Towards a Peň Christology: Prospects and Challenges

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 1 2 »Towards A Pe Christology Prospects And Challenges

By Shalini Mulackal

Shalini Mulackal, P.B.V.M. holds a BTh and an MTh from Vidyajyoti, Jesuit Theological College, Delhi, India where she was appointed lecturer on completion of her studies there. At present she is doing doctoral research in the Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras. Her area of special studies is Dalit Christian women and their religio-cultural perceptions. A board member of the Center for Dalit Studies/Theology, Delhi, she is also a member of the Indian Theological Association, and of the Ecumenical Kairos India Working Group, and is Convenor of the Indian Women Theologians’ Forum.


From New Testament times until today, for over two thousand years, Christians from various socio-historical contexts have been reflecting and articulating their understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in the first century Palestine. According to the diverse contexts, the Christology that emerged too was of various hues and colors. There was no universal understanding of the significance of Jesus in the lives of the believers. As a result today we have many Christologies and not just one Christology.

Theological discussions continue to witness to the centrality of Jesus Christ in Christian faith. Christians through the centuries have made ample efforts to understand and articulate the significance of this person Jesus for their particular historical contexts. Today, the Christological question "Who do you say that I am?" receives certain answers from women too, uniquely colored by their experiences of exclusion, oppression, and pain.

Women believers from diverse contexts began to look critically at the way Christology has been developing over the centuries. Their studies reveal a shocking reality. Many of the articulations inhibit the full humanity of women rather than enhances their liberation. While they unearth this bitter truth, they also analyze the reasons and find factors that contribute to such distorted developments causing exclusion and oppression of women in church and society. Women have not stopped there. Rooting themselves in their experiences of negativity as well as their experiences of the sacred, they have dared to articulate their understanding of Jesus and his relevance for them in their daily struggle for dignity, autonomy, and personhood in an androcentric and patriarchal world and church.

The present paper is an attempt to study and articulate some key features of a relevant Peň Chistology for Dalit women of India in conversation with the emerging Western and Asian Feminist Christology. The paper contains three parts. The first part starts with a brief description of the struggles of a few peripheralized women, then it narrates their experiences of Jesus and makes a critical assessment of their understanding of him. The second part deals with the adverse impact traditional Christology had on women in general. The last section focuses on the elements of a Christology that would be liberative and life giving for Dalit women besides enumerating the Christological images that would be significant in their particular context.

1. Women at the Periphery

It was around midday that I entered Kamala’s house. She and her husband lived in Arul Nagar, a Colony2 of a village in Tiruvallur District of Tamil Nadu in India. Their three sons have migrated to Andamans in search of employment. Kamala was in her early forties and she became a Christian at the time of her marriage. I began an informal conversation asking her about whether she had already finished her cooking. She immediately led me to her tiny kitchen and said: "Sister, nowadays we cook only once a day." Then she lifted the lid of the rice pot and showed me the left over gruel of the previous night. There were not even two spoons of rice in the pot. She continued by saying: "We cook usually in the evening." When I asked her, why in the evening, she gave me this explanation. "During the day when we feel hungry, we can distract ourselves with so many things. Sometimes we visit the neighbor’s house or we just walk around. But at night if our stomachs are empty then we cannot sleep nor can we do anything else to distract us from the pangs of hunger. After eating in the evening, if some rice is remaining, then we add water and drink it as a gruel in the morning. "

One day when Parvathi came to consciousness, she found herself lying in a government hospital. Recalling what happened to her, she remembered her husband violently beating her. Her neighbors found her lying unconscious in front of her house. She was bleeding profusely. One of her legs was badly damaged. It took months before Parvathi could leave the hospital and walk again. Then she decided to leave her husband and live separately in the colony with her three little sons. With some financial help from the parish priest she has managed to admit the eldest boy into a boarding school. But she worries often because her son, keeps asking her for money for various things. She earns 250 rupees (approximately $ 5) a month by watering the garden of the parish church.

Latha is a young mother of two little boys. She fell in love with a young boy from her neighborhood. They got married amid much opposition from their parents. They were living in a separate hut. When it was time for her to give birth to her first child, her parents reconciled with her and took her home. The husband went back to his parents and then gradually began to lose interest in her. When she came to know that his parents were planning for a second marriage for him, she filed a case against him and his parents. The verdict of the court was in her favor, and he was directed by the court to accept her back or to go to prison for seven years. He agreed to take her back. Ever since, though they are staying together, he has not taken care of the family. She tries to do some embroidery work whenever she gets an order. For the past two months she did not get any work and survives only because her mother secretly comes and brings her some provisions now and then. She told me that if only she had 1500 rupees, she could buy the wooden frame necessary to do the embroidery work and she does not have to depend on a particular man who has given her the wooden frame to get orders. Though her husband spends most of his time with his parents, she is not allowed to have any contact with her parents or relations.

Lakshmi is the second wife of Govinadraj. Since Govindaraj’s first wife did not give him a son, he married Lakshmi. A son and a daughter were born to Laksmi. Soon Govindraj died of a heart attack leaving behind both his wives and little children. After his death, Laksmi and her children became Christians. Govindaraj, his first wife, and their children were already Christians. One day a fellow student poked a pencil into the eye of Lakshmi’s son and today his one eye is completely damaged. Laksmi too has no land or job.

When Amalraj lost his wife, leaving behind three little children, he was heartbroken. With much difficulty he brought up the three children. After the children were married and started their own families, Amalraj found himself very lonely. His relations forced him to marry Jeyarani, a girl, 20 years younger to him. After a few years they were blessed with a girl child. Jeyarani is full of life. Her daughter, Meena is the only girl so far to reach college from this particular colony. She is doing a two-year degree course. They find it difficult to give her the daily bus-fare though the daughter works part time and earns 3000 rupees per year. She used to get a scholarship from the diocese in order to purchase books and pay her fees. This year the diocese refused to give her that scholarship because she did not clear all her papers. She finds it very difficult to study English. They have a buffalo and by selling its milk they manage to survive.

1.1 Socio-economic Situation of the Colony

The colony consists of about 45 to 50 Catholic families. They all belong to a particular caste know as the Paraiyars. According to the Indian caste hierarchy, Paraiyars are considered outcasts. Describing the general situation of Dalits3 in India, James Freemann says:



Stigmatized from birth as spiritually defiling and therefore potential polluters of "clean" high-caste people, India’s untouchables lived for centuries in segregated hamlets and villages. High castes denied them the use of public wells, as well as entry to schools, shops, and high-caste shrines, and forced them to perform the most despised and defiling jobs of their society: exhausting unskilled physical labor, scavenging, cleaning latrines, and carrying off dead animals.4

It was during the colonial period that Christian missionaries began their work among the Paraiyars of this area. A good many of them embraced Christianity at that time. The elders of this colony say that they became Christians about 40 to 50 years ago. But many women in this colony became Christians only at the time of their marriage. Social relationships between the colony people and the so-called high caste people living in the Uru5 is much better than what it was in earlier times. Mr. H. Tremenhere, the then Collector of Chingleput District (1891) of which the present colony is a part, describes the Pariah population as persons "always badly nourished, clad in rags, eaten up with horrible diseases; hutted like pigs, untaught, uncared for, and unpitied" (as quoted in Gopalakrishnan 2000:218). Nowadays there is very little open discrimination practiced against the Dalits of this locality. Children go to the same school. They eat together at social gatherings, which was unimaginable 50 years ago. The local self-governing body, the Panchayat, usually consists of members from different castes.

"Dalits still feel psychologically, socially, politically, emotionally, economically and, of course, culturally excluded from the mainstream of Indian life," opines Gopal Guru (2000:59). Being Christians the people of this colony experience other discriminations as well. Whereas non-Christian Dalits can avail of reservation with respect to job as well as educational opportunities, the Christians are denied that benefit. Even for self-employment, while other Dalits are given loan facilities from the government, the Christians do not get any such facilities. Economically most Dalits are backward irrespective of their religious affiliation.

Most people of this particular colony do not own any land. Few families that do own land are not able to cultivate it due to lack of rain and irrigation facilities. Most of them are agricultural laborers and go to work on other people’s land. Due to scarcity of rain for the past few years, they do not even get 50 days of work per year. The wage paid is very low. The government has constructed some houses while few others get help from the parish priest. Some are still sharing the parental home or are living in mud houses. For most of them daily survival is a struggle. Of late, some of them have started keeping cows or buffaloes. Even to graze these animals they will have to spend the whole day, taking the animals to waste and fallow lands. The milk yield too is very little, as they are not fed sufficiently.

Besides being poor, the women of this colony also experience the ill effects of a male-dominated society. Though Dalit women in general enjoy more freedom in comparison with the women of the so-called higher castes, they are not free of many oppressive practices that are prevalent in a patriarchal society. Some of the cases narrated earlier bear witness to this fact. They are subject to domestic violence, dowry-related harassment, and subtle expressions of son-preference. Women have very little say in matters that are important for them and some of them even live in constant fear as in the case of Latha.

1.2 Women’s Experience of Jesus

For the women of this colony, Jesus is of course Kadaûl (Kadaûl in Tamil means God). "Jesus is my father, my mother, my everything," says Sharada. Talking about her experience of Jesus, Jeyarani says: "One day, I went to cut some grass in the forest to make a broom. While I was there I got a terrible backache. There was no one with me and I was far away from home. I just told Jesus that he has to do something about my backache and after I prayed thus, my back ache just disappeared and I was able to cut the grass and come home." She continued her story by saying: "Another day I went to a place for some work. It was ten kilometers away form my place. And I had to walk back all that distance. That is the time I felt an excruciating pain on one of my heels. Again I called on to Jesus and told him that he has to deal with that pain. ‘Jesus, I have no one with me here to help me. I have to walk ten kilometers back again. If this pain persists how can I walk? Take away this pain Lord.’ I experienced immediate healing on that day too."

Kamala too runs to Jesus for every need of hers. She is very anemic and falls sick very often. She has no access to any doctor due to her economic condition. "Whenever I am not well I take some water in a container and then I pray over that water. ‘Lord Jesus, change this water into your own Blood. And when I drink this, let your blood heal every part of my body.’ After my prayer I make a sign of the cross over the water and then I drink that with deep faith. I have experienced healing many a times. When there is a pain or ache in any part of my body I take some oil and pray over the oil in a similar way. Then I apply that oil to the affected part."

Even though Latha has not yet received baptism, she was brought up as a Christian. Every little blessing that comes to her, she counts as Jesus’ care for her. When I met her the last time, she looked very happy. She got an order to do embroidery on two sarees (traditional dress of Indian women). She has not been getting any orders for the past two or three months. Her heart was singing the Magnificatas she told me about how she managed to get the order.

Amul became a Christian just six years ago, at the time of her marriage. "Whenever I feel sad, or pained, I run to Jesus. I get a lot of comfort knowing that Jesus too suffered in spite of being God. Since Jesus suffered, I know that he understands my pain and difficulties. That thought is enough for me to cope with my difficult moments." Desiring to find out about her understanding of God, I asked her: "Amul, if God is asked to fill in an application form, what would God fill in the column where the sex of the person is asked for?" "Kadaûl ãňu thane (God is male only, sister)," she replied with a half smile on her face. Then she continued by saying: "In Hinduism they have gods and goddesses, but in Christianity we have only male Gods."

Udaya was sent away to her parental home from her husband’s house because she did not bear a child even after four years of marriage. After her husband got married again, Udaya too eventually got married to a widower with five children. While she took care of the five children she also prayed to Jesus to give her just one child, that too a male child. She feels so happy to say how Jesus answered her prayers and she gave birth to a baby boy. Other women too shared similar experiences. Jesus is father, mother, brother, friend, and everything in their lives. He is their divine healer, their refuge in time of struggles, and their comfort in moments of pain.

1.3 A Critical Assessment

After listening to these women—who struggle daily, even to get one square meal a day—about their experiences of Jesus and who Jesus is in their lives, I am left without any doubt that they are able to cope up with the stress and strain of daily life primarily due to their faith in Jesus. There were times when I felt deeply moved while listening to their sharing and I even wished that I too would be gifted with such deep faith in Jesus.

On the other hand, looking at their daily struggles for survival, I feel deeply disturbed as a Christian. I know deep in my being that there is something wrong, that this is not the way God the creator wants them to be. For centuries they had been kept on the margins of the society, economically exploited, socially subjugated, and politically powerless. Their socio-economic and political situation has not changed much even today. They have neither land nor employment as means of livelihood. In all probability their situation is not going to be any better in the future unless and until some positive intervention is undertaken. Even those who are educated cannot find adequate employment in the present situation. Though untouchability and other caste prejudices are not so obvious, they are operative in subtle ways.

Whereas faith in the divinity of Jesus is foundational to Christian faith, I am compelled to ask whether this understanding is adequate to bring about a change in their present situation of poverty and unemployment. I get the impression that their Christological understanding is not coming out of an interaction between faith and life, but rather from the dogmatic formulation of the Council of Chalcedon, which affirms that Christ is a divine person with two natures, human and divine.

Even though their understanding and experience of Jesus as the divine person is commendable, it is not sufficient in the given socio-economic conditions. They need to search and articulate who Jesus is for them in the given situation of deprivation and discrimination. In addition to a dogmatic Christology, the women of this Colony are in need of liberation Christology, especially a feminist or peň liberation Christology.

Unlike dogmatic Christology, liberation Christologies start with the historical Jesus. It is the person, teaching, attitudes, and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth insofar as they are accessible, in a more or less general way, to historical and exegetical investigation that becomes the basis of liberation or contextual Christologies (Cf. Sobrino 1982:2-8). It is access to the concrete Jesus that brings out his universal potentialities in diverse historical situations. As Kasper puts it: "It is now a matter of talking about Jesus Christ in such a way that human beings feel they themselves and their problems are being discussed" (as cited in Sobrino 1982:10).

Kamala, Parvathi, and others need such a Christology where they can talk about Jesus Christ in the context of their unique problems and experiences as Dalit women. Feminist Christology of the West and the emerging Asian Feminist Christology will surely be of great help in their articulation of peň liberation Christology. Before delineating the characteristic features of peň Christology, it would be appropriate at this juncture to look at traditional Christology and its negative impact on women.

2. Traditional Christology and Women

With the rise of feminism, women began to be awakened to the reality of their being kept in subjugation for centuries. In view of liberating women from the multi-layered oppression that they were subjected to, Christian feminists began to analyze and critique the way women were treated in the Church and in the society at large. It is in this context that feminist theology raises stringent critique against theology in general and Christology in particular. A number of feminist theologians have pointed out that of all the doctrines of the Church, Christology is the one most used to suppress and exclude women (Cf. Daly 1973:69-97; see Brock 1984:55-74; Ruether 1985:24-35, and summary analysis by Carr 1988:158-79).

One may wonder how Christological formulations could be used to oppress women. First of all it is good to note that Christology in its story, symbol, and doctrine has been assimilated to the patriarchal worldview, with the result that its liberation dynamic has been twisted into justification for domination (see Johnson 1993:151). Moreover, most Christological interpretations are based on an ahistorical and apolitical understandings of Jesus coming from white, Western, male, and middle-class perspective. These are sexist, racist, and also imperialistic and classist in nature. Consequently, Christological interpretations of the maleness of Jesus, the meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross, of original sin etc. coming mainly from the male perspective have adversely affected women.

2.1 Jesus the Male Savior

The way Jesus’ maleness was interpreted created problems for women. First, it comes to be taken for granted that the maleness of Jesus reveals the maleness of God, or that the only proper way to represent God is in male images. For example, Amul, Parvathi, or Kamala have no doubt that God is male. Secondly, the gender of Jesus has been taken to be the mode or paradigm of what it means to be human. This is interpreted literally to mean that maleness is closer to the human ideal than is femaleness (Johnson 1993:104-7). Feminist theological analysis makes clear that the imperial tradition that assimilated Christology was precisely patriarchal in character. As a result we get a Christology in which Jesus the Christ functions as a sacred justification for male dominance and female subordination. "In particular, when Jesus’ maleness, which belongs to his historical identity, is interpreted to be essential to his redeeming christic function and identity, then the Christ serves as a religious tool for marginalizing and excluding women" (Johnson 1993:151).

According to feminist theological analysis, there are two ways in which distorted interpretation can occur. First, the maleness of Jesus is used to reinforce a patriarchal image of God. If Jesus is a man, and is the revelation of God, then this must point to maleness as an essential characteristic of divine being. "Who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9)—such language is thought to be not "mere metaphor" but is taken literally to mean that the man Jesus is the revealer of a male Father-God. Such interpretation conveniently bypasses the evidence in Scripture and tradition that the mystery of God transcends all naming and also creates female reality in the divine image and likeness (Johnson 1993:152). It is no wonder that Mary Daly argues that "if God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination" (Daly 1986:19).

Secondly, Jesus’ maleness is construed to strengthen androcentric anthropology, besides strengthening the notion of a patriarchal God. Since the Son of God himself chose to be a male, a particular honor, dignity, and normativity accrues to the male sex. Christology now confirms what androcentric antropology already holds as a basic assumption: that men are not only more truly theomorphic but, in virtue of their sex, also christomorphic. And this is something that goes beyond what is possible for women (Johnson 1993:152-3).

Such interpretations of Jesus’ maleness were not only used to exclude women from all ordained ministries till today but also used to torture and burn a large number of women condemned by the church as witches during the middle ages. "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable," say the two Dominican priests, Sprenger and Kramer, in the most important medieval work on the subject, the Malleus Maleficarum. According to these authors, men are protected from such a horrible crime because Jesus was a man. Similarly, in an official argument against women’s ordination, for example, it is stated that men, thanks to their "natural resemblance" enjoy a capacity for closer identification with Christ than do women.6

To sum up, in the prevailing situation of male domination, even the idea of a unique male savior may be seen as one more legitimation of male superiority (Daly 1986:71). Women accept the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a male human being and his maleness was a constitutive element of his identity. And in a more just church, his maleness would never be an issue. "The difficulty arises, rather, from the way Jesus’ maleness is construed in official androcentric theology and ecclesial praxis, a way that results in a christological view that effectively diminishes women" (Johnson 1993:152).

2.2 Death of Jesus

The traditional interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross are other tools that were used to keep women in a state of perpetual guilt and consequently with a damaged self-image. Jesus died because of our sins. He had to pay with his blood in order to save humankind from the bondage to sin. And the woman is blamed for bringing death upon man. Speaking about the role woman played in the drama of salvation, Tertullian says, "You are the devil’s gateway… How easily you destroyed man, the image of God. Because of the death you brought upon us, even the Son of God had to die" (cited in Hopkins 1995:51).

Church fathers like Tertullian and Augustine project the negative qualities of a victim upon women. These include the propensity for being temptresses, the evil and matter-bound "nature" of the female, the alleged shallowness of mind, weakness of will, and hyper-emotionality. Moreover, the qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim; sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. These are the qualities idealized in Jesus "who died for our sins." Women are taught to imitate the sacrificial love of Jesus, and thus accept the victim’s role. Yet they remain essentially identified with Eve and evil (Daly 1986:77). Realizing the impact such interpretations have on women, Rosemary Ruther says,



…if one rejects a masochistic, passive, fatalistic view of suffering for one that seeks dynamically to overcome the causes of suffering, then one will also reject a doctrine of crucifixion that reinforces masochistic, passive, fatalistic suffering in favor of discovering a Christ who suffers because he is in opposition to structures of injustice (Snyder 1988:ix).

2.3 Women and Original Sin

The sacrificial interpretation of the death of Jesus is based on a particular understanding of human sin. And this interpretation too has a historical effect on women. In the Latin tradition, from the fifth century onwards sin has been inextricably associated with sex. St. Augustine believed that original sin is transmitted from generation to generation through the sex act and women, as daughters of Eve, bear the consequences of that act namely, bearing children, moral corruption, pain, and mortality.

Consequently, women, by virtue of their sex, were considered guilty of the death of Christ. In order to make satisfaction for their guilt they were offered two forms of expiation. They could either in a spirit of passivity and obedience bear the pain of childbearing and submit to their husbands or renounce their sexuality altogether and become like men through a life of celibacy and ascetic practices (Hopkins, 51).

Over the years women have internalized this guilt complex and also their identity as "the other." Mary Daly calls this as the "The Scapegoat syndrome." According to her, society has a perverse need to create "the other" as the object of condemnation so that those who condemn can judge themselves to be good (1986:60). She identifies four side effects due to women's internalization of this identity, as "the other." The first is what she calls the psychological paralysis. This arises from a general feeling of hopelessness, guilt, and anxiety over social disapproval. The second side effect is feminine antifeminism. A third effect of women’s original sin is false "humility," which is an internalization of masculine opinion in an androcentric society. A fourth by-product of women’s complicity is emotional dependence (Daly, 51-54). Therefore the first salvific moment for any woman comes when she perceives the reality of her "original sin," that is, internalization of blame and guilt, says Mary Daly (47).

It is unfortunate that many women are still unaware of the harm done to them by certain articulations of traditional Christology as indicated above. The need to search for alternative articulations of Christology is an urgent one. It is in this context that we now turn to feminist Christological articulations and expressions.

3. Towards a Peň Liberation Christology

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the Chritological question originates from the historical Jesus himself. "Who do you say that I am?"(Mt.16: 15). The apostolic community answered this question in various ways. The process of interpreting the identity and significance of Jesus continued down through the centuries. The historical situation and worldview of a particular culture determine what people consider significant for their lives. The history of the Christian tradition shows us how Christians in different situations, cultures, and traditions experienced and articulated the significance of Jesus Christ according to their understanding of the human person, the human condition in the world and human destiny.

For example, the Jewish Christians had inherited a historically oriented worldview. History had its origin and end in Yahweh. Human beings are called to play their role to fulfill history. But misusing their freedom, they had reversed the process of history, and as a result misery and meaninglessness entered their lives. With the background of the Jewish expectation for the definitive intervention of Yahweh in history, they could clearly recognize the fulfillment of their expectations in the person and mission of Jesus. He was believed to be the alpha and omega of history, and therefore its center and meaning. Jesus was also designated ‘Son of God,’ in the Jewish sense of kingly enthronement as "Son of God" (Parappally 2001:27-8). In a similar way the Hellenistic Christians, the West Syrian Christians, the East Syrian Christians, and the Latin Christians articulated the significance of Jesus for them from their particular worldview.

3.1 Dalit WorldView

During the course of my interview with the Dalit women of Arul Nagar, one woman asked me a counter question. "Sister why are you asking us this question about Jesus? Do you also think that we have no faith in Jesus?" When I further probed, she said: "Sisters and priests often think that our faith is not deep enough because they have to force us to go to church and take part in the Eucharist." I too had been observing the same in the Colony. One or two hours before the Eucharistic celebration, someone used to call people over and over again to come to church through the loud speaker. It appears as if they have very little interest in coming to the church. On the other hand while talking to individual women and listening to their sharing about how they experienced Jesus in their lives, I felt that they have very deep faith in Jesus. How does one understand this situation?

In order to make Jesus relevant for the Dalit women and to articulate who Jesus is for them, it is important to understand their worldview, their perception of life, the role gods and goddesses play in their lives, and their mode of prayer.

3.1.1 Understanding of Life and Work

According to Dalit worldview, life is a one-time affair unlike Hindu belief of many births and rebirths. In their philosophy there is no concept of heaven or swarga. Describing their belief system, Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit writer, says: "In aDalitbahujan7 view, life here must be lived for life's sake. Further, life is related to work. The more it works, the more sacred that life becomes" (Cfr. Ilaiah 1996:108). The proverbs, panee praardahana (work is worship), panileeni paapi (one who does not work is a sinner), or the Tamil proverb seyyum thozhilae deivam (the work you do is your God) demonstrate that work alone makes life meaningful (Ilaiah, 108). They have a philosophy about performing productive work, which is distinctly different from that of Hindu philosophy. It is a mundane, human philosophy. It does not belong to the ‘other world’ and ‘other life’ but deals with this world. They use a simple sentence that repeatedly expresses this philosophy. That simple sentence is rekkaaditeegaani bukkaadadu (unless the hand works the mouth cannot eat) [Ilaiah, 28]. Whereas the Brahminical language refers to prayer and God, theDalitbahujan language refers to productive work (Ilaiah 1999:173).

3.1.2 Goddess Worship

Though Dalits worship both gods and goddesses, they have more goddesses than gods. Pochamma is the most popular of Dalitbahujan goddesses in Andhra Pradesh as Mariyamman in Tamil Nadu. Pochamma is not made the object of a daily pooja(worship) by the priest (Ilaiah 1999:188). As there is no notion of priesthood among Dalitbahujans, everybody prays to Pochamma in his/her own way. The people directly pray to the goddess. They usually talk to the goddess as they talk among themselves: "Mother," they say, "we have seeded the fields, now you must ensure that the crop grows well, one of our children is sick it is your bounden duty to cure her…" (Ilaiah 1996:91).

According to them, Pochamma is the one who protects people from all kinds of diseases; she is a person who cures diseases. Pochamma is an independent goddess. Her temple is not centralized like the temples of Rama or Krishna. She is available in every village and people do not have to travel long distances to visit her (Ilaiah 1996:93). The demands of the people usually center on production, procreation, and sickness. Therefore, she is more a materialist goddess, concerned with human life and needs (1996:94).

Kattamaisamma is another goddess. She is a goddess of water, whose deity (a small stone) is kept on the edge of the village tank. People believe thatKattamaisamma is responsible for ensuring that the tank is filled with water. She regulates the water resources. She also protects the crop right from the seeding stage to the cutting stage. If one goes back to the social origin ofKattamaisamma, it would be interesting to find that it was a Dalitbahujan woman who discovered the technology of tank construction. Polimeramma is another goddess who is supposed to guard the village from all the evils that come from outside, to stop them at the boundary of the village (1996:95).

The Dalitbahujan goddesses/gods are culturally rooted in production, protection, and procreation. Dalitbahujan society never allowed the emergence of a priestly class/caste that is alienated from production and alienates the goddesses and gods from the people. There is little or no distance between the gods and goddesses and the people (1996:100).

3.2 The Significance of Jesus for Dalit Women

It is in this context that we need to articulate the significance of Jesus in the lives of Dalit women. What becomes clear on the one hand is the need for Dalit women to be liberated from the socio-economic structures that are oppressive to them and also from the clutches of sexism and its many ramifications that they encounter in their day-to-day life. Together with other feminist theologians, I too consider the elements of Christology that would liberate Dalit women and so would deserve emphasis, namely Jesus’ life, which includes his ministry, death, and resurrection.

3.2.1 The Historical Jesus

In conjunction with third world liberation theologians, Rosemary Ruether affirms that the starting point for Christology is the historical Jesus, particularly his praxis: his efforts to transform the world in which he lived. She believes Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was "this-worldly, social and political," rather than eschatological. Jesus sought to undo all those unjust structures that keep people in oppressive relationships by offering an alternative vision of mutuality, peace, and justice for all (Snyder 1988:51-2). This particular understanding of the vision of the Reign of God fits well with the Dalits’ understanding of life, which must be lived for its own sake.

In order to recover the message and praxis of the historical Jesus, we must reject the mythology that portrays him as Messiah or divine Logos, along with the masculine imagery that accompanies these terms. Jesus sought to reverse the social order, making empowerment and the liberation of the oppressed the meaning of servanthood (Ruether 1983:136-37). It is precisely this aspect of Jesus that needs to be emphasized in the given situation of Arul Nagar so that women are enabled to find in Jesus the needed inspiration to identify, name and challenge, all that is oppressive in their lives.

3.2.2 The Reign of God

The proclamation of the Reign of God characterizes Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ preaching of the reign of God is diametrically opposed to any group that considers itself privileged by relegating others to the periphery. During his ministry Jesus showed partiality for the marginalized. The dalit, minjung, tribal and other oppressed women of Asia can definitely identify with those marginalized in Jesus’ time.

Jesus tried to teach that right relationship with God rejects a dominant-subordinate model in which relationship between God and human beings is used to justify any type of oppression. In Jesus’ preaching it is precisely those on the periphery of established structures, who are counted first in the reign of God. It sounds shocking, but the prostitute will enter the kingdom before the Pharisees (Johnson 1994:108).

The fundamental project of Jesus was to proclaim and be the instrument of the concrete realization of the reign of God. Total liberation and its attendant freedom is the essence of God’s kingdom. It must be viewed as a process that begins in this world and reaches its culmination in the eschatological future. It is the poor, the suffering, the hungry, and the persecuted that are blest, not because their unjust condition itself has value but because their unjust situation is a challenge to the justice of the Messianic king. Through Jesus, God has sided with them (Boff 1990:281:82). The miracles are operative signs of the presence of the kingdom (Lk 11:20). Justice occupies a central place in his proclamation of the kingdom. Equally liberative is his criticism of all power exercised as domination over others (Lk 22:25-28).

3.2.3 Jesus’ Characteristic Behavior

Jesus’ characteristic behavior of partiality for those on the margins included women. Jesus healed, exorcised, forgave, and restored women to shalom (Boff, 109). Through his healing and exorcism ministry he constantly emphasized the compassionate presence of God amongst the sick and unhappy. Further, he has associated the promised messianic feast of the Kingdom of God with the ingathering of all the poor, handicapped, and outcast. His words at the Last Supper, "This is my body" and "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," stressed the presence of the prophet of God in the physicality of daily life, in bread, wine, body, blood, human friendship, love, and even death (Snyder, 55-6).

3.2.4 Women in the Ministry of Jesus

Women were not marginal in Jesus’ message, his praxis nor his vision of the reign of God. Rather they played a particularly important role in all of the above. Ruether cites his way of dealing with the Samaritan woman, the Syrophoenician woman, widows, ritually unclean women, and prostitutes, as examples of the concern Jesus had for women. She argues by saying:



The role played by women of marginalized groups is an intrinsic part of the iconoclastic, messianic vision. It means that the women are the oppressed of the oppressed. They are the bottom of the present social hierarchy and hence are seen, in a special way, as the last who will be first in the Kingdom of God (Ruether, 136-37).

Further, Jesus called women to be disciples. They formed part of his company in Galilee, leaving their families and homes to follow him. As Virginia Fabella observes: "He not only valued them (women) as friends but affirmed their trustworthiness and capability to be disciples, witnesses, missionaries, and apostles" (Fabella 1990:6). Besides moving around with him in Galilee, the women disciples also followed Jesus up to Jerusalem. They did not run or hide at the hour of crucifixion. Every Gospel bears witness to this fact. Since Mary of Magdalene was the first to witness the risen Jesus, she is even referred to as the "apostle to the apostles" by St. Augustine. Jesus’ attitude towards the women of his time and his treatment of them contains the needed power to liberate the Dalit women and to give them an identity of their own without being dependent on any man.

In the early church there is strong evidence for a vigorous ministry of women as colleagues with men. The Acts of the Apostles and letters of Paul give us a picture of women as missionaries, preachers, teachers, prophets, apostles, healers, speakers in tongues, leaders of house churches. They were gifted with all of the charisms, which were given for the building up of the church.

3.2.5 The Death of Jesus

Almost all contemporary theology connects Jesus death to his ministry. His death results from a very active ministry in which love and compassion for the dispossessed led him into conflict with the powerful. From a feminist perspective, his inclusion of women coequally in the reign of God was part of the offense he gave to the religious authorities of that time (Johnson 1994:110-11). Speaking about Jesus’ understanding of suffering, Julie Hopkins says:



Jesus never proclaimed the necessity of suffering. His ministry was life affirming; he sought to eradicate pain and social distress and preach Good News to the poor and heavyhearted. That he could not finally avoid suffering and an early death is a tragedy and a prophetic exposure of the nihilistic tendencies of those who idolize power (Hopkins, 56).

Both Moltmann and Schillebeeckx, present us with a God who is much more involved in the pain of history than the God of classical Christian theism. They are both interested in showing that the victims of history, those who suffer excessively, are in the end lifted up by the living God.8 The central theological insights of the Christian proclamation of the cross is that God is present and is in loving solidarity with those who suffer unjustly at the hands of corrupt and violent people (Hopkins, 58).

Above all, the cross is raised as a challenge to the natural rightness of male dominating rule. The crucified Jesus embodies the exact opposite of the patriarchal ideal of the powerful man, and shows the steep price to be paid in the struggle for liberation. The cross thus stands as a poignant symbol of the "kenosis of patriarchy," the self-emptying of male dominating power in favor of the new humanity of compassionate service and mutual empowerment (Ruether, 137). Power is poured out in self-sacrificing love.

3.2.6 The Resurrection of Jesus

The resurrection of Jesus appears as the sign of God’s liberation breaking into this world. It does not rob Jesus’ death of its negative aspects, but reveals that ultimately the loving power of God is stronger than death and evil. Out of this reading of the story of Jesus from the perspective of the poor and oppressed has come a new and potent Christological title: Jesus Christ, the Liberator. This title evokes a new image of God, who is on the side of the oppressed with the aim to free them (Johnson 1994:92).

Consequently, we try to believe that God acts in history with dynamic efficacy to justify the victims of oppression, torture and execution, that the message, goodness, and presence of a prophet such as Jesus of Nazareth cannot be obliterated by human evil. God raised God’s prophet from the dead. In the words of Rosemary Ruether, "the memory (of the martyr) becomes stronger than powers of death and gives people hope that the powers of death can be broken" (Ruether 1981:28).

To believe in the resurrection then challenges us to a passionate commitment to life. In the words of Julie Hopkins:



We are inspired to assert in the face of all experience to the contrary that the faceless politicians, international bankers and diplomats who control the economies of our world shall not have power to allow a child to starve in Africa or a tribe to be exterminated in the Amazon (1995:71).

If we can hope that our struggle for justice will be vindicated, even beyond our own lifetime, then we have no excuse for passivity or defeatism. Such an approach to resurrection places the emphasis not on the uniqueness of Christ but rather on the power and presence of God to defeat evil and death and our ability to recognize this (Hopkins, 72).

In the resurrection, the Spirit of God fills Jesus with new life. His Spirit is poured out on all who believe, women and men alike. Unlike Judaism, the early church adopted an inclusive initiation rite, baptism. An early baptismal hymn prays that all divisions based on race, or class or even sex, are transcended in the oneness of the body of Christ (Gal 3:28).

3.3 Significant Christological Images

After delineating elements of Christology that would be relevant to bring about individual and societal transformation in the lives of Dalit women, it is befitting that we consider the possible images of Jesus that would enhance the process of empowerment of Dalit women with their particular experiences and religio-cultural ethos.

3.3.1 Jesus the Liberator

Jesus as a liberator is reflected in many writings of women from different parts of Asia. Women long to be liberated from multi-layered oppressive forces that they experience. The historical situation of Asia, namely, the centuries old colonialism, neo-colonialism, poverty, military dictatorship, and patriarchal cultures continue to keep women in a subjugated condition. It is natural therefore for women to see Jesus as their liberator and to feel empowered by him. The Filipino women who participate in the people’s struggle for liberation live out in their lives the Christ event—Jesus’ life, passion, death, and resurrection. They see Jesus more as a revolutionary or a political martyr.9

Like other feminist theologians, Ruether insists that Jesus is a liberator of all the oppressed, but most especially of poor and lower-class women. As the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus represented a new humanity in which his maleness "has no ultimate significance" (Ruether, 136-37). What Ruether seeks is to de-emphasize the maleness of Christ and to proclaim instead that "in Christ" a new humanity for both females and males can exist. Further, she says, "Christ, the liberated humanity, is not confined to a static perfection of one person two thousand years ago. Rather, redemptive humanity goes ahead of us, calling us to yet incomplete dimensions of human liberation" (Ruether, 138).

Looking at their socio-economic condition, it is apparent that Dalit Christian women need a feminist liberation Christology as enumerated earlier. Jesus who proclaimed the good news to the poor, who took the side of the outcastes especially of women, who resisted and opposed the structures that oppressed the poor could become a model and inspiration for Dalit women to organize and agitate and demand their rights to livelihood, dignity, and selfhood.

3.3.2 Jesus the Healer

Asian women look at Jesus as the one who takes their side and who reaches out to heal them from their broken condition. This Jesus reveals a God who does not justify injustice but opposes it. During his public ministry Jesus healed many people from various sicknesses and liberated some even from the clutches of evil forces. For the Dalit women of Arul Nagar, Jesus continues to be a healer. They have experienced his healing power. As mentioned earlier, what they need in life is a provider God who takes care of their daily needs for sustenance and who heals them from their various ailments.

3.3.3 Jesus the Suffering Servant

Jesus’ suffering and death are very significant for Asian women in general. Given the situation of suffering and pain, the most prevailing image of Jesus among Asian women’s theological expressions is the image of the suffering servant. The image of a suffering Jesus enables Asian women to see meaning and purpose in their own suffering and service. While many women identify their sufferings with Jesus’ sufferings in a passive way, there are others who see Jesus’ passion as an act of solidarity with his people. For them Jesus is a compassionate man of integrity who identified himself with the oppressed. "This image of Jesus’ sufferings gives Asian women the wisdom to differentiate between the suffering imposed by an oppressor and the suffering that is the consequence of one’s stand for justice and human dignity" (Kyung 1991:57). As a result, the militant, protesting Filipino women who have taken up the struggle on behalf of their sisters and of the rest of the suffering poor see their suffering as redemptive (Fabella 1987:15).

Some Dalit Christian women have found that they have a special empathetic appreciation for the sufferings of Christ through which God’s love for an undeserving world was revealed. As Christ’s body was broken through crucifixion, a Dalit woman’s body too gets broken by hard labor; by bending over for hours on end to plant, to weed, to transplant, to harvest rice or carry bricks on her head from one part of a construction site to another. In addition, some of them experience being beaten by a drunken husband who has his own frustrations to deal with. The humiliations, mockery and unjust treatment Jesus suffered were, in essence, no different from those she experiences all the time. Christ in his sufferings, both spiritual and physical, shared the harsher realities of her life (Webster et al 1998:121).

3.3.4 Jesus the Carpenter

Work is an important aspect of Dalit life. It is through work that Dalit find meaning in their lives. According to their worldview, work is not only for livelihood, an economic necessity but it is much more. It is through work that they find fulfillment in life and it is the work that they perform which makes their lives sacred. The picture that we get of Jesus from the Gospels is that he worked all day. Sometimes he did not even have time to eat (Mk 3:20). Jesus too fulfilled the mission entrusted to him through his work. It is through his work that he glorified God. Born into a carpenter family, he was known by his profession as a carpenter (Mt 13:55).

The image of Jesus as a carpenter or as a worker would be meaningful for Dalits. Besides the images of Jesus as Christ and Lord, it would be very comforting for Dalit women to picture him as one, who worked the whole day like them not for self seeking but for the well-being of others. Moreover in their current situation of unemployment, they need to heed the Gospel imperative to struggle for justice. Concretely it would mean that they demand from the government their right to work

3.3.5 Female Imageries for Jesus

Asian feminist theologians, like their counterparts in the West, consider the maleness of Jesus as a historical particularity and not as a pointer to the exclusive maleness of God. At the same time Asian feminists are conscious that they still belong to a Church that keeps women away from ordination and meaningful participation in the life of the Church and community on the basis that the historical Jesus was a male and that he chose only twelve males as his apostles. They are also aware that "neither the Jewishness of Jesus nor his physical presence in the first century community is particularized, only his maleness " (Melanchton 1990:17). They believe that the resurrected Christ has transcended all particularities including his maleness. Jesus then is a revealer and representative of a new humanity. Asian feminists see their task to assert and emphasize the humanness of Jesus, rather than his maleness (Melanchton, 18).

There are a number of female images for Jesus that have emerged in different parts of Asia, in diverse situations and experiences. The mother image is a common one among them. Many Asian women see Jesus as a compassionate mother who feels the suffering of humanity deeply and suffers and weeps with them. He continues to weep with those mothers who lost their sons in different wars, and the many weeping Korean mothers whose sons and daughters were taken by the secret police. According to the Indonesian theologian Marianne Katoppo, this mother image of Jesus demolishes "the paternalistic, authoritarian and hierarchical patterns" in our life and builds the "maternal, compassionate, sensitive bearing and upbringing" relationship among people (Katoppo 1983:12).

Besides the mother image, some Asian women see Jesus Christ as a female figure. Seeing themselves as "the minjung of the minjung," the Korean women speak of their situation using the term han. It is a feeling which combines resentment and indignation on the one hand, and defeat, resignation, and nothingness on the other. According to one Korean woman: "If Jesus Christ is to make sense to us, then Jesus Christ must be an exorcist of our han"(Fabella, 17). For these women, salvation and redemption mean being liberated from their accumulated han. Shamanism is the Korean indigenous religion. Within this religion it is the shaman, usually a woman, who has been a healer, comforter, and counselor for Korean women, as Jesus was during his public ministry. Korean women see Jesus as the priest of han and they connect with the female image of Jesus more than the male image. Gabriele Dietrich, a theologian from India also uses female imagery for Jesus. She makes a connection between women's menstruation and Jesus’ shedding of blood on the cross.

Dalit culture and religious ethos are centered on goddesses who are always accessible to people in their every need. People do not need the mediation of a priest to pray to the goddess. This could be one of the reasons why Dalits in general are not so eager to participate in a Sunday Eucharist in which a priest is the main celebrant. It is not that their faith in Jesus is not deep enough but that they are used to praying to their goddesses and gods directly as and when the need arises.

It is important that Peň liberation Christology pays attention to the above aspect of Dalit life and culture. If Jesus is the Adipurusha for Chenchiah, and Satpurushafor Swami Abhishiktananda (Kavunkal 2001:52-8), Jesus can equally be pictured asPochamma or Maryiyamman, or any other goddess in the Dalit context. Moreover, Dalit goddesses are not mere mythological figures. If we go back to the sociological origins of these goddesses, it is often found that these goddesses were powerful and independent women. They were wise women who have discovered something for the well-being of the village; they were people who have saved the village from danger; or who constantly kept watch over the village crops and wealth (Ilaiah 1996:97). Women of Arul Nagar need to rediscover Jesus—who went around the villages and towns of first century Palestine teaching, healing and feeding the multitudes and who showed partiality to the marginalized of his time—and to draw inspiration and strength from him to resist the oppressive structures and to build a more just and egalitarian society.


It is beyond doubt that Dalit women experience multi-layered oppression. Due to unjust socio-economic structures, their life is a continuous struggle for survival. Their faith in Jesus as Divine helps them to cope up with the daily struggles of life to a great extent. The experience of Jesus’ nearness in times of desperation fills them with hope and they continue to live despite the many ordeals of life.

Women have developed their own ways of praying and experience healing without the mediation of a priest. Some of them even experience the sacramental presence of Jesus through their own symbolic gestures and prayers. In the given situation of human made poverty, inequality, and other discriminations based on gender and caste, Dalit women are not enabled to raise their voices against such dehumanizing conditions. They lack the awareness that their condition is not to be tolerated and should be resisted with all their might.

It is going to be a long and challenging task for the Church leaders and theologians to enable Dalit women to journey from a dogmatic and pious understanding of Jesus to that of a relevant peň liberation Christology. There is no shortcut to do this except through organizing women and reflecting with them regularly on their life and praxis in the light of the liberating Word of God. Christian praxis has to become a priority in the pastoral setting. There is an urgent need to have more theologically trained women to work at the grass root levels with women.

The pastoral understanding of the Church leaders seems to be rather limited at present. Christian life is centered round the sacraments to a large extent. Often the priests are reluctant to get involved in the life struggles of the people. Contextual theologizing is the need of the hour. Theology must join hands with other disciplines especially with social sciences in order to understand society and its functioning. Then only it can make the required positive interventions and thus bring about individual and societal transformation. Theologian and/or the pastor must collaborate with social activists and other voluntary organizations in empowering the powerless.




1. The word Peň stands for ‘woman’ in at least two of the Dravidic languages of India. Its equivalent in Sanskitic languages would be Stree. With so many languages in India it is difficult to have a common terminology to indicate the theologizing activity of Indian women. Until we find an alternative term that will suit the majority of Indian women, I propose to use the term Peňtheology.

2. In most Indian villages the Dalits or the so-called outcastes live literally on the fringe of the village known as Colony or Cherri or other similar terms.

3. The word Dalit is a relatively recent term. Dalit means "the oppressed," "the broken." They were referred to for millennia as the untouchables, or aspanchamas, pariahs, etc. Gandhji called them "Harijans." The British use "depressed classes" and "scheduled castes" for them.

4. Cfr. Freemann 1993:4-5. First published in London by George Allen & Unwin Ltd in 1979.

5. Uru is that part of the village where the high caste people reside. Usually it is centrally located unlike the Colony that is often at the margins of the respective village.

6. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood" (Inter Insignores),Origins 6/33 (3 Feb. 1977).

7. The term is used to include all those who are considered outcastes in Indian society.

8. See Moltmann 1974; Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus and Christ Books, (chap. 4).

9. "Women and the Christ Event," in Proceedings: Asian Women's Consultation(Manila: EATWOT), 1985: 31.




Boff, Leonardo

1990 Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time (1972) Translated by Patrick Hughes, (London: SPCK).

Brock, Rita Nakashima

1984 "The Feminist Redemption of Christ," in Christian Feminism: Visions of a New Humanity, edited by Judith Weidman (San Francisco: Harper & Row).

Carr, Anne



1988 Transforming Grace: Women’s Experience and Christian Tradition (San Francisco: Harper& Row).

Daly, Mary

1986 Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Great Britain: The Women’s Press).

1973 Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon).

Fabella, Virginia

1990 "Christology from an Asian Woman's Perspective," in We Dare To Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women, edited by Virginia Fabella, M.M. and Sun Ai Lee Park (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis).

1987 "Asian Women and Christology," in In God's Image (September).

Freeman, James M.

1993 Untouchable, An Indian Life History (India: Harpercollins Publishers).

Gopalakrishnan, M.

2000 Gazetteers of India, Tamil Nadu State, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur Districts, (Volume I).

Guru, Gopal

2000 "Dalits: Reflections on the Search for Inclusion," in Contemporary India-Transitions, edited by Peter Ronald DeSouza (New Delhi: Sage Publications).

Hopkins, Julie

1995 Towards a Feminist Christology (Great Britain: SPCK).

Ilaiah, Kancha

1999 "Productive Labor, Consciousness and History: The Dalitbahujan Alternative," in Subaltern Studies IX, (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

1996 Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (Calcutta: Samya).

Johnson, Elizabeth A.

1994 Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (New York: Crossroad).

1993 She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse (New York: Crossroad).

Katoppo, Marianne

1983 "Mother Jesus," Logos (October).

Kavunkal, Jacob S.V.D.

2001 "Indian Views on the Significance of Jesus Christ," in What Does Jesus Christ Mean?, edited by Errol D'Lima, S.H. and Max Gonsalves, S.F.X (Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications).

Kyung, Chung Hyun

1991 Struggle to be the Sun Again (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books).

Melanchton, Monica

1990 "Christology and Women" in We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis).

Moltmanm, Jurgen

1974 The Crucified God: the Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, (New York: Harper & Row).

Parappally, Jacob M.S.F.S.

2001 "The Significance of Christ in Christian Tradition and Chritological Reflection in India," in What Does Jesus Christ Mean? edited by Errol D'Lima, S.H. and Max Gonsalves, S.F.X (Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications).

Ruether, Rosemary Radford

1985 "The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy," New Blackfriars 66.

1981 To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (London: SCM Press).

Snyder, Hembrow

1988 The Christology of Rosemary Radford Ruether: A Critical Introduction (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications).

Sobrino, Jon

1982 Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, also 1976).

Webster, John C.B. et al.

1998 From Role to Identity: Dalit Christian Women in Transition, (Delhi: ISPCK).

  • Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) in Spirituality and Leadership
    Aug 04
    Nov 30