By JOHN HARNISH
Author of30 Days with E. Stanley Jones
When American missionary E. Stanley Jones went to India in the early 1900’s, he found himself in a pressure cooker of competing religions and visions for the future of the nation. First, India had been under British rule for almost 100 years with many voices beginning to call for independence. Coupled with that was the British commitment to establish the Christian religion in India. It was a classic example of Christian Nationalism, wrapping the cross in the Union Jack and sending the message that to be Christian was to be British.
Second, since the majority of the population was Hindu the drive for Indian independence often envisioned a Hindu nation oppressing the Muslim minority. The hostility between the Hindus and Muslims was long-standing and often violent.
Third, Jones found himself among the deeply dedicated band of American missionaries who were focused on their evangelistic message but were often linked with the British and therefore suspect by many Indians.
In this religious, cultural and political powder keg, Jones’ first goal was to free Jesus from identification with the Empire so the Gospel could be “naturalized” (his word) into the Indian context. That work, however, was often complicated by the hot issue of the day—the desire for independence.
‘Which side would Jones and the Christ he was preaching take?’
Dr. Naveen Rao, Principal of Leonard Theological College, says, “On the one side was the Christian British Empire ruling India, and on the other side, non-Christian India striving to be free from the British Empire. Which side would Jones and the Christ he was preaching take?”
Observing the often ruthless and violent riots between Muslims and Hindus, Jones came to believe that “his missionary task demanded that as a statesman he bring the two warring sides together in a common struggle against a common power to achieve a common goal of a new, independent India.” (Naveen Rao, Christian History Magazine, issue 136, page 25)
To that end, Jones initiated conversations between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League and worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi. He created the “Round Table Conferences,” where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians came together for conversation. Jones hoped India would emerge as one, undivided nation, but the struggle for India’s future ended in a bloodbath of hostility and a divided nation.
‘Gandhi: Portrait of a Friend’
Behind that struggle, Jones’ friendship with Gandhi serves as a model for us today. Jones details the relationship in his powerful little book, Gandhi: Portrait of a Friend which has remained in publication ever since it appeared in 1948. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. credited this book as one of his inspirations for non-violent resistance in the Civil Rights movement.
In our day, Jones still has something to teach us about intense political divisions, heated social media debate and often hostile acts directed at ethnic minorities or persons we deem as “the other.”
Jones’ Prophetic Lessons for Today
Freeing Christianity from nationalistic identification.
In the caldron of India’s political upheaval, Jones sought to free Christian faith from its bondage to one particular national identity. In contrast to Christian Nationalism, he offered Jesus as the universal Christ whose message could speak to every culture and every nation. It’s a message we need to hear in the USA today.
Understanding the context
Jones committed himself to studying Hindu and Muslim traditions in order to find his way into the fabric of the society. He spent time at Gandhi’s ashram and their correspondence offers insight into their relationship developing over time. Sometimes our desire for quick solutions blinds us to the painstaking task of truly learning from others to understand the context and the culture.
Bringing people together
It’s really tough! It was challenging for Jones, and it is hard for us today.
In fact, many of us have given up on trying to have civil conversation with persons with whom we disagree. But if we are to find our way to a more civil and just society, Jones’ model of the “Roundtable” offers us an example. It won’t always work. Jones’ efforts to encourage a united India did not succeed, and back in the USA his attempts at shuttle diplomacy to avoid war with Japan didn’t either. In his autobiography he titles the chapter about that effort “An Adventure in Failure.” His conclusion is “I wrote this off as an adventure in failure. It is not ours to succeed or fail—it is ours to do the highest we know and leave the results to God.” (Son of Ascents, page 202)
What kind of world?
Jones’ work toward a united India—his efforts at reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims, his relationship with Mahatma Gandhi—and his efforts to avoid war with Japan were built upon his vision of the Kingdom of God. That vision—like the vision that later empowered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—kept calling Jones back to the task of building bridges despite his failures.
That vision still calls us to strive for a world where, as the Old Testament prophet says, “swords will be turned into plowshare and spears into pruning hooks”—a world King called “The Beloved Community.”
Care to learn more?
VISIT JOHN HARNISH’S WEBSITE to learn about his upcoming public appearances in Michigan, Ohio and New York.
Want to contact him to plan a future event? Here’s his online contact page.
For even more “Resources,” check out this page of links that offer lots of supplemental information about Jones—and Harnish’s other ongoing work, including his Monday Memo columns.
Want to hear from him more regularly? On his website, there are several ways to sign up for that free Monday Memo series.
It is not an understatement to say that after John Harnish’s book introduced me to this amazing man, my inspiration in faith has been refreshed and transformed. The many accounts of Jones’ writings in this book pushed me to purchase several old copies of Jones’ works, and – wow. Jones’ writing is incredibly relevant, on fire with passion, and logical, all at the same time. Thank you to John Harnish for bringing new light to the life and impact of E. Stanley Jones!