The following essay is written by Susan Kerin, a Pax Christi member from Rockville, Maryland.
As a young man in apartheid South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi had read the Gospels and was interested enough to visit a church. He was barred at the entrance and called a kaffir, an offensive term for a Black person, which led to his famous quote: “I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Gandhi might have had a different impression of our faith had he met Indian Jesuit priest Stan Swarmy who lived a life that embodied Gandhi’s love for a pluralistic India, coupled with a faith and practice rooted in the peace of Christ.
Father Swamy, who was born on April 26, 1937, dedicated four decades of his life towards advancing the rights of the Adivasi, the indigenous tribes of India. In recent years, the Adivasi have been evicted from their ancestral lands; many of their young men wrongfully incarcerated; and their centuries-old cultural traditions undermined and threatened. In the Catholic tradition of “two feet of love in action,” Father Swamy supported both advocacy and charitable efforts for the Adivasi. He also was a passionate advocate for other marginalized communities, most notably the oppressed castes or Dalit community. And like Jesus, he made the streets his altar.
During his lifetime, Father Swamy saw Gandhi’s post-Partition vision of a democratic pluralistic India deteriorate into an ethno-nationalist governance – a political ideology known as “Hindutva” which believes that non-Hindu citizens are foreigners who must be expelled. Those in harm’s way represent nearly half a billion Indians, including Indian Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, oppressed caste Hindus, and the Adivasi.
What is happening to me is not something unique…it is a broader process taking place all over the country (because) we have raised questions about the ruling parties of India. I will not be a silent spectator.
Father Stan Swamy, SJ, two days before his arrest in 2020
Like both Gandhi and Jesus, Father Swamy was arrested for treason despite being dedicated to the principles of nonviolence. Two days prior to his impending arrest in 2020, he denied the treason charges but remained steadfast in his commitment to social justice for the marginalized and challenging his government’s erosion of human and civil rights of its minority populations. Eight months later, on July 5, 2021, due to declining health, Father Swamy died in a prison hospital.
In a less famous quote, Gandhi also said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Father Swamy’s refusal to be a silent spectator to injustice personified a gentle shaking of our current world that I suspect Gandhi would have agreed was “so like our Christ.”