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The world of untouchables in India

Mark 10:32-45

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Philippians 2:1-11

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

But a Sudra, whether bought or unbought, he may be compelled to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent to be the slave of a Brahmin.

A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it?

The Dalits, the untouchables of India, who number over 250 million, are the victims of the Hindu caste system - an oppressive social hierarchy built on the principles of ritual purity and pollution, segregation and social exclusion.

The dominant religious, political and social powers have assigned the lowest place in the social ladder to the Dalits to be the slaves and servants of their upper-caste masters. They live in segregated dwellings outside the village and are a despised and excluded people. Humiliation, mockery, contempt, depravation, rape, torture and at times cruel deaths are the treatment they receive from the non-Dalits. Though they are poor and often betrayed by upper-caste people, they are a serving people, habitually depriving themselves and making others rich.

Dalits constitute a vast majority of the Indian church. They have experienced God's grace in Jesus Christ and have been transformed from "no people to God's people" (1 Pet. 2:10). Yet to their great dismay, they continue to experience caste discrimination even within the churches. Through their failure both to comprehend the central gospel affirmation (Gal. 3:28) and to develop a life-style different from the oppressive caste culture (Matt. 5:13-16), the churches have betrayed the faith that has brought them into being.

The text: transformation through God's grace

The text focuses on the disciples, on Jesus and on their relationship with one another.

The disciples

This account, though embarrassing to the apostles, witnesses to the authenticity of the gospel narratives. Mark's description of the attitudes of the disciples reminds us of the Indian situation where the non-Dalits oppress the Dalits.

The disciples are presented as selfish, ambitious and jealous. They were aspiring for places of honour, seeking to guarantee for themselves higher status and proximity to glory and power. India's caste edifice was built in order to award all these favours to the upper-caste people.

James and John wanted to be rewarded a higher status because of the close family relationship and their mother's service to Jesus. Other disciples were also aspiring for higher positions because of their closeness to Jesus. Their aspirations also reflected their selfish ambitions. In India, the Brahmins who are the custodians of orthodox Hinduism have legislated for themselves many rights and privileges. Through the doctrine of Karma, Brahminical Hinduism encourages social irresponsibility, as it holds each individual responsible for one's predicament.

In the narrative of Mark 10, we find the disciples unable to grasp or understand the essence of Jesus' teaching. They have misunderstood their calling and have not discerned the cost of discipleship. They seemed to think that closeness to Jesus will result in higher status, power and authority instead of danger, suffering, shame and humiliation.

Jesus as one in solidarity with the excluded

In spite of the imminent threat to his life, Jesus differed radically from his disciples. He exhibited courage and impatience to fulfil his mission. He submitted himself to God's purposes and turned to God as his only source of strength. Jesus obeyed and acknowledged God as the ultimate bestower of honour and glory. Dalits as a serving people have always understood their service to humanity as a service of God.

Jesus found himself utterly lonely despite his physical proximity to the disciples. They seemed to understand his vision and strategy on a completely different level. Selfish ambitions, rivalry and enmity alienate people from one another, especially the disempowered and the excluded. The Dalits suffer just such loneliness due to the hostility of the non-Dalits.

By refusing to comply with the request made by his disciples and by opting for a vocation of service and sacrifice, Jesus identified with the humanity in all our frailty and weaknesses. The text from the epistle to the Philippians tells us that he "emptied" himself. Like the untouchables he encountered rejection, mockery, contempt, suffering and violent death. The dominant religious and political structures put him through all this. This has been the exact experience of the Dalits. The word "Dalit" literally means broken, torn, crushed, rent asunder. Thus the cross may serve as the appropriate symbol of Dalitness.

The relationship between Jesus and the disciples

Graciousness characterizes Jesus' response to his disciples, and that transforms them.

Jesus did not consider the request of James and John as presumptuous but taught them patiently what it means to demand to be close to him in glory. By casting himself in the role and vocation of a servant, he made it clear that as one moves farther in discipleship, one is to expect more danger and more suffering. Despite this admonition, the disciples continued to follow Jesus. Their relationship to the master, though imperfect, did not break when their aspirations were denied.

Jesus however responded to James and John by telling them: "The cup that I drink you will drink", a prophecy which came true. James was the first martyr among the apostles, and John suffered over a long period of time for the sake of the gospel. The failures of the disciples during Jesus' life-time were not the final word about their faithfulness: The foolish, lowly, inferior and powerless disciples were transformed by God's grace into holy, powerful, courageous and saintly apostles.

The emergent gospel: a new community in Christ

The implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ emerge at the interface between the context and the text, giving rise to a new community in Christ. Jesus identified certain important features of this new community.

First comes the dynamic of self-renunciation. The epistle text (Phil. 2:5-7) affirms that Jesus, who was in the form of God, did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself. Jesus did not use his equality with God for his own advantage. He did not claim for himself status and honour. He willingly subjected himself to a life of service and sacrifice. It is through such self-emptying that Jesus revealed who God is, by taking the form of a slave, one who willingly serves and offers his life for the other. Many of those who have worked with the Dalit communities in India have affirmed their faith in this way. In the face of Jesus, we see the face of the Dalit, and in the face of the Dalit, we see the face of Jesus.

Jesus presents a radical differentiation between God's economy and the world's economy. He holds that power is not a privilege or an instrument of oppression but a responsibility; its exercise is an act of affirming and sustaining life. The Gentiles who give the illusion of exercising the right to rule simply exploit people. Jesus said: "This is not so among you" (Mark 10:43). He envisioned this radical differentiation through the eradication of rank and precedence among disciples and the rejection of power and status in the new community. This makes the Jesus community a counter-cultural community, perhaps one with a permanent minority status.

Jesus emphasized the importance and centrality of service in the new community. Jesus held serving, expending oneself away for the other, as a divine virtue. By making himself a slave, he put himself totally at the disposal of others.

He was aware that the purpose of his suffering and death was to be understood as a "ransom". Ransom is the money paid to buy the freedom of those under bondage such as slaves, prisoners of war, condemned criminals and those who have been kidnapped. As a ransom, Jesus has transformed an empty curse into a blessing and a perception of nothingness into a conviction of abundance. For Jesus, serving is in fact saving or liberating people from bondage. Jesus is a ransom for the liberation of Dalits living in the shackles of the caste system, and this ransom provides hope for a new future.

Because Jesus emptied himself, God has exalted him (Phil. 2:9), made him sit at the right hand of God the Father. The ascended Lord is not resting but is involved in a struggle to put down all his enemies under his foot. The exalted Lord inspires us in our struggle.

Christians are not to compromise with evils that alienate and exclude others, such as casteism, racism, sexism, etc. It will be a poor state of affairs if our witness through our lives and relationships is in no way better than the witnesses given by those who practise and perpetrate these demonic structures and cultures.

The test of adequacy of service or of a servant leader is this: Do those who are served grow as persons, become wiser, just, and more likely themselves to become servants? Jesus' disciples became better people in every conceivable way after they met him and committed themselves as servants for the transformation of the world. The effectiveness of churches' programmes of liberation and justice should be assessed on the basis of resultant transformation among the Dalits.

The humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus was a degrading and cruel event. Those who were crucified were labelled as God-forsaken or cursed by God. But God "exalted" Jesus, gave him the name above all names, Lord, and made every knee to bend, in acknowledgment of his lordship and acceptance of the new norms of the new community. Hope was given the oppressed that victory would follow humiliation and God's glory would ultimately prevail and transform the world.

Bishop V. Devasahayam

Bishop V. Devasahayam is involved in theological reflection from the perspective of the Dalits (untouchables) in India. For more than a decade he has been specializing in reading the Bible from the perspective of the marginalized, including Dalits and women. At present he serves the Church of South India as the bishop in the diocese of Madras.

Gentle God,
Who in Jesus Christ
showed us humility and compassion,
we thank you for your gracious love.
Forgive our sin of pride and apathy,
Empower us to struggle for justice.
For the sake of the most oppressed
And totally broken in body and spirit.
Compassionate Jesus,
teach us to be true disciples
in our times
in all places today.
Enable us to change attitudes and structures
that enslave.
Divine Wisdom, Holy Spirit,
In your grace, transform the world
in us, through us.
Cleanse our hearts, and renew our spirits.
With serving hands and liberating actions,
We humbly pray for courage and inspiration
To do your will, beginning today.
In Jesus' name, we hope and pray. Amen.

How to work with these texts


Think about your community at home. Who would be most missed if they decided to withdraw their labour for a week? If you are in a group, ask everyone to think of their answer before going around to share responses. Compare the people on this list to those with the greatest social status in the community. How does this relate to the request of James and John in Mark 10:32-45 and Paul's description of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11?

Why do we commonly regard the role of a servant as being lowly and too often treat people who are servants accordingly? What difference should it make to us if we see Jesus as one who came to serve? How does your church describe those who are called to high office and leadership positions? Is this seen in terms of comfortable privilege or demanding responsibility? What does it mean for us, whether or not we hold an important position in the church, when we empty and humble ourselves, acting as servants or slaves, even to the extent of submission to ultimate self-sacrifice? How might the church and the world be changed if we did that?

How does this Bible study help us understand and respond to the assembly theme "God, in your grace, transform the world"?