Can acts of remembering and grieving help heal the wounds inflicted by racism and casteism? Can such acts transform our sense of individual and group identity, such that we are no longer cruel toward or indifferent to the suffering of others? These questions lie at the heart of Sunder John Boopalan’s ambitious book, Memory, Grief, and Agency: A Political Theological Account of Wrongs and Rites (check the link for a discounted copy). In it, Boopalan teaches us to see the ways we, as human persons, can both wound and be wounded by racial and casteist violence, oppression, and discrimination. In response to these kinds of wounds, or “wrongs,” Boopalan offers a vision for our personal and cultural transformation—nothing short of a conversion out of the sinister ways in which race and caste shape our imaginations and very lives. Though he sees his book as a contribution to both political and liberation theology, he also acknowledges its pastoral quality: it is meant for people of diverse faiths and their respective communities as much as it is for scholars across an array of disciplines.
As a Dalit Indian Christian now living in America, Boopalan focuses on how systems of race and caste, particularly in American and Indian contexts, train us to inflict and perpetuate wrongs. Race and caste are not mere concepts or abstractions, but the very justifications for concrete, embodied systems of religious, economic, and political order and domination. These systems embed us, often unwittingly, into daily patterns of individual and group behavior—“rituals”—that function to oppress, dominate, and humiliate those deemed inferior or outside “our” group.
Boopalan describes the wrongs we inflict and endure as “rituals of humiliation,” perhaps the most potent concept of his book. Rituals of humiliation are both “ordinary” and “brutal”: ordinary rituals indeed cause pain or disadvantage, but they are otherwise pedestrian and even anticipated. Discriminatory banking or policing, racial or casteist slurs, stereotyping, non-verbal cues meant to shame or judge, and even the failure to notice a member of different racial or caste groups are all instances of ordinary rituals of humiliation. Brutal wrongs are starker and may be less common, but their purpose—keeping certain people in their place—is entirely plain. Boopalan draws on harrowing examples of mob violence and mass murder committed by dominant-caste Indians (who often refer to themselves as “higher”) against Dalits (previously called “untouchables” due to caste-based discrimination), who are among India’s most oppressed people. In the American context, Emmett Till’s torture and murder is but one example of a racialized brutal wrong, committed against a child wrongly accused yet perceived to have been “stepping out of place.” Whether ordinary or brutal, rituals of humiliation are acts that, by their nature, keep those deemed lower or lesser confined, sometimes lethally, to their ordained cultural spheres—whether that is the intention of the actor(s) or not.
Moreover, those in dominant stations of race or caste are often inured or indifferent to how these systems have shaped their identities and behavior toward those in non-dominant stations. In their unwillingness to examine themselves, their behavior, or their social location, dominant individuals and groups become incapable of remembering wrongs, and thereby of grieving over them. Drawing on the work of Kelly Brown Douglas, Boopalan identifies the failure to remember wrongs as a failure of an individual’s or a group’s “moral memory.” That is, the failure to tell the truth about past injustices and one’s relationship to them renders him unable to take responsibility for himself (or his “group”) in the present. As a result, the incapacity for truth-telling, remembering, and grieving precludes the very possibility of real hospitality, let alone redress of wrongs.
For Boopalan, the language of “ritual” stands in sharp contrast to that of “rite.” Rituals are not “bad,” per se. Human beings just are homo ritualis: creatures shaped by routine, pattern, and habit. Rather, applying the grammar of “ritual” to racist and casteist identities and violence helps us better to see their socially conditioned, often-unexamined qualities and logic. That is, rituals teach us who and how to be largely by osmosis, without our full awareness that we’re learning these rituals at all. For example, James Baldwin often makes the point that whiteness or “being white” is a moral choice. In the context of Boopalan’s argument, we might understand Baldwin’s point inversely: something like “being white” may well be a moral choice made for us—perhaps by a parent raising “white” children. Hence Boopalan’s crucial observation: performing a ritual of humiliation does not depend on one’s intention to participate in violence, or to be complicit in injustice. Indeed, some do engage in racial or casteist violence because they intend and desire too. But for many in dominant social and racial stations, they simply fail to see the rituals, brutal or ordinary, in which they already participate.
Therefore Boopalan asks: How can we counter both ignorance and indifference to racist and casteist rituals of humiliation? What can prompt us to interrogate the violent identities, at individual and group levels, that race or caste confer upon us? What will interrupt the socially conditioned rituals of wrongs we appear to be trapped in?
In short, memory and grief. Remembering wrongs as we ought, for Boopalan, enables us to grieve those wrongs, thereby breaking open the possibility for violent racial and casteist identities to be interrogated and then transformed. The ecclesia stands as a body, gathered across racial and caste differences, wherein its members remember a particular wrong—namely, the state-sanctioned murder of Jesus—which enables the ecclesia to identify and sustain memories of and grief for other wrongs. Grief over remembered wrongs then does two kinds of agential work: internal and external. Internally, grief expands our frame of moral recognition, teaching us to see and hear the cries of pain of others outside our racial or caste groups. For those in dominant groups, internal grief over wrongs helps destroy the violence in their identities and allows them to hear the cries of the dominated. Externally, grief yields what Boopalan calls “rites of moral responsibility.” As antidotes to rituals of humiliation, rites of moral responsibility are potential means of redress for the systemic wrongs that race and caste produce. Rites are how one enacts positive ethical agency in the face of oppression. When we create and practice rites of moral responsibility, we attempt to bring about more just and hospitable conditions in the world.
The breadth of potential applications of Boopalan’s work is enormous. His account of remembering and grieving wrongs is, at root, a hermeneutical and pragmatic tool of discernment for how to go on in the face of violence, discrimination, and oppression. His aim is to lift up the voices of those on the margins or the underside of political and economic orders, empowering them—“holding the microphone” for them, as he puts it—to speak truth and strive for justice against adverse headwinds.
I am grateful to John Boopalan for the opportunity to engage with and learn from his complex, fascinating account of memory and grief’s essential roles in the process of moral transformation. I’m equally grateful for the rich reflections this symposium’s commentators have written. Our commentators provide generous readings of, and lively feedback for, Memory, Grief, and Agency.
Collin Cornell’s response engages the biblical significance of Boopalan’s emphasis on embodiment, while also pressing on the ambiguities of how rites of moral responsibility are enacted bodily. If God does indeed hear the cries of those who are wronged, desiring with them the redress of those wrongs, then what might God’s participation in human suffering and humiliation, or remembering and grieving, look like? Cornell points to possible answers through more direct biblical exegesis and Christological frames of reference.
Francisco Peláez-Diaz interrogates Boopalan’s call for the “moral conversion” of those who come from stations of racial or casteist privilege and dominance, asking whether or not such individual conversions are sufficient to generate real transformation of racist or casteist social systems. Exposure to another’s grief may not always be enough to initiate the grief and repentance necessary on the part of privileged groups to initiate such social transformation. Instead, acts of resistance and protest from oppressed groups may help to force the attention of those who otherwise can choose to ignore the injustice or violence in which they are complicit.
In a spirit of “fierce loving,” Joshua Samuel offers multiple constructive challenges to Memory, Grief, and Agency. He questions Boopalan’s framing of the relationship between oppressed and oppressor by exploring how oppressed groups also perpetuate modes of racist or casteist domination within themselves. Drawing on a tension between “Gandhian-style reformation” and “Ambedkar-style revolution,” Samuel asks just how much time and opportunity should be given for the conversion of oppressors prior to their adopting (being forced to adopt?) rites of moral responsibility.
Finally, Mel Webb’s response makes a vital connection between rituals of humiliation, criminality and hyper-criminality, and social incapacitation of marginalized groups. She considers how these rituals can manifest as forms of punishment, and how punishment—as a consequence for breaking a law, for instance—“calcifies” one’s sense of identity, purpose, and agential freedom. Going further, Webb considers the situations in which the process of grieving itself, which Boopalan and Webb both affirm can transform violent identities, may nonetheless actually serve to buttress them. Her observations yield opportunities for Boopalan to consider how grief might transform us in ways we did not intend.