Being Salt & Light on Campus

How to stay relevant

University life is perhaps, the most dynamic chapter of a student’s life. For many young people passing out of school and moving on to college feels like being freed into a world of independence! And so, ‘live life to the fullest’ seems to be the slogan. In every sense, this is the most impressionable stage.

But as time goes by, most students end up chasing datelines or caught up between assignments and examinations – like a different level of rat race for “good grades”. Sometimes, it can be like you’re pushed into a meaningless pursuit of a degree because without it you can’t get a job! But is that all? Is life all about scoring good grades, getting a job and settling down?

Through this article I wish to press home the point that there’s life beyond individual quests, and true fulfilment is when you realize the purpose of a greater call as human beings. And this is more pertinent to Christians because the Bible tells us that we are to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”, as we read from Matthew 5: 13-16 (please read). Articulated in the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this portion lays stress on “how to” live as Jesus’ disciples – living out the Gospel in the world. By using the metaphors of “salt” and “light” Jesus is implying that his disciples are to possess the same nature or qualities of the salt and light. Let’s quickly look at some of the distinctiveness of the two metaphors in discussion.

Qualities of salt: Salt penetrates and is essential to enhance the taste of food (adds flavour). And in the ancient Greco-Roman world salt was considered to possess some “divine” quality, as that of the sun. Salt preserves (from decadence). It is the most common preservatives in many cultures (now we have refrigerators!). Salt purifies (heals), even though it hurts when you rub it to a wound to heal. In the Old Testament it is also symbolic of God’s presence/activity in a person’s life (“everlasting covenant of salt” [Num. 18: 19]; “add salt to all your offerings” [Lev. 2: 13]). The Bible commentator William Barclay says that Christians are to be “the antiseptic influence on life”, that is, we are called to preserve the culture from decadence.

The underlining principle here is that we are called to be the salt that adds flavour to the world around, preserves the goodness to life and heal the world through our actions.

We can effectively be the salt that God wants us to be by being what the salt does best – dissolve/penetrate. No one eats chunks of salt in the curry, do we? Likewise, we’re also expected to penetrate and let others feel our presence and influence the world through our life. That is such a contrasting idea as compared with what the world says because it’s a call to live a counter-cultural lifestyle.

Qualities of light: Light dispels darkness – the first you do when you enter a dark room is grope for the switch! Light is meant to be seen – that’s why Jesus said a lit lamp is not put under a bowl (5: 15). And light shows the way – it’s meant to let passersby see the passage clearly. But we must first understand that we do not produce light. Only God does! Jesus says in John 8: 12, “… I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And later, he also said in John 9: 5, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So, now that Jesus is not physically with us, we, his disciples, are to be his representatives. We are to reflect his light through our lives. It’s a tough call, but that is the truth to be imbibed.

Now, what do we do with this light? Verses 5: 14b-15a says that we can either let it shine for others to see or hide it and dim it! The underlining principle here is that when the truth of Jesus illuminates our life, we have the duty to shine the same light for others! When people see you as a person who is genuine, unpretentious, morally sound, honest, and living a life of integrity, you shine the light of Jesus! But then, quite often, it also happens that we end up hiding out light – when you are quiet when we should speak or do things because everyone else is doing, even at the point of compromising lifestyle. And it is also when we allow sin rule our life – this can also be in subtle ways – complacency, resentment, anger, stubbornness, disobedience, etc. There’s an interesting book titled Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins we Tolerate by Jerry Bridges that covers this aspect which you might want to check out!

But the basis to do all these is “that they [people] may see the good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (5: 16 b). This is the key verse! The reason we are to be salt and light is for God’s glory. Note that the stress in this portion is how our good deeds – our action and our life – should point others to God. As disciples of Jesus, we are to be different by the way we live. When they see you different, they will want to know what makes you different. That’s when you can tell them about how God changed your lives. So, how do you live out your life at your place of stay or campus? The question that I would like to pose is – are Christians able to make the impact they should in these areas?

Os Guinness, in his book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, (1998), makes an interesting statement – “The problem with […] Christians is not that they aren’t where they should be but that they aren’t what they should be where they are.” In other words, it’s not about whether you’re in the right place or not (because you already are) but whether we are what we are called to be!

Christians have a call beyond individuals, that is a holistic focus on the whole of university life. And so, for Christian missions to have the right impact, I suggest the following:

Reimagine and re-evaluate the idea of “mission” (on campus):
Understandably, the spread of Christianity throughout the modern world is largely driven by the word “mission”. However, in the last few centuries, the Christian mission is chiefly centered on “evangelism”, more specifically the Western world evangelizing the rest of the world. But of late, as far as I understand, there has been a shift in this understanding, primarily with the decline of Christianity in the West and the rise of it in the Global South. I think there is a critical need to look into our understanding of “mission” so that it is holistic in the biblical sense, and not just be limited to personal (human) evangelism. We need to understand that the Christian mission should broaden to include how we relate to God’s creation beyond human beings and that God’s redemptive plan includes restoring the world back to his original plan. Often, our overzealous effort to ‘win’ someone for Christ can lead to a suspicion because it tends to picturize the idea of ‘poaching’ unbelievers. The constant use of dichotomy in our language – saved/unsaved, light/darkness, etc. can often put off conversations because it has a tendency to assert a superior idea of ‘righteousness’.

Engage and dialogue with the university life:
To engage and dialogue is to be involved with the issues that are raging in the campus. Often Christian missions end up being aloof or uninvolved – the danger of becoming exclusive – to discussions on campus. The point is not to pick Christians out or away into a Christian group because you do “Bible study” or involve in a camp, etc.

To be salt and light on campus is to be engaging with the issues that are discussed in the class or at the university.

Perhaps, it would be helpful to ask questions like:

  • Do you as Christian students stand up against social injustice or say join protests that are focused on larger social issue?
  • How do you respond to the debates that are on campus – education, discrimination, caste, citizenship, sexuality, dating, etc.?
  • How are you able to interject and influence the discussions in the class – on topics like gender, class, stereotypes, etc.? (Can those be chosen for assignment topics or presentation, given a chance?)

Redeeming the centres of learning:
The word “redeem” may seem quite out of place when one first thinks of universities, but that is because we tend to ghettoize that word among the ‘Christian jargons’. But essentially, learning has a spiritual component to it, as Howard Peskett & Vinoth Ramachandra would put in their book The Message of Mission (2003), that “universities had their origin in the monasteries which were the centres of learning as well as prayer.” So, in a sense, there is a need to rethink the very purpose of the quest for knowledge. But this effort requires all those who are part of the university, not just students, to participate in engaging purposefully. There is a need to think Christian ministries on campus beyond student-centric models. In other words, Christians in the academia, students/scholars and faculty alike, ought to find ways to engage their own academic disciplines with a Christian perspective. I would like to see UESI and other student movements along this line. And to keep up with the changing time, there is also the need to network with like minded Christians in the university campuses to initiate conversations on a holistic understanding of the university in the society.

Veio Pou is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi, lives with his wife Ashuni and two daughters, Debbie and Joy. He is the author of ‘Waiting for the Dust to Settle: A novel (2020)’ and ‘Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015)’. He likes to engage on various contemporary issues that relate to society, culture, and faith.

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