Text and Context in Dialogue

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A Response to The Quandary of Caste
by Denis Roche
9 November 2002

Having been very central to the saga described by Mark Johnson, it must fall to me to respond. In some respects it was indeed a sad tale, especially for Pastor Tir, for whom I had the highest respect and to whom the sequel indeed brought great disappointment. I must plead guilty at least for failing to appreciate sufficiently the depth of feeling there is for Nepalis on this issue [caste]. I heard that some houses refused to have electricity because the supply lines passed through the sweeper's area!

Cindy Perry has written an excellent biography of Tir, but his comments on this episode need clarifying. Tir's reported words, "Some missionaries had the idea that caste must be cancelled out immediately, and bringing this man was the way to do it" implies that we who were involved were waiting for an opportunity to do battle over caste, and grasped this as our opportunity. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were all far too occupied running a busy hospital (at Surje Binayak, now an army barracks) and never gave that aspect much thought. Simply we were delighted that there was to be a baptism and naturally supported D. in his application. Alas, I am not sure with whom Tir "argued hotly". Certainly we were happy to eat with D, and perhaps naively assumed that other church members would, but I question whether anyone demanded that they must eat with him.

Tir commented that "until today" (1986) other bazaar Newars had not come forward. I will return to this later, but while obviously the incident had its effect at the time (the seventies) it was not unusual to see little or no growth.

I'm sure that Johnson's academic review of caste is helpful, especially to the student of Hindu society. For us working in the country, caste was (and still is?) seen as an evil, rightly deserving official condemnation. For many years earlier in the century Mahatma Gandhi had struggled to bring an end to the system. Although, as here, caste is still very evident in India, it is officially opposed and there are now Harijans in the Government. In 1967, only two years before the incident we are considering, the Nepali Government followed in outlawing caste. If ever there was a time to support this movement it was the late sixties. Was this not our Lord's timing? How would Jesus, if here in the flesh today, respond to the oppression and hypocritical pride involved? To whom today would he direct his "woes" of Luke 11:42-52?

The general principle to maintain culture is right and good, but firstly, it is hard to see caste merely as a cultural issue rather than religious. Secondly, when culture is as damaging, divisive to society and immutable as caste, it has to be challenged. I agree with Johnson (p 6) that it is possible to change caste, but for most, and especially the poor and less educated, this is not an option. For most, birth finalises the matter. [I actually wrote that it is possible to change varna. Changing jati is certainly not an option, ed.]

Johnson (p 13) no doubt rightly calls us to understand what we are talking about, and I cannot for a moment claim to be as informed as he is. But inevitably we often have to proceed as best we can with the information we have. With the heavy hospital load none of us could have researched the subject as he has, and our response had to be based on the practical effects of caste that we were experiencing, rather than on underlying theories.

Yes, no doubt the affair did delay growth, but what is ten years? We have messed around, bungled and ignored the Gospel for 2000 years. In this time scale, ten years is a small price to pay for an issue as important as this, and today we rejoice to see all that God is doing among the people, including the Newars, of Bhaktapur in the "City of (Hindu) Devotees".

Dr. Roche's letter reiterates the need to understand the cultures in which we work. Voice of Bhakti recognises that many are unable to take the time to study the context more closely because of other pressing commitments. It is our hope that as we dialogue together we might be able to help each other in this. (Ed.)

From H.L. Richard

I would dare suggest to Peter McDowell that it would be best for him to suppress his opinion about prejudice in the case of Pastor Dewan [see VOB 1:4]. If the pastor's heart was completely free of prejudice he was no doubt a far greater saint than Peter or I will ever be; who ever has pure motives in anything? The meddling of the bideshi and our confidence in our opinions and decisions seems the major problem. There are ways within the context to deal with expressions of spiritual unity that do not trample societal norms; we foreigners can neither see them nor develop them, and do not seem to trust the Holy Spirit to guide local believers in such situations. There will be errors and even sins committed along the way, as every bideshi with four or five years experience can look back and see bad counsel given in the past. Key for us is a strong commitment to suppress our opinions and be true servants.

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