Silence is Betrayal

“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” thundered Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, on 4th April 1967. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, particularly with regards to the perpetuation of the deplorable state of dalits.

For centuries dalits have been socially, economically, politically and religiously crushed in India. Their dignity, value and rights are being trampled upon not only in the society, but also in churches and Christian organisations. Unfortunately some of the Christian religious institutions are carrying on with misguided, painful and shaming sanctions for the already struggling and suffering dalits. By carrying out such sanctions against dalits, these churches and Christian organisations are consistently toeing the line of Hidutvawadis with regards to their attitude towards and perception of the oppressed and marginalised dalits.

What do such attitude and perception suggest? If we read the article written by Ram Puniyani, who was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, titled “Modi’s Caste and Hindutva Political Strategies”, we wonder whether the author is writing about RSS or a Christian organisation. This is what Puniyani writes in his article:

Hindutva, the RSS politics, is essentially an ideology based on a caste pyramid, where the different castes have a well defined place. The caste system gets its strength through subordinating the dominated castes. Dominated castes (i.e. dalits-OBCs) assuming Hindu identity, over and above their caste identity, is the fulcrum of strength of Hindutva politics.

Caste has been the major phenomenon, with which the Hindutva politics had to engage with. The beginning of RSS was more as a reaction to low castes coming up in the society…. With independence and the coming into being of Indian Constitution the march of dalits towards equality took the next step aided by the affirmative action provided by Indian Constitution. They did start the journey for their own share sky. The changes in social scenario by 1980s led to a situation whereby upper castes felt that this undeserving section is being treated like ‘son-in-laws’ of the Governments in matters of education and jobs. They felt that their ‘deserving’ children are not able to get their due share of admissions and jobs. The result was anti-dalit violence in Ahmedabad in 1980s. Later the anti OBC violence in mid 1980s, opposing the promotion of OBCs in jobs was witnessed….

Meanwhile RSS planned for social engineering by which the dalits were co-opted into Hindutva politics and at places put in the forefront like in Babri demolition and also in the anti Muslim violence in Gujarat in particular. The anti minority violence plays the role of bringing religious identity to the fore. In case of dalits through communal violence ‘Hindu identity’ came in as the overshadowing one, overshadowing the caste identity. After every case of anti minority violence, the Hindu identity became bigger for dalits….

At another level there is a conscious ploy through floating organizations like Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Assimilation Platform), which talks of caste harmony while retaining caste inequality…. While Ambedkar painfully drew attention to the plight of dalits and struggled for justice for them, RSS has subtly and openly opposed the affirmative action for dalits and never raised its voice against atrocities on dalits. Agenda of communal politics is a cleaver ploy. At one level it opposes all affirmative action for the dominated castes, at another level it co-opts them, and at yet another level it talks of harmony between different castes.” (Bold letters mine)

Three important things are evident in the RSS’ Hindutva politics:

  1. Opposes all affirmative actions recommended by the Indian Constitution for the dominated castes (particularly SCs) such as reservations in education and employment.
  2. Co-opts dominated castes in the implementation of its “mission” and uses their money and might for this purpose. In this process it also inculcates in the minds of dalits and other oppressed caste peoples that the “Hindu” religious identity is more important than their caste identity.        
  3. Talks about caste harmony, while perpetuating caste inequality in leadership, marriages, use of resources, inter-caste relationships etc.

Some of the Christian organisations, on the one hand, by pressurising dalit Christians to relinquish their caste identity (i.e. Scheduled Caste) for the sake of religious identity (i.e. Christian Religion) and to give up their Constitutionally provided “benefits” while never raising their voice against the injustice done to the dalit Christians in the Indian Constitution and against the atrocities on dalit Christians, and on the other hand by giving an impression that dalit Christians are part of their “family”, using their money and might for the implementation of their “mission” while denying leadership, are implementing the RSS’ Hindutva politics.  

All too often we complain about injustice and prejudice against Christians in our work places, localities, and society at large. But we hardly say anything and do nothing as the dignity, value and rights of dalit Christians are trampled on (take a look around, it’s happening in your midst) in front of our very eyes in our churches and Christian organisations. The deplorable psychological persecution and segregation of dalit Christians is going on unhindered in our religious institutions, and unchecked by Christian “believers”, who dare not speak against it. This silence of the Christian “believers” in these churches and Christian organisations is appalling! Even when pressed by the demands of their conscience and God’s kingdom values of justice, mercy and equality, these “believers” do not easily assume the task of voicing out their opposition to the policies of their churches and organisations that perpetuate injustice, segregation, corruption, nepotism, hedonism, fascism, casteism and regionalism.

Martin Luther King bemoaned, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” The appalling silence of the “good and spiritual” Christians is alive and worsening today in all corners of Christian communities and society.

Why have so many “good and spiritual” Christians abandoned their God of justice by not voicing loudly their disgust against the unjust and discriminatory policies and practices of churches and Christian organisations? The prevailing appalling silence of the so-called “Christian believers” leads one to believe that they have turned their backs against God and fellow human beings.  

The mute witnesses of injustice and evil, which are present in their midst, are as much involved in it as those who help to perpetuate it. Those who accept evil without protesting against it are really cooperating with it. One must stand up against injustice and for those who are treated unjustly. We must feel passionate about freedom and justice. When we feel strongly, we must act in the ways that we know how. We must use our strengths as individuals to make our churches and organisations better, and we must act as the conscience of them. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends (and fellow Christian believers).”

Why do “good and spiritual” Christians remain silent?

  1. Apathy

The concern of most of the Christian believers is limited to “saving/winning souls”. Naturally social justice does not fit in their spirituality, and Christian calling and vocation. Even if they have concern for the victims of injustice, it is expressed ONLY in prayer and not in ACTION. Such prayers, which are not followed by actions, for the dalits amount to indifference to the plight of the oppressed and the marginalised. It is also injustice when we don’t help those, who are suffering in our midst, although we have the ability to help.

Apathy towards victims of injustice is also apparent in the words such as, “That’s someone else’s responsibility, not mine.” Someone smarter or richer or more powerful. Other people, not me. But God has entrusted this work of fighting injustice to His people – to you and to me. That’s why Martin Luther King was so vocal about the “appalling silence of the good people”.

So don’t turn your back to the injustice in your midst. Don’t turn away. Don’t wait and hope for someone else to come along. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to justice for dalits is the “Christian believer” who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace (i.e. the absence of tension) to a positive peace (i.e. the presence of justice), who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direction.” Ultimately, this person does not do anything to help the cause of dalits, except giving some lame excuses and trying to find some faults either with persons who are raising their voices against the discrimination or with the way the protest against the discrimination is being carried out. By sitting in his/her comfortable place, he/she expects those on the ground to carry out their protest according to his/her whims and fancies. The underlying truth is, he/she is not empathetic to the agony, humiliation and sufferings of dalits.  

For the change we want to see in the churches and Christians organisations, empathy is more important than reason. Justice comes from character, not competence.

What is needed?

  1. Indignation

Anger and indignation play an important role in the response to injustice. When one feels indignation, one can not keep silent. Indignation assures protest and action. Jesus’ righteous indignation at the institutionalised corruption in the Jerusalem temple moved him to action (Mk. 11.15-17).  

It is hard to find the tradition of dissent and vigorous debate in churches and Christian organisations. It appears that the extremely silent “good and spiritual believers” like to be doormats for the powerful leaders. I wish Christians would remember that faith in the God of justice through our Lord Jesus Christ, and being a disciple of Jesus make it our duty to challenge the unjust policies of the government and of churches and Christian organisations. Indifference to injustice does not belong to the spirituality of Jesus Christ and the prophets who were called by God to preach His protest message to His people and their leaders who perpetuated injustice and discrimination.

What is frustrating is the popular amnesia, the collective will to accept the sterilised form and neglect the righteous indignation that demands coordinated action in the face of all injustice and all forms of abusive power.

Every time I am lukewarmly supportive, rather than being a passionate believer in social justice, I tell the world that I don’t care about others, and I certainly don’t care about myself. If anyone of us truly believes and values the concept of freedom and justice for all, it starts from understanding that the most precious gift we give others is the brotherhood or sisterhood that is inextricably tied to humanity. If someone is not indignant at the segregation of dalits in churches and Christian organisations, his/her very existence is less than authentic, less than human!

In order to be indignant at the institutionalised terror of casteism and segregation, we as a community of a just God must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from statistics or quantity-oriented community to person-oriented or quality or fellowship-oriented society.

  1. Protest

From the “fight against corruption” in India to Arab Spring in the MiddleEast and elsewhere to Occupy Wall Street in the US – all over the globe people are revolting against the old systems of exploitation and oppression. As a result of such revolutions new systems of justice and equality are slowly emerging. The shirtless and barefoot people are raising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”

So we need to go out into the hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, casteism, classism, regionalism and segregation. With this commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust policies and thereby speed up the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.” 

We must continue to raise our voices against the injustice, if the perpetrators of injustice persist in their perverse ways. We must match actions with words by seeking every possible creative means to protest.

As we counsel young men and women concerning unjust policies of our churches and organisations, we must clarify to them our religious institutions’ role in promoting the RSS’ Hindutva politics, and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection to such politics. We must not only object to unjust policies and laws in our religious institutions, but also discourage others from following them. One who breaks an unjust law that his/ her conscience and Christian calling and vocation tell him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the consequences of such violation in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

So these are the times of real choices and not false ones. Every Christian of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his/her convictions, but we must all protest against the injustice done to dalit Christians. We are all called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside. But that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho to Jerusalem road was transformed so that the travellers on this road will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.

So the aim should be to change the evil systems and structures that perpetuate discrimination and oppression within the churches and Christian organisations.

  1. Freedom from Fear

Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something demanded by the oppressed. If we want to see justice done to the dalit Christians in the churches and Christian organisations, we need to struggle for it. We need to confront the oppressor, the powers. In order to do that, freedom from fear is crucial. Inner freedom that makes us confront the oppressor, even if it means risking our name, position, wealth, friends and life. It is a sad fact, because of comfort, complacency, and a morbid fear of being branded as a “rebel”, we tend to adjust to injustice.

Martin Luther King once said, “You may be 38years old… And one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…you refuse to do it because you want to live longer….You are afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticised or that you will lose your popularity,or you are afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

So freedom from fear is the necessary freedom to get justice for the discriminated dalit brothers and sisters.

  1. Speak out the Truth to the Powers

Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak to those who have been designated as our leaders. However, we can not sit back and watch injustice. We must speak out.

Sometimes we refrain from speaking out to those in power and authority because we assume that “speaking out” is a sign of disobedience to them, and as a consequence allow these powers to abuse their power by perpetuating evil and injustice.

“Speaking out” can also happen through writing, through the way we live (being consistent in our values and actions), and by pointing out injustice in everyday situations we see it.

Some of us, who have already begun to break the silence, have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony. But we must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision. We must also rejoice as well, because for the first time in the history of a Christian organisation that a significant number of its members have chosen to move beyond expressing lip sympathy to the plight and discrimination of dalit Christians to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and Christian calling and vocation.

When some of us have moved to break the betrayal of our own silences and to speak from the burning of our hearts, many “good and spiritual” Christians questioned us about the wisdom of our path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about discrimination of dalit Christians in the Christian organisation? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? By your dissent, aren’t you helping the cause of the enemies of Christians? Though the intention of their questions is very much evident, their questions suggest that they do not know their Christian calling and vocation, and the world in which they live.    

It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the Christian integrity and life today can ignore the perpetuation of segregation of Christian dalits in Churches and Christian organisations. If the soul of Jesus’ community in India becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: SEGREGATION OF DALIT CHRISTIANS. It can never be saved so long as it devalues the dignity, worth, rights, Christian calling and commitment of dalit Christians and destroys their deepest hopes. So those of us who are concerned for a healthy community of Christ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of the community of a just God.

It’s a commission to work harder for “the brotherhood of man”. We must be true to our conviction that we share with all, the calling to be the children of the living God. Beyond the calling of caste, creed, language and region is this calling and vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and this conviction that the Father is deeply concerned especially for His suffering and helpless marginalised children. The GOODNEWS is meant for all people, including the marginalised ones.

So it is the privilege and the burden of all God’s children who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than casteism and regionalism, and which go beyond self defined positions of our churches and Christian organisations. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of casteism, for no human document can make these children of God any less our brothers and sisters.

A prophet of God calls the people of God to account, reminding them of their moral responsibility to oppose immoral policies and actions in their communities. Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah called kings and plutocrats to account, SPEAKING THE TRUTH TO POWER. The role of the prophet requires not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.  

In the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. He went there because he did not notice the HUMANITY of the man he was passing at his gate. And it is about humanity!

The challenge is to be a human being and to behave as a human being. Only then do we treat others as human beings, not as things or even less than human beings. When we see Lazarus at the gate, do not pass him by. Since Lazarus is also created in the image of God, he can not be treated as a thing. 

Conclusion

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of NOW. In this unfolding mystery of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.

So we must move from indecision to action – action for a new world, a new community.

James Russell Lowell stated:

Once to every man and nation

Comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth and falsehood,

For the good or evil side;

Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,

Off’ring each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever

Twixt that darkness and that light.

Though the cause of evil prosper,

Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

And behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow

Keeping watch above his own.

Martin Niemoller believed that the Germans – in particular the leaders of the protestant churches – had been complicit through their silence to the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He spoke publicly about broader complicity in the Holocaust and guilt for what had happened to the Jews. In his book he wrote, “Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I can not but tell him, “Dear friend, I stand in front of you. But we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people have sinned against thy people and against thyself.”

Niemoller wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

So it’s time to raise up, unify and use our voices. Our silence is hurting dalit Christians.

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