Caste Systems, Nationalism, and True Christian Faith


The thing about a speck in someone’s eye is that it seems like a plank to the one with the speck.


I’m listening to Unbelievable? | Hinduism, Caste & Christianity: Joseph D’Souza and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. The following statement by Anglican, Joseph D’Souza, caught me up: “The caste system in India has poisoned the church in India just as racism poisoned the church in the West.”

Joseph D’Souza is an Indian Christian, but he stands as an outsider in India, which is increasingly being driven by a right wing movement to preserve India’s Hindu heritage and power against the threat of Christianity, in particular. Thus, I find it ironic, and convicting, that he finds a parallel between India’s caste system and racial disparity in “the west.”

Kancha Iliah Shepherd, the other participant on the podcast, was born of the Dalit class in India – one step above the untouchable caste/class. Against all odds, and the rules of the caste system, he became educated, and he wrote a book, Why I am not a Hindu, critiquing the caste system.

On the podcast, he questioned what Hinduism has to offer the lower castes who can not receive the education of the Braham caste, cannot learn to read and write the language of the Hindu gods (Sanskrit) and cannot serve in Hindu temples? Why be a Hindu unless one is born a Braham?

D’Souza observed that many Dalit and untouchables in India are becoming Christian because of Christian doctrines, such as the doctrine that all men and women are made in the image of God; God is Creator of all people; and there is no distinction among people (no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no man or woman) in Christ.

Though the Hindu nationals have succeeded in passing a law against “forced conversion”, D’Souza says that no one in India is forced to convert to Christianity. People convert because they want to. The church, in fact, stands against the idea of forced conversion.

The present Hindu nationalist movement seems to be partly to blame for Christian conversions because of its adherence to the caste system. The lower castes find in Christianity a God who does not perpetuate a caste system, who made all people equally in His image, and who makes no distinction between people on the basis of caste, birth rights or nationality.

Shepherd adds that God cannot be a nationalist. If there is one true God, He is God of all people in all places, nations and stations in the Earth. Shepherd said this as an Indian of the Dalit caste in India speaking against the Hindu conservative resurgence that forbids lower castes from becoming priests while maintaining a strong Hindu nationalist position.

If we look at the world through the eyes of these Indian men, we can gain some understanding and insight to be applied to our Christian walk in the United States. We can begin to understand why Christian nationalism is heresy and why Christian tolerance, ambivalence, and apathy for racial disparity in the US is poison in the church.

I am not sure of the extent to which “Christian Nationalism” is a problem, and we need to define the term to address it properly. Nevertheless, I see evidence that American Christians are influenced by some kind of nationalism, however it might variously be defined, and so I the insight gleaned from the discussion helpful.

D’Souza, the Anglican, says one criticism against the church in India going back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Brahmans became Christians is that it perpetuated the caste system. Only the Brahmans were educated in the church, as in the Hindu-dominated society as a whole.

I note this is similar to the issue our own history in the United States where only whites were allowed the full privileges of citizenship, and segments of the church were complicit with that differential treatment. Americans perpetuated a kind of caste system baked right into the bread of early American democracy.

If Christians are truly living in the world, but they are not of the world, these injustices would not be tolerated. These injustices do not harmonize with the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the greatest are servants of all. We need to be more aware of the danger of adopting the unbiblical tenets of our culture into our beliefs than we have been.

In Christ there is neither Greek or Jew, slave nor free, male or female. We are all one in Christ. At least, we should be!

The problem in the church is that we do live in the world, and there is constant pressure to be more “of the world” than we ought to be. We sometimes fail to divorce ourselves from the world and the flesh, which is the basic commitment that we make to Christ as Lord. We are tempted to protect and preserve a place for our personal and cultural idols.

My daily reading in the Bible that came up today is right on point:

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Matthew 23:11-12

This is the standard of conduct expected of the follower of Christ. This is the fruit of declaring Jesus Lord. This is how Jesus taught and demonstrated we should live. The servant is not greater than the master.

In the very next breath, after declaring this eternal truth of the people of the kingdom of God, Jesus said,

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces….

….

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others…..

….

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” 

Matthew 23:12, 23, 25

We cannot neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness without consequence. I fear that Jesus may say to many in the American church, “Whoa to you hypocrites!” Jesus would say do as we say, but not as we do. (Matthew 23:3)

The rise of a kind of “Christian” nationalism in the United states is beginning to surface and expose a heresy that may have long lived in the American church. Not that we are unlike other manifestations of the church in other places and times in history. This is simply a matter of our own unique iteration of fallenness.

This is our particular blind spot. The fact that the Indian church tolerated the Hindu caste system and we have tolerated racial disparity is, perhaps, proof of the parable of the weeds and the wheat. (Matthew 13:24-30)

Where God sows good seed, the enemy sows weeds. The weeds grow up among the wheat and are not removed, lest the good wheat be uprooted and destroyed with the weeds. (Matthew 13:29-30)

Even now, the winds of change are blowing. People in the church are waking up to the issues that have long existed, even as the trumpet of the cultural status quo sound from inside the walls of the privileged state.

If you think I say these things from a progressive or Marxist worldview, you would be wrong. I have been a conservative my entire, adult life. I say this from reading my Bible. I am being true to scripture.

In the last 10 years or so I have been branching out and listening to Christians from other cultures and other parts of the world. People who fly the same banner as I do – Jesus Christ is Lord! They are seeing the specks in our American eyes.

The thing about a speck in someone’s eye is that it seems like a plank to the one with the speck. We can’t see past the planks in our own eyes. The planks distort our view.

We need each other in the body of Christ for this reason, and we need to listen to people who do not have the same cultural and societal biases we have. The body of Christ desperately needs diversity for this reason!

True believers are aliens and strangers in this world. We have to guard against the weeds, the cultural and societal chaff that we have learned to tolerate and even to embrace.

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