A Sermon on “The Riddle of Genuine Religion: Remembering Ambedkar” to mark the 128th birth anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on Sunday, 14th April 2019

Scripture Reading:   

Old Testament   :           Amos 8:4 – 6

 New Testament    :           James 1:19 – 27

              Gospel               :           Mathew 25:31 – 40

The 128th Birth anniversary of Dr. B. R Ambedkar falls on Sunday, 14 April, 2019. On this particular Sunday it is important for us to have a bird’s eye view of how Ambedkar looked at religion. Interestingly, his understanding of religion has resemblances with the passages given here. Let us examine how Ambedkar viewed religion:

According to Ambedkar the life and practices of the society lay the foundation of religion. Therefore, religion is part of one’s “social inheritance”. He affirmed the role of religion in the society and life of people, but he never endorsed hypocritic expressions in the name of religion. Religion, to him, is the driving force for human activity. He elsewhere remarked that “Man cannot live by bread alone. He has a mind which needs food for thought. Religion instils hope in Man and drives him to activity.”  He linked religion with the social being of the people. He remarked, “The religion which discriminates between two followers is partial and the religion which treats crores of its adherents worse than dogs and criminals and inflicts upon them insufferable disabilities is no religion at all. He wanted a religion which was all inclusive and open to all. Ambedkar also was of the opinion that religion should be rites and ritual free. He emphasized the social value of religion.  The social values talked about by Ambedkar are dignity, equality, liberty and fraternity which are the core values of a society.  Ambedkar believed that for betterment of socio-economic, religious and political way of life, “the prescription of equality, liberty and fraternity was needed.” Ambedkar in his response to religion sees religion in the interest of establishing a society of equals. For him, the questions of the origin, nature and practice of religion were not essential; instead he studied and assessed various religions from a social perspective of justice. Thus, we can say that for Ambedkar the search for a new religion was less of a spiritual quest and more of a longing for a religion free from unnecessary rites and rituals and built on the principles of justice and equality.

Similar to Ambedkar’s views, the prophet Amos criticised religion which discriminates people based on their economic back ground. His criticism is meant to evolve a genuine religion. Let us now look at how the prophetic voice of Amos described the characteristics of genuine religion:

  1. Genuine religion is meant to raise a prophetic voice against injustice:

 First of all, genuine religion is raising a prophetic voice against injustice. In the Old Testament, through Amos’ eyes we see a society which on the surface at least, was strong in economic and military terms. But it is also a society which in moral terms is on the verge of collapse. When they came out of the desert the Israelites were poor wanderers. After settling down they became a nation of small farmers. Now things were changing and land was being accumulated into great estates and used as a basis for generating surplus wealth. At the same time and because of the former there were others too who were losing their lands and were becoming poor. They had to become slaves or labourers on daily wages. Seeing all this Amos’ anger burst out and he raised a voice against them. He denounced those who trample the needy, those who were involved in buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes and forcing them into slavery. Amos warned them that disaster will come upon them all and the earth would tremble on this account. He prophesized that God’s judgement would come upon them as the flood in the river Nile.

The question that we must ask is what does this tell us of the religion of Israel? How did it react to this crisis? At first sight it seemed to be flourishing. People were going on pilgrimages, they thronged noisy religious festivals, and they offered the right sacrifices. But they were blind to the injustice that surrounded them. Indeed, some of them who were most fervent in their religious observance were the very people engaged in the exploitation. This made Amos’ anger abound.

Friends the situation was as challenging then as it is today. We also live in a society which is oppressive to the poor and helps the rich. Many of the projects which are advertised as beneficial to the people also cause many to become landless, many landowners to become labourers and the rift between the rich and the poor continues to broaden. The coming of many multi-national companies into the retail vegetable market is ruining the lives of many small and poor farmers and vegetable vendors. We have many examples of the people whose lives were ruined because their lands came under Special Economic Zones. We have the examples of poor vegetable vendors protesting against Reliance Fresh and in return getting a lathi charge and permanently losing their only livelihood.  What is our response to that as becoming pastors and prophets of the modern age? Do we give a thought to these things? We go to our churches, hear the scripture, the sermon, pay our offerings and tithes and come back. No doubt our religion is flourishing. But what about our brothers and sisters who are oppressed? Ambedkar in this regard has much to offer. He believed that no development can sustain if the angle of social equality is ignored as it will create imbalance in the society and marginalised people will remain outside the circle of growth.  He pleaded for national economic and social development, stressing on education, public hygiene, community health, residential facilities as the basic amenities. The question is what we do in such age of crisis. Do we just let it go or we raise a prophetic voice against what is happening? If we want to honour the spirit of Ambedkar in our lives and ministries, we have to raise our prophetic voice against the injustices around us both economic and social.

  1. Genuine religion is meant to create inclusive community:

Based on our second reading we shall see the task of genuine religion in creating an inclusive community. If anyone thinks he or she is religious on the ideas of what makes one acceptable before God, they are varied, confused and contradictory. In some cases, great stress is laid upon ritualistic purity like the washing of body parts, as in the instance described in Mark’s gospel. An Islamic devotee would not go to offer namaz before doing wazoo a ritualistic washing of various body parts. Even Christians hold that baptism is essential for salvation, and that no one can be truly accepted until she or he has undergone this rite. In other cases, the exact form of this ceremony has been held supremely important or it has been supposed that God does not accept the prayers of those whose theology does not conform to a certain pattern. History bears witness that ‘heretics’ have been tortured to make them acceptable to God.”

James however, follows his predecessors, the Hebrew prophets, and his Master Jesus, in conceiving one’s relationship to God as dependent upon none of these things, but upon a simple and sincere relationship with one’s fellow beings. Such an understanding of religion is so simple that many believe it to be inadequate. However, it is so difficult to put into practice that instead ceremonies with the most complicated elaboration have been found easier to offer to God. To James listening is a poor substitute for doing. Matthew Henry in his classic commentary writes, “If we heard a sermon every day of the week, and an angel from heaven were the preacher, yet, if we rested in hearing only, it would never bring us to heaven. Mere hearers are self-deceivers.” During New Testament times, the condition of the widows had not improved. After Pentecost, a problem arose even in the early church over the care of widows. The Hellenist widows once lived in a foreign community. While they had Jewish ancestors, they had a Greek lifestyle. They had come to Jerusalem to retire after their husband’s death. However, the pure- blooded Jews of the ancient city tended to ignore them. When they were not adequately cared for by the early church, they voiced their concerns. The apostles felt that the matter was so important that they decided to ordain seven deacons to look after these widows. Therefore, James writes specially to care for the widows and orphans. He wants the church to be more inclusive and to take care for those who are excluded from the main life. To care for the widows and orphans should not be taken literally in the present age. The author of the passage tells us that genuine religion is to take care of those who do not have any one to take care of them. Widows too belong to such a category. He encourages us to strive to make the community in which we live more inclusive to those who are side-lined by the dominant groups in the society. Today we see that such people require very special attention from us. They do not need our sympathy. What they need from us is to act. This action should stem from the prescription of liberty, equality and fraternity suggested by Ambedkar, to make sure that everyone who is downtrodden oppressed, ostracized is included in the fold of God and have equal status, rights and opportunities.

  1. The genuine religion is meant to serve the least of the people:

 Thirdly we shall see that genuine religion serves the least of the people. The gospel passage is often called the parable of judgement and it calls us to serve the least of humanity. No other piece of Jesus’ recorded teaching expresses so eloquently and beautifully the ethical spirit of the O.T and Judaism. At this point Jesus and his contemporaries were in one accord. The parable may well have been preserved by those Jewish Christians who compiled the Matthean material (M source), for it expressed the heart of religion as they understood it. It may be read in parallel to James 1:27; 2:14-16; Luke. 10:30-37. It would not be true to say that for Jesus; religion means only outgoing love and nothing else. The righteousness of the kingdom of God is many sided and it is based on a particular relation of trust, receptiveness, and loyalty towards God. But this love is the end product of genuine religion, and by this fruit one’s true relation to God is known. The most striking part of the parable is that on judgement day some will discover that though they did not know it; they were on God’s side all this time. The one on the throne asks the sheep and goats to be separated. The criterion of judgement is an astonishment. From the sea of faces each of us will be singled out and will be asked not about our creed or our worship but what we have done for the least of our brothers and sisters in society. Therefore, one of the characteristics of a follower of genuine religion is that he or she forgets herself/himself in the service of the least.

The criterion of judgement will be the actions that we did for our brothers and sisters. As we ponder upon this criterion the question which comes up is, is the whole Christian life mere sympathy? The answer is obviously NO but such an act springing from the love for our brothers and sisters made known by Christ is an essential act without which faith languishes and dies. The other question which arises is whether individual assistance enough. No, it is not but we must raise our voice against unjust systems, so that they may no longer target our brothers and sisters.

Friends we should be the gospel of Christ in this world and we should act accordingly. We are called to share the good news with the poor, dalits, oppressed. Also we need to have a mind to listen to them. They also have some good news to share with us. The name of Christ will be held high in such a reciprocal and mutual sharing.  Jesus, the Messiah identifies himself completely with the interests and needs of the least of our brothers and sisters. We should be aware of the fact that Jesus is manifested to us through these people and our act of solidarity with them will be counted as we have done something good to Jesus Christ himself. We have to extend our religion from the four walls of a building to the streets and markets and wherever the cries of people are heard. Our responsibility as disciples of Christ is to serve the least of our brothers and sisters to make this world a better place for everyone. There emerges the genuine and authentic religion. There comes the significance of judgement. The one who stands for the least will have the right-hand side. This symbolic expression of judgement reminds us of our responsibilities as disciples of Christ.  Ambedkar’s pain for the victims of the caste will also be addressed through such a genuine practice of religion.

Therefore, friends the genuine religion for us should be action in God’s will to set our brothers and sisters free from their bondages, to take care of those who have nobody to look after them, to make their voice heard and to stand against the systems which are oppressive and to strive for the inclusion of the people who are discriminated on various hollow grounds, to serve those who are counted as least of the people. As modern prophets we should ask the question; what is the logic of promoting love and care as personal virtues without being willing to confront the oppressive political and economical institutions that economically and socially destroy our sisters and brothers. Answering this question needs our reflexive action. During this general election I have been struggling with this concern. When we exercise our franchise, do we consider all these factors as significant? I may claim that Ambedkar was always captivated with Christ. He desired a religion which instructed people to have mutuality and cooperation. It was largely Ambedkar’s appreciation for Jesus that made him hope that Christianity would help in solving social discrimination in India. Being aware of the love Jesus had for the lowly and the role he played as the liberator of the poor, he calls Jesus a physician to untouchables because when Jesus was taunted by the Pharisees, he retorted by saying that all have no need for the physician, but they that are sick.

On this Ambedkar Jayanti we are also challenged to continue this role of a physician described by the scripture today and by Baba Sahib himself by raising a prophetic voice against injustices around us, by striving towards making inclusive communities and by serving the least of the people. The challenge before religions today is to follow this model in order to be genuine in their situations.  May God bless us and strengthen us to practice a genuine and authentic religion of action showed by Jesus and desired by Ambedkar. Amen.

(This sermon is prepared by Rev. Ashish John Archer. He is an ordained minister in the Diocese of Lucknow, Church of North India and hails from Uttar Pradesh. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in the department of Mission and Ecumenics in United Theological College, Bangalore, India.)

 Pradip Bansrior
Executive Secretary
Dalit and Tribal/Adivasi Concerns, NCCI


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