Thursday, July 05, 2007

Go Away?

I am always surprised, but should not be, by the cruelty people can inflict on one another. This cruelty is especially troubling and intractable when it is encased in, and justified by, societal norms and institutional customs. A recent article (“Shunned from society, widows flock to city to die,” Arwa Damon,,) details the plight of the estimated 40 million widows living in India. Most of them are shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons but because of tradition -- they are seen as a drain on their families.

Some of them flock to the holy city of Vrindavan, where they wait to die, living on side streets, shuffling along with walking canes. They are forbidden to remarry and must shave their heads. They typically wear white, and others consider even their shadows bad luck. They go to Vrindavan because of the widespread belief that dying there will free them from the cycle of life and death, particularly the plight of being condemned to a widow’s life again.

Seventy-year-old Rada Biswas was married for 50 years. When her husband died she was instantly ostracized by her loves ones, including her son, who told her “You have grown old. Who is going to feed you? Go away.” She now begs for food in front of one of Vrindavan’s temples.

Eighty-five-year-old Promita Das married at 12 and was widowed at 15. The child to whom she gave birth at age 14 died within a year. She spent the rest of her life as an outcast, cleaning houses for a living. “Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I survived on my own.”

The Indian government recognizes the problem and change is starting to take place slowly, very slowly. What caught my eye about this news item was the term “widow.” If there is any category of people in the Bible for whom, over and over, believers are commanded to care for, it is widows (and orphans). “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, defend the widow,” exhorts the prophet Isaiah (1:17). “The Lord tears down the proud man’s house, but he keeps the widow’s boundaries intact,” teaches Proverbs (15:25). True religion is “to look after widows and orphans in their distress,” James reminds us (1:27). In the early church there was a special ministry to widows, who were also expected to be active in ministry themselves (I Timothy 5).

All of this reminds me how powerful a witness the gospel of Jesus is to the world when we take Jesus seriously and truly live in his name. Granted, the plight of widows in India is extraordinary; many societies practice the cultural value of caring for aging family members. But consider the contrast between the value of expediency (“you are a drain on the family and on society”) and the value of mercy (“you are a child of God created in his image, no matter your plight”). Expediency says abort your handicapped child. Mercy says treasure him or her. Expediency says euthanize your aging parents (medically or socially). Mercy says care for them. This is radical stuff, folks. It is not what we would arrive at in our normal human faculties without the thundering and disrupting and passionately righteous love of God asserting his claim on our lives and calling us to his kingdom work. As G.K. Chesterton famously noted, There’s a reason Christians staff most of the leprosariums in the world.

Listen for the thunder.


Blogger DeShee said...

Orphans too:

3:16 PM  

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