America’s Caste System
In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson tells of a 1959 visit to India by Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. The visit occurred shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott. Reverend King had long dreamed of visiting the land where Mohandas Gandhi had led the nonviolent protest that brought India its freedom from British rule. King was an admirer of Gandhi and his methods.
The Kings were welcomed with open arms. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited them to stay for a full month, during which they were able to see much of the country. King was especially interested in seeing the Dalits—the Untouchables, who occupied the lowest level in the Indian caste system.
In the city of Trivandrum the Kings visited a high school where the students were from the Untouchable caste. The principal introduced Reverend King by saying, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”
King was surprised. He had never thought of himself as an untouchable, and was disturbed by the introduction. He did not see a connection between himself and the Indian caste system. He said, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.”
Then he thought of the lives of the people he was fighting for, those he wanted to see raised from the lowest rank in American society. He realized, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” He realized that America had imposed its own caste system on its people, that he was living under that system, and had been his whole life.
How easy it is for us to fall into the trap of caste, to consign people to a level of society based on the color of their skin, their income, the work they do, their religion, or other factors that should not determine their place in society. There’s a wonderful line from the musical My Fair Lady. Professor Henry Higgins sings:
An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
Whether it’s speech, or dress, or walk, or the music one listens to, or some other characteristic, we label people, categorize them, and dismiss them. “Job done. That one’s taken care of. We know precisely where to place her in the pecking order—what caste she fits into.”
Jesus had a different idea of caste. First, like his Father, he believed in complete equality. No one person was greater than any other. In Matthew (11:11) Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That creates a completely level playing field.
In Luke (22:24-27) Jesus goes further. His disciples argue over who will be greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells them that the greatest will be the one who serves. Since there was no difference in the first century between servants and slaves, he is telling his followers that to succeed they must become slaves. Jesus points to himself as the example. He did not, as he says elsewhere, come to be served but to serve.
Perhaps we in America need to study this concept further. Perhaps we should redefine our caste system. Perhaps there should be no untouchables, because the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and through that cross God has touched us all.