Let me tell you a story that has nothing to do with India. At least on face value.
In 1962, Don Richardson took his wife Carol and their newborn baby to New Guinea to work as medical missionaries with a cannibalistic tribe known as the Sawis. There was certainly a great deal of need for them there – the Sawi tribe was constantly suffering from malaria, hepatitis, and outbreaks of dysentery.
Like many missionaries, the Richardsons’ goal was to use medicine as an inroad to spread the gospel, but getting the message out turned out to be more difficult than they could have expected.
Now, translating the gospel into a new language is difficult in any case, but the Sawi language is particularly difficult. There are 19 tenses to every verb, and it took Don months of constant work to learn it. Unfortunately, the Richardsons’ problems didn’t end after they’d finally managed to convey the text to the tribesmen of the village. It turned out that the tribes there put great value in trickery. So once the story came to the part where Judas betrayed Jesus, the natives’ eyes would light up. To them, Judas was the hero of the story – he succeeded in getting close to Jesus, then turning him in for money. To them, Jesus was just a rube, unknowingly allowing his friend to rip him off. Try as they could, the Richardsons could not get the Sawi people to recognize Jesus as the center of his own story.
The village the Richardsons were living in was at war with two other tribes. As the fighting escalated and they began to fear for their lives, they told the Sawi people that they’d be leaving them and taking their medicines with them. Fearful of losing the Richardsons, the villages came together and negotiated a truce in their fashion: they exchanged children.
The leaders of each village would give away their sons to the leaders of the other villages. This meant that to war with another village would mean to endanger your own child. The Richardsons has stumbled onto the Sawi concept of the Peace Child, and it was through that practice that they were able to spread the gospel. They used that practice as an analogy for what God had done for the world through Jesus, and through that, the Sawi people came to accept the Christian faith.
I bring this story up because we met with a man here who’s been working to try to communicate the story of the gospel in the same way. In search of redemptive analogy, he hunted through India and Hindu traditions until he came across the story of the Baliraja.
The Baliraja is a god from the Hindu faith who was killed in battle, fighting off evil. The story goes that he will return one day, bringing with him a new world of peace and prosperity…
I love the idea of finding Jesus within a culture’s tradition. Missionaries should always have faith enough to know that even before they found their way to a new people, God got there before them. But it’s one thing to find Jesus in a story and another entirely to point to a god within a religion and say “that’s Jesus,” and that’s a troubling line to cross. As we left the meeting, Rob summed our feelings neatly: “I wanted to like what he was saying, but I found I just couldn’t.”
It’s not hard to see how he got there, though. The India people are a tough group to reach. While there is some nominal Christian presence in southern India, the northern section is essentially unreached – and there’s no real clear picture of how to reach them. Hinduism isn’t just a religion, it’s a defining aspect of the culture. People find their identity in their place within the system. Even among the Christians that we met, you’d still feel the remnants of the attitudes that the caste system forces on you. They’d be unnecessarily subservient, or casually selfish, without ever noticing. It seems you can’t fully change what society has taught you about yourself, no matter what you do.
I don’t know how to change India. I feel like I know less than I did when I left, in some ways, the problem of communicating the gospel even more insurmountable. We visited a Hindu temple and walked quietly through its corridors, our fingers tracing the ornate altars surrounding carvings of angry, vengeful gods, severed heads dangling from their belts, their hands dripping with blood. How differently they see the universe, I thought, to imagine the divine this way. There are 330 million gods in the Hindu universe. How one ever gets around to praying to all of them, I have no idea.
On our visit to the orphanage, a group of the girls came forward to do a dance they had made for us. There was a gentle acoustic strum from the CD player, and then I recognized the tune. It was Chris Tomlin singing “God of this City.”
I have never been one for interpretive dance, but there was something deeply felt in every motion of this one. This was not a thing staged for presentation, it was a thing that these girls connected with, believed. Greater things are yet to come, and greater things are still to be done, in this city.
The people here believe that. Andy summed it up neatly early on: “It feels like the Book of Acts come to life.” The Christians here fear for their lives, but strain and grapple to reach a people who joylessly worship dead idols in temples. It is the gospel lived out in the purest way you can imagine.
I wish I had the smallest seed of that faith, to believe so resolutely in the power of God to change the hearts of those who would torment them. The men and women we’ve visited with have grand visions for what God is doing in their country. I still seem to be seeing the world with blinders on.