How Can We See Our Neighbors?

Our Unitarian Universalist First Principle expects us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person. And the First Principle applies to all of us. Every individual person, including you. For some of us, that idea makes perfect sense. It feels right and easy. For others of us, we struggle with applying the value to ourselves. The cultures shaping our lives can undermine our sense that we are worthy. And especially the dominant culture of consumer capitalism—with its rankings and yearnings—that culture keeps us convinced of our own lack even as it pits us against each other.

Yet when we understand that the culture influencing us can undermine our sense of worth, we can, by sympathy, extend the notion to each other person around us. You can do that right now, in this community space made sacred by your love. If the world is hurting me by telling me that I am less than, well, by extension, it is telling all of us in some way that we are all less than and so the world is hurting everyone. And if I am to be a good person, a kind person, I am also to accept unconditionally that worth and that hurt in everyone. What could be hard or challenging about that? How can we see our neighbors except as worthy and dignified?

While I was an English professor at Canisius University in Buffalo, NY, I became also a faculty advisor for learning immersion trips to India, in the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeastern coast near Sri Lanka. We were hosted by Catholic Indian priests of the Society of Jesus who arranged trips for us to Hindu, Sikh, and Jain temples; to Parsi fire temples; to mosques; to Christian cathedral basilicas. The trips included also a week in a rural school created to educate Dalit children. Educating the Dalit, the Untouchables as they are sometimes known, is their special calling. Many of the priests are themselves Dalit. Given the doctrine of reincarnation in Hinduism, the dominant religion of India, Catholicism and other forms of Christianity offer Dalit an afterlife that is not otherwise possible for them. Dalit, it is claimed, cannot reincarnate.

In a few weeks, world religions expert Brian Carwana will be here to tell you a lot more about the Hindu religion. I am going to give you just the roughest outline today. Both Indian society and the Hindu religion operate by the caste system, a hierarchy passed through families and dictating mores, customs, and professions. Although technically politically outlawed, caste is culturally pervasive and persistent. There are four General Caste Categories that emerge from what is known as the “Hymn of the Cosmic Man,” as told in the Rigveda, a sacred text of Hinduism. The story explains that the universe was created from the parts of the body of a single cosmic man named Purusha. These four castes of Indian society came from his body: the priest or Brahmin emerging from the head, the warrior or Kshatriya from the arms, the peasant or Vaishya from the thighs, and the servant or Shudra from the feet. When a person fulfills perfectly the duties of the caste into which they were born, they can move up the hierarchy. One must reincarnate many, many times to reach perfect duty within a caste and to advance to the next caste. Thus social perfection ends the rebirth cycle and spiritual liberation is achieved.

While the caste system is a manifestation of a religion, a belief system about the ultimate interworkings of a supernatural reality, caste is also bound up with the realities of social and cultural oppression. The caste system literally keeps people in their social and economic places. You may have noticed that the Dalit or Untouchables are not part of the body of Purusha and so are not part of the karmic wheel of reincarnation. They are of the earth, rather than of the comic body. They are the cleaners of dirt and socially the lowest of the low. They are considered dirt itself.

On my first trip in 2010, one of the priests, Father Bernard, told us something of his story. He was not himself Dalit, but he was part of the Vaishya caste, the third caste, and he grew up in a family of prosperous farmers. A Dalit woman was hired by the family to act as a nanny to young Bernard. And he loved Nanny. He spent a lot of time with her and she lovingly cared for him. At the end of one workday, Bernard followed Nanny home. He entered her house and sat with her, eating the meal she had prepared for herself and her family. When he got home, his mother asked where he had been. When Bernard told her, she took him to the yard in back of the house and scrubbed him down, she told him to get the filth off him. And his mother told him never to step foot in Nanny’s house again, never eat food from her house again. Bernard did not listen to his mother, continuing to go into Nanny’s house and eat the food she cooked there. And the scrubbings became beatings, but he still would not stop. For himself, he felt lucky that he had found the Catholic Church and the Jesuits, where caste did not matter, where everyone was equal.

In discussing his story with the other faculty advisor on this trip, I felt incredibly moved by Father Bernard’s experience and his decision to serve the Dalit as part of the call of his Catholic faith and Jesuit orders. And I was appalled and outraged. I said, I just couldn’t understand it. How could people treat each other in this way? And my wise colleague said, “No, you understand. You did the reading. You know a little about how this society works and how oppressive systems work. You understand. But you do not accept.”

“Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on [people’s] dreams.” Stories like that of Father Bernard have so much impact, so much more than reading about oppression in a book or an article. That direct lived experience when a person is wholly and personally engaged—mind, body, and spirit—living out the larger systems and structures that shape our realities. Such stories can motivate our own activism, our own work in the world to right what is wrong, what is oppressive and unfair. What I learned on that trip, and on subsequent trips, was how the Dalit fought for themselves. How Dalit leaders coined the phrase “Education, Agitate, Advocate” to name their struggle and their path to liberation. How they organized in collectives, often supported by the Jesuits. How these collectives worked to resist child labor in factories making silk cloth or to advocate for more education for girls and an end to child marriage or to create new job opportunities when improved sewage systems and indoor toilets took away the Dalits’ traditional job: daily removal of human waste.

The Dalit dreamed their own liberation. As a Vaishya man, Father Bernard joined the Dalit struggle on their terms, taking the lead from them. As a White Western woman, it was my work to be more than appalled and outraged. It was my job to hear the stories and to stand with those most impacted as they defined the outrage and as they defined solutions. Their experience—both the oppression and the resistance—was their holy ground, and I needed to take off my shoes there, to show respect and humility toward their lived experience. I needed to learn to stand with, rather than to imagine myself an expert with all the right feelings and all the right answers.

When we are highly educated, when we are used to having our opinions heard, echoed in the power structures such as they are, when we are in positions of cultural privilege, we may feel we know we have the answers and the solutions. And we forget to listen to those most impacted, to those whose lived experiences manifest direct awareness. We can be exhausted by the devaluing of people forced to the margins—First Nations people, Black and brown people, disabled and ill people, immigrants and migrants and refugees. But never exhausted more than those experiencing the oppression directly. Never knowing more about the experience of oppression or of resistance than those living it.

Because we adhere to the First Principle, we want none of our human siblings to suffer. We hold fast because we carry hope in our hearts, saying “this has got to change.” We join thousands of people in the streets. We move for justice. We live for peace. We strive to live as allies with those whose experience of oppression is much more immediate than our own. And we’re better together. Our differences matter—our skin color, our race, our gender, our social class—they define our lived historical experience. But they don’t define the totality of us. We strive to be equal but not all the same. Where there is room for some, we make room for all. Our solidarity, our allyship, that makes for “Community care, more precious than gold.”

“Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on [people’s] dreams.” And Max Warren also says, “More seriously still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival.” God, Life, whatever you call it, we did not invent the injustice and oppression we witness and try to change. Through my experiences in India, I learned what I understand and what I will not except. I side with the Dalit. I will not accept a caste version of human relationships. And yet, the First Principle calls for something more as well. We must resist also the demonization of those who think differently, even oppressively. Yes, we must resist the way things are and work to change the way things are. We must work with others who see as we do to end oppression. And, we must be led by those who see most directly what it is to live oppressed and what solutions make sense.

But, the First Principle calls us also to resist demeaning, belittling, dismissing, hating those who do not work with and see as we do. I disagree with the structures of caste. I cannot side with the caste people who hold those systems of oppression in place. And I have not lived that structure. I cannot know what it is to live within it. The first Principle calls me to resist the structure, and it calls me to resist judgment of those who do. The spark of humanity is within all of us.

Our First Principle calls us to open up the doors. The doors of our hearts and minds. The doors of our institutions. The doors of the very social order in all its manifestations. We are called to brace ourshoulders against the weight of history unmoved. And to bind up the wounds that keep us from entering whole. Together, we must open the doors as far as they will go. We must heighten and deepen our connections to the world around us, to broaden our definition of neighbor, to become a gateway for even greater love and compassion, until by our actions no one, no one is outside the circle of love.

“We know that hurt moves through the world, perpetrated by action, inaction, and indifference.” And we know, too, that “our values call us to live in the reality of the heartbreak of our world, to affirm the inherent wholeness of every being—despite apparent brokenness,” despite our own brokenness. Though our human hearts and our very institutions are frail and imperfect, though we make mistakes, we are called by our shared Unitarian Universalist values to dismantle systems of oppression that undermine our collective humanity. And we are called to act in concert and communally, because individually we do not have all that is necessary to guide us toward that greater justice, that greater love. “We believe that we’re here to guide one another toward Love.” “No one is outside the circle of love,” because all are needed to see and to solve the challenges of our living.

May we find our place in the circle of love, widening the circle as we make our own way within it. May we reach always for that burning coal inside us, knowing it is there, knowing we are worthy and dignified. May our own burning coals set us ablaze, our bravest fire reflecting our spirits activated for justice and peace. May our brave and blazing spirits inspire each of us and all of us to treat everyone with dignity and respect as we unite for the work of making the world better. We need each person, each perspective, each glowing heart. We cannot do this work alone. May we do with work together in love and understanding and acceptance. May it ever be so.

Purusha (Hindu mythological figure)

Caste System in India


What is India’s Caste System? (BBC News)