Dalit theology emerged in the 1980s as a response to the oppression of communities in South Asia once pejoratively called "untouchable" and is now forging links with wider struggles for justice and freedom, according to a newly-published book.
The book, "lifts up Dalit theology not as an issue among a particular community but as a justice issue," said the Rev Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, one of the editors of Dalit Theology in the Twenty First Century: Discordant Voices, Discerning Pathways.
Manchala was speaking at a 21 February 2011 book launch at the Geneva headquarters of the World Council of Churches, where he is programme executive for justice and inclusive communities.
Under Hindu doctrine, Dalits are considered 'polluted' and 'polluting' and therefore 'untouchable'. India officially abolished the caste system in 1950, but discrimination continues to be widespread.
'Dalit' is a Sanskrit word [meaning]"broken" or 'crushed', and Dalits make up 65 percent of the church in India, said Manchala, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in India, and a former assistant professor in the Department of Dalit Theology in Gurukul, in Madras.
Dalit theology, noted Manchala, developed three decades ago in reaction to the social, economic and cultural disempowerment of the Dalit community.
The new book explores how Dalit theology interacts with feminism, cultural anthropology, postmodernism and biblical interpretation.
"There is a subversive character to the theological reflections these essays offer," said Manchala, noting the way in which they explore links with other movements for justice.
"The ecumenical movement in the 21st century has to draw its sources, energy from the reflections that arise out of people's struggles for life," he said. "Theology is not the privilege of the academic intellectuals but is also the task of those who are struggling for life."
The book launch took place during a meeting of the WCC's main governing body, its central committee.
Despite its "proud entry" into the 21st century, India continues to straddle the structural inequalities and hierarchies based on its age-old caste system, says the book, published by Oxford University Press and the World Council of Churches.
The book highlights the "spirit of resistance" of a younger generation of scholars to confront and transform oppressive structures, said Manchala.
He said, "Dalits as a wounded people are also trying to heal the society that wounded them."
Dalit Theology in the Twenty First Century: Discordant Voices, Discerning Pathways, Sathianathan Clarke, Deenabandhu Manchala, Philip Vinod Peacock (eds), Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0198066910
(c) Stephen Brown is a Geneva-based writer and journalist. He is reporting for Ekklesia from the World Council of Churches' central committee meeting, and related events.