Over the holidays, a friend called me and asked if she could say “Merry Christmas” to a Hindu business client. She was worried that she might unknowingly offend him.
Another friend wrote and was puzzled what to say to a Hindu work colleague who regularly visits synagogues, churches, and Hindu temples. The colleague was stressed out in life and was feeling lost. What was ok to talk about? Where should he draw the line?
After spending several years in India, the answers seem quite obvious (more on that later). But back in North America, the uncertainty is real. There’s a fear that surrounds bringing up religious or spiritual things in the public sphere. We don’t want to mistakenly say something that offends someone. It could wind up as a misunderstanding or godforbid a lawsuit.
So what are we supposed to do…and why is the answer so obvious in India?
Both of these examples come back to one term and how two different cultures approach it:
How Do We All Get Along?
When everyone thinks, looks, and acts the same as you, it’s not too hard to get along (or at least, let’s assume so). But when you start interacting with people who think, look, and act differently than you, there are inevitable difficulties. We can live with lifestyle and worldview differences privately, but it becomes a big issue when it is in the public sphere.
A good example is what happens when men from the Sikh community want to join local law enforcement. Sikh men are required by their community to grow a beard and wear a turban. But many law enforcement agencies require that officers be clean-shaven and wear the standard hat.
Thus, some level of adjustment has to take place – either from the minority community or from the existing majority.
Throughout the history of the United States, Canada, and many other countries, groups have debated and decided how to handle these issues of religion in the public sphere: what is taught in schools, what is in the laws, what is spoken by politicians, etc. For the most part, North Americans have opted for a secular outlook when it comes to the public square.
How do we define secularism? A few definitions from around the web:
- “The separation of religious institutions from government institutions”
- “The belief that religion should not enter into the functions of the state”
- And, my favorite for the purposes of this article, “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”
So in the Sikh example, religious requirements should not belong in the public sphere. If you want to join the law enforcement, leave your religion at the door, i.e. shave your beard.
Religion is for the private world. Don’t bring it in the schools; don’t bring it into the government. And you’d better be careful if you try to bring it into business. Easter and Good Friday aren’t public holidays in the US. (Christmas squeaks by because, well, capitalism and cookies, I suppose.)
Fundamentally, everything that looks or smells like religion is excluded from discussion in the public world. Secularism is the absence of religion. It’s as if our collective Mother has said, “If you are going to fight about what to watch, then no one gets the remote,” and promptly shuts the TV off.
So, when we interact with someone from a different culture, our guards are up. We are anxious about offending others by mentioning religious things. We’ve learned that it’s just better to leave those things alone.
Secularism in India
India is also officially a secular nation, but in a very different way.
Secularism in India means equal treatment of all religions by the state. It means if you get to celebrate your holiday, I get mine too. If you get to have special treatment, then I get it too.
Now, Mom is saying, “You can watch your show now, but your brother gets to pick the next one.” Or she buys a second TV.
If secularism in North America is “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”, then it is “the acceptance and equality of all religions” in India.
This was baked into the very law codes India. How do you govern a nation where one established community demands monogamy, and for another it is permissible to have up to four wives? Different laws for different groups. Each community group has a different set of laws.
This outlook on secularism creates its own unique challenges, but it is a fundamentally different worldview. In India, Diwali, is a national holiday, but so is Eid-ul-Fitr, and so is Good Friday, and so is Gandhiji’s birthday. Secularism means everyone gets to have it their way.
What to do?
So, what does this mean for a disciple of Christ living in a North American-secular world interacting with Indian-secular Hindus?
It means, you can wish your Hindu client Merry Christmas all day long. He expects you to celebrate Christmas and is happy that you do. You can invite him and his family to a Christmas eve service (but maybe not on a regular Sunday), and you can surely give some cookies.
It also means you can offer to pray to Jesus with your work colleagues, or ask them openly about their religious experiences.
When interacting with Hindus from India, their perspective on religion is that if you come from a Christian community, there is no reason why you stop being a Christian when you enter the public or business sphere. They only ask that you be respectful of others and allow them to be themselves too.
Also, in case you are interested, that Sikh story is a real one and New York City just recently allowed officers to have beards and turbans.