- Teaching Biblical Studies in a Pandemic: India
The people of democratic India were given only four hours’ notice before lockdown measures took effect on 24 March 2020. Despite the fact that the decision was made by the central government without sufficient preparation and without consulting state governments, India was initially praised for its forcefulness and for the methodical manner in which it closed educational institutions; borders, both international and domestic; sporting events; and the film industry. The measures were strict, and the numbers of those infected with COVID-19 were low relative to the 1.38 billion plus people for whom India is home. The Indian people were delighted and gratified that they had such an efficient government that sought to stem the spread of the virus. India scored the highest rating of 100 for its lockdown measures, according to a “stringency index” framed by researchers at Oxford University.1
As of 23 August there were over 3,105,185 confirmed cases with 57,692 dead.2 With India ranking third after the United States and Brazil, these numbers are exposing the weaknesses in the lockdown measures and their implementation. The very quick and abrupt measures came with several “blindspots,” putting at risk the lives of the millions in India who are impoverished and vulnerable. Women, children, and the Dalits who make up a large percentage of the poor have been absent from the government’s COVID-19 policy. The crisis has accentuated and [End Page 613] unmasked the divided and fragmented India, the disparity between peoples, the discriminatory and oppressive hierarchical system of castes,3 and all the prevalent structures of class that “serve the interests of neoliberal capitalist powers, religious supremacists, and social and economic elites.”4 The caste system “aided by the virus has valorized the idea of segregation”5 of the poor and Dalits, whose “untouchability” stretches far beyond the present demands of social distancing and cleanness.
The crisis has highlighted among several other issues the cracks in the health-care system, a shortage of testing facilities and health professionals, and overworked crematoriums. This situation has enabled a drastic increase in “intimate partner violence” (IPV, otherwise termed “intimate terrorism”)6 and has impacted close to forty million internal migrant workers,7 whose labor is the engine that drives many businesses and also middle-and upper-class households in the form of domestic help. The lockdown measures have left these workers, a majority of whom live hand-to-mouth, without an income or a bed, as factories and construction sites have closed. The loss of employment and forceful social distancing triggered a chaotic and painful process of mass return for internal migrants in India, contributing further to the spread of the epidemic.
The return journeys of these thousands of workers have been likened to the biblical exodus, but without the miracles experienced by the Hebrews.8 The stories [End Page 614] of these migrants might also bring to mind the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1–16), in which fragile workers are hired daily and not on long-term arrangements. They are an “expendable” labor force for the urban elite, much as we see in India. Yet the landowner seems to be lauded for his generosity in this parable, and the recorded complaint of the workers remains locked in the economic system. The “kingdom of heaven” is apparently linked more to an arbitrary exercise of power than to a “portal on the future.”9 In short, critical studies of the Bible are essential.
Relating biblical materials to the diverse social, religious, and economic realities in India is difficult, but socially conscious Indian biblical interpreters affirm the potential of the Bible to facilitate the liberation of marginalized communities— at least, if biblical studies can be practiced as subversive and intersectional rejoinders to specific contexts of practical action. The hermeneutical principles to be used at any given time would have to be evaluated according to the extent to which they promote “basic values such as the freedom of religion, human rights, the reduction of violence as a means of social control, and the cultivation of covenantal senses of vocational...