Forgiveness From the Margins of Christian Life

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By Trevor Jeyaraj
Mar 25, 2020 | 7 min read
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The universal Christian family cannot imagine its life and existence without forgiveness. As a force that restores and reconciles different persons and parties, forgiveness is intricately connected with personal as well as communal walks of life.

While I still hold firmly to the belief that we should forgive someone 70 or 700 times, I have also seen how forgiveness has been weaponized, perpetuating the double realities of suffering and stigma for the marginalized classes and castes, and power and privilege for the classes and castes — even in the church.

In everyday life, especially for commoners, forgiveness often works against us, and our sacrifices have become part of the world order.

A double-edged Exploitative Ideology

During college, I happened to know that a dominant caste student, a junior in the English department, used slurs against the school’s principal, a Christian from a lower caste background. I was shocked that a student could speak with such audacity. I could not believe such an event could happen in a modern society. The high point was that this act was forgiven by the principal. The event stunned me because such an act, if it was committed by a lowered caste student against a dominant caste authority, would surely be punished. We are a time in India when Dalits and Muslims are lynched for their food habits by dominant caste Hindu right wing mobs. The Christian community is not too detached from this phenomenon — these atrocities happen in psychological, emotional, and administrative aspects of life. Therefore, I strongly believe for such a time as this, forgiveness is indeed political.

Forgiveness From the Margins of Christian Life

A major troubling aspect of forgiveness for marginalized communities is that we are told through sermons and personal interactions that we ought to be good Christians by being patient and practicing long-suffering. Because Christ suffered, so must Christians.

Indeed, this theology has been manipulated throughout history, acting as an opiate because it calms down any kind of rage within the downtrodden, preventing subjugated groups from asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to innocent people?”

Galatians 5:22 and 23 is one of the most cited verses by preachers, “But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control” (Good News Translation). I have witnessed this text being used in sermons by too many preachers. Such sermons always act as a double-edged sword. One cannot continue to use this text overlooking the politically-loaded socio-economic and class contexts where this is being used. We cannot forget here Paul’s status as an educated and privileged Jewish male. Exploiting these passages against marginalized communities remains a problem. It is simply asking the lowered caste to suffer doubly, in one’s spiritual life and in the real world as well.

The imagery of Christ as the patient sufferer keeps congregations enthralled, while neglecting the power and privilege that rests with elites in the narrative of Christ’s death.

Who Does Forgiveness Serve?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore Christ’s suffering. But we must understand that Christ’s suffering wasn’t merely spiritualistic — that would rob Christ of his human nature. In Christ’s death, the human realities of the oppressed were sidestepped and their dignity and freedom sacrificed for the larger social order.

This complexity of forgiveness — being both spiritual and social — feeds the imagination of the social elites to keep the socially disenfranchised controlled and manipulated, with little or no agency. As the underprivileged go through this — in region, language, gender, labor classes, among many — it is the dominant communities who benefit from a structure where the status quo is undisturbed.

I speak from my experience within the caste system. Caste among Christians works insidiously but powerfully. The majority of top posts in Church — in the clergy level and lay leadership — is held by the dominant caste Christian, not to mention, the practice of perpetuating caste via marital relations. The persistence of caste among Christians is a reality, as the honor killing of 23-year-old Kevin P. Joseph in May 2018 proves. Kevin’s murder was planned and orchestrated, thanks to his in-laws, two days after he applied to register his marriage with Neenu Chacko, a girl from a well-to-do Syrian interreligious family. The Indian constitution does not treat Christian and Muslim lower caste converts on par with Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists for reservation in government jobs and educational quotas. Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, with regard to Article 341, provided religion-based reservations only for Hindu Dalits. This was amended in 1956 and 1990 to include Sikhs and Buddhists respectively. Thus Christian Dalits and Muslim Dalits do not get to even compete in the first place via affirmative action policies.

Forgiveness From the Margins of Christian Life

In the Indian context, treating one group of human beings as special and exceptional over the other (lower castes) is essential to maintain the status quo. This reality extends to the church wherein the masses are asked to forget their suffering or often treat suffering as an acceptable reality. From my experience, especially in the Southern end of India in Calcutta and Delhi, I witness more often the talents of young marginalized-caste Christians with lots of energy and enthusiasm with the potential to contribute to the larger church polity being rendered useless because of the cultural deference to authority and respect to elders.

In this regard, youngsters going to seminaries led by dominant caste professors with enough backing from the higher church authorities and references are often the ones most likely to succeed and become leaders. I narrate this because students are made to endure the transnational nature of the phenomenon of caste. At home, we are made to endure caste, class, and denominational inequalities and away from home, dominant caste Christians appropriate benefits from the West as well from their own dominant caste networks. If I turn to the elders, the most likely response will be “please endure them as much as you can”.

When forgiveness is only demanded of the marginalized as a spiritual discipline but not in terms of the sharing of resources that they deserve, it is a farce. In the face of denials from the state and the dominant caste church, I only see reparations as the way forward as forgiveness continues to be abused by those in power, most often by the upper-caste, upper-class Christians. When dominant Christians turn a blind eye to the underlying politics of forgiveness that only serve the dominant order, forgiveness perpetuates the larger oppressive structure, leaving untouched the realities of trauma and daily agressions faced by underdogs. The margins remain in the margin forever.

Looking to Christ not for Suffering, but for Forgiveness

The church has forgotten that with every act of forgiveness, Jesus was offering a solution for the social ills that are part of the daily ethos. Uplifting Christ’s suffering alone without critiquing the conditions that perpetuated his suffering and violence is antithetical to his core message of disturbing the power wielders.

It is for this reason that forgiveness needs to produce a level playing field for those who are being demonized. Forgiveness must disrupt social orders rather than allow injustices to continue. If the system or social order is unjust and is unchanged, forgiveness plays an empty role.

The God we encounter in the flesh and body of Christ, who stands as a historical and ethical figure of solidarity, must be a dynamic example of forgiveness.

The uplifting of a community, through the ministry example of Christ himself, can be fruitful if forgiveness offers the marginalized power to shape their agency. We must reject any traces of implicit and overt demonization of the marginalized, no matter how accepted they are in the world social order. This building up of a community alone can further Christ’s message to forgive others and their trespasses in order to transform one another, personally and socially.

Caste and tribal minorities can no longer afford to find themselves at the receiving end of the hierarchies perpetuated by Indian Christianity. Thus, to impose any Christian category without dealing with the implications of power and its impact for the historically powerless groups becomes a kind of social heresy. Asking the marginalized to repeatedly perform as suffering servants to serve the community at large is indeed counterproductive.

Not attending to the needs of the marginalized for whom Christ came and ministered is against Christ’s ethic of forgiveness. Such dynamics continue to overlook the structural sin that is committed against the lowered caste groups. Forgiveness cannot be taken as the imperative by and of God. God thus cannot be treated as an ally in these unequal power dynamics perpetuated by the noble classes who guard the walls of the church as a space for the dominant classes. The church needs to move away from the status of being an ally of caste norms and move toward becoming Christ’s allies. This will retrieve hope for the marginalized castes wherein forgiveness can be real and concrete.

Christ time and again teaches us: spiritual virtues like forgiveness cannot be separated from their interconnected nature of social liberation, across the spectrum of minorities, i.e., gender, class, disabled groups, et al. Thus, for marginalized communities in the Indian context and Indian diaspora, which continue to bear structural injustices, it is high time they are offered reparations. For my Christian family and friends, practicing supremacist ideologies — whether caste, regional, color, denomination, etc. — it is time to reframe forgiveness and talk about reparations in faith communities. Whether you are proposing equality of opportunities in terms of offering scholarships for college or opening up avenues at your church that have been occupied by one dominant caste or a dominant regional group, the time is now to stop invoking and repeating cultural uniqueness and authenticity as our excuse to maintain the status quo. If we are open to grasping the realities that Christ wants to teach us through his suffering, it is time to see social liberation as an essential part of forgiveness as much as we remain rooted in personal liberation.

As always, Jesus’ words to the rich young man ring true, more so, for our times when inequality continues to persist and increase in the Indian caste context: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.”

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Trevor Jeyaraj

Trevor Jeyaraj is currently a master of arts in theological studies student at Columbia Seminary and was coordinator of the Delhi University Ambedkar Reading Group for three years.  Trevor is an introvert but not shy, ironically, about public theologies.

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