The Revd Dr James Massey

by
19 June 2015

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The Revd Dr Daniel O'Connor writes:

IN THE outcaste seven-year-old boy, working in the landlord's fields in Punjab, no one could have envisaged Dr habil. James Massey of the Goethe University, Frankfurt.

As a Dalit, his beginnings were hard. His family were Christian converts from the untouchable Majbhi Sikh community, and his father was a village pastor, but even in his education and in the Church, he faced discouragement. Several times, he recalled this, "the oppression and discrimination meted out . . . at every step." It was a typical experience of the Dalits in India, endlessly and shamefully persecuted.

Massey's early ministry in the Church of North India was soon enriched by study and writing, and recognition came with his commission to translate the Bible into Punjabi. After a short period with the YMCA, and then as General Secretary of the Indian SPCK, Massey went for doctoral studies in Germany. His first thesis, completed in 1990, addressed theological issues in the Sikh religion, but in his second (for his habilitation) he chose the theme that was to characterise all his subsequent work, "Dalits in India: Religion as a Source of Bondage or Liberation, with special reference to Christians".

Subsequent appointments, as Secretary of the Board of Theological Education at Serampore, with the National Christian Council of India, and on various synodical committees of the Church of North India, were followed by a series of ventures with ecumenical teams which he brought together in a Contextual Studies Centre, a Dalit Solidarity Programme, and a Centre for Dalit/Subaltern Studies, a principal fruit of this team work being a Dalit Bible commentary.

Massey wrote some 20 books, and made a broad and uniquely substantial contribution, biblical, theological and historical, to the Dalit cause. Some, say ten, books would have been better, with greater emphasis on economic and political issues. One of his most controversial was his Roots: A concise history of the Dalits (1991), arguing that India's marginalised outcaste and tribal communities were the original Indian people, with the caste system a subsequent imposition by Aryan incomers, India's brahminical colonialists. However controversial, this makes a great deal more sense than the current Hindutva theory of origins, so absurd to India's historians, and enhances the self-identity of the Dalits.

Inter-religious solidarity was important to him. He wrote about Ambedkar, and forged ties between the Christian Dalits and their Buddhist equivalents, the "Ambedkarites", as well as Hindu and Muslim Dalits. A colleague in the Delhi Brotherhood (of which he was an Associate) said that "his mind was glowing with ideas ready to be articulated," and he was constantly trying out his fresh thinking in cyclostyled offerings for his friends.

"Let me drop you off at home," he said in Delhi one day to the present writer, with a twinkle in his eye. He ushered me into a smart official car with silk-curtained passenger windows and a chauffeur. This was during his period as a member of the National Commission for Minorities. There was, however, much more than prestige to his membership of the Commission, and he was probably the best ever Christian member - the more important as the Nehruvian pluralism began to crumble under a violent Hindu chauvinism.

Two books that he wrote at the time, Minorities in a Democracy: The Indian experience (1999) and Minorities and Religious Freedom in a Democracy (2003) have proved valuable to the legal profession, and have been cited in the judgments of the Supreme Court. Equally important were his interventions as a Commission member in conflict situations.

James Massey died on 2 March, aged 72, leaving his widow, Kala, and daughters Jyoti, Ujwala, and Kiran. The Churches and all in India who care for a just society give thanks for a gifted, courageous, and devoted life.

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