Introducing the Dalit Church of India (DCI)

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By Valson Thampu

Soren Kierkegaard was a formative influence on me. I remember his anguished cry, ‘In the whole of Christendom, there isn’t a single Christian!’ I heard the same anguish, in due course, in Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, though in a different tone. The world has seen only one Christian, Nietzsche, wrote. He died on the cross two thousand years ago. 

Note: I don’t agree fully with Nietzsche. Factually, Jesus was not a Christian. He was the Son of God, So, he belonged to humanity as a whole. Surely, that was how Jesus saw himself. He addressed the human predicament in general; not the interests of a religious group. The Jews, being too religious, couldn’t stomach this. So, they nailed him to the Cross. 

I cite instances above for a purpose–to underline the fact that being Christian is the most challenging and exciting thing in the world. Yet, how smugly it is taken! We think it is the easiest thing to do. A priest sprinkles the water of baptism on you, infant or adult. You become a church member. You pay your dues to the church. You attend church on Sundays. You don’t rock the boat. There you are, a full-blown Christian! 

The contrast stated above would not have bothered me, but for its implications for the Dalits. It was about 125 years ago that Hindutva ideologues started insisting that Muslims and Christians should only be ‘stateless subjects’ in India. A stateless subject is excluded from citizenship rights. 

The church had discovered a similar model long before that. Christian Dalits are the religious counterparts of stateless subjects in politics. Of course, this remains hidden or denied reality; but it surfaces when it matters most. Don’t agree? Well, try and get your daughter married to a caste Christian. Or aspire to be a bishop, an archbishop, a Cardinal. Stray into pockets of prestige. You will agree with me. 

In all this, I hold my Dalit brethren to blame. They should have heeded the wisdom of B.R. Ambedkar. I am not an Ambedkar scholar. But I am a fledgling Ambedkarite. I’d trust him, rather than Gandhi, in understanding the Indian social wilderness. Read The Annihilation of Caste. The significant conclusion he arrives at is this: unless you exit from where you are, there’s no hope for you. I was born a Hindu, he said in 1935, but I will not die a Hindu. He didn’t. It is foolish to imagine that you can stay where you are, and hope for the amelioration of your plight, somehow! It has never happened in history. 

Well, that is also the biblical truth. Why did God ask Abram to leave Ur in Mesopotamia, and go to the land he had never seen before? Wasn’t it because Abram was a Dalit in his homeland? The Hapirus were a fringe people-group, a Dalit clan. There were trickling benefits in hanging on to his homeland. It is not difficult to get peanuts, no matter where you are. But peanuts are for monkeys. Abram was destined for greater things. He was to be the father of nations and a blessing on the land. From that point of view, Ur was hopeless. 

Christian Dalits did not, alas, understand this. They consented to stay put, deceived by cosmetic changes. Personal transformation and social liberation were promised to them in the name of Jesus. But, were they fully integrated into the Christian fold; much less empowered or transformed? A sanctimonious fraud was practised on them. They were Dalit, or crushed, before conversion. They stayed Dalit after conversion. Remaining complicit in this is a denial of Jesus Christ. 

Caste Christians do not need Jesus. Church suffices for them. Not so, for the Dalits. They need Jesus; nothing less. Why? Because they need to be liberated. To be liberated is not only to have the fetters broken. It is also to be led to live in all its fullness. It is to be fully accepted as children of God. 

The bottom-line justice that Christian Dalits must do to themselves is to shift from church-dependence to Christ-centred spirituality. I advocate this as a fellow Dalit. One thing is certain: if they were Christ-centric, they would not have remained Dalit; for those who are in Christ are a new creation. So long as they remain like the beggar at the temple gate in Acts 3, they shall stay cheated of their right to be Christians without labels of denigration. 

Decades of frustrated hopes and rebuffs should suffice to open one’s eyes to the fact that their present plight is a bus-ride to nowhere. Jesus calls us to a new beginning. The right to make a new beginning is the essence of The Kingdom of God. The old must pass away, if the new is to come. It is foolish to hold on to old wineskins and thirst for new wine at the same time. What is the way forward? What are we to do?

I wish there would be a Christian Kanshi Ram. The Dalits in this country waited for decades for their space in the political theatre of this country. At long last, wisdom dawned on many of them. They made a new beginning. A party was born. 

I have extensive experience interacting with the leaders of all denominations in this country. I know the real attitude to Dalit Christians, hidden behind facades of hypocritical play-acting. The Dalits are used, not cherished. They will remain so, unless …   

That brings me to the proposal I wish to advance. It is time a Church is established for the Dalits of India. Caste Christians have their churches and denominations. Their vanity and pettiness cannot be contained in a common framework. The Dalits have no such baggage. What they need is not space for vanity, but room for dignity. It is foolish to assume that dignity can be received as someone else’s charity. Dignity must be earned. Creating the context for it is the first step in that direction. 

There is nothing un-Christian about this idea. If caste Christians can have churches for themselves, where Dalit Christians are peripheral accretions, why not a Dalit Church? It is only from a caste mentality that this idea may seem un-Christian. From a state of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, this is imperative, something ought to be done. 

It is not against anyone that the Indian Dalit Church needs to come into being. It is in search of authentic biblical spirituality. That can have a beneficial spin-off also for all other churches. Only the Dalit Church has the right to witness the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘Blessed are the poor’. Today these words, and similar other teachings, sit ill on the lips of those who live in luxury and social splendour. 

I wish this pan-Indian Dalit Church comes into being in our lifetime as a model church. No church today abides by the teachings of Jesus. The reason for this is not theological, but social and economic. The social elite have no use for Jesus. They need baptisms, weddings and burials; not Jesus. Why would they need a liberator? They have nothing to be liberated from. They have much to be preserved. Preservation is the portfolio of priests. 

This is not the time or the place for sketching the substance and contour of the Dalit Church of India. My limited purpose here is to moot the need for it. If there is a church to be planted, surely it is the Dalit Church. I can only pray that this idea be considered and nurtured. As and when this becomes a reality, existing churches will feel urged to repent and turn to Jesus. I don’t see this happening in any other way.  

Alarmed at the degradation of churches in Europe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed ‘Churchless Christianity’. The formation of the Dalit Church of India should be a model of it. The present ecclesial model should be avoided. A church embodying the spirituality of liberation and regeneration needs to be unveiled in the soil of India. 

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

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