A Commentary by Dr. K.P. Yohannan, President of Gospel for Asia
Global awareness of the plight of Dalits (“Untouchables”) in Asia is on the increase. For thousands of years, Dalits and other low-caste groups have endured poverty, discrimination, illiteracy, and ostracism—all in the name of religion. Today, not only is their story being told, but the world is starting to listen. For that I am glad.
Yet I have a growing concern over what I see as a new form of “liberation theology” rising up within the evangelical world in an attempt to deal with injustices against Dalits. This way of thinking is not new; in fact, it has been around for as long as man has walked the earth. But if we think it will bring freedom to Dalits, we are wrong.
Let us look at some historical examples of this kind of theology and follow them to their logical end. Let us also examine what the Word of God says is true liberation for Dalit men, women and children.
Classic liberation theology began among Latin American theologians in the 1960s, and was adopted by the World Council of Churches and others in the ‘70s and ‘80s. These groups used their interpretation of certain Bible passages to justify the use of force in bringing freedom to oppressed peoples. They supported insurgent groups fighting against corrupt, heavy-handed governments of developing nations in South and Central America and Africa.
But four decades have passed, and what results do we see from the use of bombs, guns and militants? More of the same. Did liberation theology truly set these nations free? No.
Dalits live in every state in my homeland of India. But in two of these states—Kerala and West Bengal—certain political parties campaigned for power with a “let my people go” mentality, using words such as “liberation,” “freedom” and “justice” on the Dalits’ behalf. What has been the result?
Today, both states are ruled by communist governments. Yes, Dalits in these states enjoy perhaps a slightly better quality of life than in other regions—the literacy rate in Kerala is close to 100 percent—but at what price? These states followed the external, visible path of freedom without internal change, and the result was a greater slavery.
Years ago I met a man who, at the time, was the leader of the Texas chapter of a Christian political advocacy group. I knew he worked hard, spreading relevant information to evangelicals and challenging them to take action. In the course of our conversation, I asked him if he had ever taken a day to fast and pray and seek God’s direction for his organization. He told me no, he never had.
What was the real reason behind the liberation of eastern European nations from communist power? What has caused the gradual openness of China to the Western world? What kept England from self destructing under the social rot of child labor in the 18th century? What led to the emancipation of slaves in both the United States and England? In every one of these cases, it was because groups of God’s people in these nations were faithfully praying, fasting, spreading the Gospel, laying down their lives in countless ways and, in some cases, embracing martyrdom.
Yes, these men and women were active in their respective nations. They spoke out against injustice, they worked tirelessly for freedom’s sake, they selflessly gave of their resources. But above all else, they sought God first.
In every event in history where God’s purposes were accomplished, each was deeply grounded in prayerful dependence on Him. But in cases where God was missing from the picture, the result was only a partial liberation and, in the end, a worse situation. During the cold war, for instance, Western nations were successful at pushing Russia out of Afghanistan—but the nation ended up under the Taliban.
If we think that lobbying Western politicians or deluging Asian governments with letters and emails is the answer, we must think again. These actions can actually create more damage and chaos, not less. Yet I see a trend of growing dependence on them, creating false hopes in solutions that are themselves false and only partial.
Let us not forget the lessons history has already taught us. It is an illusion to believe that politics or force will be the answer to freedom for the Dalits. They only treat the symptoms, not the real causes. If we want to be agents of true freedom for the Dalit people, we cannot lean on political strategy or passionate rhetoric. Instead, we must turn to God’s proven methods of prayer and fasting.
It is easy to muster up a crowd of thousands to march on Washington; it is much more difficult to gather even a hundred people together for a time of fasting and prayer to seek God’s face. What more proof do we need of our tendency to respond to human crises in our own strength?
Should we not speak out against the bondage under which the Dalits suffer, the injustices done to them and atrocities committed against them? Do we ignore the poor and needy and close our hearts to the downtrodden? No, I am not saying that at all.
First, as followers of Christ, we must be willing to face the harsh realities of life these people live with. They do the jobs no one else wants—cleaning sewers with their bare hands and disposing of corpses. Their children labor in firecracker and carpet factories, chained to steel posts, at the mercy of money lenders. These men, women and children know shame intimately. Their very presence is considered pollution.
Second, we must set aside time to pray on their behalf and ask Christ what He would have us do for them. We certainly cannot be passive in the face of their affliction, and our activity can take on a variety of forms—but it all must start in surrender to the will of the living God and in dependence on Him as the source of our strength.
And third, we must become one among them, just as Jesus did, incarnating His love and compassion in practical ways. As He directs, we must do whatever needs to be done. We have experienced this in our own organization and can testify that it works.
God has led us to embrace their little children, to educate them and to help them find Jesus. He has sent us to pray for the sick and minister to the suffering. In His strength and guidance we sit down with them, open the Bible and share with them the message of His salvation. We tell them of the Lord’s love, and the dignity and honor they will discover in knowing Him.
We must choose carefully and soberly how we will respond to the needs of the world. If we are not careful, we will lose our ability to represent the Lord in human affairs. It is true that social change often results from military and political action, but if we think arms or political muscle alone will do the job, we are no better than the crusaders or the communists.
The Apostle Paul’s instructions to masters and slaves in the first century appealed for kindness, dignity and spiritual insight. He never encouraged rebellion, campaigning or taking up arms.
The prophet Daniel was a man who stayed focused and faithful while kingdoms around him came and went. He always remembered who he was and Whom he represented.
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses,” declares the psalmist, “but we will remember the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).
William Carey, the “Father of Modern Missions” and a pioneer missionary to India in the late 18th century, was without a doubt a man who was decisively and passionately intimate with God. And his spiritual values were the foundation of his years-long labor to make the brutal practice of sati, or “widow burning,” illegal. While he worked hard, persistently meeting with politicians, his success came not because of his interaction with government officials but because of his dependence on God.
Amy Carmichael is remembered for her efforts to free little girls from Hindu temples, where they would be “married to the gods” and then molested as acts of worship. How did this terrible practice come to an end? Through prayer, godliness and hard work.
Look at how Jesus, our forerunner and example, responded to the needs of the world. He touched the lepers. He wept over those “like sheep without a shepherd.” He spoke out against the politico-spiritual maneuvering of the religious leaders. He walked into the Untouchable community of his day—Samaria—to touch and heal. And everything He did was out of dependence on His Father, not motivated by politics or greed.
Today Christian leaders are endorsing and enlisting people of other faiths to help them fulfill their social agendas. I, too, was faced with this opportunity. But as I sought God’s face, He clearly warned me that His ways are different from man’s ways.
The end never justifies the means; we cannot violate spiritual principles to achieve God-given goals.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told Pilate during His trial. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
In the past, liberation theology proponents cited the Lord’s demand to Pharaoh via Moses, “Let my people go,” as biblical support for their stance. Today, “Dalit theology” adherents do the same thing. What these groups are forgetting is the rest of the verse: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1, emphasis mine). God was calling these people out of bondage, to become His people.
True liberation for Dalits will come when these men, women and children find freedom from sin, learn of their value to their heavenly Father and discover His passionate love for them. What is our response to this task the living God has set before us?
Ezekiel 22:30 tells us that God is still looking for men and women who will genuinely pray and intercede, seek Him for His direction and submit their wills to His. If we as the Body of Christ genuinely care, we can become His agents of liberation—and have the joyful privilege of helping to set the captives truly free.