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Dalit theology: a WCC conference on the caste system in a Christian context.

MOST of us cannot imagine being treated from birth as if we were impure, polluted and polluting to those around us. And yet, this is the daily reality for many of the world's 200 million "dalits".

This past March, I participated in the first Global Ecumenical Conference On Justice For Dalits which took place in Bangkok, Thailand. The gathering--organized by the Church Conference of Asia, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Council of Churches--was intended to raise awareness about dalit issues, and to foster greater solidarity between dalits and the wider church. As a Christian from North America, I had rarely given much thought to the challenges confronting dalit people, nor to the ethics and theology underlying the caste system.

The term "dalit" means "crushed" or "oppressed," and is used to describe those who are born 'outside' of the four-tiered caste system in Hindu societies. These non-caste individuals, who were formerly called untouchables, are routinely subjected to physical, sexual, legal and human rights abuses. They are also used to perform the most degrading tasks in society, including "manual scavenging"--or cleaning human excrement from dry latrines, often with their bare hands.

While the dalit issue has important implications for our interfaith dialogues (particularly with those of the Hindu faith), caste-based discrimination is not unknown in the church. Although the Christian faith has been present in India for over 1,500 years, the past few centuries have witnessed a significant growth in the Church in India, largely as a result of missionary initiatives from Western nations. Sadly, this history has not been particularly effective addressing caste-based issues. Although some Christian groups protested against the caste system as an unjust--and sinful--system, other church-based organizations accepted the caste structure as a form of cultural expression.

At present, there is an emerging contextual theology--sometimes referred to as dalit theology--which seeks to engage in theology from a dalit perspective. This theology is rooted in a very Christocentric and incarnational approach to faith, and emphasizes the equality and dignity of every person as a being created in the image of God. Any system which denies this identity invites the believer to resistance.

And resistance happens. One of the participants in the conference was a young woman who was born into a dalit family. However, as she was from a third-generation Christian family, she had been taught to embrace a level of self-respect, education and opportunity not experienced by some of the other dalits from her village.

She recounted an incident that occurred while she was walking home one day, and passed by an older woman from the brahman or priestly class. The older woman saw her, and poured out the water that she had been carrying since such close proximity to a dalit had rendered the water impure. When the young woman arrived home, she related the incident to her father. In response, he went out and walked by the brahman woman six times--with the result that each time, the woman poured out the water. Finally, out of exasperation, the brahman woman gave up and carried her water home. It was a wonderful reminder that resistance to injustice is sometimes necessary--but that when liberation comes, both oppressed and oppressor will be set free.

Rev. Will Ingram is minister at St. Andrew's, King St., Toronto. He blogged his Thailand trip and it can be found at: Part two of his letter will continue next month.
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Author:Ingram, Will
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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