Thursday, November 02, 2006

Illiteracy = Slavery

Sarita and I spent last weekend at a conference for supporters of Mission India. It was a highly informative, disturbing, and encouraging meeting all rolled into one. Let me summarize the "encouraging" part. I want to focus primarily upon the "disturbing" material--primarily because I believe it speaks to a few things that, I think, should be key to most of us as homeschoolers.

The encouraging information: Indians--Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and animist--are responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ in unprecedented numbers partially because they see it as good news.

What most disturbed me: some of the key items we learned about the condition of so much of India's population.

One key statistic: sixty percent of the population as a whole--and, depending on the area, 80 to 90 to, even, 95 percent of the female population--is illiterate. One of Mission India's key ministries has to do with literacy and basic training in health and finance (numeracy and recognizing the respective values of different coins). These matters are so basic to my own education, and what I understand most Westerners are taught, that I never thought through the implications of not learning such things.

While explaining how important literacy is, Mission India's vice president read a portion from Frederick Douglass' autobiography. I want to quote that same section, here, for you because I believe you, since you teach your children might find it "interesting" in the same way I did.

The Value of Literacy

In case you don't know, Frederick Douglass was an American black slave, born in the early 1800s. He was "probably between seven and eight years old" when he was transferred from one master to another.

"Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld," he says, "she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters.

Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a n*gger an inch, he will take an ell. A n*gger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would 'spoil' the best n*gger in the world.

"Now," said he, "if you teach that n*gger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy."

These words . . . [were] a new and special revelation [to me], explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly.

From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

--From Chapter VI of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

The vice president of Mission India noted that illiteracy--the kind of profound illiteracy that is so common in India--is, indeed, a means of enslavement for those who suffer under it. Thus, he noted, the Dalits--or "untouchables"--though legally entitled to education, rarely receive it. The Dalit parents, illiterate themselves, are unable to protect themselves from repressive and unjust business agreements. They thus find themselves, often, in such heavy debt that they and their children are forced to work from early morning till late at night just to purchase enough in order to keep body and soul together.

Unable to read, women are unable to use public transportation in order to leave their immediate communities. And, being unable to leave one's community means one cannot seek better employment, health care, shopping opportunities: all manner of things that we take for granted.

We heard of a Dalit woman whose 6-year-old daughter was kidnapped. At the time, she did not know the girl had been stolen. All she knew was that the girl had disappeared.

She went to the police for aid. They shooed her away. (After all, she was a Dalit--no better than a water ox.) The woman went to her literacy teacher who then brought the woman back to the police and demanded appropriate governmental services (i.e., that the police would listen to the woman's pleas and seek for her missing daughter). Having the requisite education in order to know her legal rights, the literacy teacher was able to acquire for the woman what the woman was unable to acquire for herself at that time. . . .
Over and over, we heard these kinds of stories. The story of Asha, a woman who confessed, only weeks after having come to know about Jesus and to believe that His life, death and resurrection offered her truly good news: “I did not know I was a human being!”

“What?!? How can you not know you are a human being?”

“I had always been treated as no better than an ox. I thought I was just an animal--just a different kind of animal, an animal in the shape of a human. But then I heard that Jesus died for me. And I am a daughter of the King of the Universe. . . .”

This is revolutionary news and, frankly, I, John Holzmann, have not known it. (Sometimes, it seems, one needs to “see” reality through other people’s eyes in order, truly, to understand it.)

Asha went and told her family and friends about her revolutionary discovery. In three months, she led 13 people to faith in Jesus. . . .
As I was preparing this post, I had to find the quotation I shared with you above from Frederick Douglass. That led me to read some portions of the text nearby. And the nearby sections of Douglass’ book reminded me strongly of what our speakers from Mission India had to say about so many women’s experiences in India--whether Hindu or Muslim, high- or low- or out-caste.

Douglass described, late in Chapter V of his book, what he experienced when he first met the Auld family:
Mr. and Mrs. Auld were both at home, and met me at the door with their little son Thomas. . . . And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld. I wish I could describe the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it. It was a new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with the light of happiness. . . .

Douglass continues the story in the first paragraph of Chapter VI:

My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,--a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery.

I was utterly astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards her. She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face.! The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence, and none left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music.

In Douglass’ case, sadly, this attitude on the part of his mistress was to shift dramatically once her husband reprimanded her. You will want to read his book to “hear” the full story.

What I want you to “hear” is how Douglass describes the state of the slave. It is the exact same attitudes he said he had learned to show his masters that outcastes/Dalits/untouchables are taught to show toward everyone around them: crouching servility, inability to look someone in the face. But it is the message of Jesus Christ, the message that they are fully human and, in fact, truly touchable (because the Christians will actually touch them!) that revolutionizes their lives. . . .


The people at Mission India told us about the things they are teaching in their literacy classes. Besides the message of the good news of Jesus Christ--the message that Asha received with such great joy--they teach people: “Don't go into debt. Instead, save!”

This, too, is a revolutionary message. Instead of families, parents and children together, finding themselves forced to work long hours, day and night in order to meet their debt obligations, the parents are able to send their children to school. And they willingly send their children to school. The parents and the children, both, gain new hope for the future.

I thought: what a truly revolutionary message these Christian literacy teachers carry, what truly revolutionary behavior they are engaged in . . . and, for those of us who are teaching our children: what a truly revolutionary cause to which, I pray, we are calling them.

Caste and Reincarnation

We were told that, according to The Barna Group, 26% of Americans believe in reincarnation. The speaker who mentioned this statistic asked--much the way St. Paul suggested in Galatians 5:12 concerning the "circumcision party": "I wonder why they don't 'go all the way' and adopt the entire Hindu worldview?"

He explained why. It's because the Hindu worldview is so totally hopeless.

I had never understood why reincarnation could be viewed as hopeless, nor why Christians suggest that the Hindu caste system and the doctrine of reincarnation, together, are so antithetical and/or antagonistic to what Westerners call "human rights." Our speaker explained that, as well.

In the Hindu worldview, one is born into one's caste as a reward or punishment for one's immediately preceding life. Perhaps one was an animal in a former life; maybe one was a Brahmin. Whatever one was, one's caste today is a direct result--a "reward," if you will--for how one fulfilled one's "calling" or "caste" or "position" in one's former life.

Therefore--and this was what I had never understood before--if you are an outcaste/Dalit/untouchable today, then you need to live that life to the "fullest," suffer your pains and sufferings as a "good" outcaste/Dalit/untouchable: in order to pay the "price" for your failures in your previous life, whatever those failures may have been. . . .

And if you are, say, a Brahmin, you would actually be doing the outcaste/Dalit/untouchable a disservice if you were to attempt to relieve him or her of his or her sufferings. If s/he is unable to undergo the full cup of suffering, how will s/he be able come back at a higher station next time 'round? One's suffering cannot--they must not--be relieved within a lifetime. Only at death, and with rebirth/reincarnation in a new life, can one hope to enjoy any relief . . . and only if one has "earned" such relief through perfect suffering in the present life. Ouch!


I do not have a fancy ending to what I have written. I thought I should share a bit of what I'm learning right now. This weekend--in fact, beginning tonight--Sarita and I are attending another conference; this one for supporters of Wycliffe Associates. I wonder what we will learn there?

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