Taking a cue from Buzzfeed, here are 12 ways I have a better understanding of the Bible after spending time in Mori.
1. “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
I always paid more attention to this verse’s more catchy partner, “don’t flirt to convert,” so I never fully recognized the poignancy of the yoke metaphor. But when you are traveling down an unbelievably narrow road in a full-size school bus, you realize the last thing you want is for the ox-driven cart approaching to be unbalanced. With only inches to spare anyways, a mismatched pair of oxen could spell disaster for your vehicle if the cart started to drift towards you. For the benefit of all, the yokes of animals and couples should be equal.
2. “It was about noon [w]hen a Samaritan woman came to draw water…” (John 4:6-7)
Another youth group favorite was the story of the Woman at the Well, who was forced to draw water at the hottest time of day because of her self-inflicted ostracism. The thing is, noon in these countries really is that hot, so you never see the crowds typical of dawn and dusk at the wells or pumps then. For that matter, you hardly see anyone outside at all during this midday period. I can see now why it would have been so unlikely for Jesus to run into that woman haphazardly.
3. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28)
In America, there is no modern tradition of having servants. In India, however, where the British and caste systems are still very influential, the distinction between servant and master is very clear. There are many nuances to the relationship, but it is acutely different than that of an employee and employer.* The workers are more beholden to their job site, and innately more submissive to those in charge because the caste system mandates them to be so. (Traditionally, members from higher castes can’t even eat food prepared by those in the servant/worker caste).
So when Jesus proclaims that he is to be our servant, it is so much more than simply volunteering to do a few dirty jobs. It is completely derailing the entire mental configuration of a society. It is taking upon himself all of the derogatory, ingrained beliefs about a class of people, and accepting the full weight of history’s mistreatment of those “below.” He is not merely stepping down from his high position for a day for a photo-op, like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi; he is subverting the whole system.
*I’d be curious to know if Latino workers in servant-esque jobs like gardening and housekeeping would agree. Though there is a definite stigma against them, they have more freedom (at least from my outside perspective) to leave an employer or pursue another career. The general attitude towards them, while sad and severe, is inexplicably different than that towards the sweepers here.
4. “When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:19)
I never quite understood how life could operate normally in Israel if one-quarter of the women were untouchable at any given time. It simply did not make sense to me how this could be monitored or avoided. I don’t know much about the gender roles of the Israelites, but I do imagine them to be similar to those in today’s rural India. So as I have observed, life does not suddenly halt when hundreds of men in the area celebrate Ayyappan, the festival for the son of Hindu god Shiva. Because even though the festival calls for them to avoid contact with any mature woman (thereby excluding their young daughters and elderly mothers) for a full 41 days, life here is segregated enough that this is possible. From what I can gather in my Old Testament readings, this may have been in case in ancient Israel as well.
5. “The merchant uses dishonest scales and loves to defraud.” (Hosea 12: 7)
A less remarkable revelation, but still, it is frustrating when a vendor withholds an apple because it puts your purchase over the 1 kg mark on the old-fashioned scale. It would be much more infuriating, I am sure, if he were to lie about this overage. I already have to barter with them incessantly for the right price, so that they do not cheat me just because of my skin color.
6. “Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself.” (Deuteronomy 23:12)
Another fun one, one that I wish was followed here. Because when you consistently witness men relieving themselves along the road, or against buildings in the city, you become very careful of where you step and very grateful for the laws of the States. At least the Old Testament heroes had a set, and less public place to do their business.
7. “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.” (Matthew 6:17)
For the majority of us, oily is not the adjective we want associated with our hair. For Indians, and apparently 1st century Jews, however, oil is very much a necessary cosmetic. It keeps the hair smooth and tame, and is used everyday by most men and women. The girls at school here will even get punished if they do not use it satisfactorily.
8. “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1)
Despite numerous articles stating the contrary, America does have a strong foundation in Christianity. According to conversations I’ve had here, however, Indians are not aware of America’s equally important heritage of immigration and consequent diversity of race and religion. This peaceful (for the most part) mix means that in my home country, I have never been oppressed or even slighted because of my faith.
The same is not true for my Indian brothers and sisters. One of our newest teachers was compelled to leave her last position because of the terrible treatment she received there because of her beliefs. The leader of the nation, a devout Hindu, was banned from the U.S. because of his link to violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. So when Paul tells Christians to be submissive to the law of the land, he probably did not have in mind the cozy, tolerant “land of the free,” but instead, a place where Christians are the minority, persecuted by the very ones put in power to protect them. We have a far easier task submitting to President Obama than we would to Caesar or Modi.
9. “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:22-23)
The sheer number of temples and idols in this area in astounding, especially when you remember that the gods represented here are only a handful of the millions worshiped in Hinduism. While none (that I know of) are “unknown,” it is easy to imagine Paul walking by one of the shrines, with its prison-like bars “to keep the god inside,” admonishing the devotees gathered around. These are not the “idols” of money and success that we so often extrapolate to in the West; these are carefully painted statues, adorned with flowers, worshiped daily in the hope of receiving blessings.
10. “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (1 Corinthians 11:13)
While the marks left on the Indian Church by American and English missionaries are apparent in things like the order of service and liturgy, there are many important distinctions that endure. For example, the Pentecostal denomination in Kerala chooses not to wear gold jewelry because it is clearly called for in 1 Timothy 2:9. With bangles, earrings, anklets, and gold chains abounding, this choice is even more counter-cultural here than it would be in America! Furthermore, in every church I have visited, the practice of head-covering is followed for one simple reason: the Bible says to! While I don’t think I will continue the habit at home, I have appreciated this physical reminder that prayer is not a casual or merely temporal act.
11. “Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.” (Mark 6:7)
The spirit realm is not often discussed in American churches, which, while somewhat understandable, has confined our understanding of angels and demons to a very primitive stage. I still have so much to learn/firmly believe in regarding this subject, but I have been taught here to pray with these spirits in mind. When our campus faced a series of unprecedented misfortunes this summer (thefts, a motorcycle accident, and a building collapse), the staff’s reaction was to pray specifically against an evil spirit. Sure enough, after an active prayer campaign, the strange occurrences halted. This may be a byproduct of having Hindu neighbors, but Christians here seem to have a better understanding of the spiritual world and how active it is in ours.
12. “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matthew 24:44)
Another facet of Christianity that believers here seem to have a better grasp of is eschatology, that is, the end times. This impression may be due to the fact that I am surrounded by adults here, rather than college students who prefer not to dwell on things like the rapture, but whether my ignorance is due to my age or my church, I have never encountered the phrase “Jesus is coming soon” as often as I have here. It makes my reason for being here, and the mission of this school, all the more clear: “to make His name known.”
Disclaimer: Many of the photos are not mine, simply because I try not to be obnoxious in the marketplace by pulling out my iPhone and shoving it in everyone’s face. If the opportunity naturally arises, I will replace them with my own.