Dalits must re-discover Christ

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By Valson Thampu

There is an issue that continues to perplex me. Which Jesus are we worshipping? Which Jesus is the recipient of the worship that the church offers?

My readers would remember that Jesus had something very radical to say about worship. I remind them, if they need to be reminded at all, of the Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria (Jn.4); in particular, his statement that ‘God is Spirit and they that worship him, must worship him in Spirit and in truth’ (v.24).

You might think that my concern here is far-fetched. It is not. It was the book of Revelation that alerted me to this. Why was Jesus kept outside the church in Laodicea? (Rev. 3:15-20). There is only one possible reason. Fortunately, that is a simple one. That Jesus, who stood outside and knocked patiently at the door, was not acceptable to the church.

Strange? Yes. But then, what is not strange, if you think of it, in the way ‘the Way of Christ’ has come to be re-fashioned by the church? One thing is certain. If the Jesus who stood and knocked at the door were similar to the Jesus whom the church worshipped inside that building, he would have been given a ready and royal welcome.

So, mark this: there is a Jesus who is not acceptable to the church. The Good News is that it is the Dalit Christ. The church cast him out by inventing an alternate Christ. As they say, ‘A cola can be cast out only by another cola’. The church has cast out Jesus with Jesus. Here is how.

Jesus of the Gospel was the lowliest of the low. No place to lay his head. No seat among those who matter. No livery or symbol of office. (Imagine a church big-wig in mufti, then you will  know what I mean.) No fanfare or fan club. No, nothing. He laboured. He struggled. He risked everything. He sought, found and restored the lost. He died the most ignominious death that human genius for cruelty could invent. He had to be buried in a borrowed tomb. This Jesus is an embarrassment to the church.

The reason is simple. Such a Jesus–heartbreakingly simple, disconcertingly fierce on fundamentals, and unalloyed in the spiritual freedom he exemplified—could only be an embarrassment to the church hierarchy. Do not agree? Well, try this. Put this Jesus side by side with a Cardinal, or Major Archbishop, or even a Bishop in his regalia and pretensions.

Ask priests and bishops which Jesus they follow. You are sure to get the answer: ‘the Resurrected Christ’. Why? Because the Resurrected Christ is associated with the seat of power. He is believed to be ‘sitting’ (I cannot help finding this somewhat puerile) on the right hand (left hand is dirty, it is the Dalit side of the body) side of God. If Jesus is ‘sitting’, then he has to have a place to sit. Can anything less than a throne of power and glory serve the purpose?

That is why priests and prelates claim to be the earthly representatives of the Ascended Christ. Ask them if they would like to have anything to do with the Crucified Christ? The priestly model of Christ is a kind of journalistic version. Let me explain. Suppose a leader or a matinee idol is shot. The journalistic version of the victim’s life will be born only at the time of his murder. That is what serves the media interests’ best. It is tedious for a journalist and his impatient readers to cope with details about the life of the man in its entirety. The media dishes out an edited version.

The same is with the hieratic (priestly) version of Jesus. How in the world can priests square up with the Christ of the Cross? Imagine anyone, in the vestments of a priest, carrying the Cross to Calvary! Is it possible? So, even by his costume, the priest exempts himself from the Cross of Christ. He is happy to celebrate the Ascended Christ, who sits like an Eastern Potentate on the Throne of Power and Glory. (This Christ can mesmerise Dalits, not liberate them.)

Recall the idea of the Ascended Christ that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had (St. Mark 10:35-45). All that they can think of about the glorification, post-Crucifixion, of Jesus are thrones! They want them reserved for themselves. (Did the world borrow the idea of reservation from James and John?)

True to tradition the church regards the Ascension of Christ only in terms of power and glory, which was conspicuously absent from the living Son of Man, who was the Servant of servants.

The Ascended Christ is King of kings. Jesus has ‘nowhere’; the Ascended Christ has his throne.

This metamorphosis, by which the original Jesus is utterly rejected, by the established church, should be taken up as a quintessential challenge by Dalit Christians. As your God is, so shall you be. You remain fettered to the edited and distorted Christ of church–who is a replica of the Roman Emperor-you shall remain despised, discriminated against and ill-integrated till the end of history.

That is why I urged you, at the outset, to mind the plight of Jesus vis-à-vis the church of Laodicea. The excluded Jesus is the Son of Man. The Ascended Christ, worshipped inside in all fervour and piety, is Christ, the Potentate.

If you have any sense of history, you will see that Potentates have no interest in liberating and empowering Dalits. The Bible gives us a telling illustration of this fact. Why was the Pharaoh unwilling to let the Jews go? Why did he harden his heart ten times? Not at all unusual, my folks! The liberation of Dalits–the Jews were economic-political Dalits in Egypt-is bad news for the Pharaohs of this world.

When was it that you last came across a priest or bishop who endeavoured to live like Jesus, the Dalit? Jesus of the Cross? What has all this liturgical mumbo-jumbo to do with the living Son of Man? Did he have anything to do with all this, while he was on this earth? Was not he busy, day in and day out, reaching out to the suffering, seeking out the lost, and rebuilding broken lives?

What will happen–and this is a terrible thought-if Jesus were to come and require the church to love one another as he loves us. The Dalits to be loved? Really? I can tell you what the church would say, ‘Well, Jesus you got it slightly wrong. There is no Dalit-ness post-Resurrection. As for loving, well, do not we love each other by being under the same roof on Sundays? Should not that do? Why take things too far?’

I have written, on an earlier occasion, of the distinctive and radical mission that Dalit Christians are best equipped to undertake. Now I want to state will the emphasis I can muster that the core of that historic mission is the creation of a church in which Jesus of the Cross is acknowledged, followed and honoured. Such a church will renounce the Roman skin and put on the blessedness of being poor. After all, did not Jesus say, ‘Blessed are the poor?

But this is no ordinary poverty. It is what I call purposive poverty, at stark contrast with the ceremonial and pretentious vow of poverty that regal priests and prelates take. This is poverty as freedom. Those who have worldly assets are tied down by a million invisible threads. They are not free to follow Jesus. So, they re-invent a convenient model of Jesus to mollify their troubled conscience. They are faithful to the Jesus they make. I call this idol-worship. What about you?

Jesus of Nazareth is the Liberator par excellence. The supreme irony of history is that only the One who does not have ‘a place to lay his head’ can be the Liberator. Men of might and means enslave others and exploit them. Their slavery is the guarantee that the seats of the privileged remain firm and unshakeable. The Dalit freedom–freedom born of development-is like an earthquake to pockets of vested interests; in the words of Nietzsche, ‘the ancient caste of sacerdotal parasites’.

The hope of humankind rests on Jesus, the Crucified. Cross is the price that God pays for the liberation of human beings. Christian Dalits will meet Jesus, not in the church, but at the foot of the Cross. For that to happen, it is imperative to detoxify ourselves of the indoctrination that we have suffered in the church, fashioned after the ways of Caesar in the worldview of imperialism.

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

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