Diwali, Light and Christian Love

Happy Diwali Images

Today marks the last day of Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of light also celebrated by followers of the Jain and Sikh faith traditions. I must admit, my knowledge of Diwali is limited to a high school religion class a quarter century back and some online searches to refresh my memory.

What I remember and have gathered (and I gladly invite anyone who celebrates Diwali to set me straight for any misconceptions) is this is a beautiful celebration of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil. Elaborate displays of lamps and lanterns, home decorating, feasts and fireworks highlight this autumnal festival.

I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a Diwali festival, but from the descriptions I understand it to be a beautiful celebration of light focused on family and community. As a Christian, Diwali is not part of my faith tradition. Yet, as a Christian, I love my neighbors and feel great joy in their joy, and can share in our common humanity and the beauty of celebrating light over darkness. I remain strong in my faith while loving those whose tradition is different than my own.

I took this to be the spirit on Thursday, the principal day of Diwali celebration, when Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this simple message of love on social media:  “Praying for every blessing for all those celebrating Diwali today.”

Welby, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the senior bishop of the Church of England and symbolic head of the 85 million communicants in the Worldwide Anglican Communion. And, Welby has made a bit of a name for himself as an archbishop who will lead the Church to greater engagement, in love, across different denominations and faiths.

Given his record of actively seeking common ground and understanding with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, the Roman Catholic Church, among others, Welby’s simple message of love on the occasion of Diwali was not surprising. And by many Anglicans it was greeted as a warm affirmation of Christian love for our neighbors.

But, the archbishop’s Diwali greeting, along with his overall efforts to reach out to other faiths, have not been warmly received by all Anglicans, or Christians in general. The usual ugliness did not take long to arise in the comments section of his Diwali post. People who profess a faith defined by love wasted no time in attacking Welby, attacking Hindus, attacking Christians who reach out to other faiths, and generally consigning to hell those who do not share their views.

As in most such “you’re with us or you’re going to hell” vitriol the most oft-quoted passage of Scripture was John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

My point here isn’t to definitively address the meaning of this one verse of Scripture, in itself, in the context of Jesus comforting his disciples in this passage, or in the broader context of the Gospel message. I think that is a worthwhile endeavor, but it’s not my task here. My intent here is to simply point out that however you interpret this one passage – and there are many different interpretations within Biblical context – it does not address how we are called to interact with other faiths.

However you interpret the exclusivity of Christianity as the means of a redeeming relationship with God – and I mean no attack on any belief in that regard – this “except through me” issue does not address the way in which we are called to treat our brothers and sisters, regardless of their faith.

The Gospel and Epistles are clear on how we as Christians are to interact with our fellow children of God. No matter how complicated a relationship may be in the terms of this world, Scripture refines our approach and response to all people, of all faiths, to one word: Love.

Are we as Christians called to evangelize? Yes. That is clear in the Gospel. But how are we to do this? How do we present our belief in Christ to those outside our faith, as was the commission to the first disciples? There are passages that call down condemnation for those outside the circle of baptized faith. Debating those passages isn’t my intent. Issues of condemnation and salvation belong to God alone. But, again, how are we to evangelize? The answer is summed in one word: Love.

Christ made this clear to the disciples – and thence to us – when they cornered him into defining the greatest commandment. His response, in Mark 12:30-31, is clear: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

But, how do we love? The answer is simple: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

There is a great deal of fervor in the media of late over whether people say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’ Personally, neither bothers me, and neither defines my experience of Christmas. But, if we would prefer that others offer us Christmas greetings in the terms of our faith, then Scripture holds us accountable to offer others the same. Thus, to our brothers and sisters who celebrate Diwali, it would be not only appropriate but our duty to wish them well in the terms of their tradition.

But, what of those passages that appear to say other faiths fall outside salvation? There’s certainly not a uniform Christian belief on that point. But, regardless, if we make this an issue of “the Law” then Paul offers advice (it’s not like we made up these issues in our generation): “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10)

Judgment (in spiritual matters) belongs to God alone. Our role in fulfilling the law is simply to love. If we are faithful in that, God will use our love for God’s purpose. And, in loving we are called to do no harm. Offering sincere greetings to our Hindu, Sikh and Jain neighbors does them no harm, and if done in a spirit of love is in accord with the very nature of Christ’s message.

A lot of the outrage over the archbishop’s extended hand to other faiths seems to come from a fear that engaging other faiths in loving dialogue somehow diminishes our own faith – as if our faith depends upon conflict with others. I believe this takes a very limiting approach to the power of the Gospel and our Evangelical calling, to believe that we must be in opposition to other faiths in order to affirm our own. Christ anticipated our fear, and in John 14:27 instructed us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

If we are to answer the question of how to resolve fear in evangelism, there is perhaps no better source than John the Evangelist, who tells us unequivocally “There is no fear in love.” (1 John 4:18). Love is the essential and irreplaceable element in our dealings with each other, and in our path to God:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

If we are to know God, to follow Christ and to live the Gospel, then we must live and evangelize in love. The archbishop’s message, in this light, is the heart of good evangelism: love those around you, without judgment and without limiting demands or qualification.

To all my fellow children of God (that’s everyone) celebrating the last night of Diwali, I echo the archbishop’s words and pray every blessing for you and your families. And, in case I forget in the midst of the holiday season, may all followers of Islam have a joyous Mawlid al-Nabi and all our Jewish brothers and sisters have a Happy Hanukkah!

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