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Truth and Non-violence: The Community Church and Mahatma Gandhi

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by Bruce Southworth, Senior Minister
The Community Church of New York, Unitarian Universalist
October 7, 2007

Over the summer, I received an inquiry from two friends of the Church, wondering if we would be interested in having a letter dated February 8, 1945, sent to Rev. John Haynes Holmes. The more than two-page, single-spaced letter ended with a personal note signed by Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi’s colleague and assistant had typed the letter — speaking about the Indian independence efforts, Gandhi’s disputes with the British colonial government, the death of Romain Rolland (Nobel Laureate in Literature and pacifist), and updates on members of Gandhi’s close circle.

At the end, in his own hand, it reads, “You are doing good work. Love, M. K. Gandhi.”

Would we be interested in receiving the letter as a gift!

I acknowledged that we would; we would be honored, and they sent it along, plus a copy of Holmes’ book My Gandhi, published in 1953. The donors live in Boston, but seemed to have noticed on-line that we are celebrating the centennial of John Haynes Holmes’ arrival here in New York, as he began his ministry with this congregation in 1907.

“You are doing good work. Love, M. K. Gandhi.”

This morning I turn once again to the life, spirit, and witness of Mohandas Gandhi, to his faith in Satyagraha, Soul-force, or Truth-force, and to the spiritual ethic of non‑violence. I also want to lift up again the role that our Minister, John Haynes Holmes, who served here from 1907 to 1949, had in bringing Gandhi to the attention of those here in this country.

All this is aimed at signaling some very practical lessons for growing our souls and our efforts to make a more peaceful world. These are troubled and troubling times of war and systemic oppressions that continue to bewilder and challenge, and in the face of this, commitment to non-violence and truth-force remains potent and healing.

Once again, I am reminded of two disciples of Mohandas Gandhi, whom I have met and from whom I have learned much. Each described his encounters with and appreciation of this intensely human saint, who mobilized against and provoked the British Empire to grant India, at long last, its independence in 1947.

The first disciple I turn to visited here at the Church, not quite fifteen years ago. It was a mid-week appointment from a radio listener. This man, at that time, was seventy-two years old, and he reported that, earlier in his life as a child, he had been kissed on the forehead by Gandhi. My visitor spoke of it as a blessing by this gentle, determined revolutionary, and he reported he felt charged to serve his country and his people.

My weekday visitor had heard one of my summer sermons over the radio — a sermon about “The Best Way to Know God.” It was a reflection upon a line from the painter Van Gogh, who said, “The best way to know God is to love many things.”

This native of Bangalore was struck by the spirit of inclusiveness of our religion. He resonated with my comments that the sacred, the holy, something divine is continuously revealed in many things — in nature, in human compassion, in science, in the arts. He wanted to learn more about our truth-seeking, free-thinking, activist religion.

He was here in this country from India to visit some of his family. He told me part of his life story. His father had held a high and responsible position in government. His mother, attracted to Gandhi’s teachings, followed the practice of spinning cloth at home and attended rallies. British officials told his father to discipline his wife, which he refused to do. His father was fired.

When he was six or seven, my visitor reported that he had the honor of presenting a garland of home-spun cloth to Gandhi, placing it around his neck. His mother would have done so herself, except such a custom, he said, was reserved toward one’s marriage partner. But a child could present such a gift to another. Gandhi kissed him on the forehead and said, “God bless you, and go and serve your country.”

Coming from such a household of free-thinkers and free spirits, my guest not only has kept that memory in his heart, but also reports he has tried to act upon it all his life. This visitor in his own career had risen to very high office in government administration, and he confessed that he was not always able to prevent corruption or misdeeds by colleagues. Despite these challenges, he felt he had been faithful to his teacher.

He told me that Gandhi’s picture hangs throughout the country in government offices as the Father of India, the one who helped to break the yoke of British domination. Beneath the sign is the declaration “Truth triumphs.” It is an ancient Vedic teaching out of Hinduism. Or another translation I came across puts it this way: “Truth alone conquers.”

He witnessed and confirmed for me, as have others I have known who knew and worked with Gandhi, the power of Gandhi’s gentle, yet spirit-filled personal presence that had a magical effect on so many. I told this lively visitor about this congregation’s special relationship to Gandhi and how in 1921 from this pulpit, Gandhi’s teachings began to be spread in this country for practically the first time. Rev. John Haynes Holmes returned again and again to them as a foundation for his pacifism and succor for his own faith.

Holmes and Gandhi

Our minister, Holmes, had been a pacifist in World War 1, and in his 1953 book, My Gandhi, he writes that his qualms about being against that war were few, given, as he says, that it was “not in any sense an idealistic struggle, but rather a sordid contention of modern empires, like those of ancient empires, for world mastery and dominion.” But deeper questions nagged Dr. Holmes:

“Under what conditions, if any, was war justifiable? What were the differences between a justifiable and an unjustifiable war? How may one feel sure of a defensive as contrasted with an aggressive war? Can a conspicuously bad means, as a resort to arms, serve and save the interest of any good end? How can war be reconciled, on any terms, with religion [especially the ethics of Jesus]?” (My Gandhi, 24)

As clear as he was about that conflict, he wrote,

“The end of the war saw no end to my perturbation. I pondered the price I had paid for my pacifism. Was such a price necessary? The loss of friends and comrades, my isolation from public life, my sacrifice of influence and leadership, the sheer ineffectiveness of what I had tried to do, the stress and strain upon the very fibers of my being — were these things my fate or my folly?”

Though few in the congregation agreed with Holmes’ pacifism, to its credit the congregation affirmed the freedom of the pulpit and, equally important, the freedom of the pew to disagree.

Holmes traces his own first encounters with this great soul to a small pamphlet of Gandhi’s writings and to a journal article written by Gilbert Murray, both of which he read in the winter of 1921. Murray wrote just a couple of pages about Mohandas Gandhi’s success in South Africa in organizing the Indian population there and in winning certain legal rights and status for them through non-violence. Gandhi had gone to South Africa in 1893 as a barrister on behalf of a client to settle a dispute. He repeatedly encountered segregation, discrimination and abuse, and others soon turned to him to help the larger community. After nearly twenty years of organizing, resistance and action, much had changed by virtue of ‘”spiritual force” (as Holmes described it) rather than resort to arms.

Seeking practical examples of non-violent success, Gilbert Murray was impressed by Gandhi’s accomplishments in South Africa and by his emerging leadership in India. He wrote,

“Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy because his body, which you can always conquer, gives you so little purchase upon his soul.”

In addition to his 1921 sermon, “Whi is the Greatest Man in the World?” Holmes began to write about Gandhi in a Unitarian magazine that he edited. His friend W. E. B. DuBois, the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, began to print installments of Gandhi’s autobiography as they became available. Soon thereafter Chicago’s Daily Defender and other black publications began to describe Gandhi’s success in non-cooperation. Ultimately, Gandhi’s autobiography would be titled The Story of My Experiments with Truth and covers the years from his birth in 1868 to 1921, when he had become a national leader and fierce advocate of independence from British rule.

Returning to my visitor, in addition to describing Holmes’ leadership in introducing Gandhi to this continent, I displayed for him a photograph of The Community Church medallion that is in the Delhi museum that honors Gandhi, a medallion that was amidst the handful of personal belongings that Gandhi had with him at his death. Those belongings included his spinning wheel, his glasses, a Bhagavad-Gita, a Christian New Testament, his loin cloth, and the Community Church medal.

I pointed out the dedication plaque on this pulpit in honor of Mohandas Gandhi, and of course, this bust of Gandhi, a copy of which is also at the Indian Consulate here in New York. Seeking to honor every revelation of spiritual truth, we here for over 85 years have seen Gandhi’s experiments with truth honored.

The visit with my guest was perhaps an hour. We shook hands, and I wanted to touch his forehead that had been kissed by Gandhi, but a handshake was sufficient.

In addition to this spirited disciple, I have fond memories of Haridas Muzumdar, a good friend of the Church, who had accompanied the sixty-one year old Gandhi on the famous Dandi Salt March in 1930. The British had begun to tax salt, a necessity, and Gandhi marched more than two hundred miles to the sea, to gather a bucket of water from which salt could be extracted — to show his defiance and to mobilize his people. Pursuing an academic career in the United States, Haridas Muzumdar, when in New York, at Gandhi’s encouragement, came here to Community, and it was he who hand-delivered the medal presented in 1932.

Dr. Muzumdar stayed in this country and sought to spread Gandhi’s spirit and tactics. He became a professor of sociology in New Mexico, Iowa and Arkansas wrote extensively on Gandhi and non-violence (with Will Durant as a contributor to one volume), and was active in the US civil rights movement. In a special service here commemorating the centennial anniversary of Gandhi’s birth (now almost 40 years ago), he reports that it was at a forum here at Community that he first coined the term non-violent resistance, to replace the then commonplace “passive resistance.”

At first meeting, I knew little of these details of Dr. Muzumdar’s life, except the association with Gandhi on the Salt March, impressive unto itself. In visiting with him, I was entranced by his characterizations of Gandhi’s faith, spiritual life, deep mysticism, and sense of unity of all humankind. Dr. Muzumdar’s own embrace of Truth-force and Soul-force both in his writings, and in person was equally radiant and a blessing.

Gandhi, the master of nonviolent activism: Martin Luther King, Jr. first heard about him in 1950 from Mordecai Johnson in a sermon at Fellowship House in Philadelphia.

Gandhi, whose techniques and spiritual power Rev. James Lawson studied in India, embraced in his soul, and then taught to Dr. King and others in the civil rights movement.

Gandhi, perhaps the greatest religious and political figure of the last century, was a unique combination of faith and action.

He barely passed his entrance examinations to university and initially left after one semester. Later in life he described himself, “I am an average man with less than average ability. I admit that I am not sharp intellectually. But I don’t mind. There is a limit to the development of the intellect but none to that of the heart.”

Lessons from Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi, a man of simple virtues and heroic deeds, is one who not only changed the lives of thousands directly, millions indirectly, but also one whose wisdom is alive, contagious, scary, and can change your life. He has left his imprint on mine.

More abundant life, perhaps for your life as well as mine. More abundant life if… if… if we resist our culture’s materialism, its consumerism, its demands for immediate self-gratification, its cynicism, its near nihilism at times, its violence, and militarism — so much that places simple virtues under siege.

In such times, the notion of a heroic figure, of a transforming political leader, and of a religious visionary who can make our pulse race, who can stop us in our tracks, who can make us lift our eyes with hope, who can touch our hearts with tenderness, and who can give our strength back to us — in such times, such a person is increasingly hard to imagine.

Einstein once commented about Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Because we are too jaded… or what? Too tired, or worn down?

For India, independence finally did come after World War II, in large measure because of the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi had been an unpromising student, a not so successful attorney at home, a rather poor husband and father, and an idiosyncratic health nut, but he touched the heart of a people, and with his experiments with Truth he perfected techniques of nonviolent resistance and social change.

And it was always from a religious, spiritual foundation, although he had no interest in dictating a particular creed. The essential quality of being human is to have a religious vision, and an integral part of Gandhi’s declared, “I cannot find God apart from humanity.”

As Howard Gardener—the noted psychologist and theorist on leadership and social change—has observed, Gandhi always “stressed a few basic dimensions: a quest for truth, morality and spiritual renewal—stressed in the Bhagavad-Gita—were fundamental to his being.”

Militant nonviolence was not always successful; discipline was not always kept. And Gandhi’s last fast was over civil conflict between Hindus and Muslims. He reluctantly wondered if, as a tactic of social change, it might not work against a tyrant.

Yet his faithfulness to humanity, to God, and to compassionate action touches me, challenges me. From Erik Erikson’s account of Gandhi’s life in his book Gandhi’s Truth, I began to understand more deeply the notion of Satyagraha, truth-force, soul-force with the imperative to honor the humanity of one’s adversary insofar as possible. Even when in conflict, honor the other; don’t push people into a corner, or demean them.

My visitor, whose forehead Gandhi had kissed, witnessed to Gandhi’s power to awaken others and honor the sacred that permeates all things. Dr. Muzumdar, who marched with Gandhi in the Salt March, continued to teach and embody Gandhi’s spirit throughout his life.

In revisiting this great soul, Mohandas Gandhi, I feel his challenge. He tells me:
If in despair, be creative.
If submerged in hate, do not succumb to it.
If in conflict with others, remember their pains, their hurts, and their humanity.
If dogmatic religion presses in, celebrate the truths of all religions.
If life seems too complicated, then simplify.
If you defend your integrity and your convictions, know that compromise can also be honorable.
Even if the world seems too overwhelming, experiment with the truth of your life.

Mahatma Gandhi was flawed and intensely human, simple, direct and challenging as a spiritual guide — which is probably what lures and may distance us from him.

Few, if any of us, will be summoned to lead millions, and each of us is summoned to embrace the duties before us each day.

More abundant life is ours whenever we experiment with Truth and simple virtues of Nonviolence, service to others, and always service and humility before nature, before God, and fidelity to the human family.

For Gandhi, “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God. Nonviolence is the means…”

Of us, may we always be able to say to one another, with love like that of M. K. Gandhi, “You are doing good work.”