The charismatic Hindu leader of India’s struggle for independence might appear an unlikely source for Baptist reflection on the ethics of social justice. But, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) has already shaped Baptist life in a variety of ways.
Gandhi’s most enduring contribution to the theory and practice of social reform is his principle of nonviolent resistance. Gandhi led his country in a political revolution with the goal not of humiliating their oppressors, but of converting them.
Gandhi’s brand of nonviolence included the use of civil disobedience and large scale non-cooperation (e.g., strikes) to challenge unjust and oppressive laws. In 1930 Gandhi led hundreds of Indians on a 200-mile march to the sea to make salt from seawater, in order to protest the Salt Acts which made it a crime to possess salt not purchased from the government.
Thousands around the country joined in solidarity, openly buying illegal salt and risking arrests and beatings from the colonial authorities. But the Indians did not respond with violence.
Gandhi repeatedly called on his followers to meet evil with good, until the evildoer grew weary of doing evil. This was not a coward’s work. It required feats of courage and self-restraint that many thought impossible on a social scale.
Martin Luther King Jr. drew heavily on the life and thought of Gandhi to shape the strategies and goals of the civil rights movement. King was exposed to Gandhi’s writings and political philosophy while at seminary preparing for the Baptist ministry.
King had already considered and rejected pacifism as a means of social reform. But when he heard a lecture on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance, King found an intriguing alternative which he would soon advocate and develop further in light of his own theological convictions.
Gandhi’s story and teachings offer much to the Christian activist because so much of what Gandhi taught resonates with what we find in Scripture. Gandhi understood that our actions, our protests and our boycotts must correspond to the character of our cause.
For the Christian this means that the self-giving and self-sacrificial love of Christ must be apparent in whatever tasks or programs we undertake in Christ’s name. Not only the goals, but even the methods we employ in the political arena must demonstrate a love for the well-being of our opponents.
When Christians participate in a boycott or in an act of civil disobedience, they draw on social strategies shaped in part by Gandhi. But there is another side to Gandhi’s thought that is perhaps even more instructive for Christian social action.
Gandhi’s life is a remarkable picture of social action clothed in the spirit of repentance. In the midst of India’s struggle for independence, Gandhi surprised and shocked even his supporters when he questioned and disavowed the entrenched caste system of Hindu society.
The “outcastes” or “untouchables” of India’s rigid social system represented a permanently disenfranchised minority. Gandhi recognized the injustice of the system and its inconsistency with his goals for forming a better society. At the risk of derailing his career and the entire struggle for independence, Gandhi began to associate with “untouchables” on an unprecedented scale.
Christian activism must never lose its capacity for self-critique. Nor can it cease to be suspicious of its own motives and goals. When Jesus told the Pharisees they spent too much time looking for specks in the eyes of others while ignoring planks in their own, he spoke to the Pharisees of his day and of ours.
Christian social action is hardly immune to the temptation of self-righteousness. It is too easy to demonize the opponent or to become convinced of the divine sanction for our own viewpoint.
Gandhi’s humility recalls the Christian truth that the most basic solidarity of humankind is the solidarity of our sinfulness. This imposes on the Christian activist a remarkable and awesome opportunity–the opportunity to work toward change not from the vantage point of a superior righteousness, but from the vantage point of the cross.
Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D. The seminary is affiliated with the North American Baptist Conference. He teaches and writes in the areas of systematic theology and Christian ethics.