Reverend Selma Rathinam Speaks at Rehm Library

Joseph Abrams ’23

Editor in Chief

This year, Holy Cross students have the privilege of working alongside, and being taught by, a new team of International Visiting Jesuit Fellows. These Fellows are at Holy Cross for at least this Spring semester and bring with them the thorough experience and knowledge that translates into the classes that they’re teaching. This was certainly the case this past Monday, when Reverend Selma Rathinam, S.J., took the podium at Rehm Library for his lecture “Suffering, Resistance and Freedom: A Postcolonial Subaltern (Dalit) Study of Isaiah 52:13-53:12”. 

Reverend Rathinam, who is teaching an “Introduction to Hebrew Prophets” course this semester, comes to the hill all the way from the Jnana-Deepa Institute of Philosophy and Theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum in Pune, India, where he works as a professor. Reverend Rathinam is also an ordained Jesuit minister in Bangalore, India, and previously served as President of Catholic Faculties of India. Much of this experience translated into his lecture, which found Reverend Rathinam pulling on his experience of Caste conflict in India as inspiration for new Biblical interpretations.

The Dalit experience in India was at the center of Reverend Rathinam’s lecture, so let’s take a deeper dive into the lives of those outside India’s caste system. The caste system is comprised of four different tiers: Brahmins, who are upper class academics and priests, Kshatriyas, who are in positions of power in politics and the military, Vaishyas, who are often farmers and salespeople, and Shudras, the manual laborers. The Caste system itself resembles a pyramid where wealth and power concentrates at the top. However, a fifth population pool exists in the form of the Dalits, who exist outside of the Caste system and are oppressed by it. Reverend Rathinam describes the role of Dalits in Indian society as being “to serve, and not be served by Brahmins, harbors, and tailors”, with the inability to use public conveniences like roads and wells. Dalits are also barred from eating with or marrying those in the caste system, and Reverend Rathinam described how food touched by Dalit people is often discarded as tainted. In India, being a member of the Dalit community is, according to Reverend Rathinam, “hereditary, permanent, and communal,” with little to no room for socioeconomic mobility. 

Despite their social persecution, however, Dalits comprise a significant majority of Christians in India. Dalits in India only make up 20% of the country’s population, yet represent 70% of all Christians in the country. 

Reverend Rathinam then uses postcolonial theory, and the experience of the Dalit people, to drive further insight out of Isiah 52:13-53:12, a Biblical description of the coming messiah as a silent serpent. A colonial perspective can posit that the messiah’s silence is one borne out of absolute obedience, yet the Reverend argues that this silence is itself a resistance. Speaking is only practical in the context of an attentive listener, according to the Reverend, and the absence of such is paramount in contextualizing such silence. Like the silent serpent, the Dalits have a unified silence because there is no space for them to speak, and nobody in the caste system will hear them. Resistance through silence, however, appears in stories like “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Spivak, in which cultural expectations (like silence) are neither fulfilled or rejected, but subverted. 

Thus, in looking forward, a conversationalist, not militaristic, approach can be taken. Reverend Rathinam specifically notes that “reversal of power is not the ultimate goal of the Dalit struggle,” and that if Dalits are given the opportunity to be listened to, and the oppressive forces acknowledge their oppressive behavior, the “building up of the human community” can begin.  

Categories: News

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