by Ken Kovacs
28 June 2013, St. Andrews, Scotland
I continue to process my experience in India and before it gets too far away from me, I want to share a conversation I had with one of the staff members at the St. Andrew Centre in Coonoor, Prathaban Jeyathilaka. Prathaban was recently recognized with an award placing him among the top theological students in India. His father is a pastor. Prathaban thought about being a pastor. But he’s being called in a different, although related, direction.
Prathaban met me at the airport in Coimbatore, along with the driver, and together we drove up into the Nilgiris Mountains to Coonoor. In time we found ourselves talking about our favorite theologians. I was curious to know which theologians were speaking to him in the context of his experience in India. That’s when he led me into the world of Dalit Theology.
Dalit refers to the lowest part of the Indian caste system. It means untouchable. Although the caste system is, technically-speaking, no longer at the center of Indian society, it is still very much within its psyche (very similar to the way in which the effects of racism are still prevalent within the American psyche). And although the caste system emerges from within Hindu culture, it has definitely left a profound impression upon the Christian community. In the early 1920s there was an attempt to combine some elements of Christian and Hindu religion/philosophy (Hinduism is not really a religion, but a philosophy, a way of life), that depicted Jesus as a Brahman, at the highest level of the caste system. Safron is the color of the Brahman and so images of Jesus were produced with him in safron.
Prathaban said to me, “Jesus as Brahman, Jesus in safron,…that’s not my image of Jesus.” You see, Prathaban is a Dalit, he would be considered an untouchable if he lived within the world of the caste. Jesus as Brahman, that’s not his understanding of the Gospel.
Dalit Theology has taken shape in India over the last twenty years. It emerges out of the Liberation Theology movement in Latin American in the 1960s (through theologians such as Jon Sobrino, Gustavo Gutierrez), as well as the Black Theology movement in the United States (through theologians such as James Cone). There are some Christians in India who discount the Dalit Theology movement, saying, “that’s just a theology for Dalits,” instead of understanding that it’s a theological approach to and for the Church as a whole, mediated through the Dalit experience of the Gospel, what the Gospel of liberation and freedom mean to the Dalit and how this experience can (and should) inform the life and mission of the Church.
Dalit Theology is really an anti-caste theology. It’s aim is to end oppression and exclusionary practices all done in the name of Christ. It’s aim is to ensure individual and social liberation, to ensure that, as Prathaban explained, “no one is suppressed by any kind of oppression, economic, political, cultural.” It’s a theology that takes one’s experience seriously. It’s attentive to the pain and suffering of human beings caused by those in authority and power, particularly abusive authority and power structures in the Church.
Prathaban told me that the word Dalit might have some connection to the Sanskrit, “del,” meaning one subdued, oppressed, marginalized, victimized, crushed, broken. It might have a connection with the Biblical understanding of God as one who gives his life to the poor.
From Prathaban’s experience, Jesus is a Dalit. “My Jesus is a Dalit Jesus,” he said. The one who brings an end to purity codes. Jesus is Lord for everyone who is marginalized and oppressed – economically, politically, culturally – and has been broken by the system. It’s those who have been and are being crushed and victimized (sometimes in the name of God) who are the ones in a better position, perhaps, to resonate with the radical implications of Jesus’ message.
The images of God we carry around within us are significant. As I tried to demonstrate in the Jung Seminar, the image of God we hold imagines us. That is, the image of God we have within our psyche has a hold over us and shapes the way we view ourselves and our neighbors. If we view God as essentially a Judge, for example, as a Law Giver, who is concerned primarily about rules and the keeping of rules, then that is going to inform the way we relate to ourselves and our neighbor (essentially as judge). If we view God as essentially Love, who calls us into relationship with God and one another, then that, too, will have a profound effect upon the way we move through our lives. Some images of God are extremely destructive (especially from a psychological point of view), other images can be life-giving and transforming.
Prathaban told me that he sketched several images of his Dalit Jesus, including an image of Jesus dancing. He shared them with me and gave me permission to share them with you. The dancing Jesus image echoes the Hindu god Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) performing the tandava, the dance in which the universe is created, maintained, and dissolved. But here Dalit Jesus is Lord of the Dance and seems to be inviting us into the dance, the radical dance of justice and liberation of all God’s children.