A few years ago, I was looking for a house to rent within my budget. To find a house within my budget, I thought all I had to do was to negotiate how much rent I could pay. That seemed logical and reasonable to me. Apparently, not in my town!
As I went on a search to find a suitable house for my family, I repeatedly found two questions thrown at me by different house owners. To my utter shock and dismay, they would invariably ask me: “what caste do you belong to”? and “what do you do for a living”?
On one hand, as far as I am concerned, the second question (what do you do for a living?) is understandable. Because, at the end of the day, you are expected to pay the rent and it is quite reasonable to know whether your tenant can actually pay the rent or not. But the moment you say, “I am a pastor”, I can almost guarantee a person will give me a strange look! To their knowledge, pastors are religious leaders of lower-caste communities who are a bunch of uneducated and unsophisticated noise-makers. In this way of thinking, it would be an uphill battle for me to convince the landlord to be his tenant.
On the other hand, the first question (what caste do you belong to?) is really shocking. It is deeply disturbing. As I would refuse to say what caste I belong to, I would be invariably denied the opportunity to rent a house. If I were to open my mouth and utter the name of the caste my forefathers belonged to, inevitably, I would be shown the way to exit immediately.
These situations show how much casteism is entrenched in our society. No matter how educated and successful one maybe, if he does not belong to an upper caste, he is treated like trash. What is baffling is that the only yardstick to measure one’s worth is their caste in our society. Can you imagine how this is illogical and self-defeating?
To make matters even worse, casteism is infiltrated into the church, too. I personally think for decades the mainline denominational churches have made no visible and conscientious effort to eradicate caste within the church. The consequences of blatant indifference to an obvious reality are gospel-shattering and God-dishonouring. What is lamentable beyond any measure is that many born-again Christians think it is mandatory and God-honouring to marry only within their castes.
As I ponder about how a Christian or a pastor is supposed to live in the midst of this caste-saturated and caste-obsessed society, I praise God that I find hope in His Word. Let me share with you two thoughts as you journey through this messy world to stay strong and be encouraged.
1. Jesus Loves the Untouchable In John 4, we see that the Jews were not associating with the Samaritans (Jn. 4:9). Who were these Samaritans? The Samaritans were originally from Babylon and other places who settled in the cities of Samaria (677 BC). They mixed with the local Jews initially and thus became a mixed race.
Despite the Samaritans’ desire to be amalgamated into the Jewish society, because they were a mixed-race who had pagan roots, the Jews never accepted them into their society¹.
As time went by, the bitterness and animosity towards the Samaritans turned into condescension and ignominy. So, the Samaritans literally became ‘the untouchables’ of the then Jewish society.
In this historical context, Jesus meets a nameless Samaritan woman, transforms her and changes her destiny. But, if you look at the text in John 4 carefully, it wasn’t an accident that the Lord began to speak with the Samaritan woman. He purposefully chose to reveal himself to her (Jn. 4:4).
In conversing with the Samaritan woman who shied away from the existing society (Jn. 4:6), Jesus primarily did two things. He began to show her who he really was and who she really was. He showed her his deity and her depravity (Jn. 4:26,17,18). As he began to reveal who he was, she began to discover who she really was.
Jesus showed that by pursuing happiness without God, life is nothing but a meaningless exercise of being stuck in endless cycles of never-satisfying self-idolatry and life-ruining vanity (Jn. 4:13,14). In this context, Jesus promised to give the Samaritan woman everlasting joy and true satisfaction by believing in Him as the Messiah (Jn. 4: 26, 10,14). After meeting Jesus, the transformation of the Samaritan woman was evident. An isolated, private, and hedonistic sinner turned into a self-forgetful and joyful evangelist of the gospel (Jn. 4: 28,29).
The bottom line is Jesus loves sinners. Jesus loves even untouchable sinners! There are many passages in the New Testament that talk about Jesus’ radical love towards the untouchables of society. Jesus healed the woman who had a discharge of blood (Mk. 5:30) and lepers (Matt. 8:3, Lk. 17:11-19). Both women with discharge issues and the lepers were considered outsiders (untouchables) and impure as per the law (Lev. 13:46, 15:19).
He did not hesitate to share the love of God with tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes and thieves who were treated as untouchables.
Dear brothers and sisters, when you’re despised because of your caste, please take comfort from the fact Jesus was also despised.
When you feel like you’re alienated by your colleagues, neighbours, and friends because of your caste, please remember Jesus knew what it was like to be alone. His disciples left him for fear of their lives (Mk. 14:50). In his humanity, Jesus was forsaken by His Father while he was on the cross, so that you and I will never be abandoned (Matt. 27:46, Rom. 8:35). Now, we can know Jesus’ nearness to the Father through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:18).
When you struggle with your identity, please remember you’re fully accepted by God and God everlastingly loves you through his Son, Jesus Christ (Rom 3:26, 5: 5). Through faith in Jesus, you’re an adopted child of God (Rom 8:16). His love towards you will never be diminished regardless of various circumstances in life (Isiah 54:10). His love towards you is not based on who you are and what you’ve achieved, but it is only based on Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5). Remember, your identity is not in your caste, it is in Jesus Christ.
2. There is Only One Community in the Local Church The local churches of Jesus Christ are identified only by those people who are redeemed by the blood of Christ; never by their caste, ethnicity, or race. Addressing the elders of the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul says, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The local church is a blood-bought community of Jesus Christ. To add anything extra or to delete anything from this foundational truth is sinful.
Earlier in Acts 10, Peter was unable to understand God’s overarching plans towards all kinds of people. As a Jew, he did not associate with or visit anyone of another nation. But God, who doesn’t want any division or hierarchy in his church, shows Peter not to discredit those whom he sanctified through faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 10:15, 28). God showed that he treats all people equally by pouring out His Spirit on believing Gentiles as well (Acts 11:17).
Dear brothers and sisters, what God showed Peter in Acts 10:15 remains true today – namely that what God has cleansed, is no longer considered unholy. So, on what grounds can we differentiate believers who are from other castes and ethnicities? What is the common ground for people from different castes and backgrounds? Is it caste? Or is it Jesus Christ? Woe to anyone who divides his church in the name of caste. On the Last Day, false shepherds will endure stricter judgement from God than any non-Christian will because God cares deeply for his people (Mark 9:42, James 3:1; see Ezk. 34:7-10).
Pastors, as a practical application, please make every effort not to have any marriage halted or cancelled between two Christians because they belong to two different castes. I believe it’s a worthy cause to fight for.
May the Lord help us to purge our churches from casteism. May nothing hinder Christians from fellowshipping with each other. May the Lord help us to shine in this world and to be salt and light, so that through our works we would glorify Him.
Note: Please read the book “Caste, Christ and Church” by Stephen C. David.
¹Easton, M. G. (1893). In Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature (pp. 596–597). New York: Harper & Brothers.