Christ of the American Road sums up E. Stanley Jones’ attempt to “interpret the kinds of Christianity emerging out of the American democracy.” Jones believed that each nation contained within itself a unique and distinctive interpretation of the universal Christ. According to Jones, America is a possibility and a portent, for here peoples from nearly all the nations of the earth have gathered, and become one nation. For Jones, the solution to America’s longstanding structural flaws was a spiritual battle against apathy and selfishness. This book is nothing less than a detailed battle plan for the reconsecration of the United States.
In many ways, the United States of America, as it approaches the quarter mark of the twenty-first century, is at a crossroads. Will it live up to its promise as a nation of nations that lives out the premise of its Declaration of Independence that asserts that “All men are created equal . . .” or will it fail to embody those words? E. Stanley Jones words to the American people today are as relevant and applicable as they ever were. I commend reading this newly edited version of a classic of Christian literature. Its power to transform lives on. For those of us living in the United States and others who seek to understand this country, this book deserves our attention.
E. Stanley Jones’ influence lives on through the legacy of his books and the United Christian Ashram movement that continues to transform lives. Jones traveled from India to the United States in 1941 for what was intended to be a short visit. World events prolonged his stay. Because of a travel ban at the outbreak of World War II and because Great Britain was reluctant to renew his visa to return to India (he supported India’s independence from England), E. Stanley Jones remained in the United States for an extended period between 1941 and 1945. His wife, Mabel, and daughter, Eunice, remained in India.
Jones used the time wisely in the US. He preached all over the country. He established Christian Ashrams in the US, which he had started in India ten years earlier. And, he wrote The Christ of the American Road. His first major book, The Christ of the Indian Road, published in 1925, had an enormous impact. It sold more than a million copies and established Jones as a major international figure. It told of his own story as a missionary in India and his call to spread the good news of Jesus among the higher castes in India. He wrote about the right way to introduce the gospel in a context that was non-Western and of differing religious traditions.
The Christ of the American Road laid out what the United States needed to do to live out the promise of the reign of God. Jones suspected that the success of The Christ of the Indian Road was rooted in his assertion that “each nation has something distinctive to contribute to the interpretation of the universal Christ” (p. 7). The Christ of the American Road asserts that we start our inquiry into American distinctiveness with the person of Christ. “For Christ is the Absolute. He is our Starting Point. He is the Master Light of all our seeing,” writes Jones (p. 19).
While Jones was primarily an Evangelist, in this book he also served as a prophet. He spoke a prophetic word about the history of racism in the United States. “I want America to be the real America—the America of ‘liberty and justice for all’” (p. 78). For Jones, America needed to address the systemic restrictions and segregations that disfranchised African Americans from the promise and possibility of America. He spoke a prophetic word about the institutional discrimination towards Asian Americans, especially the encampment of Japanese-Americans at the onset of World War II. And, he foretold the methodology needed to redress the sins of racism by using non-violent non-cooperation—a methodology implemented by Martin Luther King, Jr., a reader of Jones’ books.
Jones was first and foremost an Evangelist. He preached and taught the “untrammeled Christ”—that is, the Christ who speaks into the heart of humankind and human history. For Jones history is “His Story—the story of God awakening within humankind twin desires: the desire for a new order of justice and harmony, and the desire for a leader who will lead humankind into that order” (p. 27). For Jones, the order that humankind seeks is embodied in what Jesus taught as “The Kingdom of God.” The leader that humankind desires is Jesus. Thus, we have an order and a leader: The Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.
But what of the distinctive American contribution to the universal Christ? Jones speaks of the great possibility of America. “For here nearly all the nations of the earth have gathered and have become one nation. The blood of all the world is in our veins. If we succeed, then all the world succeeds with us” (p. 64). If we fail, however, we let the world down. Whether we succeed or fail has yet to be determined. His was an extraordinary life that bore witness to his complete devotion to Jesus Christ. I wrote these words about him in my book, A Missionary Mindset:
He was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, and his writings deeply influenced Martin Luther King Jr. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a confidant of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and an inspiration to Billy Graham. He was described as the greatest missionary since the apostle Paul. He wrote twenty-nine books that were translated into thirty languages. His first of ten devotional books, Victorious Living, sold more than 1 million copies after it came out in 1936. In 1938 Time magazine called him “the world’s greatest missionary evangelist.”
The Reverend Douglas W. Ruffle, Ph.D., is Director of Community Engagement and Church Planting Resources/Path1 and liaison with The Upper Room at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of A Missionary Mindset: What Church Leaders Need to Know to Reach Their Communities—Lessons from E. Stanley Jones (Discipleship Resources; 2016).
We live in the twenty-first century when the word “truth” has lost any value whatsoever as a shared reality. We have my truth, your truth, his truth, her truth: different strokes for different folks. It took Western Christianity about 1800 years to develop a view on religious tolerance, actually religious freedom, to make this possible. We still are not there in many quarters because intolerance of difference is much more prevalent than we are prone to admit. Full respect for difference of perspective, especially on religion, is a hard-sought and seldom-found commodity. More than a half-century ago, E. Stanley Jones was already there.
His words in the Introduction to the first edition of Christ of the American Road encapsulate his perspective well.
AFTER TWENTY YEARS in India I wrote The Christ of the Indian Road. I gave the manuscript to the publisher with an apology and went back to India. I expected nothing from it. Its reception was a surprise to me. . . . It was new to a good many people to find that each nation has something distinctive to contribute to the interpretation of the universal Christ. Seeing Christ in the light of one national interpretation—their own—they took it for granted that this was the interpretation, the Truth itself. They were surprised to find that other peoples, with a different ethnic history and culture, might bring out other phases and emphases of the universal Christ which they had missed. . . . For none of us has the Truth. The Truth is in Christ— the Truth. What we hold are truths about the Truth. We need, therefore, the other person’s truth to add to our truths, so that our pooled truths may more closely approximate Jesus, who is the Truth. I say, “more closely approximate,” for even our pooled truths are forever this side of the Truth.
It is doubtful that Jones was aware of it, but his line of reasoning was part and parcel of the way that early Protestants came to a position on freedom to interpret Scripture: Christians largely agree on the essentials of their faith and most disputes are about non necessaria – over which consensus is neither needed nor possible. Indeed, a wide variety of views may legitimately be derived from Scripture, which meant that diversity of belief is not harmful, but rather contain a certain value and validity: “In God’s eyes, each strand comprises fragments of truth.” Whereas the early Protestants were reasoning about the authority of Scripture and how it is to be interpreted, Jones is reasoning about the nature of Jesus as the Universal Christ – applicable to all peoples, in all places and times.
I believe that Jones had to write the Christ of the Indian Road before he could have the wisdom and perspective to author Christ of the American Road. It seems to me that Jones infers this strongly, but I say it also because it is my lived experience. I went to The Netherlands to live for a year as an exchange student in 1964-1965. I spent a year studying in the Dutch gymnasium – a university prep-school. I chose the side of the curriculum that concentrated on history, culture, and languages – studying 4 languages simultaneously in what was initially for me a foreign language. My “Dutch father”, who knew that I wanted to study theology, gave me lessons in ecumenism that shaped my life permanently. We mostly attended the Dutch Reformed Church, but we also worshipped in more than twenty different churches of various theological persuasions – including Jewish synagogues and temples, as well as liberal and conservative Roman Catholic congregations. Needless to say, I would never again view my traditional Wesleyan holiness upbringing with the same simplicity of perspective. I went back to Holland at the age of 26 to pastor a Dutch-speaking congregation. After my doctoral studies at Leiden, I taught theology as a school of theology in German-speaking Switzerland. I have since have had a sabbatical research year in England, and two sabbaticals in The Netherlands.
My point here is not my biography. This is about getting outside one’s own skin. The following words from Jones stir my heart deeply, almost to the point of tears, because I feel in the depth of my being an identification with the truth contained in these words:
I have been living away from America for many years. That is an advantage, for after living abroad you see your country in the total setting of the world. “He who knows only one language doesn’t know any”; so, he who knows only one country doesn’t know any. You must see your country, with all its strengths and weaknesses and shortcomings, in contrast. No one has ever really seen the Statue of Liberty who hasn’t seen it after a long absence from this land. I can understand the soldier who, after a long absence in the South Seas, on returning to America, knelt down and kissed the soil of his homeland. Something goes up and down my spine whenever, after a long time abroad, I sail up the Hudson and see the Statue of Liberty. And if a silent tear of gratitude for the meaning of that statue falls down my cheeks, I let it fall—unashamed. But just to be away and come back is not enough. You must get under the skin of the situation when you do come back. In none of my previous visits had I ever been able to accomplish that. I talked to America from the outside. I preached at her, and most of the preaching was critical. America was not what I had hoped to find her, and I told her so, sometimes in stinging phrases. I never belonged. I felt I belonged to the East, and was talking to the West. I felt I must plead for my adopted lands against the wrongs the West had imposed on them.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is purported to have said, “The same man can never step in the same river twice, his point being, the man has changed and the river has changed. What Jones is saying is: You can never go back home. You want it to be the same as when you left, but it is not the same, but neither are you. There is something exotic about reading this book that requires a flight of the imagination. If you did not read Christ of the Indian Road before reading American Road, I encourage you to do so. If you are reading this “Afterword” before reading the book itself, take this challenge. This is not a matter of just reading books in chronological order, it is about occupying one emotional and cultural space as a preparation to indwell the other. Jones went to India and culturally assimilated to the point that he was a stranger in his own land when he returned. When this happens to you, you have lost the naivete of your simple version of what home means. You are at home in two cultures, but never again 100% at home in either. It is an awkward place.
In a sense, Indian Road and American Road are the sides of a single coin: a solitary missionary struggling with two different cultural perspectives on the Universal Christ. You learn from both, and the amalgamation is a new thing. Citizens of each nation are proud of their heritage, but singularity of cultural vision is never as rich as an assimilation. Each contributes a distinctive dimension to form a new whole. Nationalism is not a new thing, but Jones has admonished us that America is not a Christian nation in any singular sense. Indeed, not Christian at all in any comprehensive sense. Jones admits that he was prone to chastise America, but I wonder whether he suffered from a “false guilt” on this point. In the twentieth century, especially, we Americans have measured the purity of our Christianity by our faithfulness to certain interpretations of The Book. Here, it seems to me, that Jones is touching the right nerve: “We are not primarily what Moslem’s call Ahlekitab – ‘The People of the Book’ – we [Christians] are primarily the “People of the Person.” We follow a living mind instead of a fixed letter.”
Jones reflects at one level, and also anticipates at another level, how theologies of hope have developed when theologians have taken Christocentricity seriously, when he says, “While Christ is behind us in history . . . nevertheless, he is beyond us, ahead of us, on the further side of our twenty centuries.” God is not only beyond our twenty centuries; God indwells time but is simultaneously beyond all time. This is an eschatological theology in which we are being drawn into God’s future. We live in an “already” (Christ has appeared) but simultaneously a “not yet” moment – for He will come again. This is a reign of God future (Jones uses the word “Kingdom) that encompasses all time, but it is not an abstraction: “The gospel of the Kingdom of God preached alone without the Person is interesting and arouses loyalty, but it lacks the tender intimacies of a personal relationship to a person. That is one reason why the gospel of the Kingdom of God preached in America a generation ago exhausted itself and degenerated into social service. It lacked being embodied in a Person.” The reign of God reduced to a grand ideal is not the Gospel: “Christ is not only the revelation of the nature of God, but also the revelation of the nature of God’s reign.” When I try to sum up in a single sentence what Jones is trying to say, it comes out like this. It is a paraphrase of Jones’ own words: Only One gathers up all the good of the lesser plans that the world’s religions have conceived and eliminates their shortcomings and wrongs. Only One can appeal to all men, of all races, and embody the reign of God in this world. That is the Universal Christ. Analyze every single one of his Round Table Discussions, and this is the essential premise that informs every conclusion to which he comes. He listened with reverence and patience to every voice, but his message remained essentially the same. On the Indian Road and on the American Road, the Universal Christ is The Message.
W. Stephen Gunter
February 19, 2020