Dalit Liberation Theology: Interview with James Massey

Story: Matters India. Reverend James Massey, who died March 3, was a leading Dalit Christian theologian, one of the pioneers in the field. He wrote several books on Dalit Christian theology. He was the general secretary of the Indian Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and a member of the National Minorities Commission. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand in 2005 he talks about the Dalit Christians, Dalit ways of understanding Christianity and the challenges posed before the Dalit movement by Hindutva fascism.

Q: How do you account for the emergence of what is called Dalit Christian theology?

A: Dalit Christian theology is a relatively new phenomenon, going back to the late 1970s. It is a reflection of the Dalit Christians, who form the vast majority of the Indian Christian population, becoming increasingly conscious of their Dalit roots, their Dalit condition and of being oppressed both within as well as outside the church. As a result of the growing consciousness of the Dalit Christians, they are beginning to ask how much of what they had been taught Biblically and theologically is actually relevant to their own social conditions. They are increasingly realizing that the way the Christian faith has been explained does not include the experiences of the Dalits—the Dalit Christians as well as the larger Dalit community as a whole. They are now saying that the sort of theology that is taught in the seminaries and preached from the pulpits of the churches is largely irrelevant for them because it does not take into account their oppressed condition, their experiences. So, I would say that the emergence of Dalit Christian theology is really only a part of a larger process of the emergence of Dalit consciousness.

Q: How would you define Dalit theology?

A: Briefly, I would say it is a systematic reflection on God and humankind from the perspective of the Dalit experience. It is our faith experience in a particular context put in a systematic form. Dalit Christian theology sees God as struggling alongside the Dalits in challenging the structures of caste and oppression, both within as well as outside the Church. But Dalit Christian theology, in order to be a complete, and not just a partial, theology, has to base itself on the experiences of the Dalits as a whole and not simply that of the Dalit Christians alone.

Q: How does Dalit Christian theology differ from non-Dalit Indian Christian theology?

A: Since Dalit Christian theology is based on the faith experiences of the Dalits, it presents a very different image of God and His role in human history from what it is depicted in the theology evolved by ‘upper’ caste Christians. Till now, Indian Christian theology has been based on either the experience of western colonialists or of ‘ upper ‘ caste Christians, who are a small, but, at the same time, a very powerful, minority within the Indian Christian community. Now, the problem of the ‘upper’ caste Christians is not social oppression or poverty but of how to relate to their former Hindu faith and ethos. That is why they talk in terms of ‘Christian Vedanta’, ‘Christian Bhakti’, ‘Christian Yoga’, ‘Christian Ashrams’ and so on. This resulted in what some have called the Brahminisation of Christianity. But the problems of the Dalit Christians are very different. For us the principal question is that of sheer survival, of denial of our social, economic and political rights. So, while in their theological formulations ‘ upper’ caste Christians were principally concerned with explaining Christianity in Brahminical categories, our major concern has been how our faith experience can help us win our rights. This is really what Dalit theology is all about.

Q: Where does the question of the importance of human history come into this?

A: Our own history is central for us in the way we seek to understand our faith. As we see it, Dalit theology is essentially a product of reflecting on Divine action in the history of the Dalits. So, like any other liberation theology, Dalit theology takes the issue of history very seriously. On the other hand, Brahminic Christian and Western Christian theology do not attach much importance to history. Brahminic Christian theology is based on the philosophy of Vedanta, according to which the world is illusory, while western Christian theology is based on the classical Greek dualism between the this–world and the other-world, between matter and spirit. In contrast, Dalit theology is deeply rooted in this world, in the this–wordly experiences and sufferings of the Dalits, and, rather than promising the Dalits a place in heaven, it inspires them to struggle for transforming this world to bring justice for the Dalits.

Q: What role does Ambedkar play in the writings of Dalit Christian theologians?

A: It is very unfortunate that traditional Indian Christian theology has completely ignored Ambedkar while reflecting on the Christian faith in the Indian context. This is because most of these theologians have been of ‘ upper’ caste origin. So, instead of taking inspiration from people of Dalit or Shudra background like Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule, they used the writings of ‘ upper’ caste writers and reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Keshub Chandra Sen or Gandhi in order to develop a contextual Indian theology. This is so despite the fact that Ambedkar wrote extensively on the Christian faith and church history and their relationship with the Dalits. Similar is the case with Mahatma Phule. In his Gulamgiri ( Slavery’) Phule develops a very interesting concept of Christology, the person of Christ. He refers to the story of the non Aryan king Bali, whose kingdom was snatched by the Brahmin Vamana. Vamana goes on to rigidly enforce the law of caste, converting the natives into Untouchables and Shudras. Phule tells us that in rural Maharashtra the ordinary village folk still long for the return of the righteous rule of Raja Bali, and he identifies Jesus as Bali. He says that Jesus and his disciples, the Christians, have come to India to rescue the Dalits and Shudras from Aryan or Brahmin hegemony. All this has been ignored by ‘ upper’ caste Christian writers.

Q: Yes, but are Dalit Christian theologians now paying attention to and drawing inspiration from the works of people like Ambedkar and Phule?

A: It is still not happening on the scale it should. Their analysis is yet to become an integral part of Dalit Christian theology. But increasingly I find that Ambedkar is beginning to exercise a powerful influence on Dalit Christian writers and this is bound to grow in time to come. Many of the things that Ambedkar wrote and said about the Christian faith and the Indian church in the 1930s are only now being said and written about by Dalit Christian theologians. In my own case. I am aware of Ambedkar’s writings and I use them directly or indirectly in all my writings.

Q: Are Dalit Christian writers also drawing on Dalit cultural motifs for developing their theologies?

A: Yes, this is happening, and we are trying to reclaim our Dalit heroes, most of whom were not Christians. So, we are using such radical figures as Kabir, Ravidas, Chokhamela and others. Now, these were revolutionaries in their own times, crusading against caste oppression. The Purushusa Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda, which describes the origin of Man, tells us that God created the Brahmins from the head of the Primal Man, the Kshatriyas from his hands, the Vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet. But the Dalits and Adivasis do not even figure here, not even being considered as human beings! But what people like Kabir, Ravidas and others were attempting to do was to re-establish a relationship between the Dalits and God. And this Dalit Christian theology must take into account.

Q: What has been the reaction of the Church leadership, which is still largely ‘upper’ caste, to the emergence of Dalit theology?

A: Some have accused us of ‘dividing’ the church and of ‘misinterpreting’ Christianity. But, on the whole, I can say that the church leadership is definitely under increasing pressure from the Dalits because of their growing awareness of their rights that have been denied to them. And then there is also what we call in Christian theological terms, pressure from the Holy Spirit. This is forcing the Church to respond. Even those sections within the Church hierarchy who do not wish to see the Dalits advance are forced to respond, because they know that if they do not to do so, they will be left high and dry. They won’t have any space, so in order to save themselves they will have to become part of this process.

Q: Do you see any danger of the Church leadership co-opting the Dalit Christian movement so as to blunt its radical thrust?

A: That danger has always been there. Some non-Dalit church leaders would like to see compromise and accommodation in place of protest and struggle. But I don’t think they can succeed in their aims. And we are also particular that the leadership of the movement must rest in Dalit hands. For this purpose some of us have set up a group called the Dalit Solidarity Programme. It was established in 1992, with the help of the Inter-Faith desk of the Geneva- based World Council of Churches. Its aim is to bring Dalits of all religious and ideological back grounds – Christians, Muslisms, Hindus, Buddhists and others-on a common platform. Non-Dalits can not be leaders of this organization, they an only be ‘enablers. Because of this we had to sacrifice many non-Dalits, Christian as well as others, who had been all along claiming to be messiahs of the Dalits. As Paulo Freire writes somewhere, movements of the oppressed struggling for liberation must not let people from dominant classes enter their ranks and sabotage their efforts by appointing themselves as guides and leaders.

In 1997 we had our second convention, which was attended by some 300 people. At this meeting we decided to shift from programmes to working with people’s groups, so we renamed ourselves as Dalit Solidarity Peoples. As we began shifting towards closer collaboration with people’s movements, many Christians fervently prayed that our movement would die out. Since we became more of a people’s movement, we have had to lose the friendship of some senior bishops as well, who found our work too threatening to their own interests.

Q: Since your organization includes Dalits from all religious and ideological back grounds, do you also address the question of inter-religious dialogue?

A: Yes, that is a very important question for us. We have six presidents, out of which only one is a Christian. And because we all come from such different religious backgrounds we have taken the question of inter-religious dialogue very seriously. But our way of dialoguing is very different from how ‘upper’ caste Christian theologians go about it. For them, by and large, dialogue has taken the form of entering into debates about theological niceties with Brahmin scholars, arguing from texts and scriptures. But for us, dialogue starts not from scriptures but from our common condition of oppression.

This is what we call the dialogue of life—working with Dalits of other faiths for a common goal, that of doing away with the structures of caste and class oppression. In our organisation, our dialogue does not entail religion at all. Religion is not our meeting point. Our concern and our meeting point is our common oppression and suffering as Dalits.

Frankly, the time for theological debates is over and now the time has come for inter-religious dialogue to be based on issues of common social concern. If at all dialogue has any meaning for us Dalits, you have to tell us how much your faith can contribute in improving the lives of the millions of our people who are living in conditions worse than slavery. If religion cannot do so, then of what use is it? So, for us religion has worth only if it helps us in our struggle for liberation. And, therefore, we are now thinking of a project to identify liberative elements in every religion which can be used in our struggle.
Q: How does your faith as a Christian inspire you in your work for the Dalit cause?

A: In my work I draw my strength and inspiration from my Christian faith experience. I see Christ not decked up in silken robes wearing a golden crown, as he is depicted in the cathedrals and churches, but as the child of a poor village woman, the wife of a carpenter. Mary was so poor that the only place she could find to deliver her child was a manger, where cows and horses are tied up. It is a different matter that today people have tried to distort this image by constructing fancy mangers in palatial churches to depict Jesus’ birth during Christmas celebrations. When Jesus was born, the only thing that Mary could offer at the synagogue was a pair of doves, while the general practice was to offer a Iamb.

Now, Jesus, who was born in a desperately poor family, spent the whole of his life working for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. That is why for me, as a Christian, it is a natural expression of my faith commitment to be involved in the movement for Dalit liberation, because Jesus, the person in whom I have put my faith, became for me what I am today—Dalit, oppressed and despised, in order that I and millions of others like me could be liberated. But if Jesus is my source of inspiration, people from other faiths may have their own sources from which they draw their strength, and that is fine by me.

In this connection it is very interesting to note that the word ‘Dalit’ is found in Sanskrit. Persian, Arabic as well as Hebrew, and in all these languages it means roughly the same thing: oppressed or weak. In the Bible the word ‘Dalit’ is used 52 times. In the Old Testament, the prophets are described as chiding traders and priests for their mistreatment of people whom they call ‘Dalits’. Likewise, the prophet Isaiah foretells the arrival of a messiah who will come to deliver the ‘Dalits’ from oppression. So, this theme of God and His prophets working for the cause of the Dalits is one that runs right through the Bible.

Q: Has Dalit theology had a major impact in changing the attitudes and policies of the Church leadership vis-a-vis the Dalits? Or is it the case that Dalit theology is still largely confined within the walls of seminaries?

A: I am afraid that Dalit theology has yet to pick up and reach out to the Dalit masses. People like me may get an occasional chance to preach our ideas from the pulpits, but in India today there are very few Dalit theologians who have access to church structures to do so. If you measure the impact of Dalit theology in terms of concrete changes that the church authorities have been forced to make in matters such as resource allocation or leadership structures, then its influence has not been much so far. Take the case of elitist Christian schools. How many Dalit children have been admitted to them so far? These schools cater almost entirely to the ‘upper’ caste elites, Hindus and others. So, in this sense the churches we have are not the Church of Christ. Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Who are the neighbours of the leaders of the Church? Are they the starving Dalits, who may share their Christian faith, or the rich industrialists who are sucking the blood of the poor and who send their children to elitist Christian schools in air- conditioned cars?

I have been trying, through my writings and speeches, to impress upon the Church to radically change its attitudes towards the Dalits, but the response, I must confess, has not been very enthusiastic. I have been the editor of the official organ of the Church of North India -The North Indian Church Review-for quite a while now. In my editorials I constantly question the Church leaders as to what they are doing for the Dalits. I have just written an editorial, in which I have discussed the various resolutions that the Church of North India has passed on the Dalit question in the last ten years. Every year for the last one decade the top-brass of the Church of North India have been meeting and issuing grand statements reiterating their commitment to the Dalit cause. But in one of their recent statements they have admitted that they have done almost nothing at all, so I am asking them: “What is the use of all this tall talk, of passing pious resolutions, when you are actually not serious about doing anything for the Dalits?” I have asked them: “If the mission statement of the Church of North India that the Dalit question has been missed by us at all levels is correct, then what are the reasons for the failures?”.

Q: How do you see the phenomenon of Hindutva and what implications does it have for the Dalits?

A: Hindutva has no place at all for the Dalits, the Adivasis, the Shudras. It has no place for their identities and it robs them of the right to speak for themselves, to struggle for their rights. From the point of view of Dalit interests, I see Hindutva as a very dangerous development. At its very root is the fear of Dalit awakening, and this is why the Muslims and Christians are being targeted by Hindutva forces as scapegoats, so that the Dalits rally behind the ‘upper’ castes instead of against them. And this is what is happening in Gujarat and other places. Christians are being attacked because they are conscientising the Tribals and the Dalits. This has nothing to do with conversions, because very few conversions are actually taking place. In fact, as the figures provided by the government itself make clear, the proportion of Christians has been going down with every successive census.

(This appeared in Christian Persecution blogspot February 25, 2005)

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