. Whether it was Carl and the other Bikers for Christ, or his old pen pal that had become a Christian after years of meaningful interaction, or Adam at the coffee shop, or the monks at the monastery, D’Souza seemed to be candidly courteous and open in every encounter. I appreciated his open and affirmative approach, especially because he is also very clear about his distaste for religion, whether in America or in India or anywhere else. He writes plainly, “I find religion hard to accept and respect.” And indeed, most of his interaction with American Christians only confirmed his negative view of religion. I cringed as I read the different accounts. Elsewhere, he takes it further and states, with ample citations, that religion has been one of “the most destructive forces in human history.” I cannot disagree with that point, when it comes to religion in general. The evidence is there for everyone to examine. I am perhaps as disturbed as D’Souza about the prejudice, oppression and violence for which religious fanatics have been responsible throughout the ages. Furthermore, I had no difficultly at all accepting the author’s test of true religion – that is, how its adherents treat others. Personally, I believe that this is the biggest difference between human religion and divine grace. No matter how hard religion tries to make things right in the world, it fails miserably every time. Only when humanity experiences divine grace in personal and meaningful ways will there be hope. I believe that is what God was doing, and is doing, through Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, I think Christians often end up embracing their own form of human religion and subsequently adopt hurtful and ineffective ways of dealing with the people around them. For that reason, I have a similar distaste in my mouth for religion, even if it is Christian.
Where D’Souza and I would perhaps differ would be on the perspectives that the Bible gives. It is my firm conviction that the Bible itself affirms this aversion for religion. As I read the Bible, I hear it over and over again in different ways – that God is contending with man to embrace his love and not to settle for relationship-less religion. And the test of whether or not man has truly tasted of this divine love is the love he has for others. I hear the prophets and apostles singing the anthem of this reciprocity – that love for God is seen most clearly in love for fellow man. Likewise, if you don’t love others, then you obviously don’t love God. This lack of divine love in human relationships is evidence of the lack of love in your relationship with God. Thus, distorted images of God lead inevitably to destructive human relationships. Yet those who experience the depths of divine grace will invariably be inspired and enabled to serve and care for the people around them.
Interestingly, when D’Souza was pressed in the Book Discussion to identify the one thing that most impressed him about the people of America, he said that it was their sense of community responsibility – they cared about each other. I am in no way saying that this makes America more Christian than any other country on earth, but I am saying that true biblical spirituality is alive and well in the world. I see it here in India too, though at times I also see its sad absence. It is here, there and everywhere, but where it is not, we need to work for its revival.
I am pleased that D’Souza found some truth in America, and I must say that one of the most touching stories in his book (and this will undoubtedly show my bias) was when he was visiting a family with Mennonite roots. He had known the family previously during their visit to India, but now had the chance to visit them in their home in America. It was a pleasant surprise to read that D’Souza saw in this Christian family “a far more meaningful rendition of faith.” But the most special moment came before they shared a meal together and they said a straightforward prayer that featured their gratitude to God and their love for their guest, Dilip. He writes of the experience, “I was unaccountably moved.” He goes on to describe their simple lifestyle and the kind of work that they were involved in, i.e., medical service and community peace making, and he concludes that this was “deeply rooted in [their] spiritual beliefs.” In a confession that almost shocks, D’Souza concludes about the faithful example of his Mennonite friends: “It may be the only way religion of any kind makes sense to me.”
As I’ve said, I respect D’Souza’s suspicions of religion (in fact, I share them), but it appears that he is not entirely closed to faith and spirituality. I am glad that D’Souza experienced something true in the faith of his Mennonite friends. I believe that the genuine love he experienced with them was an actual deposit of divine grace, a glimpse of God’s love for Dilip. I had to chuckle to myself when D’Souza recounted the story about the Mennonite pastor who invited him to join them, meaning become a Mennonite. I don’t necessarily wish that on D’Souza (though I certainly would welcome him with open arms). Of course, ultimately it does not matter to me that his friends were Mennonites – I believe that he could have had a similar experience with Baptists, or Catholics, or people from another denomination. However, I am encouraged that these Mennonites were living out their faith in Jesus in a way that, in my opinion, is true to the Bible and to their Mennonite heritage. For D’Souza, I do wish that he would give Jesus and the God of the Bible another chance to prove himself. In some ways, I think he is closer to a biblical spirituality than he may think, and maybe closer than many who call themselves Christians. For now, I am grateful to D’Souza for what he has accomplished in his Roadrunner. The book (and the recent discussion) has certainly challenged me to re-think some of my Christian convictions, and also some of my Mennonite distinctives.