Caste and Christianity: Old, New, Old Insights

Cambridge, MA. Given today’s new snowstorm – it may be February 2, but no chance of even seeing the groundhog here, at least—it seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was still in India. Time flies, climates change quickly. But today’s storm, which has almost closed Harvard, has given me time to sort out a few more things from my trip, including some of the books I brought back with me and that have been piled up on my desk.

A very small but fierce book given to me on the last day of my trip by a pastor in New Delhi is Slavery (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2008) by Jotirao Phuley (1827-1890). It caught my attention, since, as mentioned in the third of my posts from India, there is a lot of debate in India today about being-Indian, being-Hindu, being-Christian—and how these identities relate to caste-identity, embraced or imposed. Phuley was a reformer and social critique, sensitive to the plight of women in India, the need for education for the poor and, above all, the dignity and rights of tribals and people of the lowest castes—who, in perhaps coining the term, he called the crushed, dalits. His pages vividly portray the plight of the poorest and most oppressed members of society; before most others, he believed that society could change, if people no longer accepted inequality, without hope at changing it. Phuley and a host of others after him have struggled to rethink the social and religious structures of India, for the benefit of all.

A second book—which I had bought even before my trip but had in mind throughout it—is David Mosse’s The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). This book was recently honored by the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies as the Best Book in Hindu-Christian Studies (History/Ethnography) 2009-2013. It traces back long before even Phuley the problems of caste in India (especially in south India) and, in particular the complicated, sometimes unfortunate history of Christianity and caste. From the time of the first Western missionaries in India, and particularly with figures such as Roberto de Nobili (1579-1656), Christians—perhaps most notably Catholic Christians—have sought ways to accommodate caste rather than reject it entirely (and thus require of converts a total disowning of caste status). Often very well intended and without any intent to abandon those of lower and untouchable castes, this policy was forever traversing mine fields of politics, de facto but also oppressive hierarchies, and the complications of compromises with power. As a result, Mosse shows in great detail, all kinds of distortions became part of Christian/Catholic life—for the sake of building the Christian community, but also, to ill effect, giving that community a deeply caste-inscribed identity. As the Dalit movement has grown, particularly in south India, the controversies over caste have grown, as Dalit Christians—or Christian Dalits—have become more outspoken and critical, arguing vehemently against not only the dominant religious hierarchies and structures, but also against caste consciousness within the church. Much of this controversy is being even now lived out in Indian communities; Mosse’s great service is to offer a long perspective on it and, by careful attentiveness to the complexities of caste and Catholicism, to disabusing us of any expectations that a simple solution is at hand, justice dealt out in stark contexts where good and evil are sharply contrasted. Like the banyan tree of the title, Catholicism has become deeply part of the cultures of India, not indistinct, but no longer easily separable.

The third book of note given to me shows how much the struggle continues, and yet how far it has come: the One Volume Dalit Bible Commentary: New Testament (edited by T. K. John, SJ; New Delhi: Centre for Dalit Studies/Subaltern Studies, 2010). Each book of the New Testament is expounded and commented on from a Dalit perspective, by some of the most prominent scholars writing on the Bible today from a Dalit perspective (including James Massey, Monodeep Daniel, A. Maria Arul Raja, SJ, Philip Peacock, Sunil Caleb, and other distinguished scholars). Eventually, I am told, the volume will appear also in various regional languages in India. TK John’s introduction (“Why a Dalit Bible Commentary Now?”) and a series of short introductory essays come first, then a set of longer essays on the relevance of the various New Testament books to the Dalit community and then, full commentaries on each book of the New Testament.

Here I can give just one example, pertinent to the Gospel of Mark, which we are using at Sunday Mass during this Cycle “B.” After a preface to the Gospel, “A Society Caste-Free with Jesus Culture,” the passage-by-passage commentary begins. Take for example Mark 1:21-28:

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (NRSV)

Here is the Dalit Bible Commentary comment, in full:

Jesus did not undergo any formal training in any of the Jewish schools, nor did he belong to any of the Jewish sects. But with his divine assertion through his words and deeds he healed the sick while mercilessly dealing with the evil forces that oppressed them (v. 25). What amazed the people was the irresistible authority (vv. 22, 27) with which the untrained young man was teaching with charismatic assertion. The newness of Jesus’ teaching was his direct encounter with evil forces while restoring people with good health and honour. Giving a death blow to social wickedness too is part of his mission. The arrogance of the caste-minded people, like the evil spirits, would be decimated when the Dalits are awakened to God-given human dignity. The mention of places like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Galilee indicates the nature of Jesus’ ministry amidst those who were relegated to be dirty people by those counting themselves as holy and hence privileged.

Every New Testament passage receives a similar, succinct, sharp-edged treatment. My sense of the volume is largely very positive, though I do have some hesitations. On the one hand, I am very impressed, and grateful that these scholars have done the work of putting together so singular and forceful a reading of the New Testament. The problems historically traced by Mosse, and exposed so prophetically by Phuley, are now receiving a systematic treatment in light of the Word of God. Particularly when the volume appears in the vernaculars, it will be an indispensable tool for preaching and catechesis, and should have a long life in the churches of India. My hesitation comes when, as in the passage quoted, the hard edge of criticism is so pronounced. It portrays a Jesus entirely against the establishment, perhaps more extremely so than the passage being interpreted warrants. Jesus read in the synagogue; however trained or not, Jesus was a Jew; the demons cast out are not simply a stand-in for the religious establishment. More nuance on who Jesus was and how he related to his own Jewish people at all levels would complicate matters, to be sure, and perhaps diffuse some of the anger. In other words, this reading of the Gospel passage exemplifies one long strand of Dalit criticism of Hinduism and Brahminical structures, the fierce and unrelenting voice of protest. Anger is justified, and I, not a Dalit, have no grounds casually to say otherwise. But stark oppositions can be too dialectical, too stark a dichotomy, too oppositional relationship to the Jewish people as a whole, or the Hindu communities as a whole. These seem not conducive to the healing that must occur across the whole of any socially and religiously riven society. Caste is a universal problem and fact of life; but not all Hindus or all Brahmins are arrogant, evil, or demonic. As an outsider but one with many years of experience in India and many Christian and Hindu friends (from Dalit to Brahmin), I worry that skipping over complexity for the sake of stark polarities will not in the long run work very well either. Jesus too saw complexity in the world around him, and we might end up simply extending the old history of Christianity and caste in a new guise, and echoing again the strong words of Jotirao Phuley, in yet another century.

Such are my reflections - in the course of clearing my desk on a snowy day: hardly a last word, nor the words of an expert on the topic. So see for yourself; you can get Mosse’s The Saint in the Banyan Tree easily. For Phuley’s Slavery, contact . For the Dalit Bible Commentary, see the information at