Jesus has called each of his followers to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus made it clear that this love toward God and others has to be demonstrated in action, not just words. This fundamental commitment to love God and our neighbor helps us to develop a fully Christian character. We must demonstrate to a watching world the fuller life that Jesus promised us.
Without apology, I confess to being a Christian evangelical, emphasis on “Christian.” Despite the checkered history of the Church, Christianity still has broad acceptance in many societies. The word “evangelical,” however, has lost some of its original meaning and often creates hostility in people of other faiths. This phrase once had meaning in the development of western Christianity but now is too easily misconstrued essentially as an American cultural Christianity.
In America, “evangelical Christianity,” whether from left or right perspectives, is strongly infused with American values. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing. One theologian I know calls this evangelical Christianity — that for two hundred years has been sent out to the world — “the export of a half-baked Christianity.” I think he’s wrong, but I think he has a point.
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For one thing, to those in the non-Christian world, the bitter and sometimes violent divisions within Christianity are confusing. Some evangelicals are quick to define who is a true Christian and consign all others to hell. Some even consign the great Billy Graham to hell. This is embarrassing and represents a decline in western Christianity.
The great intellectual Dr B. R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution and a Dalit leader, once considered Christianity as an option for Dalit people who had faced discrimination and oppression for over 2,000 years. Ambedkar was looking for a faith that would unite the sub-castes of the Dalits and low castes. Eventually he passed on Christianity because he found a divided Western Christianity that also divided Dalits. One Dalit village alone might be divided between a Baptist, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic Church that each stole members from each other. Instead of a Christian brotherhood characterized by coming together, they were bitterly divided over doctrine and “truth.” Ambedkar concluded that Christianity was not for India — a nation so diverse could not embrace a faith that further divided believers amongst themselves. What an indictment from India’s greatest social reformer.
The truth is that Ambedkar wasn’t seeing the Christianity of Jesus but a corrupted form of it. That corrupted form is with us in glaring form today. Just look at the recent public spats between Southern Baptists in the United States over doctrinal and social issues. Christians in America do not seem to deal with controversy, disputes and disagreements in a Christlike way at all. It’s no wonder the world says, “See how they hate and fight against each other in the name of ‘Truth.’”
Yet, the early Christians were characterized by loving those who were not Christians, including their enemies, and the world said, “See how they love each other.”
One great problem in Western Christianity is the assumption that a particular group alone has the “full truth” of Scripture and, therefore, are righteous alone. Such arrogance is unable to acknowledge that the Christian tradition through the ages is always a creature of its own particular culture. This is precisely why Christianity became the indispensable, global faith.
Yet, for over two decades in India, Christians have had to contend with persecution and hostility justified on the basis of Christianity being imported by our colonizers a century ago. Our attackers see us as adherents to a foreign religion. This antagonism toward our faith led twenty years ago to Graham Staines and his sons being burned alive in their vehicle and thousands of other martyrs whose names will never be so widely known.
Oddly enough, this persecution seems to be the only thing which unified Christians. Does it take people killing us to cause us to love and care for one another?
American Christians could learn from many Indian Christians who decided long ago a united voice could only respond to this assault but unity had to be forged before the crisis.
Christian leaders across denomination lines determined the core minimum for us to get on the same platform and contend for the faith, together. Our Christian labels became less relevant. We recognized that a host of issues divided us today and historically, but we stood no chance of defending and contending for our faith if we continued as a divided community.
Specifically, we identified two fundamental ideas. The first was a humble acceptance of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the world. As Christians, most of us found we could come together around Jesus. The second was a commitment to the inspiration of Scripture. Our faith is built around the early creeds that came out of the truths of Scripture. We agreed we could come together around the Apostles Creed.
Together, we birthed the All India Christian Council, a non-ecclesiastical body that contends for the freedom of conscience and religion for all.
We heard Pope John II say that the freedom of conscience was the most fundamental of all human rights, so we invited as associates those from other religions who believed in freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. We were thus able to build a nationwide and international network of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians who were ready to contend for freedom of religion and conscience.
Our understanding of the Christian faith continues to evolve, but the driving force for every Christian has to continue to be a deep commitment to the Great Commandment, first.
If we are to be a light to a world where poverty, oppression, exploitation, evil, lack of health care, lack of education and a multiplicity of religions exist, we must follow the Great Commandment. How could we ever have missed this central command of both the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching?
In these very uncertain, divided, chaotic times characterized by hate and violence, what do we think will make a difference? What do we think will bring back our own Christian young people who are leaving the Church in droves? What do we do with the young who won’t darken the doors of our churches but still hold Jesus dear?
Based upon our Indian experience in a multi-religious society of diverse cultures and intense polarization, we propose that our friends in the West must rediscover, with great intellectual and social implications, what it means to be Great Commandment Christians in this century.
We suggest that loving God with all we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves has implications for every Christian life. Our witness of Jesus Christ must be the natural outgrowth of living out the Great Commandment beginning with how Christians love one another.
The great Apostle Paul wrote that without love for God and others, our lives become meaningless and hollow. Paul said that it is possible even to be martyred for the Gospel yet have no love in our hearts.
When Paul wrote that “the greatest of all is love,” he was not mouthing a romantic cultural idea. He was pointing out the supreme divine virtue that is strong enough to hold together our diverse, global movement. Love is our theological superpower in a world — and church — riven by divisiveness, hate, religious extremism, political polarization, racism, genocide, health crises, and poverty.
Archbishop Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.