A prophecy hidden in Dalit-ness

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By Valson Thampu

I am afraid the Indian Christian community is drifting towards a historical and existential crisis. The shape of that crisis can be read today from the status of Christian Dalits in mainstream Christianity. 

What is that status? Christian Dalits are second-class Christians. They are assigned a space somewhere in the margin. That all Christians have equal worth in the sight of God is an ideal from which the church as a power-centered organization is light-years away. 

Now turn to Jesus. He had a profound sense of history. Without making a song and dance about it he said, treat others as you would be treated by them. The obvious derivative of this teaching is that how you treat others, especially those who are, in theory, part of your fold, will be the way you will be treated in due course. Today you could be provoking your future Nemesis, if you do not heed the basic logic of history. Wisdom demands that tomorrow is factored into the strategies for today. 

Brotherhood, as the French novelist Victor Hugo emphasized, is the essence of the biblical faith. Bishop Myriel, in Les Miserable, is a matchless embodiment of this spiritual insight. The power of his spirituality is that it transforms a convict, Jean Valjean, into a brother. Encountering that man of God proves the most significant turning point in the life of Jean Valjean. I deem Victor Hugo’s novel a ‘must-read’ for all Christians, especially for bishops, archbishops and cardinals. 

In this story, Jean Valjean is the counterpart, if you like, of the Dalits in the Indian Christian Community. He is the legal outcast. He has nowhere to belong to. 

Fortunately, there was a bishop (his full name includes ‘Bienvenu’, which means welcome. He is at times called Monsignor Bienvenu) who had the spiritual freedom to ‘welcome,’ which is, according to Hugo, the essence of the Christian ideal of brotherhood; 

The hypocrisy in the church’s imperialist outlook is that people are brought to (I do not say ‘brought into’) the fold without any intention to welcome them in. Church wants to swell its fold, but without having to put itself under the burden of brotherhood. To understand what this means let us turn, yet again, to Jesus Christ. 

Why did Jesus teach us to call God our ‘Father in Heaven’? If God is our Father, are we not sisters and brothers to each other. If God is our Father, and God is love, are we not obliged to love one another? And if we love one another, as Jesus commanded we should (Jn.13:34), would not we accept each other ‘wart and all’? Would there be any social, economic, or cultural label that hinders this brotherhood and sisterhood? 

The condemnation of the Indian Church is that it never bothered even to consider what this bottom-line spiritual discipline entailed. As a result, conversion–in particular, the conversion of Dalits-became a masked colonial enterprise. The converts became ‘subjects’ (or possessions or assets) of the religious colonisers; not fellow Christians with equal worth and dignity. This explains why our Dalit-ness never ended, and will never end unless we liberate ourselves and become true children of God, which we are yet to be. 

There is a massive qualitative difference between being members of various churches, and being children of God. In the former case, you obey the hierarchy; in the latter, you seek the will of God and shape your spiritual destiny accordingly. In the former, you consent to be accommodated and are satisfied with tokens. In the latter, what matters to you is if you are a new creation or not. In the former, you become a second-class Christian; in the latter, you have to become a child of God. 

If Christian Dalits do not become a new creation through Christ Jesus, how are they Christian? If they think that the church will do this alchemy to them, they are mistaken for the simple reason that the church is not, itself, a new creation. The church is in the business of re-creating Jesus to suit its vested interests, something that I have argued in an earlier piece. Rather than expect the church to minister to them, Indian Christian Dalits must wake up to their duty to minister to the church. For the Dalits, the church is the principal mission field. 

Let us take our eyes off the Dalit plight and consider where the church is headed. (I do not think here of different denominations. To me, all denominations are parts of the Christian community. Together, they constitute the church.) 

The church as it exists today is incapable of doing justice to the Dalits. Why do I say this? The church is not, first of all, a people-centered body. It is a hierarchic and prelates-centric structure. Power-brokering is the essence of hierarchy. It was for this reason that Jesus excluded hierarchy from his view of the spiritual community. Hierarchy is incompatible with community and communion; though in our midst it is the hierarchy that presides over the communion! (More on this, on a future occasion.) 

Indian Dalits must attach to the ‘annihilation of hierarchy’ the same importance that B. R. Ambedkar attached to the annihilation of caste. They stand in no chance of becoming full and equal Christians, otherwise. 

Consider the church big-wigs. Do not they revel in inequality? Why this show and pomp? (As Karl Marx said about capitalists, it is not by dint of any personal virtue or merits that bishops, archbishops and major archbishops dominate the Dalits. What capital is to capitalists, hierarchy is to bishops? We will look at this more closely in a forthcoming piece in this series.) Why this material splendour and exotic lavishness, especially given that they had taken the vow of poverty? Why do our bishops live like old-world emperors, warding off even minuscule accountability and flying in the face of all democratic principles? One has to be extraordinarily blind to fail to see that this system is founded on sanctified inequality. Bring the spiritual ideal of the equality of all in God, what will happen to our church worthies? Would not they look pathetic and awkward? 

If Dalits have a mustard seed of historical sense, they ought to realize that equality and dignity will not be available to them from this scheme of things. It was not available to Jesus Christ! What chance do we stand, then? 

Indian Christian Dalits need to heed the teachings of Jesus: ‘Repent’. For God’s sake realize that this cry to repent is pronounced in the face of the hierarchically organized Judaic religious establishment. It is of our mode of religiosity that we need to repent, first and foremost. Why? Because the purpose of this repentance is to ‘enter the Kingdom of God,’ and not to beg or bargain for the crumbs that fall from the tables of earthly and ecclesial masters. 

It is high time we realized that the liberation Jesus promises is liberation from demonic religiosity, characterised by Mammon-worship. The essence of this religiosity is that it substitutes love with power. To the sacerdotal oligarchs who run the church, love is a mere, empty sound. What makes sense to them is power. They are power-brokers. The supreme value for all power-brokers is wealth. This makes church hierarchy resemble predatory corporate management. Everything is done for profit. Everything is valued with profit as the yardstick. On this scale, the Dalits are sure to suffer slight and neglect. 

In this context, the Dalits constitute an interesting phenomenon. They are, and are not, a profit to church. They denote profit in two ways: they are price catches, but only in the pre-conversion phase. In many instances, this motivates huge international funding, the full extent of which is kept a closely guarded secret. Secondly, the Dalits are a profit to the extent that they help to swell the ranks of Christians, increasing the political clout of bishops, archbishops and cardinals. 

Other than this, the Dalits are a loss from the perspective of high caste Christians. I remember a Mar Thoma Church enthusiast–needless to say, a high caste Christian- telling me with unconcealed pride, ‘I am grateful to my church for not compromising its purity by bringing Dalits into the fold’. The presence of Dalits in the fold dents the social prestige of the church. I consider this to be tantamount to fraud. It was for this reason that I took a stand against conversion a quarter of a century ago. I have always been unbearably upset by the plight of Dalit Christians in the Christian fold. They simply do not belong. They are far from accepted and integrated. 

I contend that how the upper-caste-centric church treats Dalit Christians today will be how Hindutva will treat tomorrow Christians as a whole, including the Christian elite who fool themselves into believing that they are Christian Brahmins and will be accepted as such. For better, for worse, the Hindus perceive the Indian church as a Dalit entity. What the Dalits are to upper-caste Christians, caste Christians will be to the Hindus soon. Those who have bothered to examine the ideological architecture of Hindutva will agree with what I apprehend here. 

This apprehension of mine is, furthermore, in sync with the teachings of Jesus and the logic of history. 

I have watched with growing alarm how the church hierarchy over the last half a century has weakened in every imaginable way the secular-democratic fabric of India to secure fleeting advantages for itself. This is more evident in Kerala: the only major state in India where Christians matter politically. Politics has been deliberately communalised for a mess of pottage. Given the extent of our hypocrisy and capacity for self-deception, we assume that it is all right for us to communalise politics for our gain, but it is wrong for the Hindus to do so. This will not wash. 

If we dare to be truthful, we will agree that Hindutva is a larger version of elite Christianity. The church is driven by high-caste hierarchical domination that holds democratic principles in contempt. Yet, the very same bishops sound aggrieved that the Hindutva camp wants to do what they have always done. 

Hindutva is a movement to secure and perpetuate upper-caste Hindu domination over the rest of the amorphous Hindu community. The church is nothing, if not an institution of upper caste and upper-class domination. Hindutva is the church hierarchy couched in a different colour, running late by a few decades. 

It is suicidal for Indian Christian Dalits to be caught in this melee of worldliness. When a community comes under adverse notice, it is always the poor and the despised in it that suffer most. The elite know how to save their skin. They will sacrifice anything and everyone for that purpose. They would not let even Jesus stand in the way of their advantage. As Jesus said, hirelings will readily throw the sheep to the wolves, if that helps to keep their skin intact. And to make it look normal, even privileged, they will preach the spiritual privilege of sahanam, or suffering, (so long as it is others who suffer); their lips moistened, as a European philosopher put it, with gushing orations. 

(The writer is a former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. Views are personal).

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