Difference and Humanity Among Christians in Indian Slums

MRB August 28, 2017 0

Liana Chua Reviews Nathaniel Roberts’ To Be Cared For

Nathaniel Roberts, To Be Cared For: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum, University of California Press, 2016, 312 pp., $29.95

Recently, a certain meme made the rounds on my (admittedly anthropologist-heavy) social media feed. The meme features a photo of the pioneering anthropologist Ruth Benedict, whom it cites:

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

Over the past year, this quote became a rallying cry for anthropologists and other liberal left-leaning scholars concerned about the rise of right-wing nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment in their own backyards. An ethical and a political injunction, it demands that scholars do more than observe and describe human differences; it demands that we actively create a milieu in which differences between humans can exist and flourish.

Ruth Benedict’s quotation kept surfacing in my thoughts as I read Nathaniel Roberts’ superb ethnography of the lives of Christian Dalit slum dwellers in Chennai, India. Formerly known as “untouchables,” Dalits are people without caste, “those other Indians” about whom extant Indianist scholarship has strikingly little to say. Scorned, spurned, and dehumanized by many non-Dalits, they appear at first glance to be precisely the sort of people whose difference anthropologists ought to be documenting and protecting. Their story appears to conform to a familiar story in many ethnographies of world Christianity: a marginalized group (Dalit slum dwellers) embraces “foreign” and relatively marginal religion (Pentecostal Christianity) as a means of coping with their marginality and protecting their distinctive identity and way of life. Yet it is precisely this sort of overly-neat reasoning that Roberts manages to disrupt through his careful ethnographic analysis.


Roberts conducted his fieldwork in a slum neighbourhood that he calls “Anbu Nagar” where he lived as a resident rather than merely visiting like an “information collector” during the day. In this way, he became absorbed into the slum’s “multiple networks of kin and friendship,” gaining detailed insights into its everyday social dynamics. It is from this unusually intimate position that he explicates the “moral ethos of the slum” and the “fault lines” that ran through it in practice – both of which, he argues, provided fertile grounds in which Christianity took root.

Roberts’ ethnography centers on a small community of Pentecostal Christian slum dwellers, the vast majority of whom were women. His prime interest is not in Pentecostalism per se, nor in how its particular manifestation in this context relates to its better-known and more widely-studied counterparts in Africa and Latin America. Rather, while acknowledging the textual, conceptual, and praxiological contiguities between global Pentecostalisms, he points out that

“to understand why some slum dwellers convert and others do not we must begin with the unique moral problems and cultural contradictions that structure their existence.”

Unlike many other studies of Indian society, however, Roberts does not begin with the usual suspects: caste, ritual, text, or religious and national identity. Cutting through this dense conceptual thicket, he reveals instead how his fellow slum residents routinely shunned the language of caste, tending instead to describe themselves as “the poor,” and other Indians as “the rich.” Importantly, residents’ claims were underpinned by a particular conception of humanity as a basic, universal condition characterized not only by biological makeup, but by the capacity to care and be cared for. Being human, then, meant maintaining a state of openness and vulnerability to others, a state that Roberts’ interlocutors saw themselves as sharing with the rest of the world.

Against this backdrop, slum dwellers portrayed caste not as primordial and indelible but as a human-made, moral aberration, a contrivance on the part of other Indians to selfishly enrich themselves at “the poor’s” expense. By refusing to care for others, these “rich” people also cut themselves off from the global mass of common humanity, of which slum dwellers remained part. Roberts argues his acquaintances

“reversed the dominant picture that isolated people like themselves as uniquely stained, by reframing caste people as isolated from a morally superior humanity of which they themselves were a part.”

By contrast, slum dwellers consistently espoused a “moral discourse in which [they] portrayed themselves as the epitome of goodness, the very embodiment of humanity and care.” Here was a model that embraced human commonality while eschewing the institutionalization of difference – in this case, through caste discrimination – as morally iniquitous.

As Roberts goes on to show, this ethos of commonality, sharing, and caring was routinely contradicted by various moral fault lines – notably the problematic relationships between husbands and wives and between slum women. When they soured, as they often did, such relationships laid bare the divisions and inequalities that striated slum life. These frequently manifested themselves in extraordinary pressures on individual women, who were held responsible for their households’ well-being and tribulations. In these situations, both Hindu and Christian gods were seen as potential, equally benevolent, benefactors to which people could turn, sometimes in rapid succession. What, then, was Pentecostal Christianity’s distinctive contribution to slum life? And what was it that made slum women “stick” to Christianity far more than men did?

Roberts’ answer – fleshed out through close ethnographic analysis – may seem counterintuitive to some scholars of religion. Analyses of Protestant Christianity often foreground the individualizing aspect of conversion and the way in which it enacts a break with older relations and the cultivation of new dyadic bonds with Christian personages. However, what Roberts highlights is the insistent relationality of slum Christianity, which continually “sutured” the moral fault lines of slum life by turning the problems of individual women into matters of communal concern. Take, for example, the female “prayer teams” that made weekly visits to all the households within their congregation in order to compile lists of “prayer requests” replete with details about alcoholic husbands, money trouble, sickness, and so on. The prayer request list was attended to and read out by the pastor at the weekly service. Rather than underscoring women’s individual culpability for such problems, these visits and prayers embedded them in

“a dense web of knowledge, sympathy, and prayer that joined each and every one of the congregation’s households … to every other.”

Like spontaneous “testimonies” at Sunday services, this “social technology of Christian prayer” enabled women to publicly assert their need for care while diffusing the burden of their individual responsibility across a caring, knowing moral network. What Christianity specifically offered, then, was the means through which women could deal with both their collective oppression as Dalits and the individual pressures arising from their fraught relationships within the slum.

Such practices of prayer and care were embedded in a distinctly Christian discourse of moral transformation that valorized slum dwellers’ collective and individual suffering as forms of liberation and salvation. But here, two further insights are key. First, Roberts notes that slum dwellers did not see themselves as being saved from their own sins, but rather the sins of others and, more specifically, of caste people: “the rich” who persisted in rejecting slum dwellers’ humanity. Second, the comfort, blessings, and protection afforded by the Christian god extended to all slum dwellers, Hindu and Christian alike, instead of only applying to Christians. Notably, despite the politics of religious identity swirling around them at the national level, Roberts’ acquaintances did not couch their victimhood or salvation in terms of a Christian identity. Rather – and this is where the book’s ethnographic strands are beautifully tied together – what Christianity and Christ’s suffering allowed them to become was themselves: “what they had been all along,” that is, “fellow human beings worthy of love and care.” Jesus left his caste and became human; likewise, these slum dwellers were learning, through Christianity, to realize their shared, fundamentally relational humanity.

The notion that religious orientation is wrapped up in identity – whether national, ethnic, regional, or linguistic – has remained something of a truism in studies of world religion, particularly in contexts that lack a clear divide between the “secular” and the “religious.” Roberts’ ethnography, however, provides a powerful counterpoint to this assumption by disentangling the study of religion from that of identity. What To Be Cared For details is a “native” model of humanity in which difference is not inherent, essential, or immutable, but the outcome of specific moral practices, of caring and not-caring. For slum dwellers, converting to Christianity was not a means of shoring up or claiming a particular identity, but rather a means of refusing a false reification imposed on them by others. It was not a means of establishing their distinctiveness, but of embracing their commonality with a global humanity that lay beyond the confines of the nation.


Let us return to the question of human difference and for whom or what are we meant to make the world more safe. As currently deployed on social media, Ruth Benedict’s quote functions as something of a liberal, cosmopolitan paean: an exhortation to create a pluralistic space for difference (often couched in terms of distinctive collective identities) to thrive and be valued on its own terms. To an extent, this is indeed what Roberts achieves through his meticulous ethnography, which depicts the particular social and moral textures of slum life with admirable lucidity. Indeed, his book ends on a note of critique, pointing out that

“slum Christianity’s significant micropolitical achievements remain invisible to those who want to outlaw it.”

But what I think Roberts’ ethnography also shows, deliberately or otherwise, are the limits of the currently fashionable model of cosmopolitanism-as-scholarly-politics, of which the Benedict meme is only one manifestation. As Roberts shows, difference is not always measured, valued, or materialized in the same way across diverse contexts, and it may not always be an inherently or self-evidently desirable thing. Our keenness to celebrate and protect identity-based plurality should not blind us to the fact that there are those (such as Roberts’ co-residents) for whom the attribution of difference can be both unwanted and detrimental; for whom salvation and liberation lie not in the acknowledgement of their distinctiveness but in the recognition of their sameness, their common humanity. To Be Cared For powerfully conveys this point, and in so doing offers more than a skillful ethnography of Christianity; it also reveals the potential of anthropology shorn of theoretical and political pretension to unsettle our own scholarly politics

Liana Chua received her PhD from the University of Cambridge and is currently Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University in London.  She has worked on Christianity, ethnic politics, development and resettlement among Bidayuh communities in Malaysian Borneo since 2003, and is the author of The Christianity of Culture: Conversion, Ethnic Citizenship, and the Matter of Religion in Malaysian Borneo (2012). Her current research explores the social and political dimensions of the global nexus of orangutan conservation.