The Common Good

Post-Colonial Theology

[Editor's Note: Emergent Village will be hosting its annual Theological Conversation this year in Atlanta, Georgia from Nov. 1-3 on the topic of "Creating Liberated Spaces in a Post-colonial World." This year's conversation will feature a global panel of theologians -- Musa Dube of Botswana, Richard Twiss of the Lakota Sioux tribe, and Colin Greene of the UK. This blog post was written as part of a series to help get the conversation started ahead of time in preparation for this important gathering.]

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Call me cynical, but here's my suspicion: Adjectives in front of theology are deceptive. Yes, they're needed; no, I'm not against them, but still, they're deceptive. Here's how.

By distinguishing some theology with a modifier -- feminist, black, Latin American, eco-, post-colonial, or indigenous, we are playing into the idea that these theologies are special, different -- boutique theologies if you will. Meanwhile, unmodified theology -- theology without adjectives -- thus retains its privileged position as normative. Unmodified theology is accepted as Christian theology, or orthodox theology, or important, normal, basic, real, historic theology.

But what if we tried to subvert this deception? What if we started calling standard, unmodified theology chauvinist theology, or white theology, or consumerist, or colonial, or Greco-Roman theology? The covert assumption behind the modifier post-colonial thus becomes overt, although it is generally more obliquely and politely stated than this: Standard, normative, historic, so-called orthodox Christian theology has been a theology of empire, a theology of colonialism, a theology that powerful people used as a tool to achieve and defend land theft, exploitation, domination, superiority, and privilege.

If that doesn't sound disturbing, I'm not writing well or you're not reading well.

Of course, it may be a false accusation. But it may not. And determining the degree to which it is or is not is part of the work of post-colonial theology.

I was involved for several years in "the postmodern conversation" before I realized that it was only one side of the coin. It took place largely among the former colonizers. Meanwhile, the post-colonial conversation had arisen among the formerly colonized. While the postmodern conversation focused on important intellectual issues like the objectivity and absoluteness of statements, the interpretation of texts, the limitations and biases of language, and so on, the post-colonial conversation focused on how those intellectual issues were playing out in history, especially during and since the era of the Conquistadors. The former was largely about knowledge, and the latter largely about how knowledge became a tool of power. So the two conversations were inter-related, and the latter in some ways enfolded and extended the former from the realm of theory to the realm of practice, from philosophy to ethics.

As I expanded my own considerations in these directions, important words in the postmodern conversation suddenly made more sense to me. I realized that deconstruction, for example, was specifically (even if unconsciously at times) focused on dismantling the foundations of colonialism. Meta-narratives weren't simply big stories -- they were the stories that fueled colonialism. In this light, the moral arc of the postmodern conversation -- which was understated by its advocates and invisible to its critics -- started to shine through for me.

If standard Christian theology has indeed been colonial, then we would expect it to have certain characteristics, perhaps including these:

A. It would explain -- historically or theologically -- why the colonizers deserve to be in power -- sustained in the position of hegemony.
B. It would similarly explain why the colonized deserve to be dominated -- maintained in the subaltern or subservient position.
C. It would provide ethical justification for the phases and functions of colonization -- from exploration to settlements to land acquisition to minority marginalization to segregation to hegemony-maintenance, even to ethnic cleansing.
D. It would bolster the sense of entitlement and motivation among the colonizers.
E. It would embed the sense of submission and docility among the colonized.
F. It would facilitate alliances with political and economic systems that were supportive of or inherent to colonialism.
G. It would camouflage or cosmetically enhance its ugly aspects and preempt attempts to expose them.

If standard Christian theology were determined to be essentially colonial by these and other standards, a natural question would arise: Must the Christianity of the future forever maintain this colonial bias? Is an imperial or dominating mindset inherent to Christian faith, for better or worse -- or can there be a new and different kind of Christianity?

In answering that question, other questions would arise. Is a colonial mindset resonant with or in conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus? Is it resonant with or in conflict with the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it resonant with or in conflict with the life and teachings of the apostles and early church?

These are exactly the kinds of questions raised by a post-colonial theology.

It's commonplace to talk about the extinction or evaporation of Christian faith in Europe, and in the U.S., we see this as a sad and tragic thing. But could it be that the faith that has been rejected in Europe is not the essential and original Christian faith, but rather the colonial Christian faith -- the chauvinistic, Greco-Roman, consumerist, white-man's Christian faith? And could it be that this faith should be rejected so something better can emerge in the void it leaves behind?

Could it be that our various modifiers these days signal parallel quests to rediscover -- or create, or both -- an authentic Christian faith, rooted in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, informed by the Scriptures, instructed by Christian tradition and history -- and purged of longstanding and deeply embedded patterns of injustice? Could it be that diverse adjectives that have arisen -- modifiers like emergent Christianity, big tent Christianity, missional Christianity, not to mention feminist, eco-, Latin American, black, and otherwise modified Christianity -- are signs of diverse expressions of the same underlying impulse, or parallel mini-movements that will someday become one integrated movement?

You can see why growing numbers of us think that this postmodern, post-colonial conversation is terribly important and worth having.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

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