Dissertate This! pt. 2

Here’s my second post taking a trip through the dissertation that kept me busy over the past few years.  In my previous post, I talked about the rapid spread of Christianity in the global South and East, even at the same time as there has been a noted downturn in Christian practice here in the Western world.  While asking questions about what “we” in the West can learn from our sisters and brothers in other contexts, I thought it was also important to address one of the essential realities of our time – globalization.  <PAUSE: I just got THE biggest guilty pleasure inserting that link for globalization – the link is to Wikipedia.  Citing Wikipedia as a source in academia is a major no-no, so I had to do it here for kicks>

Thomas Friedman brought the topic of globalization to the masses in his book The World is Flat, talking about how technology and commerce have brought everyone in the world closer together than they ever have been before.  An obvious example of this is the call centers in India that process many of our customer service phone calls in the U.S., but it goes much farther than that.  Friedman does a good job at helping people connect the dollars they spend with the people who produced the products being purchased.

Friedman is a pretty big proponent of globalization and the benefits it brings.  The rise of a middle class in China and India are often cited as the up-side to all of this.   However, there’s another side of the story.  Globalization also brings about some pretty dark things that we don’t often hear about.  The global economy is operated on the strength of a large number of transnational corporations – note that I didn’t say “international” or even “multi-national.”  Transnational corporations are multi-national, but they are frequently able to avoid being overly-identified with any single nation of origin, for the purpose of not complicating trade treaties.  Some are so big and economically powerful that they are “bigger” than many countries in the developing world.  This means that if a small, struggling nation has some natural resources that one of these corporations wants, the company has a major advantage when it comes to negotiations.  The country desperately needs the money and jobs the company will provide, so they give in to extremely low pay, poor worker conditions, environmental devastation, etc., all with very little retribution if the corporation violates any of its terms of agreement.

Tons of books are written on the complexities of globalization, so trust me, there’s no way I’m going to do justice to it here.  But there are some dynamics to living in a globalized world that are positive and some are negative.  Being concerned with Christian movements, my concern is to accept the reality of our situation – globalization isn’t going to go away, and the Church is in a position to utilize the positive aspects of it, and speak and act boldly to blunt the negative impacts wherever we are able.

I’m not sure what I’ll get into next time, but I’ll probably start by framing things up from a church-historical point of view.  One quick note for those who commented on my previous dissertation postings – I am will to make a .pdf of my dissertation available by request, but I have some last minute minor edits to clean up this week before it goes off for printing and binding.  Once I’ve got that final version locked down, I’ll put it out.


Movie Review: Slumdog (Untouchable) Millionaire
March 2, 2009, 8:26 am
Filed under: culture, globalization, India, media, travel

Note: This isn’t really a movie review per-se.  It’s more of a reflection from a guy who doesn’t watch many movies, and is, therefore, unqualified for such a task.

This weekend I followed the masses and went to a theater to watch the recent Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.  I had heard from a wide variety of people how good the movie was.  I had heard a couple of radio interviews with the director as well.  The fact that the film told the story of extreme poverty in India, which I was able to witness first-hand last summer, was all the motivation I needed to see it.

The movie was as good as advertised.  It tells a compelling story of survival, love, and faithfulness.  It does so while giving a glimpse of the complex changes taking place in India – the extreme disparity between the super-wealthy and the slums.  The framing device – a television quiz show – actually hides one of the remarkable truths about the economic rise of India in the past decade.  What I mean by this is that while it is extraordinary that a “slumdog” would become unimaginably wealthy via the game show, it is really quite impressive that this same character would have had the opportunity to get a job fetching chai in a call center.

My main response to the film, though, is that I’m very disappointed that in all of the hoopla, in all of the critical praise, in all of the attention this has brought to the issue of global poverty, there’s a word I’ve literally not heard mentioned until I Googled it this morning: caste.  When I did so, I found an excellent article (written prior to the Academy Awards) that deals squarely with the truth that’s left unmentioned by the film.  The destructiveness of the caste system is in full view, but it is explained away as exploitive organized crime, religious extremism, or the birth pains of a new economy.  The truth is, caste is hugely responsible for India’s poverty – a massive majority of the poor are Dalits, or “Untouchables.”  This is the system that locks people into lives of digging through trash heaps, living in houses made of mud, begging.

I don’t want to be cranky – I’m glad the film has brought attention to the issues being widely discussed.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I definitely encourage you to do so.  It just would have been nice if it told a little bit of the rest of the story.  Go read that article, as well as the lengthy discussion in the comments section – it’ll give you a better glimpse of what’s really going on.

India Journal: Art with a Conscience
August 1, 2008, 7:56 am
Filed under: art, India, social action

One of the unexpected highlights of our trip to India was meeting Stefan Eicher at the art gallery that he opened earlier this year in Delhi.  Hearing his story was wonderful, and hearing his calling was even better.

Stefan sticks out in India the way we did – with his white skin and Western looks.  But he is an Indian citizen.  He grew up in India, and that is his home, despite an American lineage.  He went to college in the U.S., but returned.  He has a deep soul, and a desire to use the gifts of God in a way that changes the world.

Stefan is a part of a group called Artnet, “a community of artists – musicians, vocalists, painters, graphic designers, and many others – who desire to see society transformed through God’s effective use of our artistic skills.” He is a multi-talented artist himself, but when paired with his heart for justice, his work is prophetic in a number of ways.

Stefan also runs Reflection Art Gallery and Studios, which is a space dedicated to showing and creating art that affirms life and dignity.  It’s a place for artists to hold a mirror to society.  The work currently on display there is from an exhibition of Creative Conscience – a group of amateur and professional artists who come together once a year to wrestle with issues in society.  They spend a week in community, reflecting together on one particular issue, and then create art together.*

The current exhibition is called “The Disappeared: A Collection of Paintings on the Unborn Girl.”  India has many more men than women.  This is because millions of women, who should be alive today, are not.  Creative Conscience brought together eighteen artists around the issue of female foeticide as one of the primary causes of gender imbalance.  Like many societies, in India, men are valued more highly than women.  But often the negative attitude toward women doesn’t stop there.  Because of India’s culture surrounding marriage, which involves the payment of dowries and the production of huge, incredibly expensive wedding ceremonies, girl babies are seen as a burden on families.  With the “advances” of medical technology, it has now become common for a pregnant couple to have an ultrasound done on their unborn child for the purpose of gender identification – if the developing baby is a girl, she is at high risk for being terminated.*

0731080701_edited A British medical journal recently gave conservative estimates that 10 million girls were aborted over the past two decades in India.  Sadly, higher education levels do not mean higher sensitivity to this issue – in fact, the incidence of female foeticide is higher in wealthier, more educated families.  The picture to the left is Stefan’s contribution to the collection – two paintings, calling attention to the women who should be with us, but aren’t.  The painting at the top of this post, by an artist named Jojo Thomas, is also a part of the exhibition.

In addition to the collective work of these gatherings of artists, Reflection has studio space for artists in residence to work.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking in there – though the work hanging on the walls certainly carries an intensity with it, the space is clean, beautiful, and relaxing.  It’s quite an oasis from the bustling, smoggy, overcrowded city in which it is placed.

Later in the same day that we met Stefan, we met his beautiful wife, Neeru, who is an attorney.  She comes from a Brahman background (very high caste), is obviously highly educated, and well spoken.  Interestingly, she has noticeably set aside her Brahminical position as a follower of Jesus, and put her passion and intelligence to work, fighting court cases on behalf of the poor and the marginalized.  She is fiery in some ways, and gentle in others.  It was a real delight for us to hear her share with us.  She, like her husband, is using her talents in a prophetic way.

Writing this particular journal entry is very exciting to me, in part because this experience was so meaningful on a personal level, but in part because of the painting below, which is also a part of “The Disappeared” collection.  It is a piece by Indrajit Sundaram, called “The Parable of the Fortress,” and is a fairly large piece, at 36″ x 48″.  It tells the story of broken notions of masculinity, and the need to break through.

Because we wanted to be a part of this important project, and because we enjoy collecting art that moves us, Michelle and I have purchased this painting from Reflection.  Getting this large an object of a fragile nature from Delhi to Seattle will be an adventure, but one we’ll gladly take.  We’ll be able to take delivery later this year.

By the way, if you appreciate fine art, you could very easily pay for your trip to India with the money you’d save over purchasing comparable art anywhere in the Western world.  Don’t buy art because it’s a bargain, but don’t let dollars dictate value, either.  If you would like Stefan’s contact information, drop a comment, and I’ll send it along.

* For the purpose of disclosure, much of the material from this section of the post comes directly from the exhibition booklet, compiled by the Reflection gallery.

India Journal: Eunuchs
July 31, 2008, 7:34 am
Filed under: India


This is our team, with our friend, Deshpande.  He’s a part of the Truthseekers team in Delhi.  He walked the streets and train stations with us, translated for us, insisted on carrying our luggage, took an ailing team member to see a doctor late at night, and many other things for which we’re grateful.

Deshpande’s desire to serve others is constantly evident.  But his love for God and people also expresses itself in a unique, and difficult calling.  He is beginning a ministry in Delhi to reach out to India’s eunuch and prostitute community.  In India, the eunuchs, or hijras as they are referred to, consider themselves a third gender.  Very rarely will someone be born that way . . . all the rest are adopted into the hijra community through an “operation,” which is actually a ritual that I won’t go into here (for the strong-stomached, you can read about the process here – there is also a thorough description of the hijra culture).  For the most part, hijras are male homosexuals, who join this community after being rejected by their families for refusing to marry and have children.

The hijras have a recognized (and feared) role in society.  They show up at weddings and births to pronounce “blessings,” which usually come at a high price.  People usually pay up, partly just to get rid of them, and partly to avoid being cursed by them.  Hijras are often flamboyant and belligerent, and take advantage of society’s discomfort with them.  They are as low as you can get in India.

Deshpande has befriended several of these people, and has worked to express love and grace toward them.  Unfortunately, our planned time to go with Deshpande to visit them had to be cancelled due to illness, so we didn’t meet the hijras personally.  But one day I was able to spend a couple of hours, just listening to Deshpande’s heart and his stories that communicated compassion.  He’s in a difficult place, though, because he needs help.  He can’t do this work alone – not only are there too many people for that, but he needs the encouragement of supportive co-workers.  If you’re the praying type, I’d ask that you pray for Deshpande today.  I’ve encouraged him to continue staying faithful to his work through Truthseekers, and allow God to bring others to work with him in due time.

India Journal – USAmerican politics
July 23, 2008, 6:14 am
Filed under: emerging church, India, politics

O.k., this post is a quickie.  One of the funny, unexpected things about meeting and talking with people in India was their interest in the U.S. presidential election this year.  More often than not, when I would meet someone on the street or in a shop or wherever, they would ask, “Where are you from?”  Resisting the temptation to say, “Canada,” I would tell them I was from the U.S.  Upon hearing this, I would rapidly get peppered with questions like, “Is Obama going to win?”  I’d tell them that the polls were close, and we’d have to wait and see, but I’m pretty sure everyone I talked to said they hoped Obama would win.  It’s very clear to me that if India could vote in our elections, McCain (known in India as “Who’s that?”) could start his retirement planning early.

Obama seems to be as popular in India as he is in the emerging church.

India Journal – Central India
July 22, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: India

About a week and a half into our time in India, we boarded a train for a 13 hour overnight trip to central India.  We were in one of the nicer trains – air conditioned, 0621081637 sleeper cars.  The train cars have multiple sleeper sections, which are shared by eight or nine people – each with it’s own “bed.”  Gettin’ cozy with strangers!  But having seen the second class cars (no AC, and a heckuva lot cozier with a LOT more strangers), we were quite content with our travel accommodations.  The picture to the train station – masses of people crashed out everywhere, waiting to get on board the packed trains.

We got off the train in a city called Indore.  Pretty big town, but nothing compared to Delhi.  We were there to participate in a two-day seminar for Dalits and OBCs (see my previous post on caste if you don’t know what those terms mean).  Our train had arrived late, so we were a bit late arriving at the seminar.  When we got there, Sunil said to me, “O.k., so we’re going to start the afternoon part of the seminar now, and you’re on.”  Awesome!!  Time for a little improv!  I’m sorry, the holy man in meant to write, “Time to let the Spirit lead.”

This part of the trip was good in some ways and uncomfortable in other ways.  Good in the sense that prior to that point, we had mainly been learning, experiencing, soaking things in, but not really doing anything in terms of giving ourselves away to others or blessing them.  It was good to be of some service to people.  It was uncomfortable in a couple ways.  First, I have some really mixed feelings about being brought in front of anyone to speak or whatever, for the sole reason that I’m white or American or whatever – I had to deal with the fact that whether I’m comfortable with it or not, it is a big deal to people there that we know about the issues they face and that we care about them.  We sat at a table in front of a room full of beautiful people (men sitting on one side of the room, and women on the other).  It was also uncomfortable in the sense that a couple of our team members are pretty introverted, and having to speak to a room full of people doesn’t exactly come naturally to them.  We did our best, and hopefully were and encouragement to people who need to experience real freedom from caste and oppression.

On day two of the seminar, other than once again sitting at a table in front of the audience, we didn’t have a big role until the end.  As things were coming to a close, Sunil talked the people through coconut communion, and then offered it to the people.  Once again, it was a powerful experience. 

After this, Sunil invited several men and women – all Dalits or OBCs to come to the front of the room and be seated in chairs. Our team had the honor of washing their feet.  As we poured water over them and rubbed their feet to clean them, we were able to speak blessings into their lives and share our love for them.  For some of them, it was a shocking, difficult experience – they’ve been well trained by Brahmanism to know that washing feet is their job, and certainly nothing to even be fathomed as for them, particularly if performed by someone “above” them.  A couple of them really resisted, and were in disbelief.  Tears flowed.

It was amazing to see the difference in peoples’ demeanor toward us from before the foot washing to afterwards.  Before, they would look at us curiously, but for the most part, not approach us.  Afterwards, we were swarmed with requests for handshakes and pictures.  The warmth and hospitality of these people cannot be overstated.

India Journal – A very brief intro to caste
July 18, 2008, 12:14 pm
Filed under: India, social action

One of the primary things we went to India to learn about was the caste system, and how to overcome it. It’s difficult to convey to Westerners just how pervasive the caste system is there, and how difficult it is to overcome it. The closest comparison for people in North America is racism . . . except that with caste, it’s racism on major steroids, and it’s much more random, given that you don’t know someone’s caste just by looking at them. You have to learn family names, regions, etc. before being able to label someone.

We met lots of folks from a variety of caste backgrounds. As is typically the case, the people who have the power and privilege will usually downplay the extensiveness of the problem, and live their lives as though the problem doesn’t exist. But you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to see things amiss. People say “Oh, no, I don’t believe in caste,” but if you ask them if they would ever consider marrying outside of their caste, or how many low-caste homes they’ve spent time in, or how they feel about the reservation system (which is the Indian equivalent to affirmative action), you’ll get a very different response. I met at least three people who had been completely cut off from their families for having married outside of their caste.

There are castes for everything – street sweepers, farmers, cobblers, rodent hunters, cadaver removers, everything. The picture here is a typical street sweeper.

The so-called “untouchables,” or Dalits, are actually considered outside of the caste system . . . because you have to actually be human in order to be in the caste system. Dalits are considered “talking animals,” and therefore, on the outside. As it turns out, this actually gives them some advantages (if you could call them advantages) over low caste people – because the low caste people are actually locked in. These low castes are known officially in India by the term OBCs. What does OBC stand for? “Other Backward Castes.” That’s right.

The degree to which caste has captured the identity of people is staggering. Dalits and OBCs don’t even conceive that they’re living under oppression. They’ve been well trained to accept their fate (actually, their karma) and hope for a better go ’round in their next lives. Meanwhile the upper caste people (a mere ten to twelve percent of the population in India) go through life happily oblivious, often denying the reality that their comfort costs others dearly.

Lest I come across as judgmental, allow me to out myself. I will freely admit that I would have described American racism in much softer terms prior to Hurricane Katrina than after. Why? Because I’m a white, middle class, male – I don’t have to think about being a power holder if I don’t want to. Katrina woke me up to a different reality than I would have believed before. Again, racism in the West is a far cry from caste, but that’s all I’ve got for now.

Oh, and for the sake of clarity, it’s also important to note that caste is so pervasive that it transcends Hinduism. Sadly, caste is alive and well in Muslim, Sikh, and yes, Christian communities.

I’ll write another time about a very small thing we did that demonstrated how locked into the caste mentality the Dalits and OBCs are.