Toward A Church For The Dalits

 

by Shivraj K. Mahendra -abridged

What is the Dalit understanding of the Church? According to M. E. Prabhakar, “The church in its true sense is its people… The Church is the body of Christ. Dalit theology involves the idea of the Church of the Poor and the Servant Church...”

 

A few terms and concepts in these statements require comments and interpretation, viz., – people, body of Christ, Church of the Poor, and the Servant Church. The first term, “people,” undoubtedly refers to the group of believers of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the Greek ekklesia for Church, we know that the meaning of the word is called out ones, or chosen people. Thus, from its original meaning Church is not a building or institution, but people or fellowship of believers.

 

In fact, “people are the reality of the Church.” To be sure, this people are not ordinary people. They are God’s people, chosen to be liberated and to become liberators. As the otherwise uninvited, expelled and exploited “people” are in the centre of Dalit theologizing, the concept of Church as people is a key element in the Dalit understanding of the Church. Dalit people are the Church.

 

The concept of “the body of Christ” is a powerful metaphor significant in expressing the nature of the Church as the people of Christ. Christ is the head of the Church (body). From a Dalit perspective, we may say that the Dalit Christ is the head of the Dalit people and thus the Dalit Church is the body of Christ, the Dalit body of Christ. This leads us to the next phrase, “the Church of the Poor.”

 

The Church that Christ built was originally a fellowship of poor and downtrodden people. Thus the Church is supposed to be of the poor and for the poor. The Dalit Church is the Church of the poor that caters for both the spiritual as well as social poverty of the people. It serves for the needs of the Dalits and thereby it is a Servant Church too.

 

The Dalit Church is a Church that is committed to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the Head. Christ came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). Therefore, the Dalit Church exists precisely as “the Servant Church,” serving the cause of the Dalits.

Our understanding of Church is vital for reconstructing the Church of our dreams. Deenabandhu aptly defines church as, “a coming together of people with common convictions, hopes and purposes.” I understand Church as a community of people chosen and called by God, being liberated and transformed by God, to worship Him and proclaim the gospel of his kingdom, to proclaim the good news of liberation and equality and dignity to all the nations, especially to the Dalits, while themselves living a life of kingdom value, a life of dignity and vitality in Christ.

 

However, in my experience Church has been more of a spiritual dictator and a centre of power politics, exploiting the people from humble backgrounds in the name of Christ and doing business in the name of religion and spirituality.

Instead of being a Church concerned and active for the uplift of the weak and poor, it has benefited the elites at the expense of the poor. The Synodical report of the Church of North India (CNI) titled, “Towards a Holistic Understanding of Mission” (1993), makes the following confession:

Despite the majority of the membership of the church consisting of the marginalized, it has been primarily serving the interest of the elite and upper ten percent through the educational, medical and other institutions… The Church also generally reflects the culture and values of the dominant systems.

This is not supposed to be the situation. Rather, “The dalit situation would emphasis [sic] the essential community nature of the Church the koinonia, a ‘community of the faithful and a community of love’ where in each member and all members together, priests and people alike live the Gospel and fulfil [sic] in word and deed the mission of the Church, which is to witness to the love and liberating power of God in Jesus Christ in the contemporary society – to respond to the cry of the poor and the oppressed.”

We see that the essential fellowship nature of the church needs to be emphasized in the context of Dalit pathos. And it is in this context, where the Church has constantly failed to care for her majority ‘have-nots,’ and with this challenge to become a distinct Church committed to and striving for the cause of the Dalits, we are here to re-imagine the Church of our dreams. Let us move on in our journey towards doing Dalit ecclesiology.

What kind of a Church could be the Church of Dalit dreams? Undoubtedly, a Church that is built on biblical foundations of early Christianity, and at the same time a Church relevant to the particular contextual realities!

 

James Massey says, " If the church in India wishes to play a meaningful role in the life of the Dalits, it will first have to go back to its original roots and replace its centuries-old Christendom model with a freshly discovered historical and contextual model based on Dalit realities. A radical change, a genuine paradigm shift … is needed in order to become an authentic, prophetic church".

 

A contextually relevant Church will be a Church that meets the expectations of the Dalits; a Church that is committed for the cause of the Dalits. How can we define such a Church? Or in what categories can we re-imagine such a Church? Precisely, our challenge here is to work towards a Dalit Ecclesiology. To this end, I propose the following characteristics, functions and agendas of the Church of Dalits for our consideration and praxis.

An Enthusiastic and Encouraging Church

Encounter with Christ and conversion to Christianity was a unique experience in my life. It filled me with enthusiasm for life and encouraged me for the service of the society. Right after my conversion, I looked for a Christian fellowship. Having found a church, I could become an associate member. Associate member, because I was not a baptized Christian!

 

Sorry to say, I was not welcomed as a ‘new soul in Christ’ or ‘a convert’ or ‘a new believer,’ but rather I was given the membership with an emphasis on the membership fee in particular.


The church as whole was not excited or enthusiastic about the growth in membership! It looked down on people from other jatis (castes) or converts. Was it a church like that of Laodicea? Lukewarm! Or was it like the church in Sardis, a dead church?

 

I have no intention to pass any criticism or judgment. However, I must say that the church was not concerned. In fact it was discouraging! Towards the end of about one year of my fellowship, I happen to share my call for ministry and desire to go to a Bible college for training, with a prominent member. To my great discouragement, the person opined, “Pastor-padri banne to ghore-gadhe jate hain, Shivraj tum to ek first class student ho.”

 

Again, my petition for baptism, throughout the year, also remained unheard! Although there were some very limited opportunities to participate in select activities, I was not satisfied. Also, there was little spiritual nourishment and much time was spent in committee discussions and other matters. I found this church, the only Church in my knowledge in the area at that time, to be an unenthusiastic and discouraging Church.

 

Fortunately, the pastor of the Church was somewhat willing to give some useful suggestions and recommendation, however without any support! I do not know why this church had lost its enthusiasm. I also do not know, if there are other churches with similar indifferent attitudes towards newcomers.

 

But I know for sure that such churches cannot serve the purposes of the people, especially Dalits. The Church of my dream will be a Church that is interested in its new members, particularly in members from Dalit background, and encourages them to participate in the life and ministry of the Church.

 

As Dalit Christians we cannot survive and grow in our mission if the church we belong to is a lukewarm or a dead church. The agenda of a Church of the Dalits is to be an enthusiastic and encouraging community.

Dalit people come to the church with a story of their own. They are looking for alternative socio-religious structures, identifying experiences and new identities. The cries behind their struggles and painful experiences have always been in search of alternatives.

 

According to Hinduism, I was supposed to be a servant of the so-called high caste people. I was supposed to be doing what was prescribed to me by my caste and tradition, be it humiliating and degrading. I was not supposed to do other works.

Particularly, I was never supposed to become a priest, or a minister of God. But in Christ, today I stand as an ordained minister of the Church. This was never possible in my previous religion, culture and Identity of the person withheld for privacy reasons. In fact, my tradition had not only limited my occupation to degradation, but it had also tampered my identity.

 

I come from a fisherfolk people group in central India. Originally we were tribal people, but the Hindu tradition kept us outside the caste system, limiting our occupation to fishing, boating and domestic service of the upper castes.

 

Today almost all of my people have been categorized as OBCs. Our tribal identity is totally wiped out and we are not given the rank of even the SCs or Dalits. The situation in Bastar (Chhattisgarh) is still painful – as non-tribals we cannot purchase a piece of land in a tribal area.

 

The limited benefits under OBC quota come to those who show themselves as Hindus. Being Christian is being totally Others! The great majority of my people think of themselves as Hindus, but to the Hindus they are nothing but outcastes. In our village we have experienced it all.

 

With such a background and experiences, what do I expect from the Christian Church?

 

In Christ I have found a new life and new identity. In Christianity I have found an alternative society. But these things are to be constantly realized and lived in the context of a community of believers, in the fellowship of the called out ones. Unfortunately, many churches in India have failed to meet the expectations of their Dalit members. They have not been able to be an alternative and open community, because they continue to remain infected by the virus of caste system.

 

A church of the Dalit dreams is a church committed to be an alternative community, providing respectable substitutes against degrading enforcements of the past as well as present. A church as an alternative fellowship will cater for the needs of all people with tampered or displaced identities and affirm their new identity in Christ.

 

Fishermen are Dalits and downtrodden. They need a church that will value their experiences and underline their identity in Christ. They need a Church that will identify with their experiences and struggles. The fishermen of the first century Palestine found a new identity in Christ. Christ called them to be the fishers of people. They became his messengers and apostles. The agenda of a Church of the Dalits is to continue in the footsteps of the lord Jesus Christ, providing for alternatives and strengthening new identities.

 

Christian church is supposed to be a transforming community where sociocultural, religio-ideological and political and theological categories undergo transformation in their encounter with the biblical worldview. The biblical worldview can be understood as God’s revelation to humanity in Scripture and in creation.

 

The Bible teaches that this worldview is actually embedded within the hearts of all people, though the fallen nature of humanity diminishes its presence. When our minds embrace the biblical worldview, we begin to see the people as they really are – created in the image of God with dignity and honour.

 

As the brahmanikal worldviews of purity and pollution, high and low, and superior and inferior, etc., continue to dominate the worldview of the Church today, it apparently fails to capture the biblical worldview and thereby fails to be a transformed or transforming Church.

 

Consequently, it cannot serve the cause of the Dalits. Dalit Christians are in the process of being transformed from domination to liberation, from exploitation to empowerment. We need a Church that has transformed and translated its exploitative and discriminative worldviews with the worldview based on the word of God. Only the biblical worldview leads to freedom, fullness and fruitfulness of life.

 

The church of my experience has not been a transforming and empowering Church. In fact it has been a compromising Church like the Church in Pergamum. The church today has conveniently compromised with the elites and has deliberately neglected the poor and the Dalts.

 

The impact of capitalistic intentions is very much evident in the Church. The resources which are supposed to be spent primarily and largely in the development of human resources, have increasingly been utilized in the development of organizational infrastructures and properties.

 

This is a concern for the Church as the Church is not supposed to be an exploitative capitalistic agency. Rather the Church is supposed to be a common communion of believers which empowers its members not only spiritually but also materially.

 

Dalits need shelter, education and jobs. Church has the challenge to cater towards economic equality of its members. If a church is carried away with the interests of the elites, then it can never care for its poor and needy members.

 

In addition, the Church has compromised with the world in financial matters. The Church is now interested more in owning shopping complexes than charity works. In fact, quite a few churches have become what we may call, the malls. In these churches there is no place for the poor and the needy. In several Churches, unfortunately, financial support for the pastors and evangelists is kept to the minimum, and sometimes nil! Several popular para-church organizations do the same.

 

Consequently converts never have a proper upbringing. An unbalanced emphasis on spiritual empowering is used as an excuse to do away with the need of financial and other essential supports. The church has become weak and compromising. The church of the Dalit dream will be a strong and uncompromising church, committed for the overall empowering of its members.

 

Dalits have been an overpowered people throughout the ags. They have suffered poverty and alienation. They need to be empowered for a life of fullness.

 

Therefore the Church of the Dalits will be a Church committed for the cause of Dalit liberation, justice, human right, and so on. 19 It will be a balanced Church in terms of its spiritual as well as socio-political and economic empowerment of its people at all levels. The agenda of a Church of the Dalits is to strive towards being and becoming a transforming and empowering Church.

A great majority of our church membership comes from backward, subjugated, broken and persecuted group of people, the Dalits and tribals. Dalits are the people in need of healing, restoration and rebuilding. In such a situation the church cannot but has to play the role of a hospital and a gymnasium.

 

Dalit wounds are age old. The church must be a healing community. The church must be a rebuilding community. Only a church committed for creative and constructive mission of healing and restoration can be the Church for the Dalits.

The Christian church in India has, for a long time, taken the Dalit members for granted. It has always preferred and regarded the converts from upper castes or wealthy backgrounds. Although our conversion stories have also been sold, the testimony market has always been hotter for the high caste converts.

 

Again, it has not given ample opportunity for Dalit leadership and Dalit administration. To be sure, the Church is not supposed to be a “manipulative mechanism” or an “administrative power structure.” This becomes a case especially if a particular group of people are deliberately deprived of their opportunity and privilege to participate in the life and work of the Church.

 

This situation needs to be changed and reconstructed. Ample opportunity and maximum support and encouragement should be provided to the Dalit members for their theological and ministerial learning, at both basic and higher levels. Leadership development must be the supreme task of reconstruction of the church of the Dalits. A church that is not constructive and creative in its vision for leadership development of the Dalits, cannot be a church for the Dalits.

 

Church is supposed to be a participatory community. Each and every member of the church should feel that he or she has an important role to play in the activities of the church. Division based on caste and origin haven’t let this happen.

 

Studies from South India show us how the churches in India have deprived their Dalit members from participating in the life of the Church and thus caused separatist and protest movements.

 

The history of Christianity in India testifies that the so called low caste and Dalit people have not been the first choice of evangelization and outreach of the mission agencies and Church societies.

 

From Apostle Thomas to De Nobili, and from De Nobili to the first Protestant Mission; to the Serampore Mission, the first preference has been to win the high caste people. Only after disappointments from the high castes, the missionaries turned their attention to the other groups.

 

Also, the mass conversion movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were more of people seeking Christianity, than missionaries seeking the masses. Thus, historically the church has preferred to seek the high and the haves, and neglected the low and the have-nots.

 

The Church of the Dalits has to be a Dalit seeking Church in all its senses. That is, a church that prefers the Dalits, propagates the cause of the Dalits, undertakes the empowerment of the Dalits and focuses on the Dalits as its subjects. Of course, not so at the expense of neglecting the others, rather being inclusive.

 

The Church of the Dalits will be a Dalit outreaching Church, a church that seeks its people and reaches to them wherever they are and in whatever situation they are. It reaches them with the gospel of liberation in Christ. The real challenge of outreach is to reach out our own people. To a great extent we have used a biblical excuse to keep ourselves from this challenge, saying, “A prophet is not honoured in his own country.”

 

While it is undoubtedly true, we need to rethink our call for our own people. As I have mentioned earlier, my people in Chhattisgarh think that they are Hindus. They and many others like them need to know that their identity is different.

 

They are not supposed to be under the domination of any unjust and inhuman system. They are the people of God. The Church of the Dalits has to undertake this outreach to reach out its own people. It is high time that we committed ourselves to be a part of this undertaking. The Dalit church has to be a missionary church engaged in mission of liberation of primarily its own people who are otherwise neglected by the others.

 

Dalit Christians, like any other Dalits and even more than them, have been the victims of oppression and injustice. The Church of my experience has been a church enslaving people in further bondages, taking away their freedom of ministry and limiting their progress in life. The church of the Dalits will be a Church with a liberating mission, liberating the people from bondages of socioeconomic, political and spiritual structures and conditions, first inside then outside the church. The role of the Dalit Christians in the liberative action of the Dalit church will constitute at least three important conceptions:
!
“(i) Dalits’ liberating consciousness and sense of community in Christ; (ii) the wider fellowship with all Dalits; and (iii) the commitment to struggle for total human liberation, through their own specific struggles for justice and equality.”

These conceptions, among others, are significant in summing up the action plan of Dalit Church. Thus, the agenda of a Church of the Dalits is to be an outreaching and liberating community.

The mission of the church is in fact prophetic and proclaiming mission. The Lord Jesus affirmed his own mission saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

As his people, Church is 25 called to follow in the mission of the Lord. It is called to respond to the threats of the evil and proclaim the good news of liberation in Christ. But the church today has failed to be a prophetic community. The internal problems, especially related to the Dalits, have deteriorated the prophetic zeal of the Church. The church is not energized to engage in social action and political participation which is much needed in our day and time. Last year in western UP, some Christian young men were arrested on the false account of evangelism.

 

In reality, they were giving tuition to some children in a village. Although their church was immediately intimated of the incident, none of the leaders turned up for any help. Unfortunately these young men were Dalits and their leaders were not. The church did not engage in the cause of its own Dalit coworkers. Consequently, separation was inevitable. As Dalits we need a church that stands with us in every situation with a prophetic boldness.

 

In order to fulfill the Dalit cause, “Every church should be a prophetic community. Otherwise it is not fulfilling its appointed mission in society. …for the church to fulfill its historically assigned prophetic task, the church must be a “doing church.” … engaged in … service and/or action … improving the lives of human beings.” The challenge of the church of the Dalits, therefore, is to be bold and play the role of a prophetic and proclaiming community.

The ultimate goal of the Church is to be a worshipping and rejoicing community. In order to fulfill this goal the church has to become a liberative, just and loving fellowship. It has to become a church after the model of the kingdom of God, a Church ruled by God not people; a church where there is love, joy, and peace.

 

However, without freedom there can be no rejoicing. Worshipping and rejoicing are significant aspects of Christian spirituality. 28 Since people are in bondages, the Church has not been able to be a rejoicing and worshipping Church. John Piper says that mission exists because worship does not.

 

Therefore the Church has a mission to bring people to worship. However, a Church ailing with partiality and division, discrimination and quarrel cannot engage in this mission. The agenda of the church of the Dalits in such situation, therefore, is to become a free, spirit filled, worshipping and rejoicing church.

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