Who Do People Say Jesus Is? – India
By Dhyanchand Carr, CGMB Overseas Partner – India
I shall present an answer to this question under three heads keeping in mind how Jesus is understood both within the Church and outside of the Church in India. The three heads are:
i. What do different sections of the people of other faiths say about Jesus?
ii. What do different groups of Christians say about Jesus? And
iii. What do we as Partners in Mission Today need to say about Jesus?
Jesus as Understood by Different Sections of the Hindu Populace of India with Special Reference to Tamil Speaking People
a) The Secular View: Large sections of people regard Jesus as one of the great men of world history. Posters and wall hangings in many homes depict Jesus either as crucified or as displaying the Sacred Heart with a Crown of Thorns around it alongside the bursts of Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and one or the other of the different local heroes. It is difficult to understand how Kennedy has found a place in the hearts of many Tamils. Perhaps he gained access into the hearts of people because he was assassinated. The fact that all pictures of a wristwatch or other kinds of timepieces always display the time 10 past 10 supposedly because of the time of the assassination of Kennedy it may have been easier for him to find a place in the hearts of the people than some of the other martyrs of history. This shows that although the real salvific significance of the death of Jesus is not easily perceived there is in the heart of our people deep admiration for anyone who lays down one’s life in the course of serving people.
b) At the Religious Level: Most Hindus, except for the fringe group of the fanatically anti-Christian Hinduttwa adherents, have little difficulty in accepting Jesus as one of the deities of the pantheon. Many devout homes and business houses have a picture, usually of the Sacred Heart of Jesus along with some of their own favorite gods and goddesses. When they offer incense to their gods they offer incense also to the picture of Jesus. At the popular level, much worship is motivated by a utilitarian attitude i.e. we should worship God in order to secure God’s favorable disposition to bless the devotees with health, wealth, and success. In so far as the One true God’s real being is formless it is best to worship as many manifestations of the One true God as possible. Given such a mindset it has not been difficult for most Hindu people to accommodate Jesus into the pantheon. However, it is significant once again that it is the Sacred Heart surrounded by a crown of thorns and with an inset picture of an empty cross in the middle which has captured the admiration of the people. Their own deities are often found with different kinds of weaponry in their many hands assuring protection to the devotees. But Jesus is the source of blessing through his suffering.
c) Hindu Intellectuals: The late Dr. Radha Krishnan, the one-time philosopher President of India, for example, had no difficulty in accepting that Jesus and God were one. This is because he believed in monism, i.e. the Non-Twoness of Reality. All humans have the spirit of Brahman in their innermost being but they suffer from the illusion that God is Other and Distant. Jesus was one of those enabled by God to transcend this false dualism and attain union with God in this life itself. Such an understanding then refuses to concede any uniqueness in kind but only in terms of one who distinctively actualized the potential which is within all humans. Philosophical Hinduism usually interprets all suffering as caused by one’s own karma (work) if not in this life it must be the working out of karma of a past life. Notwithstanding this deeply ingrained view of suffering, they do not say that Jesus suffered due to his own Karma. Rather, because of deep admiration for Jesus, they are driven to look for parallels within their mythology to show that their gods, too, have suffered vicariously. For example, the story of Shiva swallowing poison and containing it permanently in his throat to save the world from being poisoned is cited to show that Hinduism is not averse to the idea of vicarious suffering. So once again we see that the crucified Jesus has influenced the minds of Indians in a very profound way. One of the best perceptions of Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection, I have come across is from another Hindu Philosopher and Human Rights Activist called Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India known for many landmark judgments. At the age of 87, he still continues to be a voice that is respected all over India. He once wrote,
“All human values of compassion, altruism, fairness, integrity…have been effectively nailed to the Cross. The Establishment is modern-day Pilate. Powers of Religion are the modern-day Anna and Caiphas. The Third Day, however, is receding further and further away for there is no one bold enough to visit the tomb.”
We now pass on to see Jesus as perceived by different groups among Christians in India. We shall touch upon the Official Declarations made from time to time and their impact, the perception of Jesus as the Price Paid for Sin, and the increasing influence of the prosperity affirming Charismatic Fundamentalism.
Jesus as understood by Christians
a) Jesus in Official Declarations: The following are some of the themes chosen for discussion in the Conferences and Synods of the Church: “Jesus Christ Light of the World”; “The Servant Lord Jesus”; “Jesus Christ Unites and Liberates”; “Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace”; …
Such themes are thoroughly discussed through theological discourses and bible studies. Special Liturgies, hymns, and lyrics echoing the theme are composed for use during the Conferences. As a result of all this, a Mission Statement is drafted and approved. Unfortunately, however, the new insights and mission plan often remain only in the Conference documents. They rarely seep down to the people in the congregations. People either remain static in their understanding or continue to be influenced by fundamentalists and the independent electronic media.
b) Traditional and Popular Beliefs: All alike believe in the divinity of Christ and that our Lord’s death on the Cross is the means of salvation. We should be glad that scientific rationalism has not shaken the traditional belief in the incarnation or resurrection of Jesus. The wave of agnosticism and secularism that has affected the Church in the West has not had the same disastrous effects in our part of the world. Some of the adverse effects, however, make short work of this joy. Along with such beliefs go an exclusivist attitude, a deterministic worldview, and a legalistic way of understanding the meaning of the Cross of Christ. We Christians are on board God’s new Noah’s Ark, the Church, safely cruising towards heaven with Jesus as the Captain. The drowning world outside may have one or two who are destined to be saved and need to be pulled on board through evangelism. We need not care about the way the world is going for nothing could be done to change it. But such a judgment does not imply that the Christians in the Ark have chosen to remain unaffected by the world foreshadowing the heavenly realm of love and peace. Rather, a strange justification about the ways of the world imbibing patriarchal culture, elitist domination, and capitalist exploitation … are the ruling values of the Church’s corporate life.
c) Jesus of the Charismatic Preachers: While the facade of traditional beliefs is maintained, in fact, Jesus is turned into a magic portent. He is the bodyguard providing protection when his devotees drive around in luxury limousines, he is the perfect health insurance policy, he is the matchmaker who finds beautiful and wealthy brides for the sons, he orders success by leaking question papers so that his believers’ children can do well in exams, He makes sure that they have a very successful career… All this Jesus does for regular donations to the Charismatic preachers who are ready to render the service of efficacious prayer in return for the donation. People taken over by the Jesus of the Charismatics have little worry about the poor and the oppressed. Those who suffer do so because they have not chosen to believe in Jesus. Even when natural calamities like tidal waves and earthquakes occur the Charismatic preachers find it easy to tell stories of miraculous deliverance given to their following. So it is clear that those who perished suffered God’s wrath against the unbelievers. The populist Jesus of the Charismatics is a figure who only has a namesake resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels who came announcing the dawn of God’s Just Reign and preaching the Good News of God’s favor towards the oppressed. It is this Jesus who is becoming very popular among Christians in India. The sad fact that must be admitted with shame is that many Church leaders have become (paid) agents of one or the other of these preachers.
What do the Partners Need to Say about Jesus?
At this point please allow me to indulge in a brief bible reflection. The self-designation of Jesus as Son of Man found in the Caesarea Philippi Conversation from which our basic question for reflection has been chosen usually goes unnoticed. We seem to think that it is a simple reminder about the humanity of our Lord. Or we think it is a humble way of talking about oneself avoiding the ostentatious “I”. It is only because the disciples also seemed to have missed its meaning that they stumbled about the prospects of the Son of Man having to suffer.
Jesus, according to Matthew asked straightway “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In the place of the Son of Man, we have “I am” in both Mark and Luke. But both those Gospels, however, immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Son of God the Messiah of God, go on to report Jesus equating the Son of Man with the Messiah and saying that as the Son of Man he has to suffer. The same kind of association between the Cross and the Son of Man abounds also in St. John’s Gospel. The Truth that will set free people will be known only when the same people who will get Christ crucified recognize in the Lifted Up Son of Man the eternal I AM. It is that recognition that will draw people away from the grip of the lies even into religion cleverly planted by the Ruler of the World and lead to a judgment of the World and the throwing out of the Ruler of the World. (See Jn 8:27ff and 12:31-36)
Now, what does all this mean? First of all, only because we fail to take note of the intricate connection between the self-understanding of Jesus as the Son of Man and the need to suffer. If we perceive that by Son of Man Jesus meant that he is the all-time corporate representative of the suffering and struggling peoples of human history, the nexus between his self-understanding and the need to suffer becomes clear. God is always in solidarity with the suffering people sharing in their suffering and empowering them in their struggle for freedom and dignity. Daniel understands this reality and gives it the name Son of Man in the night vision he saw (see Dan ch 7:13-27). Our Lord took over that meaning from Daniel where there is an unambiguous association between the Son of Man and the People who suffer persecution under the tyrant Antiochus. Therefore, in as much as Jesus is the incarnate Reality of God in Solidarity with the Oppressed he cannot but suffer the same plight and demonstrate that solidarity. But the moment the world that crucifies the Son of Man realizes it is the Son of Man they have crucified they come to understand who God really is. This means that just as in the crucified Jesus we recognize the Son of Man the I Am we need to do the converse also. i.e. we need to see in the face of all those who suffer unjustly the presence of the eternal “I Am” who was incarnate in Jesus. Such recognition should lead the world of oppressors and their abettors (i.e. most of us) into horizontal repentance towards the Collective of the Oppressed. This simply means that there has to be a change of sides, i.e. we transfer our loyalties from the false god of religion who is seen as punishing the suffering people to the Parent God of our Lord Jesus who through the Second Person of the Trinity is always in solidarity with the suffering people of the world. Only when we begin to give full recognition to this self-revelation of Jesus will we be truly and fully involved in Mission.