A young man here introduced me to the story of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar today. I was unfamiliar with him until now, though I’d noticed the statues of him scattered along the streets. According to everyone else in the conversation, the Indian government tries to keep people in the West from becoming too aware of him. That’s the sort of statement that normally sends me scurrying to Scopes, but the fellow telling me about him had just finished getting his masters degree on Ambedkar’s influence, which makes me inclined to believe him (also, I don’t have a lot of time to trawl the internet out here). He is revered among the lower classes here, in large part for his well-documented distain for the caste system.
This man told me that towards the end of his life, Ambedkar, tired of the social oppression of Hinduism, announced his intention to leave his religion forever and choose a new one. He spent the next few years on a very public journey of faith, searching through the world’s religions before finally settling on Buddhism – specifically, the original teachings of Buddha: that there is no God, no afterlife, and that the only real value came in making a difference in this world. He was drawn to their belief in the preservation of this world, of making life better for your fellow man.
The story set off a small bell in my head. In Love Wins, Rob Bell discusses the idea that for Jews during Jesus’ period, the concept of an afterlife in a separate place was a foreign – they had conceived that the Messiah would be coming to change life on this earth.* That’s why the fact that Jesus was not a vengeful, powerful general was so strange to them. They wanted a savior who would reclaim the earth, not rescue them from it.
* I still have questions about this (Elijah, for example, was swept off up to Heaven in a chariot of fire. Where did the Jewish people of his day imagine he had gone?), but I haven’t had the chance to really do any research on it.
That concept has perhaps been partially lost from Christendom – the idea that the earth is worth saving. I often hear Christians talk about how there’s nothing in this world that can bring them down, since they’ve got their ticket punched for Heaven. Salvation is a train that’s leaving at any moment.
Sometimes that idea translates into how we view evangelism in other countries, too. We see the poor and the destitute, and we feel powerless to change their physical state. But, we think to ourselves, we have something better than bread alone. We can’t change their lives, but we can promise them a better one later. We want to come and give them what my Baptist friends might call “Hell Insurance.”
Listening to the Christian leaders out here in India, that concept seems to ring hollow. As they struggle to reach out to the communities here, what value is a religion that offers you nothing? They already have a religion. They already have a god. What power is a religion that can’t change the world they live in?
Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good question in any case.