Report of a continuing conversation among theologians representing the concerns of people living with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, Dalits and those struggling against racism, on churches becoming and effecting just and inclusive communities at Colégio Assunção, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 18 – 23 August 2008


A deepening global economic crisis, a growing culture of violence, particularly targeting the marginalized, the increasingly disastrous impact of climate change on the poor, and the large scale migration of people in search of livelihood, which at the same time coincide with the struggles of the disempowered and the excluded people to create another world was the moment in time that this conversation in Rio took place. The theme of the consultation was to re-imagine justice from the perspective of the margins by exploring new directions for a theology of justice informed by the experiences and visions of the excluded. The purpose was to explore the meaning of justice from the perspective of the margins and to consider the connections between mission, unity and peace.

We were a group of theologians, academicians, pastors and community leaders from South and North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia representing the Dalit community, Indigenous Peoples, people living with disabilities (EDAN) and people struggling with racism - met together at the invitation of the World Council of Churches: Programme for Just and Inclusive Communities in partnership with Koinonia Ecumenical Presence and Service, Brazil to re-imagine justice from the perspective of the margins.

While meeting in Rio, the beautiful and vibrant Brazilian city, we were also exposed to its violent underbelly. We learnt that those who bear the brunt of violence are those who are marginalized by social and economic structures and cultures. In Rio, the African-decedent communities are the primary victims of violence. Our visit to the Degase prison for young people further reinforced this reality - all those who were incarcerated were of African-descendant or of mixed race. The reality of violence and the solidarity of our experience was an integral part of our gathering.

This consultation continued to weave the tapestry of a just and inclusive church that began in La Paz, Bolivia in 2007 employing the same consultative process. It sought to create a space for the various communities to reflect together on justice from their particular vantage point at the same time seeking to understand and appreciate the view point of the other.  Thus the reflection was both enriching and transformative.1

At Rio we wrestled with questions such as, what new could be said or added to the conversation about justice; what would justice look like in each of our own specific contexts, what does justice imply to a poor Dalit woman with a disability? We reiterated the adage that “justice denied for one is justice denied for all;” and in this spirit we acknowledge that the voices of other marginalized groups were missing from this conversation, though not from our thoughts. We acknowledged our solidarity with all who experience exclusion and who are living and struggling from the margins.

As we met we recognized the potential of turning the pain of our personal stories and contexts into a celebration of our shared vision and hope of another world. Yet we also acknowledged that to do this it was necessary for us to name the demons that caused our pain and exclusion.

In our reflections a text that repeatedly resonated was the parable of the Good Samaritan that says...

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (New International Version)

Our reflections on justice touched upon a variety of issues and experiences. We tried to focus on three areas which we felt are crucial for any creative theological exploration for new meanings of justice today. These are our concepts of sin and salvation, the church’s responsibility in a violent world, and a new way of understanding the human person and wholeness.

Interrogating sin and salvation

We recognized that both sin and justice are essentially relational. It has been the common practice among Christians to view sin as mostly having to do with personal morality. However, as those living on the margins and those who experience systemic and structural injustice, we understand sin in a much larger perspective. Drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, we assert that Jesus holds the indifference and insensitivity of the Levite and the priest as sin because of their refusal to reach out when life is abused and in danger. Therefore, we recognize that sin is essentially about relationships and the interconnectedness of all peoples and that sin dehumanizes people and relationships.

Individualism makes us believe that each of us have a direct link with God without links to the world that God created. Contrary to reality, such an understanding makes us believe that our attitudes and actions are isolated and affect only us. However, each of our attitudes and actions in our living space affects someone or some biological or non-biological presence of the universe/creation of God, somehow. In its expansive wave sin dehumanizes not only the victim but also the sinner.

In the Altiplano (highlands of Bolivia), a strong hail storm can leave a trail of destruction -  loss of harvest, houses destroyed, dead animals, starving families in the countryside, scarcity of products, spiralling prices, more poverty, more corruption, more violence, etc. When there is a hail storm, the elderly would know that someone has broken the delicate life balance,  and go around searching for young women who may have practiced a secret abortion. If they find one, they need to find the foetus and make a ritual in order to ask for Pachamama’s forgiveness, because the community didn`t care enough to give cae and support to that young woman. The ritual allows us to know the truth and restore the balance, not only to discover and punish the perpetrator if any but also to accompany the victim in resuming her position as subject in the community. The infraction is neither an individual nor an isolated issue; it is a network of conditions that allowed the breach to happen. Although our patriarchal Aymara society sees the young woman as guilty, the ritual denounces that she is just a little piece in a chain of injustices, the place where the balance of life was broken.

-A story from the Aymara Community, Bolivia

In our common experience, sin is often confused with its fruits. Therefore, we condemn the young boy who stole a piece of bread in order to satisfy his hunger but not the causes that lead him to steal the piece of bread. With this understanding we go about preaching the gospel to the poor, accusing them of being sinners, and asking them to repent as if they were the ones to be blamed for their poverty and misery. A right understanding of the gospel is when it is preached to the powerful and the privileged. The gospel imperative is that we speak truth to power. Sadly, the history of Christian attitudes towards sin and salvation are often tainted by parochialism and narrow self interests.

During the early years of this decade, there were a few but frequent attacks against Christians and churches by rightwing Hindu fundamentalists in some parts of India. Indian Christians – Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals and Pentecostals, organised themselves as never before, took the issue to the streets and brought it to international attention, resulting in the government taking necessary steps to stop such incidents.  However, during the same time, large numbers of Dalits were massacred and their women were raped and houses burnt down in the Indian state of Bihar. In fact this happens all the time. According to statistics compiled by India's National Crime Records Bureau, “Every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, two Dalit homes are torched, and in the year 2000, 25,455 crimes were committed against the Dalits”. There are numerous cases of human abuse and human suffering and tragedy in every part of India. Ironically, and sadly too, these fail to be reasons for Christian unity, mission and peace. In spite of their status as a fragmented minority, Indian Christians are known for their enthusiastic religious propagation. Evangelistic campaigns, reaching to the unreached, winning souls, church planting, crusades and revival meetings, preoccupy the language and life of many churches. Cases of discrimination and exclusion of people on the basis of caste, class and gender, are not only tolerated but also practised, perpetuated and justified as an inevitable cultural phenomenon. In terms of marriage, dowry, social relationships and leadership, the caste factor plays a major role, among these ardent Christians.

-A statement from India

Many of us Christians emphasise repentance from individual sins as necessary to become worthy of God’s salvation and eternal life. While such a pursuit may seem necessary as an expression of one’s sense of accountability to God, what such narrow concepts of sin and salvation do is to limit, truncate and incapacitate God’s saving grace to transform not only individuals but also the larger ambit of life that God creates and sustains. Such understandings have also helped to justify our cowardice and our reluctance to confront forces and situations that violate the will of God. In other words, such narrow understandings of sin, repentance and salvation have made God powerless to change the world that God has created. Therefore, we hold that our loud claims of personal salvation are often a way to hide our cowardice and captivity to sinful structures and cultures.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is not only to impress upon us the virtue of being responsible to one another, especially to the one in need, but also to expose the sin of choosing to run away from the reality of human tragedy and suffering. Yet we continue to endure a culture of silence and shut ourselves to the clamour of the marginalized and the excluded people.

We, the indigenous women, especially Aymara and Quechua women, have the tradition of carrying our daughters and sons with us by using our awayus (tapestries) on our backs. In Bolivia, we have for too many years experienced violent kidnappings and selling of small children. Two years ago, an indigenous woman in Cochabamba was selling candies and lemons on the streets with her two year old daughter on her back. A taxi came near them and the man inside stole her daughter from the awayu and sped away. This incident didn’t have any impact in the media and the story had less than a minute on the TV news. Everybody knows that children and adolescents are kidnapped to steal and sell their organs as well as for commercial sex. Sadly, no one does anything about it to stop this. Neither churches nor its institutions said anything about children and adolescents being kidnapped and sold, so far.

-A story from the experience of Aymara and Quechua women

It is this culture of silence that needs to be recognised as sin. It excludes and negates the dignity and rights of others as human beings. From the perspective of power, this culture of silence also manifests itself as the sin of ignorance.

In the Netherlands, and also in Europe, most people are afraid of immigrants coming into Europe, except for the educated ones who would benefit our economies. I, as a fighter for the immigrants, always mention that the roots of migration lie in the legacy of Europe acquiring her riches. This was done through exploring and exploiting the south and the east, using the people from the other continents, and plundering their countries. If we do not return their belongings, and do not share, they will come and get their rights.

People will tell me that this is something of the past. And in the mean time nurses and doctors and scientists from the south and the east are imported for the wellness of European countries and the European economies. And so a new form of exploring the south and east is born, even in European directives, laws, you can read that people can get a visa to work in Europe if this benefits our economy or if that work is one that Europeans don’t want to do themselves.

In the Netherlands, people in age of 30 or 40 are called to save for a happy life when they retire. Then they can travel, eat and drink and do all the things that they want to. Other countries are their holiday locations. We do not see that these are countries with people and needs, and counties that we have explored, and continue to explore. We make the rules of trade in the WTO; we make the rules of migration. Of course we do small things to compensate, like through UNHCR, or in development work, but we also guard the borders because we want to feel safe. And as causes of poverty, we mention the wars in Africa, the corruption, the dictatorships, etc.

-A testimony by a Migrant Rights’ activist from the Netherlands

Church and the culture of violence

It is ironic that as soon as the World Council of Churches launched the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), the world began to see more violence. The terror attacks in New York and the retaliation on Afghanistan and Iraq, the widespread reality of terrorism all over the world, the violence perpetrated by nation states in the name of national security to suppress people’s movements for rights and justice, the proliferation of small arms in the hands of police/ state functionaries, drug lords and youth gangs, and the list is endless. These certainly are reasons for a DOV.

In this context we need to name the legion of various forms of violence unleashed on the marginalized people. Violence is any act, event or condition that violates the physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological aspect and thus diminishes the personhood of the other. Violence is manifested in expressions of aggression, violations, deprivations of basic needs and rights, exclusion, discrimination and disrespect. Violence is too often sanctioned and validated by social policy, culture and religious beliefs and practices. As such violence most impacts those whose social locations and identities place them at the margins.  The perpetrators are those who nurture and perpetuate these cultures and practices and they benefit a great deal. We also recognize the complicity of the Church in this violence.

A local congregation of a diocese in Chennai (India) has 25 families and all of them are Dalits and make a living by working as sweepers and cleaners in the local municipality.  Among them eight women are engaged in manual scavenging.  Manual scavenging is not only a dehumanizing occupation since it involves a human being removing human excreta manually using hands, broom and bucket but is also prohibited by the Indian law. Another congregation of the same denomination in the next street exists  only for members of the dominant caste groups. The point here is that Dalits are forced into certain locations and identities, and are made vulnerable through forced and inhuman occupations, atrocities and violence.

-An account from India

The church by actively encouraging these human divisions based upon unjust cultures and by being a silent spectator of the violence and violation of the Dalits – the victims of a violent social system, becomes an accomplice in the crime, in the sin against the Dalits. Many have used the Bible to legitimise or glorify violence of the violent and oppressive systems and structures because of the unlimited power that they exuberated. Crusades, colonial expansionism, enslavement of Africans, genocide and containment of indigenous people, caste segregation of congregations in India, mass murder of women in Europe, sexual violation of women and children  all provide examples of church’s involvement and participation in the history of oppression of people in many contexts and throughout centuries.  Ironically, we and these above have been the objects of Church’s mission, service, and even preaching.

We have suffered greatly at the hands of the church. We would like to contribute our gifts, wisdom, insights… but often it seems our churches do not want to hear our experience and is unwilling to receive what we have to offer.

-A comment from an indigenous person from Guatemala

We must also recognize that in many cases, as we have seen in Brazil too, sometimes the victims become perpetrators having internalized the culture of violence and oppression. Violence somehow becomes the viable instrument in human negotiations that involve power and wealth.  For too long our perspectives have been informed by the dominant discourses that have been informed by the cultures of the oppressor and of violence. This has been the case with our self-perceptions as human beings. It is in this context that we speak of a new vision of human person. We need to encourage a fresh reading of the bible for a new understanding of what it means to be a human person. It is however, heartening to note that the upsurge of the disempowered communities – the Dalits, the Indigenous Peoples, and other racially oppressed groups, is marked by a new self-perception and an assertion of new vision of world and a new pattern of human relationships. The indigenous peoples all over Latin America are demanding the recognition of indigenous cultures and communities. It is unfortunate that churches are not in the forefront of these struggles of people for a new dignified identity.

In Ecuador a new Constitution is being written. This was seen by indigenous people and indigenous churches as an opportunity to  propose  that the Constitution give recognition to their spirituality and their heritage by acknowledging Pachamama, Mother Earth, as the source of life. They hoped that other church leaders would support their initiative but instead, they have called such action “idol worship”.

-A comment from Ecuador

New Beings, New Beginnings...

In many Christian traditions, personhood has often been understood in terms of the Imago Dei. Centuries of dominant interpretations of Imago Dei has meant that the idea is interpreted in terms of perfection, in terms of the individual, in an exclusively anthropological sense. Therefore, some humans are seen to bear the image of God more than others. And it is always the human being who is the bearer of the image of God and nature is separated from the personhood and the spiritual dimension is seen away from the materiality of life’s existence.

How does one begin to speak about the human person? Does not ‘person’ already imply human and are we not falling into redundancy when we speak of the human person? On the other hand, should we not also be wary of the danger that the term human person can lend itself to the notion that some are somehow more human than others? Our common notions of personhood are often very adult-centric. Personhood is conceptualized in terms of adults and what it means to be adults, thereby marginalizing children and teenagers.  Within the context of the church we find that  children and youth are often told that they are the Church of tomorrow as though today they are not part of the church and do not make up its membership.

It is within this context that we call attention to a conceptualization of human person and personhood in recognition of the various cycles of life that humans go through. That is to say, personhood is understood in terms of cycles of life and that children, adolescents, adults, the elderly, women and men together lie at the centre of the understanding of the human person. To do justice to the denotation of personhood then is to hold all of these together.

Yet we must further ask what does it mean to be a person? People living with mental disabilities are often told “You will not understand”; people living with physical disabilities are told “You cannot go there”. Personhood too is understood in terms of some people being more a ‘person’ than others!  Although I don’t have a leg or am not an adult or I am indigenous or I am a woman or a Dalit or Black I am a person!

Personhood is also determined by culture.  Yet we must also affirm that the gospel must confront culture and thereby prevent the tendency to dehumanize and destroy personhood. What we would like to do therefore is to reinterpret Imago Dei in terms of plurality, diversity, and connectivity. That is to say, it is not individuals who bear the image of God in them but that the Image of God can only be understood in terms of human community. Therefore it is not ‘I’ who is made in the image of God but we together who are made in the image of God. No one individual is made in God’s image but that we together bear the image of God and when community is not complete then the image of God in humans is also not complete. In as much as the triune God is God in community, it is only community that bears the image of God.

Likewise the image of God can only be understood in terms of diversity, it cannot be contained in only one idea or connotation of what it means to be human but it is the whole human community together, with its variance and difference, with its multitude of skin colours and occupations, with its different talents, abilities and geographic locations that goes to make up together the image of God.

Lastly we assert that the image of God is understood in human relationships and connectivity. There are two metaphors by which we can understand connectivity. The first is the metaphor of the chain where each link is connected to the other to make a chain. Indian Caste based communities are hierarchically arranged, each one higher or lower than the other, with the Dalit communities at the very bottom of this chain.

Another metaphor of connectivity is the web in which each is connected to the other in a lateral, non-hierarchical arrangement. It is this metaphor that best brings out the understanding of connectivity in the sense of the image of God. In the Genesis text, God speaks out loud saying “Let us make humans in our own image” Who does God speak to when God says this? It is our understanding that God gathers all of creation before God-self and speaks these words to all of them. Therefore, all of nature participates in the creation of human beings in the image of God and this indicates to us that we are part of all of life and are connected to it. Being made in the image of God does not separate us from nature but enables us to see our connectivity between ourselves and other humans, ourselves and nature and ourselves with God.

Yet in the modern world, we are disconnected from God’s creativity and we participate in the present global socio-economic system which is based on a neo-liberal ideology which causes stress and violence in our present circumstances Can we learn from the ways of the indigenous people of our world who have a more inclusive way of looking at the world, including humans and nature together?  It is this aspect of personhood as understood in terms of image of God that we would like to highlight. We would like to re-vision personhood in terms of relationships and community – we are not complete without one another, each human has a space to occupy in a non-hierarchical web that connects us with all of life. From the perspective of the individual this means that each one of us has a contribution to make to make the image of God whole.

It is this understanding of human community and person that we would like to call the Church into. The story of Good Samaritan can be read as a critique of the Church, represented by the Priest and Levi, walking around a victim of violence. Here, the stranger and even the innkeeper were more just than the representatives of the institutional church.  Those who were called to be the keepers of healing, peace and justice walked and passed by the victim and left the system of oppression intact. The road to Jericho becomes the context of the system and the structures that create victims of violence. Does the road to Jericho become safer because of the Good Samaritan? It will continue to be treacherous until the challenge to injustice becomes the norm. Some do not respond out of fear, some do not respond because they have other things to do and it is not a priority, some are the beneficiaries of injustice and violence, some do not notice, and some do not want to get their hands dirty.

The road is different for each person who goes down the road. Each person is connected differently to the road. How does the victim of violence perceive those who are walking away and around him? She is helpless, out of control of the situation, and needs to be helped, to be healed, and bandaged. The system or those around her are responsible for the healing and bringing of justice. But it does not stop there; the road needs to be made safe for the next person with vulnerability and it is the responsibility of the system to make the road safe. Once the victim is healed, bandaged and able to walk again she must also now be part of the responsibility to make the road safe by speaking out and being a witness.

So we call on the churches in the WCC to:

1. Be inclusive and just by celebrating together with the people with disabilities, the Dalits, indigenous people, the racially oppressed groups, etc., and to give them the space to organize themselves towards justice.

2. Adapt liturgy where the spiritualities of different cultures will have a space and produce liturgies in Braille and sign language.

3. Christian education must nurture the values of justice, with a view to be sensitive to the aspirations of the discriminated and excluded people.

4. Seek to include people of all ages specially children and youth and to open ourselves to recognize that there are still many who are excluded for various reasons.

5. Take a political stand on these contemporary issues.

[1] In addition to the La Paz Report that directed our theological conversations, other documents and experiences such as:  Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network’s (EDAN) affirmation of a Church for all and of all; Transformative Justice, Overcoming Racism; The Dalit Theological Conversation, January 2008, and the report of the International Ecumenical Conference- “Abolished, but not destroyed: Remembering the slave Trade in the 21st Century.” Jamaica, December 2007,  were also voices that resonated with our dialogue.