Religion can provide guiding principles for a meaningful life, yet few concepts have been more divisive in human history.
Seeing the tensions of the first half of the 20th century, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a deeply spiritual man, came to the following conclusion: “One should accept the faith into which one was born, but seek always to interpret it in the most broadminded and nonviolent way.”
Gandhi is recognizing the good in every religion, encouraging each of us to grow in the understanding our respective faiths. He also seems to be advising us not to become distracted by searching for religions beyond those of our own families. He implies as well that we shouldn’t be actively seeking converts to our own beliefs.
The India where Gandhi grew up was ruled by a foreign power “in the name of God and queen.” As his country struggled for independence, he saw the disagreements and then the violent clashes that resulted from differences in religion. He also saw a world where people were mercilessly massacred due to their beliefs.
Seventy years after Gandhi’s death, we see a world where Buddhists are killing Muslims, Muslims are killing Christians, and Islamophobia is driving political agendas.
It’s very easy to point the finger at how everyone else needs to change, or at the apparent absurdity of religion.
If we carefully examine entire scope of Gandhi’s message, however, it’s clear that the challenge is for each of us as individuals. Each of us needs to be true to our mission in life if we’re going to be effective agents of universal change.
What does it mean to interpret our faith, regardless of what that those beliefs are, “in the most broadminded and nonviolent way”?
As a Middle Eastern Catholic, it’s important for me to acknowledge that my faith is part of my heritage, possibly going back to the time of Christ. At the same time, the region of my ancestors has always been a crossroad of different ideas, and I too need to be open to the messages of enlightened spiritual teachers from other religions. I’ve found tremendous fulfillment studying the works of Jewish, Baha’i, Islamic and Christian writers, along with Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist and First Nations teachers.
Living in Canada, it’s a great joy to interact and share perspectives on life with friends and acquaintances from all different faiths, and with those who don’t believe in God. This celebration of diversity seems quite true to the intention of Gandhi’s statement.
Being broadminded also challenges me to look beyond traditional Catholic teachings to the word spoken by Jesus Christ, which is essentially a message of empowerment. Women, for example, played a significant role in his ministry. Jesus broke from the traditions of his age in recognizing the prominence of women around him. The primary role they played in his death and resurrection story, for example, is quite striking and provides a challenge to the current status of women in the church.
The spiritual nourishment I gain from practising my faith also enables me to see beyond the flaws of the Catholic church to find the same truths that are part of every religious and philosophical tradition. Seek truth and wisdom. Live with humility and honesty. Treat others with respect while having the courage to speak out for what I believe is right. Above all, do all that love requires, even if it’s difficult.
As with all great truths, the words of Gandhi remain relevant today. No one needs to abandon their beliefs. The challenge is to embrace them deeply and fearlessly, thus becoming the agents of nonviolent change we’re destined to be.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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