Postcolonialism Comes Home

By Lori D. Wilson 9-27-2010

For most of us, the term "colonialism" conjures images of palm trees, pith helmets, and mosquito nets. These visions -- and many more like them -- share one thing in common: They exist at a remote distance from our everyday lives.

The fact of the matter, however, is that colonialism -- and its aftermath -- are an ever-present reality in a number of surprising ways. Regardless of our geographic location or our historical experiences, we are all impacted by its global repercussions.

My own life reflects an existence on both sides of the colonial equation. I grew up as an MK (missionary kid) in South America, an enthusiastic leader of neighborhood Good News Clubs and vibrant youth groups. My parents adopted "missional" and "incarnational" practices long before the catchwords were invented. I was immersed in the culture -- I consider one of my greatest lifetime achievements the ability to dream in Spanish. I was challenged, perhaps like you, to a life of deep Christian commitment by my Sunday school teachers and camp counselors, all of whom were South American.

And yet, when I look back on that [in many ways idyllic] childhood, I have to wonder, what did we, as the missionaries (for I must include myself in that group), naively impose on our sisters and brothers? How well did we listen to them, and to their culture? How often did we bring our own "northern" sensitivities to bear on decidedly "southern" issues? What guilt do we carry in relation to these people we so dearly love?

On the other hand, I also clearly identify with my dearest childhood friends. How might I have known God and myself differently in a context that drew out and affirmed the culture I embraced as my own? In what ways did mission work spill over into cultural colonialism? How was my own faith impacted by this mix? How do I sort out what is authentic faith, and what is subjective culture? Will I ever get over the fact that, despite a childhood in South America, I never learned how to dance?

These are the sorts of questions we can (and should) all be asking as regards to our sisters and brothers in the global south. They're certainly big picture questions. But we can ask them about ourselves, in our own contexts, as well. How do we impose ourselves, and our own perspectives, on those around us who hold less influence? How do we blur the line between faith and culture? For what do we need to apologize, to amend?

Equally, we can ask what losses we might yet need to grieve. Some of us have felt religion imposed upon us by those in power over us. Others, perhaps, feel that a faith graciously presented nevertheless failed to take into account our particular context. We may have been led to confuse faithful living with cultural assimilation. Perhaps our very image of God is skewed by the means in which God is presented to us. These questions, and others like them, lead us to recognize our losses, and to mourn them as we should.

When postcolonialism comes home, we realize we all have a hand in the mix. We are all called to introspection and confession. We are equally called to reflection and healing. As we engage this global issue -- and its local expressions -- we find our world is much smaller than we might have thought. Concerns which once seemed remote now find a place in our hearts. We grieve, repent, reconcile, and celebrate -- and find ourselves changed. We at last lay aside the stereotypes of bygone days, and revel in the breadth of the family of God.

Lori D. Wilson is a home-based mom and volunteer-at-large. She is co-chairing the 2010 Theological Conversation, and blogs [sporadically] at Emergent Village will host its trademark Theological Conversation on November 1 to 3, in Atlanta, Georgia. This year's event hosts three speakers: Musa Dube of Botswana, Richard Twiss of the Lakota Sioux tribe, and Colin Greene of the UK. Together, they will address the topic "Creating Liberated Spaces in a Postcolonial World." For further information, and to register, click here.

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