Should India’s Caste System Really Matter to Us?

John ArmstrongMissional-Ecumenism

Several weeks ago the World Council of Churches (WCC) co-sponsored an international colloquium on Caste, Religion and Culture in Karala, India (May 1-4). This event was also sponsored by the National Council of Churches in India, the Center for Social Studies and Culture and the Student Christian Movement of India. This, in itself, underscores that the WCC does not always fit the liberal stereotypes of Western conservative Christians who oppose everything sponsored by the WCC as tainted or non-missional.

I spent two lengthy times in India in the 1980s. My life was profoundly changed by what I saw and experienced. India is complex, challenging and amazingly open to the gospel in a unique way. And nowhere in the world does Christian disunity present such a huge scandal to the mission of Christ as in India.

images The organizers of this colloquium provided a “Dalit critique of the contemporary cultural practices, caste and religion that will illuminate the debates in the main stream social sciences" while they also attempted to offer encouragement to those groups by "countering the forces of casteism in India.”

The term Dalit is the self-designation of a very large group of people traditionally regarded as Untouchables (Outcastes). Dalits are unsuitable for making personal relationships with other people; i.e. non-Dalits. Dalits are not uniform in faith, culture or language. They are a mixed population of numerous caste groups who live across South Asia and speak various languages. I have seen the impact of this designation upon people and families and marveled at the church’s failure to deal with it thoroughly.

While the caste system has been legally abolished under the Indian constitution, there is still discrimination and rampant prejudice against Dalits throughout South Asia. Since Indian independence, significant steps have been taken to provide opportunities in jobs and education. Many social organizations have encouraged proactive provisions to better the conditions of Dalits through improved education, health and employment. In many ways, the church in India really holds the key to solving the Dalit issue because of its doctrine of unity.

At this international symposium there was opening address by Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, chairperson of the Student Christian Movement of India and moderator of the WCC's Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. The keynote address was delivered by Professor Gopal Guru of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

fast-for-food-and-help-indias-dalit-children “Identities and locations of people are often ignored, deliberately in most cases, in both academic elaborations as well as humanistic responses,” said the Rev. Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, the WCC program executive for Just and Inclusive Communities. “This colloquium addressed the dynamics of the combined factors of caste, religion and culture in keeping the Dalits, and other victims of the caste system, where they are – even after decades of affirmative action.”

During the four-day event some 24 presentations were made by church leaders, scholars, academics, activists and writers. The subject matters covered included issues like combating caste, the meaning of being marginalized in a globalized world, the plight of Dalits within the church in India today, the interplay of caste and gender, identities in the context of human rights and caste, aesthetics and media representations. I believe very few Christian gatherings bear more importance in the modern global context than this type of event in India. Christians in the West need to understand the global problem of child slavery. They also need to know that millions of their fellow believers, and millions more who need to know the love of Christ, suffer from a system of caste that is still very strong in the world’s largest democracy.

The organizers of this recent event plan to release a publication featuring the various presentations. I will look for it and read it. Why? I need to know what is happening to my brothers and sisters in India. I also need to pray and work for freedom and unity among all Christians. This has a very high priority in my daily life. Why?

Paul wrote:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:9-10).

Missional-ecumenism obligates me (and you too) to do good to all people but especially, as our first priority, to those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. In India this matters more than you may know. And what the church does in places like India has global implications. We need to learn from the whole church and the church in India has a lot to teach us about Christ in a culture that is much closer to that of the first century church than our own.