Hieronder volgt de uitgewerkte versie van de bijdrage van Charles Christian aan het NZR-Seminar over Geld en Zending van 26 april 2023.
Why Is It Hard for North Indian Church to Become Self-sufficient and What Can the Western Church Do About it?
Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak and initiate a conversation that I hope and believe in some way will ultimately help those who are in need of it. I have been in the Netherlands for four years now, and I am aware of one trait that makes the Dutch distinct: the Dutch directness. Rather than fuss about it, I have decided to use it to my advantage.
Before I go further, it may be helpful to point out that I am a third-generation Gujarati Christian, and so a lot of what I am going to say is spoken from that standpoint. But it is also relevant to much of North India, which has a distinct context at least in three regards:
1). Since the North Indian church has always been swarmed and led by converts from the so-called low castes, discrimination based on caste within the church has not been a visibly persisting problem as it has been in the South Indian church;
2). Majority of donations in the mission in the past have gone Southwards, whereas the North Indian mission and its leaders have often sat on the fringes of Western charity;
3). Access to knowledge of English has facilitated the South Indian Christians to make the most of recent IT booms in South Indian cities. North Indian Christians, in contrast, have been largely poor and their journey to acquire the knowledge of English and to IT has been both late and filled with difficulties.
Now that I have laid the groundwork of what I want to say, let me get into details.
Recently (on 23 March 2023), The Print, one of India’s well-known news outlets published an article that was titled: “Jain, Muslims, Baniyas, Dalits—communities helping their own crack UPSC exams.” UPSC stands for Union Public Service Commission. Candidates passing this exam, get to acquire some of the most coveted positions as civil servants in the central government with huge perks and great influence in formulating public policies. The communities mentioned in the article provide free food, lodging and tuition to the candidates from their own communities travelling from different parts of India to appear for the exam. Though this news is recent, the phenomenon of communities helping their own to occupy the helms of power is not.
Let me give you an example from my own state of Gujarat in India, where a community called Bania are the wealthiest group of people. They fall under Vaishya, the third caste in the orthodox Hindu hierarchy, and are mostly either Hindus or Jains. Considered to be between 1% and 6-7% of India’s population, they occupy a disproportionate amount of wealth, and most of the positions in the lists of India’s richest. In fact, it has been argued that indigenous credit from the Banias was a vital source for the founding and expansion of the British empire in the Western India.
Many different reasons are given as to why the Banias are rich, one being that they approach money collectively. To give an example by imagination, let us say that a Bania makes it to the Netherlands and launches a startup. Once he has established himself, he expands it and calls his siblings and relatives to help him. If a Bania meets another Bania in the Netherlands, he either hires him or lends him money without interest to found his own business. Many times, there is not even a written contract involved. After his company is established, he returns the money, because the transaction is not only trust-based, but accountability is tied to the structure of shame and honour. With this approach, Banias make sure that they not only create wealth, but their wealth circulates within their own community, making them a powerful community, whose rights and dignity cannot be trampled upon easily. This idea of community is so strong among the Banias, as is among other castes, that helping someone of the same caste often takes preference over other moral concerns. This is why Indian communities that have immigrated to Western nations often help immigrate their kith and kin and facilitate their transition by providing food, lodging and protection until they feel settled in the adopted country. To do anything less for a fellow caste member is a matter of shame.
Let me move to the next point here and ask: Where are Indian Christians in this picture? In fact, we too share the same collectivist understanding of money. My father, for example, migrated from village to city in his late teens and worked in the same cotton factory where his brothers were. He considered it the responsibility of his elder brothers who had migrated before him to help him move to the city by finding him a job in the same company. The same holds true for many moving across states of India today in search of work.
However, despite the collective ethics, and India shining globally and becoming an IT hub, North Indian Christians have not progressed much. Simply, because the North Indian Christians, almost all of whom come from Dalit communities, never had a capital to begin with. Our forefathers certainly had skills that they taught their children. But many of those skills are too rusty for today’s world, and the ones in demand are not affordable to acquire. After moving to the city, we did acquire new skills with sweat, blood and tears, but those skills are enough neither to make us a prosperous community nor the North Indian church self-sufficient, as the Western church often expects us to. The fact is that it will take years for us to accumulate enough capital and compete and negotiate our space with communities such as Banias. In the recent past, many Christians have found immigration to the West as the shortest route to challenge their given space in this structure, but here too the migrating Christians often lack power, vision and organisation, and even help from Western churches, to match more established communities such as Banias.
Moving to the next point, let me briefly explain how the Western theology and practice has, perhaps unintentionally, aggravated our situation, hoping that it will push our conversation in a better direction. I want to give three points here:
- Much of the Indian church, in its theology, in the past few decades was influenced by American pre-millenialism, which claimed to prepare the believers for their rapture into heaven, while leaving the wretched earth with all its prosperity behind them. This ‘otherworldly’ theology has produced an attitude that considers material progress as harmful and a distraction from heaven.
- The Indian church finds itself stuck between prosperity theology and what I call ‘poverty theology’. Theologians in India either condemn prosperity gospel wholesale or they find solace in idealising ‘God of the poor’ who is only remotely interested in their material wellbeing. I also think that to some extent, the Western church is responsible for this, for in order to critique its own materialism, it often romanticises our poverty and powerlessness. In my last three years, I have had many sincere Christian believers reminding me that God is closer to the poor. I understand the noble sentiments inherent in this claim, and yet at times find it frustrating, for I have seen enough poor, including many Christians in my church, deserting their faith in God because this God is not just disinterested but even against their material wellbeing. The theology that glamorises poverty and disparages wealth has worn them out. To add, ‘power’ has become such a touchy issue in the Western church that it refuses to recognise the difference between power-mongering and empowerment, fearfully declining to stretch their helping hand to empower, lest it be accused of power-mongering.
- From a Gujarati point of view, the claim that there exists a ‘universal church’ that is inclusive of all castes, cultures and languages, in practice sounds hollow and distant when compared to the Gujarati collective ethic of uplifting other members of one’s community. In Gujarati way of thinking, the feeling of family permeates the giving and taking of money. The elder brother who has lent money to his younger brother, waits patiently, and if needed, gets his hands dirty to make sure that his brother’s business is established and he is able to feed his family. The brother to whom money is lent dare not practise corruption with the money or squander it because his reputation in the family, in the community is at stake. In the collective thinking, monetary transactions are considered a family-affair and naturally trust-based. This is why the members of my community find it incomprehensible when the Western church refuses them monetary help and yet claims to be interested in building relationships. In fact, rather than feeling connected, in the absence of monetary help, they feel abandoned and severed from the body of Christ, because for them relationships cannot be complete without a genuine desire to help them out of their poverty. Sometimes, along with them, I get upset and wonder if the Western church really considers us a family, a part of the global body of Christ, or does it feel so self-sufficient in its material prosperity that it doesn’t matter to it if the rest of the body of Christ withers and dies?
As I end, I would request the church in the West to rethink its strategy from bottom up and invest into making the North Indian church self-sufficient and self-sustaining. This would mean that the Western church may have to challenge the status quo, modify or even renounce the agenda set by it, genuinely listen to the North Indian Christian community and work towards uplifting it. In terms of practice, perhaps it can begin by raising scholarship for young North-Indian Christians to pursue courses such as medicine, IT, engineering and other similar academic programmes. Perhaps a low-interest credit scheme for the North Indian Christians to set up their own small businesses. Such an investment may not yield immediate fruit (and certainly no quick and flashy reports either!), but when all is said and done, a genuine relationship in the body of Christ will have emerged.
 See for example, Mary John, “Dalit Christians’ Accusations against Casteist Hierarchical Church Authorities in India,” November 1999, http://dalitchristians.com/Html/dalitaccusation.htm.
 Nootan Sharma, “Jain, Muslims, Baniyas, Dalits—Communities Helping Their Own Crack UPSC Exams,” March 23, 2023, https://theprint.in/features/jain-muslims-baniyas-dalits-communities-helping-their-own-crack-upsc-exams/1466178/.
 Lakshmi Subramanian, “Banias and the British: The Role of Indigenous Credit in the Process of Imperial Expansion in Western India in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” Modern Asian Studies 21, no. 3 (1987): 473–510.