“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians”

This comic got me thinking a lot about Gandhi lately. It is, unfortunately, quite accurate. Like most people who cry some version of “Lord, save me from your followers,” Gandhi was less familiar with the Lord than he thought. Based on what I’ve read from his autobiography, the Christ that Gandhi admired is a rather stilted version of the Christ declared to us in Scripture.

It is often disappointing to Christians when an inspiring and well-respected figure like Gandhi knowingly rejects Christ–and not simply the disappointment that comes from any soul preferring to remain lost. We like our religion, we believe it is true, and its a very human characteristic to think that anyone who is deemed wise & intelligent, and who takes the time to seriously examine and consider Christianity will come to embrace it. Accordingly, many Christians try to make excuses for such a man. In Gandhi’s case, these usually revolve around the suggestion that he was driven off by poor evangelists who never really proclaimed the Gospel to him.

It’s true enough that Gandhi had his fair share of mean Christian stories. Most of these revolve around the conflation of Christianity with modernistic progressivism. The mindset at the time among liberal theologians was essentially this: Europe is the pinnacle of human civilization because it was at the forefront of scientific discoveries and academic scholarship. This puts it further along the imagined road to progress than anywhere else in the world which, in turn, means that Europe’s religion was also the world’s most advanced. Accordingly, missionaries and scholars from theologically liberal denominations would exhort less advanced peoples to believe the Gospel because it was progressive, civilized, “in accordance with the general movement of our time,” and so forth—not because it was true. One can hardly blame Gandhi for taking offense at such an approach. The Gospel is already a self-described stumbling block and foolishness—there’s no cause for Christians to heap additional offense on top of it.

Despite these stories, however, it is clear that Gandhi’s reasons for rejecting Christ were not ultimately the progressive arrogance he encountered—he rejected Him due to inherent offense of the Cross. The twin scandals of particularity (that Christianity is the only true religion and that those who reject Christ are damned) and forgiveness (that our trespasses are forgiven through grace and paid for by the work of Christ rather than through our own moral improvement) are at the forefront of Gandhi’s thinking:

It was impossible for me to believe that I could go to heaven or attain salvation only by becoming a Christian… My difficulties lay deeper. It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God, and that only he who believed in him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically, there might be some truth in it… I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept. The pious lives of Christians did not give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. I had seen in other lives just the same reformation that I had heard of among Christians. Philosophically, there was nothing extraordinary in Christian principles.

At the end of the day, Gandhi was a moralist. If any religion were to legitimately claim exclusivity, then it must therefore create more ethical people than other religions are able to. Though Ghandi was highly impressed with the Sermon on the Mount (which is where his stated appreciation of Jesus mainly comes from), He (rightly) recognized that the Law as proclaimed by Christ is not so terribly different from the ethics of other religions. Certainly not different enough to warrant exclusivity.

But if that’s how he felt about the Law, what about the Gospel? Well, non-Law did not seem terribly interesting to the man. Gandhi described an encounter with someone who proclaimed the Gospel to him:

One of the Plymouth Brethren confronted me with an argument for which I was not prepared:

“…From what you say, it appears that you must be brooding over your transgressions every moment of your life, always mending them and atoning for them. How can this ceaseless cycle of action bring you redemption? You can never have peace. You admit that we are all sinners… Out attempts at improvement and atonement are futile. And yet redemption we must have. How can we bear this burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind… Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.”

The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: “If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained this end, I shall be content to be restless.”

In other words, forgiveness would get in the way of Gandhi’s moral self-improvement, and he must therefore disregard it. He deemed himself too virtuous—too humble(!)—to willingly accept forgiveness. The moralistic vision that took root in a young Gandhi is the one common to all religions of the Law—“the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.” This seems wise because it is what’s written on man’s heart; in contrast, the Gospel is given from outside ourselves. Both of these words are true, but the truth of the Gospel relieves us of the burden imposed by the truth of the Law. Those who reject the Gospel, however, will find that they never took their failures to live up to the Law seriously enough—no matter how moralistic they strove to be.  Given how clear Christ was about this very fact, Gandhi could not have been terribly fond of the real Christ.

It is for precisely this reason that Christians should not be put out when wise men of this world are not counted among our ranks. “The wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.” No matter how inspiring a moral reformer Gandhi might have been by human standards, he chose to be counted a fool before the Judge who sets the true standard.

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