July 15, 2012

Jesus, Gandhi, and the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable is a kind of evil that is so deep and foreboding that words fail to describe it. This term, coined by Thomas Merton, came to him amidst the tumult of the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Gandhi. After reading author Jim Douglass’ works, JFK and the Unspeakable, and more recently, Gandhi and the Unspeakable, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the evil present in those pages. All of these individuals had worked for peace in their own ways and all of them were executed for it.

This immediately brought to mind the story of Jesus’ life and death. Here is an example of one who boldly proclaimed and embodied a new order, which threatened the existing power structures of his day. This threat aroused and provoked the Unspeakable so it worked tirelessly to turn many against Jesus, which eventually led him to the cross. Jesus’ gospel had political, social, economic, and spiritual ramifications—after all, Jesus was bringing a new kingdom into the world. Yet, many Christians today claim Jesus’ gospel has no political significance.

How could so many make such a claim? What is it about the gospels that could lead people to believe that Jesus came only to focus on the individual—neglecting the larger systems we organize around? Douglass’ book on Gandhi shed some light on these questions. Gandhi was deeply moved by the Sermon on the Mount, and his story is strikingly similar to Jesus’.

One of the most controversial aspects of Gandhi’s program was his reconciliation work. When India was about to be freed from British rule, Gandhi remained deeply troubled because of the impending partitioning of land—India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. This failure of the peoples of India to be reconciled with one another led Gandhi to embark on his last “experiment with truth.”

While in Calcutta, ethnic violence had broken out. Muslims and Hindus were killing each other, and the cycle continued as every death needed avenging. Gandhi, in response to all the Hindu-Muslim rioting, called on a very prominent Muslim figure—Shaheed Suhrawardy—to enter into an experiment with him. Gandhi asked Suhrawardy to live with him as a way to bring a concrete symbol of the reconciled India to Calcutta. This was an interesting pick for Gandhi because Suhrawardy was responsible for the deaths of many Hindus in the Great Calcutta killing of the previous year. Gandhi, a Hindu, had decided that the best way to bring peace was to befriend the one person many Hindus in the area wanted dead.

Suhrawardy said yes to Gandhi’s request, and they moved into an abandoned house together. It didn’t take long for the news of this arrangement to spread and there were many nights angry mobs gathered outside of Gandhi and Suhrawardy’s new house of reconciliation. In the following weeks, through patient and persistent dialogue, more and more people entered that house as enemies but left as friends. Eventually, more violence broke out. This event led Gandhi to fast. The conditions for the termination of the fast were radical: “It will be do or die. Either there will be peace or I shall be dead.”

After just four days of fasting, many leaders from varying killing groups came to Gandhi, laid down their weapons and declared, “Now that peace and quiet have been restored in Calcutta once again, we shall never allow communal strife in the city and shall strive unto death to prevent it.“ This fasting practice led to other towns adopting similar resolutions and this wave of peace that was beginning upset some very powerful people.

One such person was a Hindu nationalist leader named Vinayak Savarkar. Savarkar was unabashed in his want for a Hindu nation so he naturally abhorred the Gandhian program. The idea of a unified India seemed foolish and almost heretical to him. Savarkar sought a purity of Hindu culture that would be jeopardized if India became a melting pot of different religions and cultures. The wave of reconciliation taking place because of Gandhi’s fast represented a grave threat to Savarkar’s dream. Gandhi had to go.

The Unspeakable was now awake and on the offensive. Propaganda was used to discredit Gandhi and his nonviolent movement. People were arranging for the assassination of Gandhi, and after a failed attempt, Gandhi was met by three bullets and the act was finished. In the ten days between the two attempts on Gandhi’s life, it came to light that many in power feared Savarkar so instead of protecting Gandhi the police and government officials paved the way for the assassins. On top of that, after failing to convict Savarkar for orchestrating the assassination, Prime Minister Patel admitted that Congress was already struggling to contain Muslim violence and was afraid to face a massive Hindu extremist backlash if they found Savarkar guilty.

Gandhi represented a threat to the order of things. If his experiment with truth was to have carried on much longer, people might have changed sides. Savarkar’s dream would not have been realized and he would not have anything to gain from his years of work. This was too much for Savarkar so he used propaganda to sway the masses and assassins to eliminate the threat. After the threat was gone and the masses were in favor of a Hindu nation, the government officials were more inclined to acquit the esteemed leader of a very popular political party out of fear of a political backlash. Because of these political realities and the unwillingness of people to stand up and confront the Unspeakable, evil struck a strong blow.

The same can be said of Jesus and the political conditions surrounding his execution. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he exalted the lowly, healed the sick, challenged the clean/unclean laws, and broke the Sabbath. He proclaimed and embodied a new social, political, economic and spiritual order and called it the Kingdom of God. The gospel Jesus preached represented a threat to those in power.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the intermediaries between the Jewish people and Rome. Because of this arrangement, they received some kickbacks; they enjoyed some political influence. If the new kingdom Jesus was building was to gain enough momentum, that would mean the end of the Pharisees and Sadducees political gains. Jesus had to be stopped…and quickly. Never before had the Pharisees and Sadducees felt threatened in such ways. These leaders were considered to be righteous and wise, and one couldn’t enter into that circle without being both. The ones who were unrighteous were notified and then ostracized. The lines of power had been clearly drawn until Jesus embarked on his reconciliation project and created lots of gray area. Jesus was both wise and righteous, and he criticized the Pharisees in ways that left them speechless. He did this so many times that two things happened. Many people joined Jesus’ kingdom building project, and the Pharisees and Sadducees were losing their grip on power.

When Jesus was finally arrested for claiming to be the Son of God, the various political entities began aligning. Pilate and Herod, who were former enemies, became friends. The Pharisees and Sadducees stirred up a mob so all present demanded Jesus to be killed. When Pilate hesitated, “the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!’” John 19:12b. In Matthew’s gospel, Pilate noticed that his hesitation was beginning to incite a riot so he went along with Jewish demands. Sound familiar? The Gospels say that Jesus committed no sin, that Jesus was putting the wrongs of society to right. Jesus was building the eternal kingdom one disciple at a time but because of what the kingdom of God meant to those in power, it led to an execution propagated by an evil force bigger than any one person. From Judas to Pilate to the Pharisees to the Cross, the politics of the situation gave rise to the Unspeakable. In this case, the Pharisees wanted their power and needed the political setup to remain the same. Pilate, in his turn, wanted to keep the peace so he looked good before Rome. The crowds did their part by shouting for Jesus’ execution. Even Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, denied knowing Jesus. In that moment, everything aligned and the Unspeakable dealt another strong blow.

All political systems remain in power because of our consent. The only way any system can function properly is when many people see its vision and give their lives to it. In both cases mentioned, the threat Jesus’ and Gandhi’s movements posed to those in power increased as more people converted to their vision and gave their lives over to it. The sword was only drawn by the powerful when a new kind of kingdom threatened its own. Jesus and Gandhi were bold enough to speak the truth to power and to embody that truth in such a way that cost them their lives. This way of living exposed the hollow nature of the Unspeakable and drew people into an entirely new way of life—filled with a just political, social, economic, and spiritual order.

Many great empires have understood that the best way to squelch any threat is to create divisions among the enemy. If your opponent is busy warring with itself, it no longer serves as the city on a hill, that place where peace and justice reign. Instead, it becomes good for nothing—another victim who has fallen prey to the Unspeakable.

This is why reconciliation work and enemy love is so threatening. If many groups come together, declare new allegiances, withdraw from unjust empirical structures and invest in a new society, the old systems will fall. However, if we continue to hold the individual as paramount, every person being king of his or her own kingdom, we will undoubtedly perpetuate the evil systems that continue to exploit, divide, and disempower.

The solution is a political one. To be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation requires both a spoken and embodied practice. This practice is impossible alone. We need many people to take the kingdom of God seriously enough that they reorder their economic, social, spiritual and political lives. Our faith requires both an inner belief and an outward expression. Without both the gospel loses its power.

Resurrection is also key as we are called to not only live the gospel but also to proclaim it. This means we carry the responsibility to unveil the falsehoods and empty promises the Unspeakable perpetuates. As firm believers in the resurrection, we can enter into the halls of power without fear and with a resoluteness to endure the consequences for being truth-tellers. Besides, we’re in good company. The kingdom of God grew through Jesus’ suffering. The kingdom of God will continue to grow through our willingness to endure suffering rather than inflict it on others—be it through outright violence or through more systemic, exploitative practices.

Thanks to people like Jesus and Gandhi, we have a blueprint for undoing the Unspeakable. When we take hold of the resurrection, we are unleashed from fear so we can expose the Unspeakable, accepting the cost, understanding that the eternal kingdom of God will soon be made complete—and the Unspeakable will be undone. However, until we truly embrace and live into Jesus’ new ordering of things, no one will think the gospel is practical or possible…and the Unspeakable will continue to destroy. And to allow that is unspeakable. --To read the rest of the paper this is featured in, click here!

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