I recently saw the movie Monuments Men with George Clooney and Matt Damon. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away-so there is no need for a spoiler alert! There is a scene in the movie when one of the characters, a lieutenant in the British army, goes to protect the famous sculpture, The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo. The priest, who let’s the lieutenant into the church, asks him “Are you Catholic?” The lieutenant’s simple answer, “Today I am,” was one of the most poignant and memorable moments in the movie for me.
As I say that, however, I realize that this scene’s impact would have been lost to me as a teenager growing up in Mumbai in the 80’s. It was only after I came to the west that I started to realize how distinct the many denominations of Christianity are. In Mumbai, I had a few Christian acquaintances but never thought to ask what denomination they were. Perhaps this was because they were in the minority and distinguishing them as Christian from the diverse Indian milieu of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Parsees, Sikhs etc was more than enough. However, I soon learned that this approach can be both problematic and insensitive, particularly in the West. In fact, I clearly remember the first time I realized just how important these distinctions were.
I was living in Santiago, Chile and I referred to a Chilean acquaintance as Christian. She immediately turned to me and said, in Spanish, “No soy Christiana, soy Catholica!” (I am not Christian, I am Catholic!) The look of surprise on my face must have been comical- I was absolutely flummoxed! I eventually came to realize that many Spanish speaking Catholics call every other denomination, except their own, ‘Christian’.
Luckily, I am a fast learner and I quickly educated myself to the differences between the sects and learned to be more sensitive when I spoke of the many Christian paths.
I think this issue of not seeing the differences that exist within religions that are not our own is a common mistake. It gets compounded if a certain religious tradition is in the minority. For instance, when I lived in India, Christians were in the minority and as such they oftentimes found it more useful to present themselves as a united group rather than as a number of separate Christian denominations. Similarly, when I tell Americans that there are a vast number of Hindu sects, many of whom do not see eye to eye, my words are met with surprise. It is only when I point to the diversity within Christianity does a look of understanding cross their faces. Obviously, this is because Hindus are in the minority here and as such it is much easier for Hindus who live outside of India to gloss over their differences. But that does not mean that these distinctions somehow disappear when Hindus move to the West- just that they are not usually spelled out when speaking with non-Hindus.
It is clear that there are times when our differences are really important to us and we need others to understand them. And yet, there are other instances- like the scene in Monuments Men- when these same differences are completely irrelevant. Indeed, I know a great number of Hindus, who, if moved by the need to protect something sacred, no matter the tradition it belonged to- would also repeat the very same words uttered by the lieutenant, “Today I am.”