In the Hindu world, relationships matter. But as Alongsiders, what kinds of relationships can and should we have with our Hindu friends? Most of us belong to non-Hindu communities. For us, relating with Hindus requires crossing community and culture lines. But as outsiders, what posture should we take as we begin to make these relational connections? There really aren’t that many possibilities.
Many times, often without realizing it, we assume a position of superiority. We are the benefactors–the ones who teach, give, donate, and share. We organize community events, large street fairs, English classes, furniture donations for students, and more, all hoping our Hindu friends will recognize both our genuine love for them and our love of Jesus that motivates us. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, and they are often much-appreciated acts of service, but far too often this benefactor-like interaction does not transition into a meaningful relationship. It’s because these connections are often more transactional rather than ongoing–a one-time event rather than a continually deepening connection.
Power dynamics in relationships
Another way to look at this issue in relationships is who has the power? A relationship can be categorized by how the power/control/influence/authority is divided. The power will either be shared equally or split unevenly between the two individuals or sides. When the power is split unevenly and we maintain control in the relationship, we often act as benefactors, as in the examples above. Other times we simply control the relationship, determining the times and places for where the relationship meets and the ways that the relationship progresses.
It is possible to be in a subordinate position in a relationship with a Hindu. For instance, I have several friends who work for various Indian-owned companies and Indian bosses. In general, however, I believe these situations are comparatively rare.
Peer relationships develop when both sides have approximately equal amounts of power and control; that is, when both sides are capable of making decisions and exercising influence in the relationship. Between postures of superiority, inferiority, and equality, I strongly believe that relating as peers is the best posture to take and the one that yields the most fruitful relationships.
One important caveat is that peer relationships are not possible or appropriate in all situations. Factors such as age, lifestyle differences, and specific context realities make a difference here. Peer relationships are partially dependent on both sides being in similar life stages.
What does a peer relationship look like?
Peer relationships can be characterized by several factors. These relationships are built on shared or common interests. Both sides in a peer-to-peer relationship have dignity, can initiate as well as respond to the other person, and can accept or refuse invitations. There are many situations where this type of relationship can be found. Neighbors living side-by-side in a subdivision, coworkers on the same team at work, and children (and their parents!) attending a local school program together are examples of situations where this type of peer relationship can be commonly found.
To be in a peer relationship doesn’t require that a person be or become identical to his or her Hindu friend. Being a peer (as I’m using the word) doesn’t require having the same wealth, position, title, or identity as the other person. And it doesn’t indicate that this relationship will or should conclude at a “best friends” stage or last for a lifetime. Rather, it’s an attitude of equality as well as an environment of self-expression.
In healthy peer relationships, both sides see the other as their equal and both sides feel equal ownership of the relationship. In a peer relationship both sides see value and dignity in the other. And we also expect there to be an environment of self-expression, where both sides can demonstrate individual freedom by participating when, where, and how they want to. Peer relationships can blossom when both of these conditions are present.
Are you really in a peer relationship?
There are many challenges that prevent Alongsiders from entering into peer relationships. First, the very definitions of being peers and power dynamics in a relationship are defined differently across individuals and cultures. Your Hindu friends have one set of definitions based on their heritage in India, and you have a different perception based on your heritage.
Second, it’s hard for many people to notice when they are in an imbalanced power relationships. By default, most will assume that they are already in peer relationships, when in actuality, you should assume that the power imbalance is already there.
We often see our Hindu friends as peers, yet in our relationships with Hindus we maintain and exert disproportionate control. I have seen this in my own relationships with Hindus, as well as in the relationships of many others. As you examine your own relationships, be looking for hallmarks of a true peer relationship such as when a Hindu invites you to a meeting or meal, feels comfortable declining your social invitation, or actively works with you to plan and/or adapt an activity or project with you.
My wife and I enjoy hosting gatherings at our home with our Hindu friends, and often these coincide around various holidays. Instead of acting independently by planning the meal and cooking all of the food ourselves, we’ve learned that it’s better to have potlucks instead. Everyone brings something, and we all enjoy eating each other’s food. Our Hindu friends want to participate in and provide for our party, and this is a way to include everyone in the event.
We’ve also learned to change our planning style for the potluck. Our Hindu friends want to coordinate the menu amongst the entire group before the party to ensure that all the significant foods are brought. Instead of insisting that it will just work out, now we make group messages with everyone who is coming. My wife and I have found our gatherings are more fun (and have better food) after we started including our Hindu friends as equals in the planning process.
The benefits of peer relationships
Building peer relationships can take time and effort, but it yields many advantages. The most important advantage is that this type of relationship is the best way for the message of Jesus to be communicated to our Hindu friends in a way that gives space, time, and opportunity for them to work through the questions and misunderstandings that will certainly come up. Since we come from different cultures and communities, our communication of the gospel is often confusing or unintelligible to our Hindu friends. Misunderstanding and miscommunication will occur. A peer relationship gives our Hindu friends the chance to hear the message and interact with it on their own, ask follow-up questions, and reach personal and group decisions within their network that can be respected by their entire group. This process of understanding and responding to the gospel message almost always plays out over a period of time, rather than in a single moment or meeting. A peer relationship is the best way for an alongsider to provide the combination of space and time to the Hindu family while maintaining an ongoing dialogue of questions and clarifications.
Another advantage of a peer relationship is that it creates a viable channel for communication between a Hindu and an alongsider. That’s important because it is not only what is said that matters, but also who says it. Often times white evangelical believers disregard this fact. As Timothy Shultz wrote, “Hindu people order their lives, make decisions, and pursue their interests through webs of meaningful relationships.” A peer relationship can enable an alongsider to speak words that are received as truth by their Hindu friend.
In contrast to a peer relationship, many times Christians try to share the gospel through benefactor, top-down relationships. Especially during one-time events and first-touch conversations, there is little opportunity for the Hindu to have the space or opportunity to ask questions and clarify misunderstandings. If we assume a position of superiority, our Hindu friends’ regard for authority and respect for elders will limit their ability to question or disagree freely.
Having the chance to live in a peer-to-peer relationship with Hindu people is a blessing and opportunity we would be foolish not to seek. Together, as Hindus and alongsiders build these peer relationships, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that God richly blesses us all through the process.