Congregational Empowerment for Dalit Liberation – Paper presented in Workshop

20-22nd August 2005

Dalits constitute almost 20% of the Indian population (200 million), as a result of the understanding of “ritual pollution and purity.” They face constant discrimination and humiliation but in search of identity and rights. Traditionally referred to as ‘untouchables’, they are generally treated as if they are a ‘No People?They are a quietly dignified people who take pride in their surroundings and have dreams and hopes like everyone else. But, because of an accident of birth, they are forced to carry out work shunned by the rest of society. Oppression and open discrimination of the dalits continues which affects access to education, restricts settlement, mobility and employment.

They live a precarious existence, because of their rank as Dalits – literally meaning “broken” people – at the bottom of India ‘s caste system. In what has been called “hidden apartheid” entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. In the light of such a precarious situation Dalits raise their voice of protest, revolt, resistance and persistently argue in order to regain their lost identity. Several issues are in the forefront in this struggle of Dalits: untouchability, dehumanizing poverty, social ostracism.

Christian Dalits are part of this struggle with additional problem of caste and hierarchy in the church. The fourfold alienation of Christian Dalits along with others is succinctly stated by M.E.Prabhakar

“Christian Dalits, who suffer along with other Dalits, suffer fourfold alienation: First: The State does not allow them to receive economic assistance or securing political representation even if they claim membership in SC communities; Second: other Dalits look at them with disfavor, as if the former has been helped by missionary patronage; Third: So called (upper) caste Christian treat Dalit Christians contemptuously and Fourth: The Dalit Christians are at odds with themselves, being divided on sub-caste, regional or linguistic basis.?

If Dalits are seeking their liberation from casteist oppression, and to identify their religio-cultural energies from a religious and social base for their corporate and individual attempts at liberation, the Bible stands as a dynamic source of energy. It should be noted that the attempts to create a dynamic and vibrant conversation between the Dalit world and Biblical world. Dalit communities constantly look for a God who suffers with them and that God is grounding hope of their present distress and affliction which will eventually turn their suffering into celebration with full hope and joy. For Dalits,
M.E. Prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology” in A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul, 1992), p. 43.

liberation is the ultimate goal of life. While living in history, there is a need to visualize an Eschatological future beyond history of their humiliation, then the present struggle can become a cry of a revolution against the established order. In other words, the Dalits are not for ‘other-worldly’ futuristic eschatology. Rather Dalits look for a future defined by God, not by human oppressors who may deny the quality of life to Dalits under the guise of future deliverance.

Dalit communities also seek to appropriate the meaning and message of symbol of life for creative, constructive engagement of celebration in concrete situations. In spite of the denial of human dignity on par with the co-humans and thus divided and defaced, the Dalits refuse to be intimidated by the high-handed measures of the repression of the caste hierarchy. The rhythmic beauty and the aesthetic expression built into the Dalit consciousness are spontaneously and creatively at play, even within a limited space. The eloquent expressions of the celebration of life to the maximum – with noise, illumination and corporate activities in open space – even with limited availability of minimum resources, are commonly witnessed in the lives of the Dalits.

The liberative hermeneutics is the common ground and concern in our quest to see inter-relatedness between Biblical and Dalit worlds. The important objective in the liberative praxis for Dalits is their liberation from the socio-cultural oppression. The Dalit liberative praxis oriented hermeneutics is geared towards the liberation of Dalits from the psychological, cultural and social oppression and to empower them to get organized in their struggle for freedom. 8 The biblical narratives with liberation potential are already processed and reprocessed accounts addressed in their original settings and they continue to negotiate and renegotiate in our context to make the liberation potential possible. It is this understanding that should percolate the context of the oppressed communities of Dalits in India as they search for human experience of God in and through their socio-cultural milieu. 9

Thus Dalit theological movement is a corrective to the institutionalization of inequality and inaccessibility within the theological field. “To sum up, then,” Nirmal says :

Whether it is the traditional Indian Christian theology or the more recent third-world theology, our theologians failed to see the struggle of Indian Dalits for liberation a subject matter appropriate for doing theology in India . What is amazing is that fact that Indian theologians ignore the reality of the Indian Church . While estimates vary, between 50 and 80 percent of all the Christians in India today are of scheduled-caste origin. This is the most important commonality cutting across the various diversities of the Indian Church that would have provided an authentic liberation motif for Indian Christian theology. If our theologians failed, to see this in the past, there is all the more reason for our waking up to this reality today and for applying ourselves seriously to the ‘task of doing theology’

Thus, essentially, Dalit theology was a liberative action in itself, in the sense that its coming into being created space for the development of a Dalit Christian voice. Liberation is envisaged as liberation of Dalits from the historically oppressive structures both religio-cultural and socio-economic. Hence, theological articulation is not only a faith expression but also a means for liberation. According to this school of thought, any theological expression that will not lead to action and the resultant liberation is futile.

The concept for solidarity has also emerged in this school of theology. Christian values of sacrifice, charity and commitment to others are all intertwined in this profound understanding of solidarity. Transcending one’s creed, ideology and religion a Dalit is invited “to lose oneself for the sake of the other.” Incarnational theology is the basis of such a two-sided solidarity with God and with fellow Dalits. According to James Massey the core of the act of the incarnation of God in Jesus was God’s “acting in solidarity with human beings, particularly the oppressed of this world.”

The model of solidarity we find in God’s incarnational act in history challenges us Dalit Christians to follow it, so that the experiences we share with the Dalits in general should become the basis of an authentic Dalit theology. . . . Being in solidarity with our fellow Dalits of different faiths and ideologies is a demand which the God of the Bible, through his own act of incarnation, places on Dalit Christians.

The Exodus liberation paradigm which had tremendous implications for liberation theologies in Latin America has extensively influenced the thinking and articulation of Dalit theology in India . A.P. Nirmal particularly depended on the Deuteronomic account of the affliction, toil and the oppression of the foreparents of the Israelites to expound the movement of Dalits from a “no people” to “God’s people.”

Using the Deuteronomic Creed as model, Dalit theology can construct the historical Dalit consciousness which has to do with their roots, identities and struggle for human dignity and “for the right to live as free people created in the image of God.” Nirmal says:

The historical Dalit consciousness in depicts even greater and deeper pathos than is found in the Deuteronomic Creed. My Dalit ancestors did not enjoy the nomadic freedom of the wandering Aramean. As outcasts, they were also cast out of their villages

Nirmal, “Towards a Christian Dalit Theology,” in Sugirtharajah, Frontiers in Asia , Christian Theology, p. 30.

When my Dalit ancestors walked the dusty roads of his village, the Sa Varnas tied a branch of a tree around his rest so that he would not leave any unclean foot prints and pollute the roads.” Nirmal concludes,

The Dalit consciousness should realise that the ultimate goal of its liberation movement cannot be the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. For Christian Dalit Theology, it cannot be simply the gaining of the rights, the reservation, and the privileges.. The goal is the realisation of our full humanness or, conversely our full divinity, the ideal of the Imago Dei, the image of God in us. To use another biblical metaphor, our goal is the ‘glorious liberty of the children of god.” 6

For Dalit theologians God is clearly a Dalit God. God, who reveals himself, both through the prophets and Jesus Christ, is a God of the Dalits. The servant God, a God who identifies with the servant-hood of Dalits, is perceived by Dalit theologians as Dalit God. The servant role that the ex-untouchable played in India was indeed a participation in this “servant-God’s ministries.” Thus, Nirmal says, “To speak of a Servant-God, therefore, is to recognise and identify him as a truly Dalit deity , 27 For Dalit theologians Jesus is the ultimate Dalit, the servant God whom God reveals. However, it may be noted here that some of the recent theologians underplay the use of this servant’ imagery as it evokes extremely painful memories. Moreover, they feel, this will only help perpetuate structures of domination and subservience within which Dalits are caught up even now.

Jesus’ tilt towards the poor and the marginalized, tax-collectors, prostitutes and lepers, according to Dalit theology, portrays Jesus as God incarnated as a Dalit. Devasahayam reflects as follows on Jesus’ image from a Dalit perspective:

Jesus reveals a free God, who is uncoopted and uncontained by those identified with religion This God is free to hear the cry of the outcasts against the guardians of religious society This God is not under the power of Brahman but is free to hear ones against Brahmans and other upper castes and side with the Dalits, who are ousted from the Temples and who are denied the right to study the Scriptures. 28

The Cross has a special meaning in Dalit theology. Both the liberative praxis and the Dalitness of Jesus culminates in the symbol of Gurukul, 1992.

“On the Cross, he was the broken, the crushed, the split, the torn, the driven-asunder man,” revealing his Dalitness. 29

The vision of a new community under God is also envisaged by some Dalit theologians. Here the emphasis is on the invitation of Jesus to a new fellowship in which all equally.

Nirmal, “Towards a Christian Dalit Theology,” in Sugirtharajah, Frontiers in Asian Christian Theology, pp. 33f

and fully participate. “The focus is not merely on the oppression and God’ option for the oppressed, but on the new community of freedom and fellowship, love and justice, which is the new people of the reign of God to which God calls all’ peoples.” 30 Theologians like

In his recent books, including Foolishness to the Greeks (1986) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), Newbigin attempted to dialogue with those whose understanding of the nature of reality has been determined by Western culture since the Enlightenment. He attempted to identify the limitations of scientific knowledge and thus with rationalism and to define a “wider rationality” in which both empirical and religious statements could be affirmed as credible knowledge. In this discussion he has demonstrated here to derive ultimate guiding principles (truth) from the Bible while in dialogue with a post-Enlightenment worldview.

Science has proved to be such a useful means to increase humankind’s power to subdue the environment that its limitations have been overloaded. Its methodology has been allowed to dominate the “plausibility structure?in Western society so that any statement about reality that cannot be tested empirically (such as religious truth claims) is doubted.

Newbigin’s arguments in his books were not merely intellectual constructs, but grew out of life-long experiences in cross-cultural communication and mission service. His struggle to articulate an adequate ecclesiology in the face of challenging to the relevance of the church would prove significant as he sought to articulate a hermeneutical approach that would be relevant to post-enlightenment thinkers. In short, his hermeneutical approach seeks to overcome the limitations imposed by post-Enlightenment definitions of truth.

For Newbigin truth is not equal to propositional statements. Rather, he affirmed that the Bible “taken as a whole, fitly renders God??Yet he affirmed that the Bible “can only be understood as we ourselves are engaged in the same struggle that we see in Scripture??Thus Newbigin suggested that truth can only rightly understood through “praxis?–or involvement in both the public and private world in order to cooperate with God’s purposes (1986:59-60).

Newbigin followed Karl Barth in finding the center and history in God’s mighty act of sending Christ. Christ is the center in the sense that He is the “clue?to understanding all of God’s mighty acts—past, present and future. He is the end, or goal in the sense that He has revealed the way or path which leads beyond death to resurrection and life.

Concluding that no amount of argument will make the gospel sound reasonable to those in the “reigning plausibility structure,” Newbigin surmise that the “only possible hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation which believes it” (1989:232). He declares that the gospel will challenge the public life of our society only “as when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society?(1989:233).

The Bible as a Realistic Narrative

Newbigin affirms that the Bible is not that we examine it from the outside, but that we indwell it and from within it seeks to understand an cope with what is out there. In other words, the Bible furnishes us with our plausibility structure. The structure is in the form of a story. It is a “realistic narrative.” He explains:

Consider what it means to get to know a person. One can read an account of his character and career such as might be embodied in an obituary notice. But in order to know the person one must see how she meets situations, relates to other people, acts in times of crisis and in times of peace. It is in narrative that character is revealed, and there is no substitute for this (19889:98-99).

The hermeneutical task involves recognition of God’s revelation both in the past and in the present time through the life of the community of faith. Especially vital to the revelation of “present truth” is the involvement of the Church in the public sphere. As believers live out their faith in their secular environments, they show that because Christ’s reigning kingdom is both present and future, they can meaningfully participate in challenging evil in the public sphere while affirming that the goal of history lies beyond the horizon of death.

Indian society now is primarily perceived as being constituted of a number of religious communities. Communalism in the modern Indian context is primarily perceived as a consciousness which draws on a supposed religious identity and uses this as the basis for an ideology. It then tends to demand political allegiance to a religious community and supports a programme of political action designed to further the interests of that religious community. In the present socio-political context, the communities assume political importance and relations between communities are embittered by their relevance to the balance of power. Therefore conversion from one group to another means not only a change in spiritual allegiance but also a shift in political power. So the question of local Christian identity must not be confined within the supposed identity of being just another communal group, hoping to be dominant through conversion. In order to do this it has to come to terms with the full implications of the notion of church, not as a community in competition with other communities, but as a community called to serve in a particular culture.

To serve in a particular culture entails taking into account the social and religious realities of the people. The majority of people are poor and oppressed. The oppression which they suffered under colonial rule subsequently took on a different form. Any concern for the people must take into consideration the distinct social, cultural and ethnic groupings of India . The Indian Christian community is related to a place and, in order to be a sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose, each church must show its own credibility amidst local realities.

The form of each local Church has been determined in the course of history by the geographical locality, language, ethnic identity and confessional traditions. In order to be relevant in its own surroundings, the Church must be able to mediate to the people the signs of new creation. Newbigin says that the starting point of interpretation is God’s revelation of himself in the history of mankind. This has not lost relevance as long as there is a community which lives faithfully to the call of God and continues to identify with people in their real situation.

True contextualization accords to the Gospel its rightful primacy, its power to penetrate every culture and to speak within each culture, in its own speech and symbol, the word which is No and Yes, both judgment and grace. And that happens when the word is not a disembodied word but comes from a community which embodies the true story, God’s story, in a style of life which communicates both the grace and the judgment. In order that it may do this, it must be both truly local and truly ecumenical. Truly local in that it embodies God’s particular word of grace and judgment for that people. Truly ecumenical in being open to the witness of churches in all other places, and thus saved from absorption into the culture of that place and enabled to represent to that place the universality, the catholicity of God’s purpose of grace and judgment for all humanity.(37) Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. SPCK, London , 1989, p152.

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