Mahatma Gandhi famously complained that converting to Christianity meant converting to beef and bourbon. Some Indian converts also wore European clothing. This offended Gandhi’s religious and cultural sensibilities.
Christianity’s interaction with culture has a complicated history. All of us live Christianity in our particular time, place, and culture. The eternal Word comes in our flesh, dressed in our garb, speaking with our accent. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Jesus Himself was a Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel when the calendar flipped from BC to AD.
We can’t avoid bringing culture when we bring Christ. Sometimes we identify our culture with Christ in ways that aren’t really biblical. Gandhi’s complaint about European clothes fits here. Hudson Taylor (founder of China Inland Missions) ran foul of conventional wisdom by dressing like the Chinese and adopting other cultural particulars. While the Bible tackles things like modesty, there’s nothing right or wrong about styles of dress. There’s no need for Christians to make clothing (or many other things) a conversion issue.
Beef and bourbon are another matter. In India, cows are identified with Brahman, the high god of the Hindu pantheon. Bovines are considered sacred and aren’t eaten. Many Hindus don’t eat any meat in order to avoid harming other species.
Like it or not, we are what we eat. Or rather, we eat what we are. What am I saying? Choices about the most mundane things–like food–reflect our worldview. Converting to Christianity means comprehensive change. For a Hindu convert, cows go from being gods to God-given food (Gen. 9:3). A person freed from cowing to false gods might do worse than celebrating with a juicy steak 😉
Being Jewish, the first Christians grappled with their own dietary restrictions. Some foods were unclean under the law (Lev. 11). The cross of Jesus Christ fully dealt with uncleanness. Faith in Jesus freed early Christians from dietary legalism (Acts 10). This is the other side of the coin from Hindu animal worship. Whatever your diet, when you come to Jesus, He is Lord of menus.
Bourbon seems like the wrong kind of spirit for a religious person to get involved with. I’m not going to advocate too strongly for bourbon. What with addiction and other problems, alcohol should be handled with care (if at all). Paul said we shouldn’t “get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
Bourbon represents the decadence that is anathema to ascetics like Gandhi. Ascetics deprive or punish themselves as spiritual discipline. They think this will help them ascend the ladder of spiritual enlightenment. Again, this is an issue of worldviews. Paul said while ascetic disciplines have a reputation of wisdom “they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence” (Col. 2:23). Fast, frown on bourbon, tie yourself in yoga knots, or whip yourself all you want. It won’t make you more spiritual. It’s just flesh masquerading as spirituality. In Christianity, there is only one thing that deals with the passions and desires of the flesh–the death of Christ revealed in a person’s soul by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:24; Rom. 8:13).
Paul said, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Faith is not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all endeavor. Some have the faith for beef and bourbon, some do not. Paul says we shouldn’t judge each other in areas where God has given us liberty to differ. Whatever our convictions, grace is paramount.
Too bad Gandhi didn’t join Jesus’s followers instead of taking pot shots at them from the outside. Had he followed Jesus, he might have discovered new vistas of liberty in Christ. Who knows? He might have even tried beef and bourbon instead of having a cow about them. 😉