Joseph D’Souza on the caste system

Kevin DeYoung posted his friend Jason Carter’s thoughts about the Lausanne Congress here.  Here’s one part that grabbed my attention:

Perhaps the strongest prophetic voice issuing from Cape Town came from Dr. Joseph D’Souza from India when he spoke out against the Indian Caste System as (a form of modern) slavery in its subjugation of 250 million Dalit peoples.  D’Souza made the point that if apartheid was wrong, then so too the Caste System:  “25% of India’s population —  250 million people — has no rights, dehumanized, segregated, and silently enduring an apartheid system in India. We, of course, in India hang our heads in shame…”  D’Souza stated that there are more slaves in our world today than when William Wilberforce fought the Transatlantic slave trade and closed his rousing and prophetic message by calling forth the involvement of the global church:   “I am here to say to you here at Cape Town that nothing but the concerted opinion and involvement of the global church will bring down human civilization’s longest lasting slave system.”

I think that D’Souza’s eight minutes on the Lausanne platform, 20 years from now, might be one of the defining hallmarks of Lausanne III if the global church – working with Dalit Christians – manages to prophetically speak out and live out Christ’s transforming power in the midst of this (unbelievably) large-scale injustice, reconstituting Indian society from the bottom-up for the glory of Christ.

The link in the quote goes to D’Souza’s speech.

He says that the Dalits (Untouchables) have four pleas for the church:

  1. Free our children from socialization into inferiority and vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.
  2. Free our women from sexual predation.
  3. Be a voice.
  4. Bring the alternative community that Jesus promised, the church in which there is no discrimination.

Notice that in the first two points he gives examples of Dalits who saw redemption in their lives.

The BBC story that he referred to, about the Catholic graveyard with a wall between Dalit and non-Dalit graves, is here.  That’s the kind of stark image that can really symbolize injustice, like the separate Bibles for swearing in witnesses in the Jim Crow South.  Wikipedia’s article on caste and Christianity has more information.

Lord, move in the hearts and lives of your people everywhere to build your church into the community that you desire.


One comment

  1. Interesting and sad articles. It reminded me of the series you ran on culture change. Christians in India are such a small minority, it must feel like they are battling the universe to effect change sometimes, even in their own subcultures. I’m reminded of the fact that 84-91% of babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome go on to be aborted. I find that statistic mind numbing and heartbreaking. It means, that even among the most devout among us, people who go to church every single week and are considered the backbone of their church, a majority will still take the life of their unborn child rather if faced with a DS diagnosis. If this doesn’t shake us up and make us wonder what it will take to just get the faithful in the pews to follow Christ when it involves sacrifice and bucking the cultural current, nothing will. Anyway, I don’t say that to justify the survival of caste ideas among Indian Christians. I just have a tough time getting being too exacting of results when American Christianity has failed so thoroughly in doing the basics like respecting life. It also raises the question for me as to whether the abortion of females is as common among Christians as among Hindus in India? The abortion rate of females in India is alarmingly high compared to boys, especially in more rural, northern states. If Christians aren’t doing a good job purging Christianity of caste hangovers, are they doing a good job promoting life and increasing the status of women relative to the wider culture?

    I’m a little surprised that the Tamil Nadu laity consisting of 70% Dalit converts vs. 22% Dalit bishops statistic was viewed negatively. Converts never become bishops. Also, in any community that has been oppressed, it can take quite some time for the education levels and leadership skills to increase commensurate to the wider community once equality of treatment has been achieved. Often mindsets and habits need to change in order to take advantage of increased opportunities. There will always be breakout leaders who were just waiting for the playing field to be leveled. Oftentimes, it can take awhile for formerly oppressed communities to nurture and develop leadership skills in their youth. This is especially true when the wider culture completely rejects the increased status that one’s own minority community gives. Personally, I find that 22% of bishops in Tamil Nadu are Dalit very encouraging, and probably contributing tremendously to the evangelization of the Dalit, as 70% of Tamil Nadu Catholics being Dalit converts suggests.

    Similarly, I’m very sympathetic to the position of the local priests and bishops regarding burials in the illegal and unChristian cemetery. Christian burial, like Christian marriage, is a near absolute right of all baptized Catholics. While strictures can be put on the ceremony (restrictions on how fancy a wedding or funeral can be, making it public policy to not send the bishop to conduct any funerals at that cemetery, etc.), Church law forbids the denial Christian burial to Catholics, even those who are public sinners and whose salvation is quite questionable. The case would be much simpler if the Church owned the property or if burial plots were not often purchased decades in advance of death and passed on from generation to generation. As it is, there is little the local priests can do, other than preach against the injustice of the wall and try to get the local authorities to force the owners to tear it down. Given how deeply embedded the caste system is in Indian culture, I doubt that would ever happen. A friend of mine had to wait a very long time to get his father-in-law’s approval for his daughter to marry down a notch in the caste system. He is an incredibly smart and successful engineer, yet his wife’s family had a very, very difficult time accepting their daughter’s desire to marry outside of their highly esteemed Brahmin caste. I knew a PhD candidate in grad school who wouldn’t consider marrying up in the caste system. Given such widespread attitudes, even among the best educated Hindus, it would be an extremely rare Indian civil authority that would enforce laws against walls in cemeteries. To do so would risk insurrection and revolt among the populace. Change is coming to India, as my friend’s eventual marriage attests, but it is a slow process. Christians in India should be leading the way in this regard, but it is a tough slog, especially when one is battling centuries of prejudice and the elites of one’s culture.

    Rather than focusing on the 22% of Tamil Nadu bishops that are Dalit, I think it would be more helpful to ask whether healthy numbers of Dalit priests are being ordained and (if there are), whether these priests are being assigned to serve largely non-Dalit communities. While this would need to be done with sensitivity, (not least of all to the Dalit priests who are being asked to lead communities who may largely reject the idea of Dalit leadership over any aspect of their lives), in a hierarchical structure like Catholicism, this is certainly one way to communicate the idea on a regular basis that no Christian can look down their nose at another based on birth and geneology. Since becoming a Catholic, I’ve had the pleasure of having several black priests lead the congregations I attended as I moved across the country, either as the full-time priest or as a guest preacher. I can’t imagine being both a Catholic and a racist because it would be so hard to find a parish in which one did not have minority priests either guest preach or lead. However, if the Dalit priests in India are not afforded the same status as their non-Dalit priests, if they are not leading non-Dalit congregations and if they were not treated equally by the hierarchy as an example to the flock, that would be much more indicative factors of the Indian Catholic hierarchy’s commitment and ability to lead their congregations to a more complete understanding of the gospel. However, those nuances can be difficult to catch in a news article, and even more difficult to report on if one doesn’t know the questions to ask (as I suspect of the BBC reporter).

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