By Doyle Sager
While attending the Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa, this summer, some friends and I took advantage of our free afternoon and enlisted a guide for a tour of some local history. Two surprises greeted me. First, Mahatma Gandhi began his civil disobedience and non-violent protest work in South Africa, not India. In fact, he labored in Durban for over 20 years before returning to his native land.
My second Gandhi surprise was waiting for me back in Jefferson City, Mo., at our public library. Curious to know more about the great Indian leader, I checked out a few biographies and discovered that Gandhi’s first biographer and close friend was a British Baptist pastor named Joseph J. Doke, who arrived in Durban from the pastorate of Central Baptist Church in Johannesburg. The two men met on New Year’s Day 1908. Doke showed up at Gandhi’s law office for the express purpose of meeting the passionate, altruistic organizer. The minister later reported that he had expected to meet a tall, stately man, but found a “small, lithe, spare” one.
Just as humorous is Gandhi’s first impression of Doke. “On seeing the word ‘Reverend’ before his name, I wrongly imagined that he had come … to convert me to Christianity or to advise me to give up the struggle.” Was Gandhi ever delighted to be wrong! Doke demonstrated a keen familiarity with all the details of Gandhi’s justice work and said he was there because Jesus had taught him it was his duty to lighten the load of those who suffer. The Mahatma remembered Doke saying, “I cannot remain untouched and indifferent to the cry of a people.”
No doubt advocacy for the marginalized came naturally for the clergyman. He had joined with fellow Baptists in England, opposing the Education Act, which discriminated against non-Anglican children.
As early as September 1908, Doke determined to write Gandhi’s biography, which first appeared as a series of articles in 1909 in a London-based publication. His subject’s life displayed three characteristics which captivated the author: a simplicity of lifestyle, the truthfulness of his conduct, and his readiness to go to court, to suffer or to die for justice. In Doke’s eyes, Gandhi was closer to the example of Jesus of Nazareth than most Christians were!
When Rev. Joseph Doke died in August 1912, Gandhi wrote a moving tribute to the deceased man and traveled to Johannesburg to speak at the memorial service. In his eulogy, the Hindu leader told of Doke’s faithfulness to the gospel of Christ, even to the point of trying to convert Gandhi. In fact, he said, Doke refused to take no for an answer, never missing an occasion to press upon Gandhi the faith which had brought such peace to his own life.
Perhaps this international “odd couple” can teach us how to co-exist in 21st century pluralism. Despite our many differences, world religions can gather around the common good and work together to expose oppression and confront injustice. We do not have to agree on all doctrines in order to respect each other and come alongside one another in times of crisis. Their friendship reminds us that when it comes to other worldviews, we have choices other than extreme hatred or wholesale endorsement. We do not “sell out” spiritually by befriending those who are different from us. Nor do we forfeit the privilege of sharing Christ with them. If anything, Doke’s commitment to social justice had earned him the right to share his own convictions about the saving faith of Jesus Christ.
To borrow a phrase, 90 percent of servanthood is just showing up. We might add, 90 percent of evangelism is just showing up. Rev. Joseph J. Doke showed up in Gandhi’s office that New Year’s Day, many years ago, and he continued to show up for justice and peace. I’d like to think both men (and both world religions) are better for it.
For further reading, see Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha and a biography of Joseph Doke here.