When traveling in India several years ago, I was deeply moved by that country’s grinding and pervasive poverty. In urban regions and also in the agricultural countryside, millions of Indians lead lives of material desperation.
In the cities, the impoverished languish on sidewalks used by wealthy entrepreneurs. This juxtaposition was painful to see, so I asked an Indian colleague about how his countrymen could ignore the desperately poor in their midst. This was, perhaps, a tactless question, but it is hard to watch children living in filth and degradation, day after day, and not wonder what is being done.
My friend responded that under the Indian Constitution, caste discrimination is outlawed, but in their hearts, Hindu Indians look at someone in great need and think, “He’s getting what he deserves.”
This is the practical outworking of a theological conviction – in this instance, karma.
For hundreds of millions of Hindus in India, karma means that one’s lot in his current life, however sordid, is what he has earned from his conduct in an earlier one. This is why most of the country’s roughly 300 million Dalits, or “untouchables,” are doomed to lives of brokenness from birth: Seen as virtual sub-humans, they exist only for the most filthy and unprofitable tasks and are spurned by their fellow citizens as unworthy of compassion.
Those who fall outside the caste system are considered “lesser human beings,” “impure” and thus “polluting” to other caste groups. They are known to be “untouchable” and subjected to so-called "untouchability practices" in both public and private spheres. “Untouchables” are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial and hazardous jobs, such as cleaning human waste. The work they do adds to the stigmatization they face from the surrounding society.
The bigotry toward the Dalits and India’s substantial acceptance of widespread discrimination against and deep poverty among the Dalits and lower castes are grounded, ultimately, in the tenets of the country’s dominant religious faith. Such discrimination is, at its base, a theological issue.
Women are also devalued, theologically, socially, and economically, in Hindu culture.
Several months ago, the world was horrified by the public rape of a young woman on a bus in India. More recently, 4- and 5-year-old girls have been raped in events that have outraged the nation. These brutal acts have animated a broad new demand that India’s political and law enforcement officials take a strong stand against the victimization of women and girls throughout the subcontinent.
However, while these acts are despicable, they are hardly unique: For example, according to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, “In India, a ‘bride burning’ – to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry – takes place approximately once every two hours.”
One of the most painful results of Hinduism’s low view of women has been the gendercide of tens of millions of girl babies, both born and unborn. As ABC News reports:
According to current estimates, Indian men outnumber women by nearly 40 million. That startling gender gap, activists say, is the result of gendercide. Nearly 50,000 female fetuses are aborted every month and untold numbers of baby girls are abandoned or murdered. “It’s the obliteration of a whole class, race, of human beings. It’s half the population of India,” said women’s rights activist Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap Women Worldwide.
The theological influence of Hinduism in India animates the slaughter of baby girls; rampant sex trafficking; acceptance of base and widespread poverty; and the cult of temple prostitution in which about 450,000 women are trapped, some from the day they are born.
This does not mean that every Indian stands approvingly, or even passively, in the face of great evil. Far from it, as the recent protests in major cities about unprosecuted rapes have evidenced. It is important to note that India is an ally of the United States that deters Communist China’s land-hungry efforts and provides more opportunity for more of its citizens than many developing world nations.
That said, the moral squalor that characterizes the lives of millions of Indian and other Asian women and girls is grounded in religious teachings about the character of God and the nature of human dignity. To pretend otherwise is simply dishonest, even cowardly.
In contrast to Hinduism, Christianity teaches the equal value of men and women. Scripture teaches us that the members of both genders are created as persons in the image and likeness of God. They are so precious that God views them as worth the atoning death of His Son. The Bible sees humankind as unique and precious, from conception to natural death (Genesis 1:26-28, John3:16, Colossians 1:15-17, Psalms 139:13-16 and 116:115).
It is this underlying belief in human dignity, founded upon the Judeo-Christian understanding of what it means to be a person, that informs our nation’s most essential affirmation: That all men (generic for all persons) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. This was the nub of the Declaration of Independence; no less than Abraham Lincoln called the equality of all persons the “central idea” of our republic.
This idea is progressively and steadily being forgotten. Consider recent articles by Joe Loconte on the movement among some in the legal community to eradicate religious liberty as we have known it; the New York Times’ unwillingness to consider the moral implications of Kermit Gosnell’s murder business; and my colleague Cathy Ruse’s piece on the growing move toward redefining the very nature of the family.
Given the living witness of Hinduism in Asia, should not we be asking ourselves what kind of culture we will have if we fully loosen ourselves from the moorings of Jewish and Christian moral teaching? What will be substitute for it? Nietzschean power-philosophy (oppression of the weaker by the stronger is justified by natural selection)? Seemingly benign but ultimately consuming totalitarianism (“bread and peace,” a la Lenin)? Or neo-paganism of the type warned about by Dr. Peter Jones?
As we abandon our Judeo-Christian commitment to human dignity and equality, we abandon not only the foundation of our country but its hope for a bright future. If people are anything other than image bearers of God, all moral, political, and societal bets are off when it comes to the kind of laws and culture we will have.
Theology matters, whether in India or Oklahoma. We kid ourselves, and place our future at the gravest of risks, if we think otherwise.
Robert Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council, holds a graduate degree in theology from Western Seminary and is a long-time member of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Publication date: May 9, 2013