Symposium Introduction

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.

Collin Cornell


Liberation, Bodily

Some years ago now, I took a seat in a conference room on the upper story of a hotel in downtown Baltimore. I was attending a regional conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, but I had jumped disciplinary ship to listen to a presentation by my friend, Sunder John Boopalan, which he would give under the auspices of the American Academy of Religion. Fellow-feeling and the desire to support John brought me over. But I came away vividly impressed: John’s paper cut through the abstraction and technicality clouding the conference. John was talking about bodies—real, suffering, human bodies—caught up in patterns of violence inherited from the past; and yet also, through their very corporeality, liable to grief, and so open to liberative action. I recognized with excitement the urgency and the promise of what John was doing.

I was already determined to read the monograph that would result from John’s research. I could not have imagined that I would receive his invitation to participate in a symposium on it! It was with enthusiasm and apprehension that I consented to do so. Enthusiasm because my confidence in his project has only increased as I have read it in published form; apprehension because I am so ill-equipped professionally and positionally to evaluate its merits or to suggest critiques. Professionally, I teach Old Testament—a literary collection with plenty of bodies and violence and grieving and redress, but whose secondary literature hardly overlaps with the scholarship that John engages. Positionally, I am the definition of a dominant subject: a white male body socialized for “the conquering, cutting, and dismissal of racially marked bodies” (78). John does direct some—perhaps even much—of his book towards a readership of privileged subjects. And yet insofar as John’s book recommends and also enacts a “critical interrogation” of “violent identities,” the task of assessing it, and even more of criticizing it, from a subjectivity habituated to violence is a fraught undertaking. As a prophylactic against my own built-in tendencies towards abstraction and avoidance—towards “framing out” wrongs perpetrated against abject bodies—let me first rehearse what I thought John’s book was most basically about. John can then indicate what I have I have misunderstood or left out. I have reserved a few critical questions for the end of this review essay.

Memory, Grief, and Agency is, as noted, about bodies. No claim is more fundamental to John’s argument: all humans are bodies, and, as such, all humans are prone to suffering and harm. By turning so programmatically to corporeality, John signals a contrast: humans-as-bodies stands over against other visions of humankind for which abstract properties or mental practices are more central and bodies are of lesser or incidental importance. The bodied-ness of human life also furnishes John’s liberative proposals, on which, more momentarily: for now suffice it to say that the shared human predicament of bodily vulnerability presents a commonality across societal stratifications.

If, however, humans-qua-bodies move through the world with a baseline experience of shared vulnerability, societies distribute additional vulnerabilities in vastly differing measure. Some bodies are endowed with power such that they face only the ordinary vicissitudes of sickness, aging, and finitude. Other bodies are disempowered: slated for servitude, they are exposed to increased and intensified forms of proneness. John’s account takes departure from the distinct and yet parallel experiences of two non-dominant communities: the Dalits in India—to which John himself belongs—and people raced as Black in US contexts. Both communities are “historically marginalized,” meaning that in the not-so-distant-past, the societies in which they live provided legal, cultural, and religious sanction for their subjugation, exploitation, and exclusion by the dominant populations.

But John’s interest is not primarily in this history of not-so-distant, past, official marginalization. He aims rather to elucidate the present experiences of Dalits and African Americans. Both communities share the situation of having achieved relief “on the books” from caste- or race-based discrimination. Official discourse—which is to say, dominant discourse—has renounced the depredations of the past; public sanction for subjugation and exclusion is revoked. Indeed, the socially dominant in both contexts pride themselves on being “post-caste” and “post-racial,” respectively. Whatever caste-based or racist events of violence crop up are, in their eyes, vestigial only—a “remnant” (60).

But all this official progress belies the reality that casteist and racist “logics” still saturate these societies. The corporeality of John’s argument comes into focus just here. The positive changes that have affected Indian and US societies have left intact a basic feature of collective human life: the “socially conditioned corporeal habits” that govern people’s behavior. Humans are bodies, and bodies are habituated to move in certain regularized ways vis-à-vis other bodies. In other words, just because US courts desegregated public places did not impact the mass of bodily habits that had grown up in and around the former, overtly racist legal regime. Dominant bodies were accustomed to reacting in fearful and hostile ways to racialized bodies—and all those reflexes, embedded into the “muscle memory” of dominant subjects—persist. John writes of “the clutching of the purse by someone standing near you in an elevator; being followed by a clerk in a store; rude customer service; the quickening pace by the person in front of you who fears your racially marked body; being pulled over by a police officer” (82). All of these actions showcase the continued operation of corporeal habits inherited from the era of legalized high-caste and white supremacy.

In fact, the repeal of official discrimination has created more opportunities for non-dominant bodies to “move out of place”: to enter spaces formerly reserved for dominant bodies. Because corporeal habits from the past endure, these dominant bodies react fearfully and hostilely. As John observes, their reactions are patterned. To get at the fixity of such patterns, John fortifies his treatment of “habits” with two further concepts. On the one hand, he calls these reactions “rituals” in view of their bodied and routinized character. On the other hand, he speaks of a “grammar of the body,” a concept that accents the communicative dimension of these acts, as well as their “ruled” quality (82). Considered as rituals, the aggressive conduct of dominant bodies towards non-dominant ones effects a powerful humiliation. Such acts punish marginalized subjects for transgressing into dominant space. As events of “speaking,” these acts issue a strong warning: get out of here! This is ours!

John’s description of socially conditioned corporeal habits has another virtue: in keeping with his overall emphasis on concreteness and his corresponding criticism of abstraction, John’s account of violence relativizes the question of intention. For both “common sense” reckoning and for high-level legal deliberation, “malicious intent” is the sine qua non of wrongdoing. Not so in John’s argument: bodies perform rituals—including “rituals of humiliation”—in the absence of ill will or intent to harm. Dominant bodies lash out against the perceived intrusion of non-dominant bodies because that is what they have been trained to do, quite apart from the goodwill or cruelty inside the minds of the perpetrators. John here gives conceptual heft to a well-known and ubiquitous phenomenon: the well-intentioned white racist (or, mutatis mutandis, the high-caste bigot).

The thoroughgoing corporeality of John’s account also means that he sets himself a formidable challenge: of articulating a project of liberation in a “bodily register.” In other words, if John’s diagnosis subsists at the level of bodies, so, too, must his constructive recommendations. This task is even more clearly the case given the critique that John levels against some other theologians: namely, that they engage in strategic abstraction. They look away from bodies, especially abject bodies engrained with memory of wrongs, and instead they look to God, the eschaton, the post-political, etc. John’s criticism of two well-known theologians from the dominator class (Miroslav Volf and Oliver O’Donovan) on just such grounds is pointed and, to me, convincing. But it also raises the stakes for John’s own liberative proposals. Does Memory, Grief, and Agency live up to its own insistence on embodiment?

I think so—although I suspect that if there is any place in John’s argument that needs clarification or expansion in future work, it is the book’s “normative element,” or better, its “evocative proposition” (149). To a certain extent, this is only to be expected! After all, what is seen in Indian and US societies is, in the nature of the case, observable and therefore patient of description, whereas the changes that John hopes for are as-yet unseen (“hope that is seen is not hope”). They are consequently murkier.

The driving concept of John’s “evocative proposition” is discernible enough: grief. By this term John means something far larger than “mourning” and “self-enclosed melancholia” (153). Rather, he intends “a multi-dimensional process”: an active regimen of remembering wrongs enacted against oppressed bodies. Such a practice is multidimensional because it implicates the entirety of the remembering person or persons. It begins with their fundamental “recognition” of the “sameness” of other humans’ suffering bodiliness (105), and it encompasses all the human faculties that “light up” when this recognition takes place: “emotional, psychological, cognitive, and other affective elements” (153). John does not use the following analogy, but his explanations made me think of “mirroring”: one body can experience a “reflection” or an “echo” of the sufferings and harm done to another body, and this mirroring can then propel reparative efforts.

John’s “positive theological anthropology” (150) seems to suggest that this “recognition of sameness” is primordial. Other factors can (and usually do) obstruct it from happening. As John says, some bodies are “framed out” from “count[ing] as persons whose loss is to be grieved” (150); members of an in-group do not even notice the “injurability” of people from an out-group (100). But recognition nonetheless bubbles up, threatening to disrupt well-trod routines of violence. Two examples of this possibility stood out to me: first, John’s anecdote about a white woman and her teenage son in an ice cream shop. The white mom cuts in front of John and someone else with him, another raced body. The son “looked at [John’s] visibly upset face and whispered to his mother, ‘Mom, I think we cut in line’” (77). Much more poignantly, John tells about how Emmett Till was staying at his uncle’s house when drunk white men showed up at 2 a.m. to abduct him. Till’s aunt went to the next-door neighbors’ house to plead for help. These neighbors were white. John writes: “The wife wanted to give [help], but the husband would not consent” (169, quoting Timothy B. Tyson).

In both these instances, dominant bodies “chimed” with the sufferings of oppressed bodies. The white teen’s body echoed some of the injury shown on John’s face —the injury that he and his mother had wrought. The white neighbor-woman’s body absorbed some of the urgency and vulnerability of Emmett Till’s aunt begging for assistance. A “window of opportunity” thereby arose—what John calls a “call-and-response situation”—when the violence scripted for dominating bodies nearly broke off (168). The white teenager almost acted against his mother’s exclusionary protocol. The white woman neighbor “wanted to give [help].” John’s treatment of grief—as I understand it—adds only discipline to this natural and yet usually-interrupted bodily reaction. John “build[s] on what and who human persons do and are already” (149).

How does John do this? And what is the discipline that he adds to the corporeal “mirroring” that occurs innately and spontaneously between humans? These matters remain somewhat murky to me, in part because John’s vocabulary evoking this discipline appears to move into more cognitive and intentional domains. John speaks throughout the book, for example, of “critical interrogation”: interrogation of conditioned reflexes (67), of the conditions that make and unmake subjects (10), of human agency (208). In the absence of such interrogation, rituals of humiliation endure. John similarly fronts the action of “examination,” and the weighty effects of omitting it: “When left unexamined, identities . . . become violent identities” (75, my italics). John also identifies the “internal work” of grieving, a practice that consists in active remembrance of “the dead, exploited, despised victims of history” (179, quoting M. Shawn Copeland). The trouble—if it is that—with these recommendations is that they are not yet things that bodies do. As such, it seems that they might fall prey to the same impotence as the legal changes made in Indian and US societies: well and good in themselves, but hardly disruptive to the deeply-rooted, ritualized body-ways of these oppressive societies.

John does make other recommendations that are bodily: he urges an “external work of grief” whose ritualistic character matches rituals of humiliation “on their own turf” (209). This external work issues in public remembrance of wrongs and inculcation of grief over them; what gives it a ritual quality is its integration into regular Christian observances like baptism, Eucharist, and marriage. John also commends “the physical coming together of people across in-group/out-group differences in collective communal gatherings” (219). This kind of “moving out of place” creates new possibilities for differently-stratified bodies to syncopate with one another and so to interrupt inherited, violent corporeal habits. But John appears to see these outward and corporeal rites growing out of the internal discipline. In one intriguing footnote, he reverses the sequence: “Sometimes it is the external work (various rites) that makes possible internal work” (171n77). But this sounds like the exception. I came away from the book still wondering exactly what a “rite of moral responsibility” would look like—and how its outward and bodily aspects relate to its rather more deliberative and interior features. Also, and once again: if the latter, “internal” acts of “interrogating,” “examining,” and “remembering” really are as primary as they seem within John’s project, I question whether they have strength enough to make a dent in the accumulated momentum of violent bodily routines.

I also had concerns about the concreteness of John’s proposal in quite another direction. If at times Memory, Grief, and Agency visits the incorporeal terrain of discipline and deliberation, at other times it veers theological. It was with surprise and interest that I read, for instance, John’s brief exegesis of Exod 3, according to which the grief expressed by the oppressed Israelites moves Moses to disinvest in his privilege and to seek redress. Their grief also moves God (173). Earlier in the book, John observes that “the last and the least . . . subscrib[e] to a notion of God who sees and hears wrongs and is moved by cries for redress” (17). But these were rare theological moments: it mostly seems as though for John, giving attention to God (and/or Scripture) competes with giving attention to the dead and despised. God is abstract while humans are bodied and concrete. An occasional christological aside would join the two, but these remarks, too, were exceptional and ad hoc (95n54; 177). I wondered why there wasn’t more scriptural interpretation, or reflection on God proper, in this book, especially because I suspect that John is interested in both. I can recall seminary conversations with him about Ps 56:8, in which the psalmist confesses to God:

You keep track of all my sorrows.

You have collected all my tears in your bottle.

You have recorded each one in your book (NLT)

Or: I remember John’s interest in the story of Rizpah in 2 Sam 21, whose public grief galvanizes King David to properly bury the remains of Saul and Jonathon. Was it, then, a tactical consideration that led John to cut back on these sorts of reflection—an attempt to keep things corporeal? If so, then why did he allow these exceptions? And is this avoidance of exegesis or theology really necessary in the first place, especially given that some sources that John privileges emphasize God and/or Scripture? I am thinking here of John’s footnoting of the Dalit theologian K. Jesurathnam’s article on lament psalms, which specifies how “the oppressed honor divine agency” (152n5); or even of John’s grandmother and her love for Ps 121 (10). I also thought of Kazoh Kitamori and his theology of divine pain, based largely on readings in the book of Jeremiah. Might not sustained contemplation of God or Scripture augment remembrance of wrongs rather than distracting from them?

  • Sunder John Boopalan

    Sunder John Boopalan


    Response to Collin Cornell

    Insightful responses that take the conversation further depend on close readings of the text. Collin has “jumped disciplinary ship”—from Hebrew Bible to constructive theological ethics—to read the subject matter so clearly that when he shows a mirror to my work, I see both affirmation and constructive criticism.

    Two affirmations of the work allow for vital deliberation. First, both India and the United States are societies that have provided legal, cultural, and religious sanction for racism and casteism in the “not-so-distant-past.” This summary of one of the main arguments of the book is perceptive. The wrongs my book describes are wrongs that have enjoyed legal sanction well into the twentieth century. Being born in 1982, I have a sobering sensation when I remember, for instance, that my own Millennial generation’s parents and grandparents were direct witnesses of much of the brutal wrongs described in the book. Were they perpetrators? Were they silent, but nevertheless complicit? Did they resist? Did they suffer? The “what?” and “why?” questions begin to explode as do the “so, what now?” questions.

    Equally sobering is the realization that today, both the United States and India, as Collin phrases the findings of the book, “share the situation of having achieved relief ‘on the books’ from caste- or race-based discrimination.” This “on-the-books” relief stands in stark contrast to the reality on the ground.

    A somewhat related second affirmation of the work offers further food for thought. This is the pointing out of the commonly encountered “well-intentioned racist” (or casteist). As Collin reads the work, “dominant bodies lash out against the perceived intrusion of non-dominant bodies because that is what they have been trained to do, quite apart from the goodwill or cruelty inside the minds of the perpetrators.” In legal proceedings today, establishing “malicious intent” is so fundamental for redress and yet, proving such intent is as difficult as a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle. While neither the book nor the author are legal experts, one does wonder, would it not help if due process took into consideration what the book calls socially conditioned corporeal (bodily) habits?

    And, now to Collin’s constructive criticism. Collin poses good and necessary questions. Does my project privilege what Collin calls “more deliberative and interior features”? Are the book’s recommendations to “interrogate,” “remember,” and “examine” sufficiently strong “to make a dent in the accumulated momentum of violent bodily routines”? When I look in the mirror that Collin holds to my work, I find myself thinking deeply, yet again. For sure, I do make bodily recommendations, but Collin is perceptive to pick up on the connection I make between grief’s internal and external works. Grief’s internal work involves interior dimensions and grief’s external work involves exterior (and more bodily pronounced) dimensions. Collin notes how there is an implicit privileging of grief’s internal work and that only a rare moment (171n77) acknowledges external work as leading to internal work. Collin reads this as my privileging of interiority.

    Collin’s questions take me to another feature of his constructive criticism. What am I implying in these footnotes? Why are the claims therein not as explicit? Relatedly, if the Bible contains “plenty of bodies and violence and grieving and redress,” why are my entries into its world for purposes of biblical exegesis only “brief”? If Psalm 56:8 (which I vividly remember from previous conversations with Collin) lifts up a God who tracks sorrows and collects tears and records human pain, then would not engaging such material enhance remembrance of wrongs and engage bodily interventions in seeking redress?

    I intended for the book to appeal to both religious and areligious readers. Collin’s questions make me think if areligious readers might, in fact, benefit from and even appreciate the bodily dimensions of scripture. Perhaps I could explore this area further.

    “Giving attention to God (and/or Scripture)” certainly does not compete with “giving attention to the dead and despised.” My doctoral work, as I say in the book, actually began with the intention to develop a theology of hospitality that draws from biblical material. I “jumped ship” (to borrow Collin’s imagery) for a bit during my coursework and took a graded seminar in Hebrew Bible which examined the emergence of Israel. I was excited about the possibilities that arose from engaging the wide range of the biblical material. However, I came to the conclusion that I needed to establish preconditions (which is how I view my first book) for hospitality before developing a theology of hospitality. In this pursuit, I have been guarded in drawing from biblical material lest I hastily make intrusions into a theology of hospitality. My brief excursus into the world of the Bible can certainly be expanded by engaging its rich content.

    A substantial engagement with the world of scripture is congruent with Dalit theological imagination that draws heavily from the Bible. As readers might already know, many Dalit communities in India embraced the Bible. There is reason for this. Previously, based on exclusionary dominant Hindu logics, Dalits were prevented from accessing Hindu scripture. Since access to Hindu scripture was a primary means to formal education, denial of such access necessarily meant denial of education, empowerment, and sharing in power. Moreover, if Dalits sought such access on their own, they were threatened with cruel physical punishment. When the missionaries brought the word and the world of the Bible, Dalits encountered that word and world heartily, and importantly, beyond the ways missionaries intended and read in and into it a basis and justification of their quest for liberation from oppression.

    Moreover, as Collin rightly notes, the world of the Bible is filled with descriptions of imposed bodily vulnerability, redress of wrongs, and normative claims that can assist the task of liberation today. I imagine I will be spending some time thinking further about my grandmother’s love for Psalm 121 and exegeting that world and her love of it.

    • Collin Cornell

      Collin Cornell


      Who shall rescue me from this body of death?

      I am thankful to John for his gracious and thoughtful comments in response to my review essay. Instead of replying in detail, however, I thought what I might do here is simply voice a few of the questions that have lingered with me since reading John’s post last week. I pose them very much in a spirit of not-knowing and curiosity; they are ongoing questions not just for John or the other symposium contributors but also for myself. Also, I raise them with gratitude: as will be seen, the concepts they mobilize and the forms they take could only have grown out of the fine theological work that John’s book puts on offer.

      First: who shall deliver me from this body of death?

      This is, of course, a quotation from the apostle Paul (Rom 7:24 NKJV). It bubbles up for me in connection with this symposium no doubt because of its bodily reference. Without detouring too far into exegesis, this and the following chapter from Romans appear to reflect a rather complex, agonistic, even tumultuous, view of the human body—and one that bears some comparison to John’s own in Memory, Grief, and Agency. There is a law or principle of sin embedded into these bodies of death: a force at work in them that surges towards destruction. Paul’s account of this principle seems supernatural, maybe downright demonological, whereas John accents more mundane but no less powerful processes of habituation and social formation. Paul’s thinking about the body probably includes a strong corporate dimension, but it is not obvious that for him the “law of sin” is contracted from other bodies. John argues for just such an inheritance, bodies appointed for domination absorbing the corporeal routines of their dominator parents, guardians, or other authorities. All those differences notwithstanding, the same soteriological (so to speak) question rises to the fore: who shall deliver me from this body of death? How shall the “accumulated momentum of violent bodily routines” be interrupted?

      Is it the case that a deeper difference emerges here, in answer to these (arguably!) parallel questions?

      Paul’s following line is doxological: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25). One would have to develop the significance of that claim very carefully indeed to avoid the forceful criticisms that John aims at various theologians who look away from abject bodies at this point; who leverage God-talk and Jesus-talk to seal themselves off from the spectacle of suffering, dominated bodies. And yet, as John’s reply to me acknowledges, giving attention to God and/or Jesus doesn’t necessarily compete with giving attention to—and grieving—the dead and despised. So it could be that whatever Paul means might be filled in such that it keeps crucified bodies, and one of them, principally, firmly centered. It might even be possible to reconceive Paul’s thinking in a way that draws it closer to John’s own constructive proposal: for John, bodies from different castes and races, coming together in shared ritual moments, begin to resonate with each other and so to weaken the grasp of bodily habits that led some subjects to commit regularized violence against others. Maybe we could say about Paul that for him it is proximity to Christ’s risen body, mediated in shared ritual moments, that starts to release the hold of the demonic powers possessing humankind?

      But even with that kind of “thinking together,” I still come away with an enduring sense of difference between their answers. I cannot see that Paul places much confidence in anything that we would identify as “critical examination” or “interrogation” or other such exercises of ratiocination. For him, “the kingdom of God is not in word but in power” (1 Cor 4:20). One power that indwells bodies must be driven out, exorcistically, by another, countervailing divine power. This latter is what I could not find in Memory, Grief, and Agency.

      I’ll be perfectly honest, I do not know what form that divine power takes in the world today. Maybe (probably?) it is multifarious. For some theologians influenced by the Lutheran heritage, it is solely kerygmatic, the power of the preached word. For some from the liturgical traditions, it comes sacramentally, perhaps it is even a matter of uncreated divine energies flowing into the human. For my colleagues in Pentecostalism and the charismatic traditions, this is the thaumaturgical power of the Holy Spirit. For yet others, the power of God is manifest primarily in the struggle of the dispossessed and damned of the earth against their oppressors.

      Which leads me to my second and final question: from whence comes my help? (Psalm 121:1b NJKV). Where does divine help enter into John’s rich reflections on corporeality and agency? Of the options outlined above for thinking about divine power, or maybe better, about divine help, which, if any, would John find consonant with his approach? I certainly remember that John intends for his book to appeal to both religious and areligious readers. But I suspect he is right, that areligious readers “might, in fact, benefit from and even appreciate the bodily dimensions of scripture,” and especially so if those bodily dimensions of scripture include some reference to the other common feature of scripture, namely, God and God’s help, which is after all what interests many religious persons, also presumably John’s grandmother, about it?

Francisco Pelaez-Diaz


Change of Heart or Change of Laws?

John Boopalan’s project has the potential to have a far-reaching impact regarding race and caste theories. Perhaps one of Boopalan’s main contributions to the efforts of dismantling and countering racism and casteism consists in emphasizing the positive and constructive force of grieving over wrongs committed against individuals and groups that have been put in social and political disadvantage through structural violence. One of Boopalan’s main claims is that grief over wrongs has a positive agential power. This agential power is to be used to create rites of moral responsibility that are capable of contributing to the creation of more hospitable societies for everyone, particularly for those who have been wronged historically, culturally, socially, politically, and religiously.

Following Judith Butler’s approach and others, Boopalan affirms that human patterns of thinking inform social practices. This is why the processes and conditions that form those patterns of thinking need to be interrogated critically, Boopalan says. The purpose of such interrogation is to prevent and counter the formation of violent identities that not only exclude and discriminate but also have killed people. Two prime examples of how violent identities operate at a societal level are racism in the United States and casteism in India. There is a wide range of forms in which violent identities are capable of exerting not only direct acts of violence but also perpetuate “rituals of humiliation,” Boopalan says. These rituals of humiliation are “historically conditioned practices of inferiorization that are affected by and originate in discriminatory legal and/or religio-cultural logics of the past still sustained today” (4). These common, day-to-day, and oftentimes unconscious interactions, have the effect of keeping disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups “in place,” Boopalan argues. Therefore, Boopalan’s proposal seeks to counter, dismantle, and eradicate these rituals of humiliation with an equally effective remedy: rites of moral responsibility, which are characterized as “antidotes to violent identities” in Boopalan’s project.

I find this project very promising in terms of its potential to achieve the goal of seeking redress for certain kinds of wrongs, countering rituals of humiliation associated with those wrongs, and more importantly, helping to create more hospitable societies. I have, however, some questions regarding the process and mechanism through which persons of privileged backgrounds are expected to embrace and experience the substitution of rituals of humiliation for rites of moral responsibility, leading to what Boopalan calls “a kind of moral conversion” (92). According to Boopalan, it would be through “new habitual formations and perhaps new rites of responsibility, which can lead to positive agential ends” (92), that such moral conversion could ultimately be achieved. This means, apparently, that moral conversion occurs as a process derived from the adoption of habits and practice of rites. This also seems to imply that for this conversion to happen, a multilayered intellectual operation (awareness, identification, and discernment of wrongs) needs to take place. According to Boopalan’s own words: “Attention to socially conditioned corporeal habits enables persons to better discern wrongs” (92). This seems to suggest that wrongs are committed as a result of “not paying attention” or “not enough attention” to the “body’s grammar.” In a sense, this not paying attention seems to be what Critical Race Theory (CRT) identifies as prejudice. Awareness by itself, however, would not solve the problem of racism or casteism for the same reasons that elimination of prejudice is not sufficient to solve racism. It is true that Boopalan does not say that awareness is the solution to racism and casteism, but rather moral conversion that translates into rituals of moral responsibility. The issue here is that racism and casteism are entrenched in sociopolitical, economic and cultural structures or systems where power plays a central role. It is clear that Boopalan is fully aware of the impact that individual identities have over structures and systems. He says: “Corporeal habits reinforce asymmetry in power and caste status” (93), but the question is, to what extent this “paying attention,” this awareness of the wrongs, and these rituals of moral responsibility have the power to transform the dynamics in structurally or systemically conditioned scenarios? In other words, is the proposed moral conversion powerful enough to start the process of eradicating racism and casteism? In the end, my question could be read as a return to the old question about what needs to change first in order to achieve a more just society, the individual or the structure? My initial response to this question is that both, individuals and structures/systems, need to change simultaneously and dialectically. I acknowledge that perhaps the question of what should change first is not the most productive approach to the issue, precisely because there is not a simple nor a single way in which these changes can happen. However, it is precisely because of the complex, multiple, and fluid ways of this change, that it is important to balance the analysis by incorporating other mechanisms of eradication of racism and casteism. An example of the complex nature of the mechanisms of change that are needed to affect the status quo can be found in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. regarding his view on the idea—the myth, in his own words—that legislation cannot change hearts: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make an employer to love an employee, but it can prevent him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin. The habits, if not the hearts of people, have been and are being altered everyday by legislative acts, judicial decisions, and executive orders.”1 This passage points to the fact that even though some traces of racism and casteism can persist at the individual level, legislation, policies, and government practices can effectively neutralize or diminish the kind of power imbalances that characterize racism and casteism. The use of legislation is not 100 percent effective either, and that is the reason for arguing that both, individual and systemic changes, need to happen simultaneously and dialectically. This observation points only to a matter of emphasis in Boopalan’s project, not necessarily to a matter of substance.

The other aspect that I found intriguing in one of Boopalan’s main theses has to do with the level of efficacy of grieving in the process of making those in privileged positions to respond with responsibility. Boopalan says “persons from privileged backgrounds are called to take a cue from the grief of victims and survivors of wrongs, and grieve, in turn, over their own complicity in violence, and consequently prepare themselves for responsible agency” (154). The claim here is that privileged people “are called” to pay attention to those who are grieving and then to grieve themselves over their own complicity. This is not an appeal to the magnanimity nor the good will of persons from privileged backgrounds, but rather an “invitation . . . to recognize how social violence has conditioned human imagination and action in such a way that complicity in wrongs is often deeper than one is willing to acknowledge” (181). Boopalan is absolutely right when he indicates that acknowledgment of complicity or wrongdoing is extremely difficult. Here I am reminded again of what Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr have said: “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”2 There is consensus, then, regarding the fact that it is very difficult for persons from privileged backgrounds to recognize or acknowledge any complicity in structural wrongs. For those who are willing to take the step of paying attention and caring about the suffering inflicted by wrongs, Boopalan—rightly—believes that grief has the power to “reorder discriminatory epistemological frames” and transform “violent identities in order to yield morally responsible agency” (156). I agree with Boopalan regarding the effect of such act, through which “persons from dominant locations, in turn, could change themselves to move closer and into the worlds of victims and survivors” (156). However, as pointed out above, this does not happen easily at the individual level and it is even more difficult at the societal level. What are the alternative or complementary mechanisms that could help in the process of eradicating racism and casteism? This question is relevant in the context of persons from privileged positions, considering the voluntary character of their process of grieving. Boopalan offers some examples that hint at the alternative mechanisms that I have in mind. Two of the examples referenced in the book are the ones of Mamie Bradley (Emmet Till’s mother) and Rosa Parks. When elaborating on the wrongs experienced by these two women, Boopalan emphasizes the agential power of their grief, but I think more emphasis could have been given to the actions taken by these two women and the impact of their actions on those of privileged backgrounds. These women protested the wrongs they suffered, and by doing so they brought visibility to their suffering and made persons in privileged positions to take notice. The agential grief of these women provided not only more opportunities for persons in dominant locations to grieve over their complicity in those wrongs but also they set in motion important structural changes. Therefore, considering that acts of resistance and protest are mechanisms that can lead to systemic changes, such as legislation and policy, I think they need more attention as complements or alternatives to the voluntary act of paying attention to the suffering of the victims and survivors of wrongs. Of course, protest and resistance are not necessarily going to transform hearts, but they can effectively produce necessary structural changes. These changes, along with a moral conversion in the terms that Boopalan has brilliantly proposed in his book, are necessary to achieve the goal of a more hospitable society.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington, First HarperCollins paperback ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 124.

  2. King, Testament of Hope, 292.

  • Sunder John Boopalan

    Sunder John Boopalan


    Response to Francisco Peláez-Díaz

    Francisco notes that “there is not a simple nor a single way” to enact positive structural change. I cannot agree more. My work proposes only a few finite ways to redress wrongs. The book argues that grieving can be agential when historical wrongs are remembered, generating rites of responsibility that serve as antidotes to violent identities and catalyze theologically informed positive and urgent social practices. Nevertheless, given the complexities of oppression, Francisco worries that a call for moral conversion—which he takes to be my book’s primary proposal—is not a sufficient condition for enacting social change. For holistic social change, Francisco notes, my approach needs to be balanced with other approaches, particularly legal legislation.

    I appreciate this take and will return again to this at the end of my response because Francisco’s observation merits having the last word. Before that, however, let me venture into the response terrain to clarify a few matters.

    Legislation is powerful. It regulates behavior. And, if democracy is a process by, of, and for the people, then legislation seeks to ensure that all people are included in that process. Francisco is absolutely right when he says—building on Martin Luther King Jr.’s perceptive commentary—that one cannot simply appeal to dominant persons’ sense of morality and expect them to have a miraculous change of heart. Legislation, without a doubt, is necessary. It is only with the passing of Civil Rights legislation in the United States, for instance, that those previously disenfranchised at the ballot box due to racist religious, cultural, and hitherto legal logics could actually vote.

    Today, there are no water fountains that say “Whites Only.” There are no parks that exclude people based on their color or race. If Rosa Parks were here with us today, she would not be asked to move to the back of the bus because she’s African American. Japanese Americans are not in internment camps in California. Indian Americans marry white people all the time. We can all agree, then, in some sense that we live in a post-civil rights era. In terms of legislation, that is. In practice, however, is racism really over?

    One of the primary driving questions behind the book is, how to address the wrongs of racism and casteism today when they are argued to be “a thing of the past”? One might appreciate the importance of this question when one critically considers the notion of a post-racial world. Those who argue for a post-racial America in such a way to imply that racialized others “should not complain” point precisely to passed legislations as the reason for them lifting up a post-racial America.

    The particulars of the book’s technical argument mentioned in the first paragraph of my response to Francisco notwithstanding, I am interested—as evidenced in the book, especially in chapter 3 on bodies—in the question of how exactly we may describe and intervene in racialized landscapes in which racially dominant bodies are so used to imagining (affective dimensions included) other racially minoritized bodies mostly in positions of servitude. The question is important to me because the effects of this affective disposition in dominant persons continue to be a matter of life and death every day despite the presence of legal measures against them.

    These racially inflected and discriminatory affective dispositions in dominant persons cannot simply be overcome by some abstract rational thought process or a well-intentioned but misplaced call for conversion of oppressors. Legal measures are necessary. They cannot take second place to some other approach to social change. Nevertheless, the sinister ways in which racist and casteist logics continue to manipulate (through what I term “violent identities” on pp. 60–68) the mechanisms (including legal) of liberal democracies needs to be accounted for.

    Most readers are well aware of the extreme difficulty of proving racist intention in legal courts. Take, for instance, voter suppression in the United States that makes it difficult for racially marginalized persons to exercise their voting rights. Ironically, these voter suppressions are enacted legally by lifting up a seemingly good idea: preventing voter fraud. How can one prove racist intention in those who twistedly claim to be preventing voter fraud?

    This is indeed the challenge faced in states like North Carolina at the time of this writing (February 2020). Voter suppression targets, among other populations, African American voters, who have moved out of their racially assigned places and choose to live freely, including exercising their right to vote.

    One of the primary arguments of my book is not only on how best to redress wrongs, but also how best to understand wrongs. Wrongs today, I argue, are better understood as “rituals of humiliation” (52–59) that are enacted against racialized others who move “out of place.” What might we gain in our understanding of persons’ bodies and public policies when we see voter suppression as a ritual of humiliation? These are pressing concerns of the book which necessarily accentuate my case for remembering and grieving (chapter 5) over wrongs.

    And, yet, Francisco’s point is taken well. Those who protested against such voter suppression and consequently won a temporary injunction did not simply appeal to a sense of morality and call for a change of hearts. They acted legally, filing a case, and moving the wheel of history forward. As multidimensional (see 149–72) as my definition of grief may be, which I propose undergirds rites of moral responsibility (206–21), approaches to redress are necessarily manifold. In this sense, what Mamie Bradley (Emmet Till’s mother) and Rosa Parks did—accounts I describe in the book—are as fundamental as the memories they remembered (Rosa Parks remembers Emmet Till as she decides to firmly seat herself in the bus), the passions they felt (Till’s mother, who said of her son, “You didn’t die for nothing!”), and the feelings and movements they evoked and generated in the cause for redress.

Joshua Samuel


Interrogating Corporeal Habits

To begin with, I want to acknowledge my appreciation and gratitude to Sunder John Boopalan for offering new possibilities and avenues of thinking and acting in his book, particularly to those who are committed to disrupting and dismantling oppressive social structures. Memory, Grief, and Agency is certainly a groundbreaking and trendsetting work in global liberation theology. Celebrating such a phenomenal work, first, I want to highlight a few themes in the book which I found to be insightful and exciting. Following this, I would like to engage in, to use a phrase of my teacher, Prof. Paul Knitter, “fierce loving”—lovingly and respectfully questioning and challenging some of the assumptions and arguments made by Boopalan in his book.

To begin with, one of the things that stood out for me in the book is Boopalan’s courage to look beyond popular notions and (mis)conceptions, and point out the facts. I am able to see this in his unmasking of the casteist and racist mindset among Indian communities in the United States (23–24). His boldness also becomes visible when he critically interrogates the “sainthood” ascribed to the well-known Indian freedom fighter and champion of nonviolence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (30–31). I believe that both these issues are often overlooked, not just by the common people, but also by scholars, impeding a critical inquiry of the nuances behind and the nexus between race and caste.

Secondly, I am also deeply challenged by Boopalan’s theorization of the grammar of the body which helps us to identify corporeal habits that construct violent identities. Such identification, as the author suggests, propels us towards corporeally mediated obligatory acts towards others, particularly, those who are “othered” in our society. Given that the actualization of caste and race on the ground—especially in relation to Dalits and Blacks—is often based on ignorance and innocence, his insistence on acknowledging, identifying, and dismantling the “corporeal entanglements” we are caught up in enables us to take responsibility and become active respondents to wrongs that arise out of these entanglements (90).

Finally, I find Boopalan’s use of grief as a means of reordering structures that order violent identities very powerful and compelling. His argument that grief from remembering wrongs, as a continuous act of critical internal interrogation, “reorders discriminatory epistemological frames” (156) which then flows out as the external work of “forging corporeal solidarities” (180), has opened a deeper and positive dimension of grieving. Since grieving is generally viewed as “weak” and vulnerable, Boopalan has convincingly re-visioned it as a powerful means of dismantling hierarchical social orders.

Now, as I appreciate these important and strong proposals that Boopalan has made, I also have a few questions and concerns. These are issues that I struggled with as I read and dialogued with the book and could very well be attributed to my ignorance or misunderstanding. I look forward to Boopalan’s clarifications.

Let me begin with the grammar of the body. Boopalan notes that “paying attention to the grammar of the body helps to better articulate the language of wrongs” (95). Yes, it surely exposes “how discriminatory logics of the past continue to affect agents’ unreflective corporeal interactions in the present” (86). But I wonder whether Boopalan’s focus is, as the anecdotes and examples throughout the book seem to suggest, (almost solely) on discriminatory dynamics between the bodies of the oppressors and the oppressed. I will be interested to know how Boopalan would use the grammar of the body to explain “non-discriminatory” corporeal habits between and within the oppressed themselves. After all, the problem in caste and race is that “socially conditioned corporeal habits” do not always operate between the oppressor and the oppressed but also between, and importantly, within the bodies of the oppressed. It is precisely because the oppressed perpetuate them that these systems manage to survive and thrive. Though we can call them habitual, in this case, however, speech-acts and body language are not (always) entirely unwilled but also intended to imitate the dominant. That is, the grammar of the bodies within the caste or race matrix is not only punctuated by habits but also governed by fear and shame. The bodies are, to recall a term used by Foucault, “disciplined” to look and act a certain normative way.1 In that sense, I believe that caste and race involve, as Foucault might say, an internalized “panoptic mechanism”2 that maintains “order” in order to force, particularly but not exclusively, Dalit and black bodies (respectively) to monitor and control themselves individually and communally. We see this manifested in various ways: not eating beef (or “baptizing” it as “mutton,” something which Boopalan (48) and I are familiar with), whitening/lightening one’s skin, using the language of the dominant, distancing oneself from marginalized community/ies and so on. I am afraid that locating the grammar of the bodies between the oppressors and the oppressed slips into an easy (and, I am worried, a simplistic) binary/bipolar (oppressor vs. oppressed) understanding of caste and race, not to mention that it seems to fail to acknowledge the role of the oppressed. On the other hand, I believe that paying (more) attention to the grammar of the bodies of the oppressed reveals the complexities present within caste and race, both in relation to the dominant and among/between the oppressed.

Secondly, I am concerned about Boopalan’s emphasis and confidence in “critical examination” of corporeal habits. I agree that “when the continuing impact of histories of discriminatory logics is not critically interrogated, persons from privileged and dominant social locations inherit violent identities and perpetuate social violence” (6). Hence, a deep and systematic (self-)analysis is certainly needed to identify, interrupt, and eradicate the unconscious practice and perpetuation of structures of oppression. However, I wonder whether this “trust” on critical interrogation reflects and mimics a typical liberal intellectual approach to caste and race. Are we so influenced by Western epistemological frameworks that we put all our eggs in the basket of reason? Is there more to the picture that Boopalan, and, I have to confess, I myself, are missing? If it is the lack of critical awareness that is the fundamental problem, then why do we see caste reified, reimagined, and regenerated in newer ways among “enlightened” and “liberal” caste people? The reason for this, I believe, is that caste—I am not sure if I can say the same about race—is not an individual problem. Rather, it is a communal issue, a disease if you will, that survives in and as communities.3 Caste is, at least in general, stronger than acquiring critical awareness and willing to engage in “rites of moral responsibility” (213). No matter how deeply informed and genuinely critical a caste person is, as long as she is part of her community, her becoming aware of corporeal entanglements or her willingness to treat everyone equally may not be enough to make her act ethically. I think that the only possible way out, although it may not work all the time, is for the subject (i.e., a dominant subject) to courageously and categorically cut off her ties with her caste community, and (decide to) become, to use an ignorantly oft-used term, a Pariah!4 I have to add that I wonder whether the over-emphasis on trusting the ability of the oppressors to “reason” their way out of their inherited violent identities is caused by—in spite of the careful delineation of their specificities—the conflation of race and caste, although I believe that race too is not entirely free of communal obligations.

Finally, related to the above point is my question regarding Boopalan’s primary audience. Though occasionally he does consider those who are oppressed, and those between the oppressor and the oppressed categories, it looks like, predominantly, his words are addressed to the privileged and the dominant. (This probably explains, what appears to me to be, the “one-sided” parsing of the grammar of the body I referred to earlier.) That being said, “hats off” to Boopalan for his courage to pull the dominant by their ears and challenge them to enter and engage in a conscious remembering of wrongs and to grieve within and without to make a positive change. I agree with him that, from a Christian theological point of view, this is what makes the church what it is supposed to be—a remembering, re-membering, and grieving community of faith (176). But, the sequence of the internal and external work of grief that Boopalan suggests makes me uneasy and a bit skeptical. I am concerned about the possibility and practical efficacy of expecting the privileged to first “sincerely” reflect, confess, and relate through grieving with the grief of those “othered” (which he calls point A), and then move on to enact external rites of moral responsibility (which he calls point B). I am worried if Boopalan is slipping here into an “over self-centered” Gandhian-style reformation which prefers the internal transformation of the oppressors. In contrast, we have the Ambedkar-style revolution which acknowledges the (urgent) need for compensatory justice and ushers in practical and realistic socio-political changes, envisioned and led by the oppressed themselves.5 As we know any change in the society comes through a certain amount of force from the oppressed people. You kick the privileged in their backs and force them to act; they can do their self-interrogation in their own sweet time! This being the case, I wonder if Boopalan has spent too much of his energy preaching to the dominant trying to “convert” them, while he could have elevated more the potential of grief among the Dalits and the Black people. Not that what Boopalan suggests is unnecessary or unimportant, but I believe that the real change-creating factor that can disrupt and dismantle inherited discriminatory logics of the past is, at least primarily, in the agency of the oppressed. While Boopalan has spoken a lot about agency throughout his book, it looks like it often refers (only) to the agency of the oppressors rather than the agency of the oppressed. I am worried that, at best, the oppressed are portrayed as silent spectators who facilitate grieving for those who marginalize them, something that they have been forced to do for long. I am interested to know why Boopalan decided to silence those who are already silenced, and not listen and bring out their voices!

  1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995), 23.

  2. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 202–3.

  3. See Susan Bayly, The New Cambridge History of India: Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 9ff.

  4. Pariah comes from the word Paraiyar, a Dalit community in South India. For more on Paraiyar history, see Rupa Viswanath, The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

  5. The issue of separate electorates is a good case in point. To eradicate untouchability and annihilate caste, B. R. Ambedkar insisted that Dalits should have twin electoral rights, to vote both within a separate Dalit constituency to choose their own leaders as well as in the general constituency to elect another leader (usually of a higher caste). The proposal was accepted by the British colonial government in 1932. But Gandhi, afraid that this would divide the Hindus and hurt the majority status of Hinduism, went on a fast unto death and eventually won. His strategy to combat untouchability: upper-castes should repent of their sins and be reformed. See S. Anand, “A Note on the Poona Pact,” in B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, annotated critical ed. (London: Verso, 2014), 359–376; and Judith Brown, ed., Mahatma Gandhi: Essential Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 221–25.

  • Sunder John Boopalan

    Sunder John Boopalan


    Response to Joshua Samuel

    In this critical assessment of my book by a fellow Dalit scholar, “fierce loving” is certainly the primary characteristic of the response and for this I am grateful.

    As I engage Joshua’s critiques, let me clarify what the book and the arguments therein are not about. Although a primary audience of the book is persons from dominant social locations, the book certainly does not silence “those who are already silenced.” Those—including me—who have either been silenced or have witnessed the silencing of the marginalized know fully well the wounds of such silencing. To be mindful of this sinister phenomenon is a prerequisite for any political theological thinking.

    I will always vividly remember (for more context, see pp. 188–90) sitting in a public lecture at Princeton University, where a Hindu nationalist accused Dalits of being anti-national and divisive for describing the wrongs Dalits suffer in India. During the Q&A, a Dalit activist stood up and stated the example of the Khairlanji murders—where a family of Dalits was massacred in broad daylight—in 2006. In response to the mention of “Khairlanji” at the microphone, members of the largely dominant caste audience started heckling the Dalit speaker, asking (verbatim), “Where is the evidence?” As the heckling was ongoing, a moderator of the discussion came and grabbed the microphone from the hands of the Dalit speaker, thereby silencing the Dalit voice. That did not sit well with that Dalit speaker or this Dalit writer.

    I describe this incident (among many other wrongs) in the book to protest against such silencing. Each wrong described in the book is an act of defiance, defying those who argue that we live in a post-racial and post-caste society. This defiance draws its strength from the agency and voice of those who are oppressed. A fundamental logic of the book is to lift up (over against critics of the anger of the oppressed) such Dalit anger, as when Bama—a Dalit woman writer I cite multiple times—observes how she wanted to grab hold of oppressors of Dalits and “bite them, chew them up, and spit them out” (131). Such Dalit anger present in the face of wrongs informs Dalit grief. If a primary audience of the book is those from dominant social locations, then the message is simply to hold a microphone to Dalit voices in order to amplify such voices and undertake the task of repentance. In such a call for repentance, the book does in part appeal to the agency of oppressors, but it necessarily draws from and builds on the agency and voice of the oppressed.

    Joshua’s other critique about my “confidence in ‘critical examination’ of corporeal habits” is perceptive. Joshua reads my work as “trusting the ability of the oppressors to ‘reason’ their way out of their inherited violent identities.” This is a good critique that enables me to further consider how bodily wrongs may be redressed. On the one hand, my work—in describing bodily entanglements in racism and casteism—argues that one must consider, in addition to merely epistemological frames, also embodied social practices, emotions, senses, and passions. It is only with this full spectrum of elements that make up human action that one can begin to create conditions for remaking a world in which wrongs are remembered and redressed. On the other hand, the book’s language of “critical examination,” “examining,” etc., does seem to privilege rational and epistemological components. Thus, while the descriptive portions of the book are vividly bodily, more clarifying work seems to be in order for the constructive portions of the book, especially in its calls for redress. Redress certainly needs to be argued with bodily force and I will certainly be thinking further on how to better enflesh (invoking Shawn Copeland) freedom.

    Furthermore, Joshua is absolutely right to note that caste (as also race) “survives in and as communities.” This cannot be stressed enough. The perceived privileging of reason, therefore, cannot be taken to mean that critical examination of violent identities is a solipsistic activity. Whatever else it might mean, violent identities have to be encountered as communal identities (see 207–9) formed by group dynamics. The “problem” as the book sees it is not merely individual racist or casteist bigots, although such individuals are part of the problem. The “disease” (to employ Joshua’s language) is one that affects dominant social persons as groups, which Willie Jennings, for instance, insightfully terms as a “diseased social imagination” (see 214). In other words, the “rites of moral responsibility” I argue for is one that is done communally as a work of repentance in response to rituals of humiliation undertaken by such dominant groups very much as a group. It is precisely in and through such rituals of humiliation that group dominance is reified. Individual acts of violence draw their power from such group dominance not vice versa. Eschewing violence, in this light, does call for dominant caste persons to, as Joshua puts it, “cut off ties” with (the violence of) their social groups. In this light, the saying by Jesus in Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” comes to mind (and body).

    Joshua’s pertinent observation that “bodies within the caste or race matrix [are] not only punctuated by habits but also governed by fear and shame” is one that merits both acknowledgment and address. Though beyond the scope of the first book, these matters are vital. Indeed, Joshua’s list of examples—distancing oneself from food and other markers of Dalit identity, using skin whitening creams, employing the language of the dominant—captures bodily movements within the oppressed that are tragically governed by fear and shame. I remember during my seminary education when my own Dalit pride blossomed and I began to articulate that inside and outside the classroom. A dominant caste friend came up to me one time and asked, “Are you Dalit?” The question was inflected with emotion, even pity and sadness. Even the possibility that I am Dalit seemed to him so unfortunate. And so I responded, “What’s wrong with being Dalit?”

    On the one hand, it seems the answer is that being Dalit means living in fear, not having the ability to be fully oneself, being curtailed in our desire to eat what we want, marry who we love, or walk with our heads held high. I recall Sagar Seghwal who in 2015 was beat up and crushed to death under the wheels of a motorcycle by a gang of dominant caste men for having the audacity to sound a ringtone on his mobile phone that praised B. R. Ambedkar, a Dalit icon. Sagar was simply free and that freedom was too much to bear for those murderous men. As long as cruel and discriminatory logics operate in this word, oppressor/oppressed binaries will continue to be painfully real. On the other hand, one does need to ask “Why fear and shame?” in moments in which one’s life is not immediately in danger of being extinguished by caste- or race-based hate? It seems like these two sides are part of the same coin, complicating easy understandings of agency.



Recognizing Rituals of Humiliation and Engendering a Hospitable World

A test of any theoretical framework is its translatability into different contexts, times, situations, and individual lives. Boopalan effectively deploys the homo ritualis in his analysis of structural injustices evident in both America and India, the two countries where he has developed and fostered pastoral-theological acumen. What is the homo ritualis? Boopalan argues that “the lens of ritual enables an understanding of human persons as homo ritualis, thus emphasizing the significance of everyday habits and dispositions.” By understanding ourselves as creatures of ritual, we can simultaneously grasp the urgent necessity of “rites of moral responsibility [which] ultimately aim to create conditions for enacting agency for engendering a more hospitable world” (18). Through his discussion, Boopalan weaves together recognition of and grief over past injustices with a clarion commitment to imagining new ways of enacting rites of moral responsibility that diminish neither the harms done nor hopes for a future free of such harms. Connectedness across different experiences of oppression and humiliation are central to the postcolonial moral imagination that Boopalan unfolds for his readers.

Sound bite visions of justice prevent activists from recognizing the subtle but persistent ways that oppressive social relations reduplicate themselves even in movement for social justice. For instance, I myself have used the following anecdote as a shorthand criticism of white supremacist logics that result in brutal violence: Gandhi was asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?”—and answered, “Oh, I think that’s a great idea!” Yet, precisely through such a cutting and witty criticism of British imperial rule in India, a whole range of other wrongs are occluded from the eyes of those who might see themselves in the phrase “Western Civilization.” As Boopalan writes, “Unless wrongs are actively remembered, resisted, and transformed, discriminatory logics from the past will continue to haunt communities—even those that sincerely (albeit mistakenly) believe that they are ‘good’ people” (11). Inattentiveness to cultural context can mean that, even when one means to set things to rights, one can effect harm through ignorance. This is not a new observation, as many theorists have recognized the ways that whiteness and its supremacist logics morph and adapt to new settings. Boopalan, though, invites his readers to “the active remembrance of wrongs [which] is important not only to counter such dominant, false, and cruel claims, but also for engendering responsible habits and rites” (36). That is, ignorance of the racist ideologies of movement leaders such as Gandhi means his prejudices go unaddressed and ungrieved in pursuit of what is purported to be a just response to injustice.

Boopalan explains the ways that Gandhi, in his own organizing efforts, sought to lift Indians to the level of whites but did not seek to change anti-black racism—or indeed the oppression of Dalits within the caste system (65). Boopalan provides a compelling discussion of the ways that Dalit organizing was inspired by the Black Panthers, forming a parallel organization known as the Dalit Panthers, which rendered the term “Dalit” a point of pride. In this way, “Dalit”—unlike the term “Harijan,” deployed by Gandhi—is “a political and positive identity ascription” (26). Forms of hospitality that involve dominant caste members welcoming Dalits or the so-called “untouchables” are, in fact, cruelty masquerading as kindness precisely because the hospitality is not between mutuals; rather, one party is assumed to have hospitality to extend, while the other is presumed to want but often be denied such hospitality. In other words, by giving accolades to those who treat others with basic dignity and respect one disincetivizes recognizing and redressing severe wrongs done. What matters is the friendly embrace, not the process of reckoning and taking responsibility for long-standing historical patterns of humiliation and degradation that have rendered some of society’s members “untouchable.” For Boopalan, “wrongs understood as ‘rituals of humiliation’ . . . are violent modes and patterns by which human bodies are conditioned to move against each other. This movement of persons against each other in discriminatory and violent ways is affected by a certain grammar learned by the human body through dominant social conventions” (107). The identity being forged, though, can be reclaimed through an alternate social movement, such as the Dalit Panthers. Through the phrase “rituals of humiliation,” Boopalan’s discussion encompasses both brutal and ordinary wrongs.

Boopalan draws our attention to the cause-effect relation of a long-standing dominant social convention through which members of society are formed through rituals of humiliation. Boopalan analyzes the process of formation through what he calls a “grammar of the body”: “how bodies are habituated to act and react in socially conditioned ways that are repeated so frequently that they become unreflectively oppressive” (80). Yet they are able to lay claim to their enduring goodness and strength through rites of moral responsibility. For Boopalan, grieving what is lost through rites of humiliation is necessary: “Knowledge of wrongs and the recognition of human vulnerability do not necessarily engender positive human agency. It is grieving over remembered wrongs that engenders positive agency and the transformation of violent identities” (115). Grief, for Boopalan, is not only an index of the value of that which is grieved but a reflection of the humanity of the one who grieves. Boopalan avoids romanticizing grief through focus on the agency that attends grief in the formation of community across in-group/out-group differences and the transformation of violent identities.

I would like to invite him to reflect on the ways that rituals of humiliation might also be fashioned when the identity forged through such rituals can become its own destabilizing source of pride. I am thinking here, for instance, of the processes of criminalization and hypercriminalization in contemporary American society. How are new rituals of humiliation enacted in order to transform former dominant social conventions in ways that permit them to endure in the midst of a shifting value system that might not be as receptive to the old techniques of ritualized humiliation?

Criminalization is also effected through rituals of humiliation that, over time, calcify into a social role that provides stabilization to other identities. Social theorist Victor M. Rios describes criminalization as “the process by which styles and behaviors are rendered deviant and are treated with shame, exclusion, punishment, and incarceration.”1 When the focus falls on everyday behaviors, the result is hypercriminalization: “the process by which an individual’s everyday behaviors and styles become ubiquitously treated as deviant, risky, threatening, or criminal, across social contexts” (Rios, xiv). Through humiliating encounters with shop owners, school personnel, and police officers, the individuals adapt to social conventions associated with suspects and criminals.

The result is, as Rios argues, social incapacitation: “the process by which punitive social control becomes an instrument which prevents marginalized populations from functioning, thriving, and feeling a sense of dignity and humanity in their daily interactions with institutional forces” (Rios, 160). Through his empirical examination of the lives of Latino youths in Oakland, Rios observes how they understand their own process of criminalization and the decisions it drives them to make. One young man, Tyrell, got the most attention from police in his neighborhood. Over the course of three years, he had twenty-one separate encounters with the police. While his father made his wage fixing cars, their community couldn’t pay enough for those repairs to keep his family afloat. Tyrell determined that his father’s lack of economic resources meant that “he would have to ‘hustle’ for his own money” (Rio, 51). Rios concludes that “his father’s inability to provide for him, and the stigma that school officials and police officers imposed on him, left Tyrell feeling trapped. . . . In Tyrell’s perspective, poverty and criminalization ‘pushed’ him into selling drugs, but he also consciously took this ‘jump,’ knowing that this was one of the only ways he could make some money” (Rios, 51–52). Shaped by rituals of humiliation that took the form of punishment, Tyrell made decisions that helped him navigate the limited suite of options available to him: “Tyrell . . . experienced a life-course process in which he was systematically punished into believing that he had nothing to lose” (Rios, 52).

In the background of Boopalan’s discussion echoes Judith Butler’s question, “Which lives are grievable?” Boopalan builds on Butler’s project to recognize the equal grievability of all lives while also asking simultaneously: Which losses are grievable? And which griefs are positively agential? Boopalan considers not only grievability but the agential process of grieving. I want to invite Boopalan to explore how the process of grieving as an act of moral agency might fit into Tyrell’s picture when he is said to have “nothing to lose.” How might Boopalan’s theory of the rites of moral responsibility position us to respond to the distinctive American rituals of humiliation associated with criminalization and hypercriminalization, especially when those rituals are enacted not only by the police but sometimes by one’s own circle of intimates, such as one’s parents? Let me try to clarify my question by reference to another part of Boopalan’s excellent analysis.

In his discussion of the autobiography of the Dalit author Omprakash Valmiki, entitled Joothan, Boopalan recounts the exchange between Valmiki and his lover Savita, a dominant caste Brahmin woman who—along with her father—mistakes him for a fellow dominant caste member. The revelation of this mistake culminates in this scene: “She started to cry, as though my being SC [subordinate/scheduled caste] was a crime. She sobbed for a long time. Suddenly the distance between us had increased. The hatred of thousands of years had entered our hearts. What a lie culture and civilisation are” (quoted on p. 42). Boopalan draws attention to Valmiki’s poignant description of the dissolution of love—“the hatred of thousands of years had entered our hearts”—and so identifies a “caste-specific hospitality that is really hostility” in this scene (42). It is precisely these ways that cruelty masquerades as kindness that makes recognition of harms and moral responsibility for harms done so elusive. Valimiki’s breach of the caste-specificity of Savita’s hospitality results in her grief; she feels wronged by Valimiki’s “being SC”—and her scandalized tears criminalize him. Her sobbing grief is yet another rite of humiliation. How might grief’s implication in rites of humiliation complicate its centrality in rites of moral responsibility?

For Boopalan, “In calling agents to take cues from the grief of those who suffer wrongs, the internal work of grief invites persons from privileged backgrounds to undertake the task of identity-transforming grief. In this way, grief’s internal work challenges privileged persons to recreate their inner epistemological worlds” (181). Grief extends recognition that a wrong has been done. While Savita feels she has suffered a wrong, her grief is identity-affirming rather than identity-transforming. Yet, is it possible that her identity-affirming grief can become identity-transforming grief? In this moment, she grieves the loss of her misunderstanding of Valimiki as dominant caste; her epistemological world has shifted. In this way, her grief exposes her violent identity. She does not yet grieve the criminalization of Valmiki through the categorization of scheduled caste, yet might this possibility be embedded within her grief? Where could this grief lead her?

Boopalan’s focus on the agential possibilities of grief is pastorally acute. There is no going around the wrongs. Rather, one’s communal, emotional, psychological processing of the wrongs is not only permitted, but necessary for imagining—and forging—a hospitable world.

  1. Victor M. Rios, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York: NYU Press, 2011), xiv.

  • Sunder John Boopalan

    Sunder John Boopalan


    Response to Melanie Webb

    I appreciate Mel’s response to the work because, first, she extrapolates on the book’s critical assessment of M. K. Gandhi, an icon for human rights worldwide. Indeed, “sound bite visions of justice prevent activists from recognizing the subtle but persistent ways that oppressive social relations reduplicate themselves even in movement for social justice.” Because of Gandhi’s “cutting and witty criticism of British imperial rule in India,” it is easy to gloss over Gandhi’s casteist and racist prejudices. Gandhi is a convenient hero because he’s brown and serves the cause of white (and other) liberals who love to quote him, unaware of or even unwilling to come to terms with Gandhi’s history of racist and casteist prejudices and the violent social conditions they perpetuated. Indeed, as Joshua mentions in his response, Gandhi “went on a fast unto death and eventually won” against Dalit political movements for autonomy and representation most prominently embodied by B. R. Ambedkar, Gandhi’s ideological opponent and the chairperson of India’s Constitution.

    Relatedly, because I see my first book as establishing preconditions for (a theology of) hospitality, it helps to highlight Mel’s summary of the book’s take on Gandhi.

    Forms of hospitality that involve dominant caste members welcoming Dalits or the so-called “untouchables” are, in fact, cruelty masquerading as kindness precisely because the hospitality is not between mutuals; rather, one party is assumed to have hospitality to extend, while the other is presumed to want but often be denied such hospitality. In other words, by giving accolades to those who treat others with basic dignity and respect one disincentivizes recognizing and redressing severe wrongs done.

    Keeping such sobering realities in mind—especially in the description of the formation and perpetuation of violent identities—the book raises the bar for “good persons.” One of the central questions that informs the book is—to invoke a paraphrased Sharon Welch insight—how to interrogate the evil of good people?

    Mel’s observation that cruelty often masquerades as kindness allows me to further elaborate on the need to interrogate the insidious politics of good people. Consider the story of Valmiki (a Dalit) and his lover Savita (a dominant caste woman) the book describes in pp. 40–42. Mel picks up on this story to ask an insightful question, “Which griefs are positively agential?” I respond to Mel’s question by describing the insidious politics of good people—case in point, Savita.

    “It’s just the way things are” is a sense that sometimes accompanies social practices. It is the unexamined feeling that practices are somehow the result of consensus across time and therefore neutral. In other words, by perpetuating these practices, subjects bypass moral dilemmas and even pass as “good people.” In Savita’s case, her parents’ practice of serving Muslims and Dalits in separate cups and dishes does not register as “wrong” in her moral register.

    For Valmiki, Savita’s parents’ actions are discriminatory. For Savita, those same practices are “just the way things are,” justified by (dominant caste) tradition. In questioning Savita’s complicity in the matter, Valmiki’s tone has a “sharp edge,” inflected with anger. Such resistance is the Dalit posture in the face of violence. Valmiki’s questioning of caste-based discrimination has an intriguing effect on Savita. Savita falls silent. “Her bubbliness subsided.”

    The conversation continues between Valmiki and Savita. Until this point in the conversation, Savita mistakes Valmiki for a dominant caste person. When Valmiki affirms his Dalit identity, Savita’s silence turns into tears. “She sobbed for a long time.” This effect—affect, rather—is what Mel insightfully catches to ask the question, “Which griefs are positively agential?”

    Mel’s observation is generative. “Valimiki’s breach of the caste-specificity of Savita’s hospitality results in her grief; she feels wronged by Valimiki’s ‘being SC’ [Dalit, in other words]—and her scandalized tears criminalize him. Her sobbing grief is yet another rite of humiliation. How might grief’s implication in rites of humiliation complicate its centrality in rites of moral responsibility?” Mel’s question does complicate the account of grief as positively agential.

    What intervention might one propose in cases such as Savita? Savita’s grief, as Mel notes, is “identity-affirming rather than identity-transforming.” Indeed, as Mel fleshes out this problematic dominant-caste identity-affirmation, Savita’s grief “exposes her violent identity.”

    Mel probes further. Does Savita’s violent-identity-affirming grief have the last word? Is there any possibility that is “embedded within her grief” that might lead Savita—and correspondingly persons such as her—to a place of identity-transformation?

    Supremacist positions based on caste-based and race-based constructions are lies and yet they are not eschewed because social dominance is desired in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Supremacist positions certainly mean positions that directly lead to brutal violence against inferiorized others but supremacist positions also include positions—such as Savita’s—that seem benign but are not.

    Savita’s “discovery” of Valmiki’s Dalit identity and her corresponding identity-affirming grief is the story of many a dominant caste person in India. Many dominant caste persons in India date across caste barriers but when it comes to the time of marriage, they begin to probe into caste identities in order to align themselves with partners from same or similar caste rankings. They do this because caste-based marriages are about power. Staying connected to such power confers privilege and maintains dominance. This is also true in the United States. Caste-based networks in the United States are common and perpetuate caste-based dominance. It is for this reason that the book has a critical take on caste-based dynamics captured in the movie Meet the Patels (4–5), which uncritically portrays caste as benign, which it is not.

    What does this have to do with Mel’s question about Savita’s grief? Everything. Caste-based and race-based hatred and cruelty have been around for a long time. Such “hatred of thousands of years” today hides under various codewords and political themes such as “culture,” “preventing voter fraud,” “protecting borders,” “nationalism,” and so on. In Savita’s case, her violent-identity-affirming grief arises out of a desire to protect her family’s “culture.” She is heartbroken that Valmiki is not part of her cultural world. However, in seeking to protect such “culture,” she foregoes the opportunity to be married to her Dalit lover. So, on the one hand, through her sobbing, Savita rejects the possibility to allow grief to be identity-transforming. Consequently, the “cultural” dynamics that perpetuate social violence win.

    On the other hand, right before Savita starts sobbing, there seems to be a window of opportunity for her to undertake the task of identity-transforming grief. Her bubbliness is sobered by Valmiki’s anger and self-revelation. There is silence, perhaps even contemplation. That silence was perhaps laden with positive agential possibilities. She could have chosen the love she already had with Valmiki but, instead, she chooses the love of power, or so it seems. This is the evil of “good people” such as Savita.

    Persons from dominant social locations who sincerely believe they are “good people” often encounter situations similar to Savita’s. In those situations, identity-transforming grief is possible. The choices they make in those situations can change the trajectory of their own complicities in social violence. But one cannot make choices that perpetuate social violence and wish love. Those on the underside of history continue to hold a mirror to this reality.