Thursday, January 05, 2012

Of a more theological/ social justice bent

So apparently I am on a roll posting papers and things of that nature here...granted I have written several things that I am very proud of but on the whole I kind of just write, turn the paper in and then forget about it. This is a paper I wrote last year dialoguing a brand of feminist theology called "table theology" with the theology of the untouchable class of India, called Dalits. Women of this class are marginalized three times over given their gender, status, and poverty level.  The account that starts this paper I read several years ago while doing research for a marginalized theology class...the power of these women's grace and nonviolent response to dehumanizing violence and injustice flooded me. This image is what the physical abuse looks like for women of the Dalit class. Here are a few links to places that are working to end human trafficking and abuse. (which is clergy and laity for economic justice)

Theology from the Margins:
Dalit Feminist Theology & Feminist Table Theology

In July of 1985 at Karamchedu village, nine Christian dalit men were brutally murdered by the landlords. The Christian dalit women who were the mothers, wives, and sisters of these victims courageously started to lead the movement against the landlords from Chirala Church compound. When Mrs. Anne Grace Bai, a community organizer of RICE, Guntar, met with them to discover their future plans, they said in one voice, “How can we go back to Karamchedu and face the ryots who, regardless of our own employers, fell upon us, like beast, molested and humiliated us. We will not go back to our home stained by our blood and teardrops. We have been buried alive, and we will continue to shout from our living tombs. We will go everywhere, and speak to anyone and do everything to help our dalits. We have nothing more to fear.” At every stage of their struggle they prayed to God and continued their struggle because they believe that he will liberate them.[1]

                        People on the margins often suffer many instances of abuse and violence because they do not have power or voice within their communities. It is these same marginalized people that Christ speaks of taking care of them being care for God in Matthew 25:34-45, they are the poor, sick, and needy.  Matthew 25 is one of many passages of scripture where God calls for justice and provision for those who are at the margins of society another example is Micah 6:8 which speaks to the idea that goodness and Godliness are embodies in the actions of justice, mercy, and humility. Yet how does one who is marginalized call for justice or understand God’s tangible freedom when the Christian community is constructed in a manner which silences or eliminates their voice and at times is in collusion with the other powers, which seek to marginalize them? This is one of  the questions posed by theologians from the Dalit people of India and feminist theologians. What does the community of God look like when it is taking those who are on the edges or even outside the community and opens up space for their voices to be central and heard in such a way that the community is transformed from it’s overtones of abuse to a place of refuge? These are the questions that this paper will seek to address from the theologies of Dalit feminism and feminist table theology,[2] in addition the author will offer insights as to where table theology’s biblical engagement and understanding of marginalized leadership is present with in the Dalit context. First the backgrounds of these two theologies and people will be addressed moving into the central questions of this paper.
The Dalit people are the untouchables in India’s caste system. They go by many names. This is a list of several of the most popular or well-known names for them; the untouchables or untouchable caste (ashprush), Outcasts, Dalit (which means broken people),  Slumdogs, Harijan (the name given to them by Gandhi meaning Children of God), and officially these people are known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by the India constitution.  In the caste/class socio-political system they are seen as impure, in part because of their low status and the fact that they often took on the jobs no one else would do with in the culture which were ritually unclean positions such as tanners, butchers, and other positions that deal with waste this leads to a lack in opportunities in all spheres of life as a result the Dalit people are often uneducated, poor, and abused.  
“As an outcaste community within Hindu society, Dalit’s have been perceived as “ontologically separate” from all other humans, excluded from relationship with the divine. The Dalit struggle is the struggle of an untouchable, dehumanized people made strangers in their native soil, deprived of personal dignity and basic human rights.”[3]
As the above quote speaks to, they are treated as subhuman lepers and expected to be the servant/slaves for the rest of the culture.  These people make up approximately 16%, 200 million people, of the countries total population.[4]
The women of the Dalit community are considered three times Dalit or marginalized because of their poverty, caste, and gender. Often they are referred to as the “Dalits among the Dalits.”[5]  These women not only suffer the stigmatism and poverty of their cultural status as well as the subordination because of their gender to the men in their families and culture[6] but are also “targeted for sexual and physical abuse.”[7]  Even this abuse is held against these women, in her poem “Dalit Women-Society’s Firewood” Theresamma speaks to the fact if these women “cannot stand” their husband’s touch then they are abused by their husband.[8]  In addition Dalit women have “taken on the burden for continuing caste-based occupations and maintenance of the household.”[9] Often they support the whole family on whatever they can manage to earn. Many of the people of the Dalit community have found the Christian faith to be a place of life in contrast to their experience with in their culture. Yet especially for the Dalit women even the Christian church as it has been a place of hope still holds them in a submissive position, for while they are “the most regular in terms of church attendance and in most cases the majority of church members, they are not adequately represented in administrative bodies and are denied full participation.”[10]  From every angle of the society and culture these women are mistreated and harmed.
In contrast Feminist Table theology came out of a class taught and created at Yale Divinity School in the spring of 1987 by Letty Russell in dialogue with Katie Cannon, Associate Professor of Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School and Visiting Professor at Yale Divinity School and  five of their students coming from various racial background who were teaching assistants and small group leaders.[11]  The class was called Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective it sought to “help participants own up to their divisions of sex, race, class, sexual orientation, language, and nationality as they joined in the search for global feminist theologies.”[12] It was through the structure and engagement of this community that this theological and leadership model was created.  The basic premise of table theology and leadership is that “leaders are made for the people and not people for leaders”[13] meaning that the leadership of the community should come from the needs of the people and be focused on serving the community instead of seeking for elitist power and control.  It takes those who are at the margins or are the silenced voices of the community and gives privilege to their hermeneutical lens.[14] The ideas of this theology came out of Russell’s diverse experience with in Christian Education, Ministry, and life experience.  Letty Russell was a pioneer for women in ministry, she was one of the first women to be accepted and graduate from Harvard Divinity School in the 1950’s, she also was one of the first women to be ordained for ministry in the United Presbyterian Church leading the East Harlem Protestant Parish from 1952-1968,  she sat on the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission from 1975-1983, and taught Yale Divinity School from 1974-2001 and continued as a visiting professor until her death in 2007.[15] Part of the inspiration for this kind of leadership model came out of  Russell’s own experience as a pastor in Harlem, she says in Church in the Round that,
“one year in the early 1970’s we decide to create a sanctuary that in itself symbolized our connection to one another as a family that gathered across racial lines…that summer we decided to leave the benches “in the round” and enjoyed the chance to worship while sitting only a few feet from one another. Having eliminated both the back pews and the “high alter and pulpit,” we created a huge round table by cutting the largest piece of plywood we could find and placing this circle on the old rectangular table base…by the time the second fall had arrived, the new tradition had stuck and was considerably reinforced when no one wanted to help moved the pews back! Thus was born a round table that symbolized our table talk and table sharing as we gathered in community.”[16]
Once again the idea being that of shared leadership and equality with in the community. There needs to be a willingness to listen and learn from the situation and perspective of those who are at the margins.  This means that creative and diverse means of theological engagement need to be utilized in the community as they look at Biblical dialogue and study. For communities like the Dalit, this kind of creative engagement and theological work is vital since many of the women are illiterate,  come from an oral tradition, and live in circumstances that are very different from many traditional Christian communities.
            Dalit women, as already mentioned in this paper stuffer many layers of oppression because of their gender, class, and poverty.  As their life experiences interact with the story of the Gospel and other stories of the Biblical text, they find meaning by placing themselves into the story as a means of interpretation. This kind of interaction with the biblical text is also utilized with in feminist theological model.  Take for instance the story of  Christ’s interaction with the Samaritan women in John 4:4-44, in the chapter “Giving Voice to Spiritual Silence Through Feminist Reconstructions” in the book Concerns of Women: An Indian Theological Response, Pushpa Joseph retells this Biblical text in light of the suffering of a Dalit woman.  The tale starts with the woman returning to her hut from gathering water, she is then raped and abuse by her landlord, this leads to her bearing a child and being forced into a relationship with this man who in turn sells her body to others to earn money for himself. Her journey to freedom begins when the abuser becomes sick and dies, it is at this point that the woman becomes involved with a community of Christians where the women are leading the community. Through this group she begins to learn about Jesus and faith. During one of the meetings she has a spiritual vision of being at a well and meeting Christ. He asks her for a drink of water and she struggles with this request.
“I heard the voice again, ‘Give me a drink.’ At that moment I knew, I knew I heard it. I heard water. Yes, water, meandering, rushing forth, in gurgles and spurts. There it was welling up. But where on earth, Oh, My, Where on earth is the source? And in my deep reverie I heard it say again, ‘Give me a drink.’ I screamed, ‘Why would you for goodness sake draw it yourself? What on earth is the matter’ I roared louder. ‘There is the rope and the bucket, it is all there. What the hell are you asking me for? I am only a prostitute. A spoilt woman at the fringes.’
‘From your heart shall living water flow.’ I heard those words. I couldn’t believe it. From my heart shall flow living water? Yes, I heard it again - the rippling and burble of water. Where from?            And yet that was the moment when I knew it was there, coming from within me, from myself. I knew it in a way I had not known before. I was not spoilt. I never can be…’We aren’t spoilt. We are whole human beings too.’…From then on I visited many women who had ended up in the flesh trade through no fault of their own. I spoke to them of my new found freedom. Slowly women started to believe. Believe in the fullness of life that welled up from within…’From the hearts of all men and women will flow steams and streams of living water.’”[17]
For the woman in this story, freedom from shame and circumstances was found in both the community of believers and through her spiritual encounter with the imagery of the Samaritan woman at the well. By placing herself in the position of the woman at the well she was able to find the truth of who she was. No longer was she bound to the naming she received because of her caste and subsequent experiences. As she discovers her own freedom she is able to also share it with others who have been suffering abuse and marginalization. Much like the woman in the biblical account, the woman of this story finds that her freedom sends her to tell and share what she has experienced with others in her community of marginalized people offering them freedom as well.
Creative and dynamic exegetical engagement is what Letty Russell advocates for with the idea of those on the margins having hermeneutical privilege. In part because through the engagement of the marginalized with the biblical text, overlooked and missed elements of the text are flushed out and a broader and more robust understanding of what is being said in the Biblical text is offered to the community.  Often the typical means of biblical interpretation have been situated in the context of church tradition and history, in turn the interpretation has been created by those in power affecting the understanding of biblical meaning in those traditions and histories. What is therefore perceived as a universal understanding or reading of the Biblical text is actually, at least in part, a function or factor of the given culture and cultural understanding in which the tradition or interpretation came out of. Therefore for as Letty Russell says, “Experience has shown those who have little voice in shaping the tradition that such universal statements reflect the understanding of reality experienced by those with the power and knowledge to name that reality.”[18]  Going back to the text of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 Joseph points out through the hermeneutic of suspicion that the woman, who in traditional interpretations has been seen as a whore or loose woman because of the five marriages,  was un able to divorce any of these men given the Jewish divorce laws present in the Gospel period  and therefore there is more to be understood about her situation.[19]  Joseph by taking the social context of the period into account finds alternative reasons for the Samaritan woman’s situation because the traditional means of interpretation have disregarded her experience as a woman because it was not their own.   For the Dalit women “theologizing and reading of scripture”[20] starts “from the experience of a denied humanity”[21] this means that when it comes to interpretation of scripture it’s meaning and use must be closely connected to the community in “mutual relationship between community and scripture.” Therefore  readings of scripture which do not take into account the daily situation and context in which the readers, in this case Dalit women, are faced with are to be treated with suspicion and creatively reinterpreted. This is because if the biblical text is used as means to uphold and support their subjection then it looses the power of freedom and shalom spoken within it’s central message.  Given the class/caste system and paradoxical view of women present in Indian culture this has often been the experience of women in all castes when coming to the biblical text. 
“Indian Christian women defend the Bible as a source of inspiration for liberation in the past and in the present. They declare that as long as such inspiration is found within it, the Bible must not be discarded…they do not fail to notice the oppression and sin that they have encountered in Christian institutions and traditions. Deeply conscious that both Christian institutions and Christian theology operate within a sexist framework and language they attempt to reconceptualize and transform Christian theology  and biblical interpretation. “ [22]
Another way in which Dalit people and Dalit theological work specifically reconceptualizes the structures of abuse and power both in the Christian community and within the cultural setting is by holding up truth both Biblical and general truth as a means to confront the prejudice and bias which has led to their abuse and harm. In her interpretation of Christ’s dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman found in Mark 7, Dalit theologian Surekha Nelavala, speaks about her own marginalization and her mother’s brave rebuke of prejudice and the contrast between her engagement and the scriptural story,
“However, my mother told him, ‘You are calling us untouchables, the dirty pigs, but each grain of rice that you are eating is touched and processed by us only.’…Although the owner (of the house they were trying to rent) could see the rationale in my mother’s argument, he did not risk changing his attitude…in this experience I can see many similarities and also significant differences to the story of the Syrophoenician woman. The Dalit woman is unclean by her caste and birth; the Syrophoenician woman is unclean because she is Gentile, and her relation to a daughter with unclean spirit could double the stigma. Both approached the men politely, and both were humiliated and rejected. But the Dalit woman was rejected despite arguing her case, where as the Syrophoenician woman was offered what she sough in the end.[23]
Nelevala further talks about the contrast between the biblical story and her own in regard to the willingness of the hearer to change their perspective. In her experience even the mirroring of the flawed logic did not change the landlord’s perspective, where as in the biblical account the Syrophoenician woman’s persistent dialogue and challenge to Christ did change his perspective. Nelevala goes on to tell another story of a Dalit woman whose “indirect resistance”[24] does change the person in power’s perspective and engagement with her and her daughter. The hope that is seen through this specific Biblical text for the Dalit community is that by persistent and creative engagement that reveals the flaws in the logic of oppression, the oppressor will face their own biased view and seek like Christ to change their perspective. Table theology also can be used to create structures and forms of exegetical engagement that opens space for this kind of creative engagement.
            In Conclusion, Table theology and Dalit theology understand that the freedom, which is offered in the Bible, is only freedom when it is for the whole community.  When a Christian community holds to structures of leadership or biblical interpretation that isolate the marginalized and voiceless people of their community it is no longer holding to the central meaning message of love, acceptance, and freedom of the Christian faith. Galatians 5:1 says “It is for freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.”[25] In both of these theological understandings the freedom of Christ is both a tangible freedom and a spiritual freedom. This freedom comes through creative means of engagement with structures of power and oppression, even those in the Christian Church. Story, witness, and the lives of the community become central ways to read the biblical text as well as to oppose systems of power. The quote at the beginning of this paper was the first experience the author had with the Dalit people’s story. The powerful image of “living tombs” and these brave women seeking justice for themselves and on behalf of those whom they had suffered abuse from was incredibly powerful image of the transformative power of faith in the practical experience of marginalization and abuse. Also it is a brave and beautiful means to confront oppression by raising witness in voice and body.

[1] Devi, Swarnalatha, “The Struggle of Dalit Christian Women in India”, Feminist Theology from the Third World: A Reader, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), pg 135
[2] Feminist table theology is also referred to as church in the round or theology in the round so for the purposes of this paper all three terms will be used to describe this theological lens.
[3] Sathianathan Clarke, Interview with Dr. James Massey and M. Azariah, as quoted by Bird, Adrian,  M.M. Thomas and Dalit Theology, pg 30
[4] Grey, Mary, “Dalit Women and the Struggle for Justice in a World of Global Capitalism” Feminist Theology: The Journal of the Britain & Ireland School of Feminist Theology, p127
[5] Melanchthon, Monica Jyotsna, “Dalit Women and the Bible: Hermeneutical and Methodological Reflections” Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, pg 107
[6] Melanchthon, pg 107
[7] Melanchthon, pg 107
[8] Theresamma, Dalit Women- Society’s Firewood” as quoted by Melanchthon, Monica pg 106
[9] Melanchthon, pg 107
[10] Melachthon, pg 110
[11] Russell, Letty, “From Garden to Table” in Inheriting Our Mother’s Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective, pg 151
[12] Russell, Letty, “From Garden to Table”, pg 151
[13] Russell, Letty, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of The Church, pg 67
[14] Russell, “From Garden to Table”, pg 151
[15] “Letty Russell dies at 77”, News From the National Council of Churches,
[16] Russell, Letty, Church in the Round, pg 20
[17] Joseph, Pushpa, “Giving Voice to Scriptural Silences Through Feminists Reconstructions”, pg 66-67
[18] Russell, Church in the Round, pg 33
[19] Joseph, pg 58
[20] Melachthon, pg 111
[21] Melachthon, pg 111
[22] Joseph, pg 42
[23] Nelavala, Surekha, “A Dalit Feminist Reading of Mark 7:24-31”, Expository Times 118 (2, 2006), pg 66
[24] Nelavala, pg 66-67
[25] Gal. 5:1 NIV

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