We are in the season of Lent, a seven-week journey toward the cross of Good Friday, the tomb of Holy Saturday and the resurrection of Easter Sunday. We entered this journey together two weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, a service that invited us to stop in our well-worn tracks, to take a moment to acknowledge the patterns our lives have left in the dirt and to make a conscious assessment if this was indeed God’s way forward for us. If not, we invited you to repent, to turn in a new direction and to establish a new pathway toward God and his work in the world.
That very afternoon I had the privilege of traveling to India with one of our Global Partnership trips where we worked with an organization called Truthseekers International, a caste reconciliation movement. Here we confronted the brutal realities of the well-worn path of the caste system and the even more brutal reality that the rut in the road has been left untouched because those in power (Brahmins) benefit from the paths of poverty and do so all in the name of the gods.
The caste system is a social-spiritual form of oppression that was introduced to India over 3000 years ago and prescribes a person’s worth and their lot in life by the nature of their birth. If a child is born into a Scavenger caste, those who are responsible for the removal of human waste, this is the work that their parents have done, this is the work they will do and if they have children they too will inherit this trade. This they believe has been ordained by the gods and those in power use every opportunity to reinforce this “truth.”
It is not only their work that is demeaning. Scavengers are also considered ritually unclean and untouchable and are therefore discriminated against in all social contexts. And according to their culture and their gods there is no way out but to die and to hope that the gods will view them as faithful enough to move up one rung of the ladder in the next life. Such a system was described by Indian social revolutionary Ambedkar as “a multistoried tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody had to die in the story they were born in.”
On the first day of our trip our team from NPU accompanied the Truthseekers staff to a Scavenger community to speak the truth that there is a God who is for them and not against them, a God who came to set captives free, a God who values each and every one of his children equally, a God who can change anyone’s story during their lifetime. In an effort to communicate the radical nature of this good news our students followed a pattern that was first instituted by Jesus as they knelt down in front of those who have been considered “untouchable” and washed their feet.
This truth was practiced over and over again during our time in India. Each day we got down on our knees in front of those who have been oppressed and prayed that the simple act would have profound consequences for those who were being washed and for ourselves as well. On one particular occasion I watched one of our students kneel in front of a child whose feet were no longer the color of their rich brown skin, but rather a greasy black. I watched as the little feet were tenderly held and washed and rinsed several times. The smile on the child’s face was priceless and the tears streaming down the cheeks of our student evidence of a heart being turned toward the plight of the poor and the outcast.
And I wonder how we will bring this home. With our eyes opened will we take a good look at our own systems of oppression? Will we be honest that we too have benefited from the well-worn paths of poverty in our own country? Will we repent for the fact that we have turned a blind eye to our migrant laborers and to the undocumented immigrants that do the jobs we deem beneath us, and will be confess our addiction to the cheap labor beyond our borders that allows us to remain in the rut of consumerism? Will we begin to advocate for those who are often marginalized by our own systems of “untouchability,” those who have served time in our criminal justice system, those who find themselves without adequate mental health care, those who live under our Magnificent Mile?
Will we continue in our well-worn paths of privilege or will we as followers of Jesus Christ kneel before the least of these and wash their feet? Will we who follow after a God who values each and every one of his children equally begin to live in such a way that gives everyone a story that holds the possibility of moving up? Will we who have benefited from the privilege of our birth settle into our own caste system?
The tears on our faces were as profound as the smiles on theirs and my prayer is that we were all profoundly changed by following the pattern of Jesus. And I hope that those whose feet we washed were set free from their oppression and I pray that we too have been set free from our willingness to oppress. Only time will tell if the ruts in our roads have been truly altered into pathways that lead toward God and his work in the world.
Where will you serve the kingdom today?