Daily Devotional 9-26-14

Dalit Christians
volume 13, number 39, September 25, 2014

For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, Ephesians 2:15.

The Aryans, a people of light skin color who believed in the false god Vishnu, invaded India more than 3500 years ago and conquered the indigenous, dark skinned Dravidians who worshipped Shiva. The word Aryan means noble or royal and they considered themselves racially superior to others. To maintain the purity of their race, these Aryan invaders created their own social order and divided the community into what they called castes. The Hindu people (derived from the Sanskrit word Sindu, a river, more specifically the Indus river, thus people of the Indus) gradually adopted the Aryan notion of castes and gave it their religious sanction through the Hindu holy legal code called the Manusmriti. The Hindus believe, according to their holy book Vedas, that society is divided into four castes, each taken from a certain part of the body of the Hindu god Brahma (god of creation). The Brahmins were taken from Brahma’s head and thus are royalty, the priests. They are the only ones allowed to speak or read Sanskrit. The Brahmins have ruled India for 3000 years. About four percent of the Indian population are from the Brahmin caste. The Kshatriyas and Vaishyas castes, about ten percent of the population, are taken from the shoulders and stomach of Brahma and are the rulers and business people of India. The Sudras or slave castes, were taken from the feet of Brahma (today they are called the backward castes), about fifty percent of the population, and do menial labor. At least twenty-five percent of the Indian population are the so called untouchables. They are considered to be polluted and unworthy of entering the social or religious life of the society and do not even qualify as part of the caste system. Hence the term outcaste. They now call themselves Dalits, taken from the Sanskrit word which means broken. As untouchables the Dalits are forbidden from physically touching any member of any caste. To do so would render the caste person unclean by Hindu law. A Dalit should not even hear the reading of Hindu scripture in Sanskrit. If that happens he is to have boiling lead poured in his ears. Sometimes the Dalits are also called unseeables (those who are not to be seen by caste people) or unapproachables (those who cannot come near a caste person). The Dalits, even today, though Indian law officially no longer recognizes castes, are suffering innumerable and unconscionable atrocities. On October 15, 2002 five Dalit men were lynched for skinning the hide from a dead cow, something by the way, that is a traditional occupation for Dalits. Many in the Indian civil society were outraged and demanded justice but the Vice President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, a fundamentalist entity promoting Hindu cultural and religious values) celebrated the lynchings, proclaiming the life of a cow as more valuable than a Dalit.[1]

Though Dr. B.R. Ambedkar received a doctorate in law from the United States, upon returning to his native India in the early 1950’s, he found that his credentials meant nothing there. He was still a Dalit. So he began in 1956 a “quit Hinduism” movement, urging Dalits and low caste people to leave the religion that had so long oppressed them. The movement did not really take hold then, but it finally did on November 4, 2011 in Delhi when at least 100,000 backward caste and outcastes gathered together to denounce Hinduism. Joseph D’Souza, President of Operation Mobilization (OM), India was present at the meeting and confessed, on behalf of the Christian church in India, their failure to work for justice on behalf of the backward castes and Dalits. He called it sin and asked for their forgiveness. When he asked what Christians could do to help them, the Dalit leaders said, “Please educate our children.” In response to this OM began establishing Christian schools all over India for Dalit children. They now have 107 schools with more than fifty thousand Dalit and backward caste children receiving a quality Christian education. This soon led to the vision of OM to plant churches amongst the Dalits, Scheduled Castes (low caste people), and Scheduled Tribes (tribal mountainous people). Since 2001 OM has planted 3000 churches and their vision is to plant 25,000 churches by 2025. Their plan, ultimately is to touch 25 million people by 2025 with a Freedom initiative. This includes touching people through health care, legal aid to fight continued injustice, job programs, education, and churches in all the villages of the backward caste and outcastes in the entire country. I will have more to say next week in specifically how they hope to carry out their plan. Hearing it explained to me while at the OM headquarters sounds like something right out of Roland Allen’s monumental book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.[2]

Can you imagine the joy and amazement of a low caste or Dalit hearing the words of the Apostle Paul applied to them, “For Christ Himself is our peace who made both groups (Dalits and Brahmins) into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall . . . having made the two into one new man, thus establishing peace (Ephesians 2:14-16); a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman (Brahmin, backward caste, or Dalit), but Christ is all and in all,” (Colossians 3:11). In the culture of India, the Dalit and low caste people are still worthless, but in Christ they are of infinite value.

But old ideas die hard, and even within the church in India, I am sad to say, the dividing wall is often still standing between believers. OM soon discovered that the Dalits coming to faith in Christ were not always welcome in many of the existing Indian churches. When asked if a Dalit Christian would be welcome in a particular church or would be allowed to serve as an elder or pastor, most sought to avoid answering the question. So, OM reconstituted themselves from being a parachurch organization to the Good Shepherd Community Church. They began gathering their small groups of between twenty and three hundred believers and brought them a pastor and organized them as local congregations. They soon realized there were at least 1500 such groups already meeting across India.

Paul faced the same problem in the Galatian church and every culture in every church in the world faces the same thing today. We have our traditions, our food, our dress, our music, our nationalities and these serve as the content of our own identities. There is nothing wrong with any of this, to a point. But none of these must separate us from our brothers and sisters of another race, culture, ethnicity, or language. In the context of the local church, if we are to mirror what we find as the great eschatological reality (those from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation around the throne of God, giving praise to King Jesus, Revelation 5:9-10), then we must all find a way to lay aside our own cultural identities and personal likes to come together in brotherly love. By no means is this easy, but it is worth the effort. Moreover, it is mandated by our Lord Jesus (John 17:22-23).
1. See Dalit Freedom, Now and Forever, written by Operation Mobilization, India President Joseph D’Souza

2. Allen is calling missionaries to take seriously the Apostolic methodology of planting churches, making them self-governing, self-propagating, and self-sustaining.