'Painting Against Caste Violence Is My Resistance' | Sojourners

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'Painting Against Caste Violence Is My Resistance'

A Q&A with Sri Lankan Artist and Priest Rev. Jebasingh Samuvel

by Daniel Sunkari 

After last month’s Easter terrorist bombings, the world’s eyes focused on Sri Lanka’s faith communities. The often overlooked island nation south of India crashed into the global screen, along with its complicated history of colonialism, faith tensions, and caste violence.

Even as Sri Lanka’s Christians mourn, forgive, and move forward, several issues are left unresolved in their communities. The 3,500-year-old system of caste apartheid is one issue — alive and well in its oppression of Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables.”) Although India is often the centerpiece of conversations around caste violence, Sri Lanka’s ethnic and political history provides a unique hatchery for caste to manifest.

Historically, Christian communities have found themselves on either side of the caste system — some working to abolish it, others absorbing it into their own practices. Rev. Jebasingh Samuvel is a priest at the Jaffna Diocese Church of South India in Delft Island, Sri Lanka, and advocates tirelessly against caste violence — particularly through his paintings. I spoke with Rev. Samuvel over the phone about caste violence in Sri Lanka, theological contextualization, and his art.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity. All paintings are owned by and copyrighted to Rev. Jebasingh Samuvel. 

Daniel Sunkari, Sojourners: Can you tell me a little bit about your story — where you grew up, how you became a priest?

Rev. Jebasingh Samuvel: I started theology in 2011, but even in our church traditions, we neglected the caste system. Even inside the church, people are divided by the caste system. The caste violence inside the church is what made me want to become a priest. I went to Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Arasaradi. This was the right place to study theology because they have been teaching liberation theology in the local context, which is Dalit Liberation Theology. When I studied, I met Dalit feminist scholars in seminary, read lots of Dalit books, and studied Dalit arts. The first painting I made was in 2011. I started painting from the perspective of Dalits, so my professors encouraged me.

Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary sends us to local slums and villages [in India.] As a city fellow, my Dalit experience is totally different than the village Dalit experience. In local villages, Dalit people are facing discrimination and oppression. Because of my theological education, I went and worked with a Jesuit priest in my city — they have been advocating for manual scavengers for the last 16 years — so transformation of my Dalit experience became more valuable. Even among the Dalit community, Dalits among Dalits are manual scavengers in India. Most manual scavengers are women. In the Dalit community, women are most vulnerable. That’s the focus of my theological paintings.

Sunkari: It sounds like you learned a lot from visiting the villages. How does caste manifest differently in Sri Lanka than India? What similarities do you see?

Samuvel: Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils speak the same language, but Sri Lankan Tamils are tortured by fundamentalist Sinhalese groups. I came to Sri Lanka to work as a priest. My commitment is wherever I work, wherever I go, I should work for the vulnerable community. When I came here, I realized that the caste system is very much influenced in Sri Lanka compared to India. The difference between India and Sri Lanka’s caste system is in India, violence will take place — whenever Dalit and non-Dalit people meet, non-Dalit people can beat them [and] destroy their houses. But in Sri Lanka, the postwar context is totally different — before the war, when the Liberation Tigers were in the administration, they didn’t allow these kinds of caste practices in society. But in postwar context, there is no more Liberation Tigers movement, so people are more caste-minded here. Dalits are still oppressed in Sri Lanka, but instead of oppressing directly, they [non-Dalits] occupy the Dalit’s places. For example, in government jobs, non-Dalits will take jobs from Dalits’ quota. Dalits won’t get a good salary or respect in society. Even in marriage and social festivals, Dalits are not allowed to get inside the celebration areas. So compared to India, it is worse here.

Sunkari: From your perspective as a Christian priest, what have the responses in Sri Lanka been to the recent attacks? How is the Christian community doing?

Samuvel: I’m really proud about the Christians living in Sri Lanka, because they practiced nonviolence, even in the most vulnerable time. It is tough. The last 30 years, they have been seeing blood because of communal violence, but after the bomb blast incident, Christians are very clear that we should not take violence as the tool to hate others. After the bomb blast, we as Christians decided to help others and love the Muslims.

Sunkari: Do you find that this kind of religious persecution and caste-based violence are tied in any way?

Samuvel: I don’t think so, but whatever happens, Dalits are discriminated and are most vulnerable. For example, when religious violence takes place, all the Christians or all the one-community people come together against religious fundamentalist groups. But in the front, Dalits are used — non-Dalits force them to go and stop [perpetrators] immediately. They are front soldiers. After the religious violence calms down, they will come back to society and have to live a normal life. When they live a normal life, Dalits are again oppressed by the same non-Dalit reformers. This is what happened in history as well — Brahmins and high-caste people lived inside the temple and king’s palace, so only soldiers went to fight against other kings. This is a problem. In Sri Lanka, compared to India, the people’s [economic] status is 20 years back. So the Dalit community is always depending on non-Dalits because they have land and properties. Dalit people have to go and work for them as day laborers. So they cannot easily resist them.

Sunkari: How important do you think it is that clergy and even non-clergy faith leaders and faith communities get involved in the fight against caste?

Samuvel: When we study theology, we see Christ as a Dalit man. You know, the problem with non-Dalit Christians who are influenced by the Hindu caste system is they don’t realize caste system is not practiced in Christianity. It should not be practiced in Christianity, because Paul says in Galatians 3:28 there is no Jew nor Greek. And when we study theology, we see Christ as Dalit because in Matthew 1, you can find five women’s names in his genealogy. In that historical evidence, two women are not born and brought up in Jewish community, so the purity and pollution concept is clearly mentioned in Matthew 1. So the non-Dalit Christian doesn’t know that Jesus is born and brought up as a mixed-community man. So we as priests and faith community leaders, as Christians, we should not practice caste system in Christianity because it is not our practice. It is against humanity. Jesus said we should advocate for the vulnerable community in Luke 4:19, in the Nazareth Manifesto. That is my understanding.

As a faith leader, I have to work for the Dalit people. And I have to reconcile Dalits and non-Dalits — that is the main focus. Most of Dalit Liberation Theology focuses on how Dalits are experiencing discrimination, but nowadays, in postcolonial perspectives, we have to mention reconciliation — otherwise we cannot make good relationship between Dalits and non-Dalits. We should indicate or identify Dalit issues, and at the same time, we have to tell [non-Dalits] this is not the way of behaving with people [within] Christianity. Jesus doesn’t say anything about practicing caste system. He goes and heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter, heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, [and] he gives life to the Samaritan woman. Even after resurrection, Jesus met other-community people, non-Jewish people — we have to teach these things for the non-Dalit people. They don’t know about it.

Sunkari: How did you start using art as a medium to create conversation around caste-based violence?

Samuvel: If you go to public schools or public toilets here, you can see some arts in the toilets. The Dalits cannot speak in public areas, so they resist in the toilets. Why? Most Dalits are cleaning the toilets. So this is their form of art. Most people think it’s a nasty thing, but it is a kind of resistance, you know? The Dalit man cannot speak against his oppressor, so they take the toilet as a form of art to resist the upper-caste people. So all other people will come to the toilet and they will see, and they have to read that. That is a kind of resistance. Most of the Dalit people are very creative in arts, singing, music, and making films, so my way of art is painting. I do some short films and documentary films regarding manual scavenging issues. Why I’m selecting painting to resist against caste violence, is, I don’t know how to express my feelings otherwise. It is a kind of anger. Painting against caste violence is my resistance.

Sunkari: That’s incredible. And how has the response been to your art?

Samuvel: Most people don’t understand my feelings, but only Dalit people can understand. The problem is, others cannot understand the Dalit-ness of Jesus. They don’t see Jesus as a Dalit. They only see him as a personal redeemer, not a social liberator, so when I draw Jesus as a Dalit drummer, one non-Dalit woman opposed me and said, “You should not draw like this.”

Sunkari: It seems like it’s quite important to you to have a proper image of Jesus, and to see Jesus as a Dalit man.

Samuvel: Yeah, that is not just my understanding — Jesus came to liberate people. That’s what Jesus has done in his ministry. When we read Jesus’ parables and quotes in Luke’s gospel, as well as in Matthew, you can find out that Jesus is a social reformer. So that is in the Palestinian context. When we see Jesus as our God, we should contextualize him in our own context, so then we can see Jesus as our God, or else he’ll be a normal human being — like Martin Luther, Martin Luther King — but he is different from other liberators.

Sunkari: You’ve been talking about theological contextualization a lot. How do you see the Christian witness in Sri Lanka and India doing this? What would you like to see happen?

Samuvel: Priests and faith leaders are seeking theology in theological seminary, but they don’t teach real theological values in the church. Whenever a layman hears the word ‘theology,’ they think theology and theologians are speaking against God. Whenever we speak about social liberation, they don’t realize that in the history of Christianity in India, all Christians are liberated socially by missionaries from England and America. After becoming a Christian, they see Jesus only as a personal liberator, not a social liberator. We have the responsibility to teach them that Jesus is a personal liberator as well a social one. That is what Jesus did in his ministry. We have to mention these kinds of theological insights to people. Most of the priests are not interested in these things because of their survival politics. Most of the leaders inside local churches are very economical people. When we speak about justice, social justice and truth, they cannot benefit financially.

Sunkari: As a Dalit creative, how important do you see art as a means for theological formation and social liberation?

Samuvel: Art is a very good medium to understand theology. Because when we preach, people have to spend 11 to 30 minutes to hear our theology. But art is different. Immediately, it will speak to the people, identify the Dalit issue, and resist. When art is from a Dalit perspective, the art itself will be Dalit. It will speak to people when they hurt other people. Anyone cannot destroy art. Physically they can destroy it, but art has a value. I can say that non-Dalit oppressors cannot destroy my paintings and creative ideologies. They can only destroy my body, they can only beat me, steal my property, insult me — but they cannot touch my creativity. That is a kind of resistance.

Daniel Sunkari is a writer living in Long Beach, California. He enjoys writing about faith, caste and diasporic South Asian identity. You can find more at medium.com/@dansunkari

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