It gets dark early in West Bengal at this time of year, but darkness doesn’t stop the constant movement of people. Except for the occasional passing cars and motorcycles, there are no lights; no streetlights – not even flashlights. From around 7:00PM to 9:00PM people are moving about – to stores, to friends’ homes, to simply walk or to talk. This is another thing I have noted about the majority world. People move about in the dark a lot. Light is reserved for your destination. Whether roads to and from the villages or stairwells in buildings, things just aren’t lit up like we are used to. In the US, even dark roads have enough reflectors in the lines to light it up when headlights hit them. Without such things, a drive at night keeps you guessing about the edge of the road and the middle of the road. You have to keep your eyes open because people don’t wear reflective Nike jogging suits. They wear the same thing they wore yesterday. There is an unwritten rule here that decent folk are not out in the dark after about 9:00PM. Being out in the dark after that is being up to no good.
Darkness takes on many forms. It can be as obvious as the night or as insipient as racism. In India, darkness was institutionalized in the Hindu caste system. The system is based on rigid segmentation of society by birth; ranking by caste; limited choice of occupation; physical segregation including villages, movement and access; and restricted social integration including prevention of marriage between castes. Brahmans and Kshatriyas are the upper castes and enjoy all the privilege of wealth, power and preference. The lowest cast is the Sudra, which is for laborers. There are also out-castes or untouchables, but they are not even recognized by the hierarchical strata. The Sudra and the out-castes are collectively referred to as Dalit.
B.R. Ambedkar, in Castes in India, said of the caste system that it isolates people, infuses a sense of inferiority into lower-caste individuals, and divides humanity. He said that it traumatizes India’s people, its economy, and the discourse between its people, preventing India from developing and sharing knowledge, and wrecking its ability to create and enjoy the fruits of freedom. Few would defend the caste system in light of the dehumanizing impact it has had on large segments of the Indian population. Since the 1950s, India itself has recognized this and has enacted laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of those who were discriminated under the system. But as evidenced by the persistence of racism in America, laws do not change societal attitudes.
The attitudes of caste are a present day reality. A young Bhutanese woman shared about her daily experience getting water at a community water station. She was living in one of the UN refugee camps set up in Nepal after the King of Bhutan exiled 200,000 Hindus from his country. The refugee camp had people from every caste. Though a Christian, she was born into the Sudra caste. She would arrive as early as she could and get into line to await her turn to draw water. The Brahmin and Kshatriyas had priority. They would arrive throughout the morning and take their places at the front of the line. The Sudras would wait. She said that the upper class women would take their time, washing their clothes and their pots and pans. They made something of a luxury out of this privilege – a display of their status. They were well aware of those waiting, but they were used to making others wait. She used to steam with anger, but she was unable to do anything about it.
We begin to dehumanize people when we develop a sense of “other” about them. Their otherness gives us room to speculate at a distance. We characterize and we segregate. As other, we have no obligation to bridge the divide that separates us. The divide itself takes on a life of its own as we rationalize its goodness in providing people with their own preferences and communities. We don’t have to look far. The self-segregation of churches in America into race and age seems benign to those who lead such churches. I have heard its proponents say it is a good thing in order to attract more people to Jesus.
But to what Jesus? I don’t see a hint of separation in the great Reconciler. When we create church communities of people who talk like us, think like us, look like us and dress like us, that is not worship, it is narcissism. The very attitudes that prevail in the caste system in India and racism in America are subtly at work in the church as we tacitly agree to separation.
…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29, ESV)
Jesus came to reconcile all men to God. One of the marvels of the early church was that those who had been estranged by the rigid hierarchy of 1st century life were now eating together, worshipping together and even marrying amongst one another and outside of their class. God was reconciling men to one another with no regard for their earthly station. They were calling one another brother. That is how the ugliness of the alternative is exposed to the light and how light overcomes darkness.
We have work to do in the church in America that starts with self-examination. It starts with me. In how many ways do I see some people as other? Whether by socioeconomic status, culture, language, race or any other way of forming opinions about who is other, how many ways am I holding on to attitudes that prevent me from following in the steps of the great Reconciler? To what degree am I willing to walk across the room and begin to know my brother? A lamp is not lit to hide under a basket. If such light were made visible in the lives of God’s people, light wouldn’t be reserved for destinations, but would illuminate the paths that have been in darkness for far too long.