Modi’s mysticism does not overcome sectarian tribalism

(Originally published in The Catholic Register, Toronto)

By Glen Argan

The overwhelming election victory of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has heightened fears among members of the nation’s minority religions, including Christians. Yet Christians in the Western world might well learn some lessons, both positive and negative, from Modi’s politics of Hindu nationalism.

Narendra ModiModi is one of the most unusual world leaders today. His roots are deeply spiritual, stemming from his time living an ascetic Hindu lifestyle in his late teens. The night prior to his re-election, he spent meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. One should ask whether the world would be better if the leaders of all nations had such deep spiritual roots.

Modi’s government in its first term made providing proper health care for the country’s poor a top priority. Included in that campaign was the construction of nearly 100 million toilets to improve sanitation. His record has some positive elements.

Yet, Modi is an ultra-nationalist driven by a vision of the superiority of the Hindu way of life. He sees India’s culture as Hindu, a culture that needs to be defended and enhanced. Unfortunately, this includes allowing nationalists to attack Muslims.

Christianity has also been a vital force in India since the apostle Thomas arrived there roughly 25 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. Today, India has 20 million Catholics (out of a population of 1.4 billion), but their contributions to the country’s education and social service sectors have been far greater than one might expect from their relatively small numbers.

For an outsider, it is difficult to know the extent to which Modi has contributed to the growth of violent Hindu nationalism in recent decades versus the extent to which he has politically benefitted from its rise. At the least, his power has emboldened India’s right-wing nationalists who have killed thousands of Christians in recent years.

During his re-election campaign, Modi boasted of the deaths of innocent Muslims inflicted by an Indian air strike on Pakistan in February. The crowd roared its approval.

Modi did condemn the public lynching of Christians in January. Yet, mob violence continues to grow. In January alone, Christians were the targets of 29 violent mob attacks.

Catholic theologian Karl Rahner famously remarked that Christians of the future would be mystics or they would not exist at all. However, the current Indian example shows that mysticism alone is not the path to a just humanity. One may have personal peace, but still be a provocateur of violence.

Likewise, many in the West yearn for a return to a dominant Christian or Catholic culture. The Church’s contribution to Western culture has been enormous and largely positive. Yet, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, “the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel” (As the Third Millennium Draws Near, 33). Renewing Catholic culture involves awareness of the roots of those dark points in our history so that they not be repeated.

Yale law professor Amy Chua succinctly stated, “The tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.” We see this in today’s ultra-nationalist movements, but we also see it in our own history. The world would benefit from a renewed commitment to Christian teaching, spirituality and life. But when some proclaim that Canada and the United States are “Christian nations,” we had best recoil before walking down that path.

The Christianity we live in society should reflect the universal moral standards reflected in the Ten Commandments, but also the higher morality of the Sermon on the Mount. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s followers should not see ourselves as one tribe among competing tribes, but as having a mission to bring all people to Christ. Our method: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44).

In relations with those of other religions, we should ask ourselves, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye” (7.3). Only when people of all religions ask themselves that question can we move into dialogue for peace.

Modri’s re-election may mean continued persecution of Christians in India. From our distance, we ought to do what we can to protect India’s Christian community. We should also strive to avoid the tribalism that is springing up around the world. The Gospel teaches a better way, the way of humility.

(For more articles like this, see On the Threshold.)

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