Dr. Sunder John Boopalan, Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, has taught at CMU since 2020.
I got into this business precisely because of that. Every day, students give me hope. Sometimes stuff happens in the classroom—I call it a change in plot. You walk in and you think, I know how the story is going to play out...and what I think we sometimes take for granted is that actually a person's place in the story can change the plot of the story. I think that's the place where students give me the most hope, because each of those persons sitting there with me in the classroom can change the outcome of the conversation. That open-ended plot of any interpersonal encounter gives me the greatest hope, and students do that all the time.
Laughing at the Devil, a course that explores the role of humour in building solidarity and resistance against injustice. Structures of injustice, oppression—the magnitude is so great, it seems sometimes like we can't do anything about it. Take, for instance, patriarchy or capitalism. Is capitalism going to disappear over a good cup of coffee? I don't think so... I imagine it's going to outlast my lifetime. We're so used to having these kinds of dominant conventional approaches to resisting injustice. Holding a placard or protesting on the street have their place, they should happen. But we're so serious when it comes to resisting injustice! There's something to that Sunday school song that tells us the devil doesn't like it when we laugh at the devil. How do we think about resisting injustice through humour? What does that look like? There are all kinds of humour that we are being introduced to in the class—dark humour or humour that is aggressive. What does it mean to think about humour that's nonviolent?
I am part of a seminar through the Westar Institute called the Christ Seminar, which looks at christologies of the people. What does Jesus mean for us today? That's the big question. I've been in conversation with several scholars, activists, priests, other workers of various stripes for several months now. We had our very first public-facing conversation last week, with around 200 participants. That's one thing I'm really excited about. When Christian missionaries came to India, they went to those at the very top of the caste hierarchy because they believed in this mistaken notion called trickle-down effect—that if they could convince them about the good news of the gospel, then the gospel would percolate into all of Indian society. Actually, those at the top had no use for Jesus. Here was a guy, fully God, fully human, hanging out with the wretched of the earth. They thought, 'Those people on the margins of society who we treated terribly, they get to be first?! No thank you, I want to be first.' But communities that were both treated and called as untouchables, Dalits (the self-given name), came to these missionaries and said, 'We like this Jesus guy, we want to be Christian.' That is the story of Christianity in India. That is the story of my community, so Jesus matters to me a great deal.
I have a very simple answer, actually. What I most long for in my work is to think and feel about how we can further love. I hesitate saying that because it's a bit of a cliché: 'If only we could have more love in the world.' But I actually think it's true! At the heart of it, most of my work is driven by love in the sense that God is involved in the life of the world because God loves the world. What does love look like in our own time and place?
I think about structural wrongs a lot—things like patriarchy, sexism, racism, or in the Indian context, casteism. I think about these wrongs a lot and I think about how theology can make an intervention in redressing wrongs. Lately I've been thinking a lot about affect, another word for feelings—how people feel, how societies feel, how affect and feelings actually lead to particular consequences, actions. I'm working on an essay that's going to be part of a volume called Global Visions of Violence, in which I'm exploring how affect can actually lead to violence depending on what it does; similar affects can be put to very different ends. I incorporate a lot of ethnographic work, bringing that into conversation with theology.
Peace and justice come together at Canadian Mennonite University, and I like that. I also like that biblical and theological studies is at the core, not of power necessarily, but as something that holds the center of gravity. Here we can describe the world not only as it is, but as it could be, as it should be. That makes it a really exciting place to be at.
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