Dalit, religion and liberation

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By Valson Thampu

It amazes me that Indian Christian Dalits–a problematic nomenclature, in my opinion—do not reflect adequately on their plight. Their Dalitness is in no doubt. But why do they stay Dalit, decade after decade? Why is there no light for them at the end of the tunnel? 

Why do Christian Dalits take the ‘un-Christian’ plight imposed on them for granted and remain domesticated in it? Why not at least wonder if they have the right to be truly and fully Christian, besides being Dalit? If they do not, should they call themselves ‘Christian’ Dalits,’ especially if they are indifferent to what it means to be Christian? 

There is an even more urgent and practical question to ask: Will Dalit Christians ever be emancipated inside the Church, given what the Church has come to be and the ridiculously negligible progress the Dalits have achieved in this respect in relation to the Church? 

It is my fundamental conviction that Dalitness is, at the bottom, an economic phenomenon; though its perpetuation is aided and abetted in no small measure by religion. The exploitation and degradation of a vast number of people are basic to the dominant economic interests in every society. Historically, the Church has been, invariably, on the side of the dominant elite. All organized religions are. 

This explains why Jesus embraced poverty (Lk. 9:58) and exposed the inhumanity lurking beneath the veneer of affluence. It is easier for camels to go through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. It is rarely stated in churches that the Crucifixion of Jesus had an economic compulsion. What made his judicial murder necessary was the cleansing of the Temple, by which Jesus exposed a major aberration of all organized religions, which it is vitally important for the Dalits to know.  

The essence of organized religion is not God, but the unstated creed that God is sellable. Religions are the hypermarkets for the sacred. They enjoy and exercise the monopoly to market things divine and favours supernatural. Jerusalem Temple would be incomplete without the market. In point of fact, what was sold and bought there were not some animals or birds, but God’s favour. Jesus’ protest was against turning God into merchandise. 

Why is this relevant to our theme? Well, because it has a direct link to the oppressiveness that Judaism had acquired under its priestly tutelage, which Jesus denounced explicitly and vehemently. Thematically, there is a link between the cleansing of the Temple and the denunciation of oppressive and exploitative priest-craft (Mtt. 23). To Jesus, priests degrade the laity, en masse, to Dalitness.  

The poor, the Dalits, are the sacrificial animals in the economic and religious markets of the world. In the Temple markets, animals and birds were sold. The Dalits are forced, by their plight, to ‘sell their labour-power’ in the capitalist markets of the world. The religious elite –the priestly hierarchy—is in cahoots with the system that thrives on these markets. So, the Church exploits the Dalits indirectly, via the capitalists and the moneyed class. No rich man, no corporate giant produces wealth. Wealth, as Marx said, is produced by workers. A tension exists in our midst: the tension between those who have everything and produce nothing and those who produce everything and have nothing. The Church is aligned to the former category, not the latter. 

I know every church in India. The readers also do. Now ask: Is there any church you know of that is not obsessed with ownership? Consider the scandalous fight between the Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Church in Kerala. What is it about? Is it not about ownership? Who does not know, among the laity belonging to both churches, that the more affluent a church becomes the more corrupt and oppressive it gets? Yet, how many among them have the courage to speak up and stand for the truth they know? Are they free people or slaves? A major spiritual truth writ large over the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is that accumulation of wealth and the lust to gather more and more constitute the ‘broad way’ that leads to everlasting damnation. 

Christian Dalits need to be clearer on this aspect of the intractability of the forces they deal with. Here are a few thought in that regard:

(a) Wealth aggravates indolence. The flip side of it is the clamour to be served. An army of 600 employees serves the domestic needs of Mukesh Ambani, who lives in a Rs. 12000-crore mansion. Differences of scale apart, this was true of the parasitical affluent class in Jesus’ days as well. Why else would he say, with such emphasis, that the Son of Man has come to serve, not to be served? Who serves, save the Dalits? Bishops may do symbolic feet-washing one day a year, but the rest of the days they have others to serve them. Rest assured, as long as the church remains famished for the glamour of affluence, Dalits will remain Dalits: second-class Christians who are accommodated and adjusted, not accepted and integrated. 

Consider this other episode, often sentimentally disfigured by preachers: Jesus’ commending the poor widow. You are never told that a huge swathe of social reality underlies this seemingly accidental and casual episode. No, it captures a major antagonism latent in the society, subsumed in the contrast between the rich men, and the poor widow. Why is this woman a widow? What killed her husband, the bread-winner, as we say, of the household? Did he die of hard work and malnutrition in subhuman conditions? Not unlikely, as millions like him perished in utter squalor and destitution to make the rich, richer. Was it the memory of her man that impelled her to cast the last penny into the treasury, in front of those he worked and died for? 

Consider now Jesus’ mindfulness about the emancipation of women. In all patriarchal societies, women are crypto-Dalits. To Jesus, women are the Dalits of religion, if men are the Dalits of economics. Indeed, Jesus’ radical and liberating attitude to women must be read as basic to his ministry to liberate humankind. In practical terms, one aspect of the lingering disabilities of women in church and society is that they are, for the most part, alienated from wealth. An inheritance had been for long a male prerogative. 

The male-centered, patriarchal nature of the church is evident in the insistence that the wealth of the church must be in the sole custody of the church authorities. Lay people, who generate the wealth, should have nothing to do with its management. This explains the stiff resistance that the church hierarchies are putting up against making the management of these community assets transparent and accountable. In relation to church wealth, the laity is de facto Dalits.  

If Christian Dalits would heed Jesus, they would be more skeptical of the assumptions and practices churches stand on and swear by. At any rate, so Jesus was, assuredly. He did not conform to the prescriptions of the Judaic priest-craft. Priests had no place on the landscape of his ministry. He did not set any store by the rituals and practices they insisted on. Christian Dalits do a serious disservice to themselves by taking the Church more seriously than they do Jesus Christ. Jesus denounced mammon worship. As I have already pointed out, so long as mammon is worshipped, as in capitalism, there will be, there has to be, Dalits stuck deep in their ineradicable Dalitness. Money is an enslaving force in religion and politics alike. 

No church can exist without discrimination. Even politicians know this and respect it. Consider this recent turn of events. The bishop of the South Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India organized a gathering of 480 of his priests, breaking COVID-protocols. It turned to be a super-spreader event. Four priests died. Over a hundred got infected. For name’s sake, an FIR (first information report) was filed against him, without any follow-up.

A priest of the Catholic Church conducted a small church function, around the same time, involving a tenth of the crowd in the other event. It came to light. He was arrested. This should not surprise us. None of us believes that a bishop and a priest should be treated alike. That is because of our church nurture. If so, how can we resent if Christen Dalits are marginalized or discriminated against?  

In the light of the preceding discussion, two basic questions stare us in the face: 

Can one be Dalit and Christian at the same time? If Christ came to dismantle the walls of alienation, if discrimination was unacceptable to him, if labels of superiority and inferiority were anathema to him, how can Dalitness be perpetuated in the Church? We must be honest. Either we say that Dalitness does not exist in the Church, or we must conclude that Dalits cannot be Church-centric Christians. This dilemma has to be addressed. The courage to do so is basic to being followers of Jesus, who is ‘the truth’. 

The second question is as follows: Are not Christian Dalits complicit in perpetuating their disabilities? When will a new beginning happen, if they continue to remain domesticated and accommodated on the sidelines? 

If the choice is between Christ and Church, what will Christian Dalits choose? 

Finally, I cannot but flag a discrepancy, a dissonance, in the title, ‘Christian Dalits’. So, I propose an alternative name: Christ-Dalits. If Christianity is a religion, which it should not have become, it cannot have space for Dalits as full-fledged Christians. If and when Dalits become full-fledged Christians, they will cease to be Dalits. So, it is either-or. 

The Church is not used to standing by the Dalits. Historically, it has stood by the dominant classes, castes and their interests. The Dalits have a place in this arrangement, but that is not a Christian niche, so to speak. It is the role of the props that keep a show going. So long as the show remains the same, the props too will remain so, in the role and in worth. 

(Valson Thampu is a former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi).

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