Biblical understanding of Dalits

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By Sr. Robancy A Helen

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Psalm 118: 22). This is the hope and the expectation when the Christians especially the Dalit Christians are discriminated against treated as untouchables and socially excluded.

Two thousand years ago, Gentiles and even many Jews were discriminated against because they were poor; they were widows, lepers, tax collectors and so on. They were expecting the Messiah to liberate them. Today, the Dalits also have the understanding that in the kingdom of God we all are equal. This is the faith and hope of true Christians.

The Dalit Empowerment Policy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) says in the introduction, the Dalits are historically the sons and daughters of the soil–today alienated from it and they are silenced and robbed of dignity, largely deprived of the necessities of life. They are discriminated against by the Church, socially excluded by the so-called caste-minded people as those who outcaste in Jesus’ time.

The so-called high caste Christians think that they can be good Christians if they cling to the unjust caste discrimination. For their understanding, this is to be just and merciful, humiliating, discriminating the Dalits. But the Bible did not preach that message of inequality to us. The first book in the Bible gives us the message of dignity and equality. So, God created human beings in His image (Genesis 1: 27).

The Jews thought that the Messiah would come and redeem only the people of Israel, but what happened was starting from the annunciation of Archangel Gabriel to Mother Mary till today the kingdom of God is for all especially those who are considered and treated as outcasts. The good news was sent to a woman Mary of Nazareth and was also cherished by two women Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.

Before the birth of Jesus, God’s salvation is revealed through Mary and her acceptance. Mary understands the magnanimity of God and she praises God in the Magnificat. “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent away the rich empty” (Lk1:46 -55).

Being the son of God, Jesus was born outside of the city, a small town called Bethlehem in Judea where he chose manger to be his birthplace and the shepherds were the first visitors. Anawim Yahweh that is the poor of Yahweh takes a stand always to be with the poor and this is proved all through the life of Jesus.

When Jesus started his public ministry, he goes to the synagogue and the programmatic summary of Jesus’ ministry runs as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and to announce the Lord’s year of Mercy” (Lk 4: 18-19).

The vision behind this is to build an egalitarian and exclusive community of God’s reign, where God alone will be the Father and all others will be His children without any room for any kind of discrimination (CBCI Dalit Empowerment Policy# 62).

Jesus goes and eats with the sinners and the tax collectors. He finds Zacchaeus and goes to dine with him. By sharing the meal, he makes him feel salvation is for all. Here sinners are not evil-minded but they are spiritually poor. Jesus transforms their spiritual poverty into dignity.

Jesus calls Mathew once again the tax collector and makes him his Apostle. Jesus always has a special love for the people who were oppressed, secluded by society. This was his mission, to bring all the people under God’s kingdom.

Women were considered and treated as slaves in the Jewish communities. The gentiles were untouchable and unseeable for the Jews like the washermen, the gentiles were unseeable—for example, the Samaritan woman. The poor woman comes to fetch water in the noontime where there is no one (Jn 4: 6-7). And Jesus talks with her about the scriptures which he did not do openly with his apostles. Jesus knew the mind of the Jews and he breaks the social custom of speaking to women especially the Samaritans.

The Dalit women are Dalits among Dalits, voiceless and vulnerable but Jesus’ approach to people like women was extraordinary.

Again we find Jesus’ mission with the Canaanite woman whom he tells, “it is not right to take the bread from the children and throw it to the little dogs” (Matt 15: 25-27). Jesus’ answer to her help may seem to be of negligence, but Jesus praises the Canaanite woman’s faith. In Jewish society, the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the so-called high-class people. They treated the others like outcasts and untouchables but Jesus never stood with those who discriminated against others.

The widows were given special attendance. “But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (Lk 4:26).

Jesus feels pity at the widow of Nain and raises her son to life (Luke 7: 1-17). The lepers were also kept separate in the Jewish society but Jesus touches them and heals them. His actions embraced the unwanted people.

Dalit identity of Jesus

According to Arvind P. Nirmal, Jesus, despite being a Jew, is himself a Dalit in character. Jesus’ Dalitness is the key to understand both his humanity and divinity. Nirmal points out some features of Jesus’ Dalitness: in his genealogy, his life, words and deeds and above all in his death.

Today, the Dalits cannot have the right to own their lands, so to be with the poor and excluded people, Jesus died outside of the city and he did not have a place of his own to bury his body.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer,” with the words “for all peoples” (Mark 4: 17). According to the Biblical scholar R. H. Lightfoot, this action of Jesus, took place in the so-called court of the Gentiles. This court was separated by a high partition wall from the holier parts of the temple and it is said to have had little sacred significance itself.

An important incident in the life of Jesus makes sense to the Indians who had to struggle for the temple entry rights against the prevention by the non-Dalits who denied them the right to pray and worship. In some places, the Dalit Christians are not allowed in the Church, separate cemetery and separate hearse cart and so on. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus, in Nirmal’s opinion, is “a prefiguration of the vindication of the Indian Dalit struggle for their prayer and worship rights” (ARVIND P NIRMAL, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” p.154.).

Almost all Dalit theologians state that Dalit Theology is liberating in its character as it challenges caste and seeks to form a society of justice and peace.

Dalit Theology affirms the Exodus experience of the early Israelites. Although Dalits are under caste oppression on their soil, Nirmal states that Dalits trust that the God of the Exodus will redeem them from that oppression which makes them captives; since the non-Dalits are the oppressors, the triune God will not take sides with them but God will identify with Dalits as they are God’s people.

Devasahayam, another Dalit theologian, argues that God, revealed in Jesus, identifies with the oppressed Dalits as God’s people and aligns with them in their struggle. Thus for Dalit theologians, God is both a redeemer and liberator who not only offers salvation to Dalits but also liberates them from caste oppression; though salvation and liberation are for all people, including the oppressors of the Dalits.

Dalit Theology states that for Dalits, Jesus is a Dalit and a suffering Messiah who will achieve liberation for them. In the thoughts of Nirmal, Dalit Christians have a perception that they understand God only through their life situation and struggles; for them, Jesus is a serving God, as a waiter, dhobi, or bhangi and he is a suffering God for others.

It is a strong notion to claim Jesus as a Dalit and also a suffering Messiah who struggles along with Dalits. Nirmal must have arrived at this position by relating the life and mission of Jesus to the present context of Dalits. Although Jesus was born a Jew, he identified himself with Gentiles, sinners, tax collectors and immoral women.

Also, he opposed the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law. He spent most of his time in the province of Galilee with the poor, the sick and the marginalized. He condemned the dominant groups who isolated them, claiming superiority and oppressing the poor. Therefore, there appears to be every reason for Dalit Theology to claim that Jesus is a Dalit and a suffering Messiah, as Jesus had the Dalitness in him in terms of identifying with the oppressed and serving and suffering for others. This must have encouraged Dalit theologians to claim that Jesus will take sides with Dalits and that he has chosen Dalit Christians to struggle against the oppression of caste.

Dalit Theology professes freedom and peace for both Dalits and non-Dalits. Liberation struggles always aim for transformation and freedom. When transformation takes place it brings freedom to the oppressed and the oppressor alike. If caste is eradicated it will bring freedom to both Dalits and non-Dalits. For Dalits, it would free them from caste oppression; for non-Dalits, it would free them from their bondage to caste mentality.

Thus freed, Dalits and non-Dalits could live together inequality, justice and peace. Therefore, Dalit Theology, as a counter-caste ideology seeks to promote values such as liberty, equality, fraternity, freedom, and community, ensuring justice, peace and well-being for all.

A theology from the perspective of the Dalits would aim at liberation from the Brahminical social order that oppresses the Dalits, lower castes and women and at a transformation of Indian society. 

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