Post-Colonial Theology: Going All-In?

By Daniel Fan

Post-colonial theology.  It’s new.  It sounds progressive.  It probably goes well with gluten free, soy milk and fair trade coffee.  But is the American church really ready to embrace it?  Because one thing is for certain.  If we really take the idea of post-colonialism and apply it to our theology we’re going to learn things about ourselves and our history that we won’t like.  We’re also going to be convicted to give up things we might not want to.  And we’re going to lose a lot of excuses for not taking on causes that might have otherwise have remained faddishly progressive, but will now be stumbling blocks to our witness.

Post-colonialism, in a non-religious capacity, concerns itself with the reversing of colonial processes and the liberation of colonized peoples.  For those the Global South, who struggle against the repercussions of empire, post-colonialism is a noble and straightforward cause.  But one has to ask whether Americans, who have so often, and for so long, reaped the rewards of global empire will be so quick to rally fully to a cause that will call for equality, even if that equality means giving up influence and affluence.

So my question for those interested in post-colonial theology isn’t whether we should, but “how committed are we?”   Because if we’re not going to go all-in, I suggest we not compound our sin of empire with self-deception.

Let me just say that I’m not entirely happy with the title of “post-colonial.”  I think it’s a little misleading because it can give folks the impression that the church has, somehow, moved beyond colonialism when in fact, what we need to do is decolonize.  I would submit that we’re actually not looking for a Post-Colonial theology, but an “a-colonial theology.”  An a-colonial setting would be one where both colonialism and its effects have been reversed and everyone truly has equal stature and voice.  The problem is, we’re going to need to go through a conscious anti-colonial period where we purge ourselves and our institutions, not only of colonial practices, but of the long standing and self-sustaining, self-propagating consequences of of those colonial actions and thought patterns. And that’s post-colonialism.

What should post-colonial theology look like in America?  Well, in total, I’m not really sure.  I only know three things for certain:

1)  The American church must listen for the truth in critiques we have traditionally dismissed, particularly those coming from outside the white-male dominated institutions that have served as our default leadership beacons—and we must listen for that truth, even if the forms those critiques arrive in are foreign, acerbically humorous, or blatantly hostile.
2)  A successful American post-colonial theology will require much humility from established voices who are used to dominating traditional theological discussions: a humility which may take the form of respectful, open-minded silence as much as, if not more than, “contributing to the discussion.”
3)  Perhaps most difficult, the American church must truly look for ways to restore and rebuild what was taken unjustly from colonized peoples, both domestically and internationally.

“But Daniel, isn’t  the term ‘post-colonial’ a concession to colonialism itself by bracketing the discussion only in terms of the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed?”  Yes, to a degree it is.  And I believe it to be a necessary evil.  I also don’t think that every part of the world will transition out of the post-colonial period at the same time.  I think it will actually take the colonizers longer to rid themselves of colonial patterns than the colonized.  But here’s why I’m ok with using post-colonial (even though I’d rather it be called “anti-colonial” or “de-colonial”):  if you take the emphasis off  colonialism, you take the burden off the colonizers.  I would hate for the West to be able to say “Even though we exploited the shit out of our little brown brothers, they’re fine now—they’ve even got their own theology now: no harm, no foul.” While it would not be fair to contain the contemporary theological developments of Filipinos or Africans, et al. as simply post or anti-colonial, I think it is absolutely necessary that western theologians and church thinkers go through an uncomfortable period of self-reflection and repentance, for allowing the theology that they were custodians of to be used as a justification for empire.

Some will undoubtedly try to water down post-colonial theology as simply letting other voices have a place at the table.  Another diversity initiative.  A “fresh start” if you will, a leveling of the playing field.  The West loves fresh starts.  In fact, America itself is a prime example of the religious fresh start.  The Pilgrims and the Puritans crossed the deep blue to practice their brand of protestantism in peace.  Lord Baltimore obtained a grant for Maryland in order to establish a Catholic colony away from Anglican England. After the so called “Louisiana Purchase,” American homesteaders looked west for a fresh start and new beginnings. And the list goes on.  Unfortunately, those fresh starts didn’t turn out so fresh for indigenous peoples from New York to Beijing.

Systematic theology/white cultural captivity has dominated the Christian scene, which in turn has dominated the Western/American scene, in such a way, for so long that its effects can’t be abandoned overnight.  John Perkins reportedly to tells the story of a white team and a black team playing baseball.  The eighth inning rolls around and the score is something like 51-0.  The black coach finally proves to the umps that the white team is cheating.  The white coach knows this and concedes, but promises not to cheat for the rest of the ball game.  Umpire nods in agreement and calls “play ball,” score is still 51-0 in favor of the white team with one more inning to go.  New voices heard?  Oh yeah. All’s fair?  Not so much.

Just giving everyone an equal say from now on isn’t the same thing as casting off the chains of colonial empire and working to heal the wounds caused by those shackles. And therein lies the problem of allowing any American “post-colonial” theology to focus on giving equal credence to other voices before making its primary and explicit tenet the restoration of indigenous rights and places. We haven’t made up our debt to the folks we stepped on to get where we are.   “Starting fresh” just isn’t possible when you’re already ahead. And trying to do so would be downright colonial.

Theology cannot overturn colonialism by itself, but it certainly has some responsibility to recognize and repair the damage done in God’s name. Manifest destiny wasn’t a concept born of secular cynicism.  Residential schools weren’t run by atheists. When President William McKinley wanted to justify an American empire  in the Philippines he publicly stated that a reason for doing so was to “uplift and civilize and Christianize [Filipinos].” Today’s Christian thinkers might imagine the past to be a messy, dirty place. They might think that it would be more efficient, more fulfilling, to build new glass cathedrals rather than patch bullet holes in old tepees. But if they do, whose cathedral will it be when it’s finished?

Those who have had their lands, their cultures, and more taken away can’t abandon their past or the disadvantages that colonialism forced upon them. How will they perceive Christendom’s latest attempt at a “fresh start” if,  knowingly or unknowingly, we, as long-term beneficiaries of colonialism, attempt to erase our complicity in their oppression?

Any new theology, particularly one embraced by a colonial empire/superpower, that does not explicitly attempt to undo colonial acts and the repercussions of those acts is a bit like asking for forgiveness without repentance. Or worse yet: forgetfulness without repentance.  A post-colonial prescription for the Global South is going to look very different from a post-colonial prescription for the western mind. To the former, it’s possibly bulking up and gaining influence; for the later, it’s losing weight and not hogging all the teets.  Both are necessary in order to reach a-colonialism, but they are not the same.

Our brothers and sisters have something against us. We know it. They know it too. And they’ve been trying to tell us for a while now. The Western church can continue with its sacrifice or we can “leave our gift at the alter” ’till such time as all our relations can come and worship together. Delving into a true post-colonial theology is going to require us to walk away from the altar. It might be a while before we come back. But before we start talking to our brothers and sisters, or even talking about them, let’s make sure we’re serious about going all the way—because all the way is a long way from here.

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5 Responses to Post-Colonial Theology: Going All-In?

  1. Joe Yarama says:

    Sorry, but this seems like an empty idealism that will not amount to anything real. Their are no answers here, simply “whites need to give back what they stole”. Whats the answer? In an era of natives and “whites” making treaties that benefiet the natives, that they are HAPPY with, who are YOU to stand up and fight a battle that IS being fought? In Canada, anyway, we are signing treaties that will hold up agaimst the “white devil lawyers” settleing debates over land and money and allowing the natives in this part of the country to have there own land, religion, schools, goverment and social services, This is an answer. What you have is 15 year to late ldealism. Sorry.

  2. Daniel Fan says:

    Joe:

    If you are representing Canada with that argument, then at least one Canadian has further to go than he might think.

    Your argument that I’m too late to the party and should therefore quit: “In an era of natives and “whites” making treaties that benefiet [sic] the natives, that they are HAPPY with, who are YOU to stand up and fight a battle that IS being fought?” is inherently colonial. The concept and execution of de-colonization is not proprietary and to claim such is the heart of colonialism. In the 1800s, Native America was displaced from ancestral tribal lands because white settlers thought they could use the land better. You are, in fact, attempting to conduct an analogous campaign of terra-nullius-of-the-mind. I will admit that I’m not the first to originate the concept of post-colonialism. I’ll also admit that I’m not the most effective executor of the post-colonial strategic plan. But just because I’m not the first or the best doesn’t mean someone else owns the concept and I can’t do my part.

    You refer to First Nations land and money. I will refer to their religious practices. How would Native North American spirituality have developed differently if the first shaman to originate the concept of a sweat lodge tried to patent it instead of sharing it? The very notion of propriety-of-concept is foreign to anything but the European tradition. You might not realized it, but your argument of “We own it because we got here first” has European colonial roots, roots that work inherently towards colonial exclusion rather than a-colonial inclusion.

    Furthermore, your statement that I’m fifteen years too late is woefully myopic. My doubts about Canada having reached a-colonial status not withstanding, let me give you a list of peoples I’m not too late for: Somoans, Marshallese, Native Hawaiians, Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Puerto Ricans… And that’s limited only to America’s geographic colonies. The list of cultural colonies would run off any page. No advances for First Nations people can excuse the continued colonial exploitation of any of these groups—that would simply be replacing one colonial beneficiary with another.

    You sum up my argument rather simplistically as “Their [sic] are no answers here, simply “whites need to give back what they stole”. Let me ask you this: What solution is possible without whites giving back what they stole? Can there be true reconciliation without repentance? Proceeding without rectifying or even stating the reality of colonial gains and exploitation is not post-colonialism, it’s neo-colonialism.

    The question I was attempting to answer is “If contemporary theologians claim to be post-colonial, what responsibility does contemporary theology have in rectifying the colonial problem?” “White-devil lawyer” proof treaties are the province of other professions, but it is the idealism of theologians that will guide the Church’s vision of an a-colonial world. And it’s never too late for that.

  3. Andrea Smith says:

    I think you have an incorrect definition of post-colonialism. Postcolonial is not the end of colonialism, but it is everything after the radical rupture in history created at the moment of colonialism. Thus, it is not about going to a before colonialism, but thinking about what liberatory projects are possible that do not disvow the genocide that has already occurred.

  4. Daniel Fan says:

    Andrea:

    Thanks for your comments on this. I don’t believe that post colonial is the end of colonialism–in fact that’s specifically what I’m hoping people do not take post-colonialism as. I realize I could have been more specific about what an “a-colonial” vision is. My intent was not to communicate that colonized peoples should simply return to a pre-colonial existence, nor do I believe that’s even possible.

    Based on your definition, I see why the term “post-colonial” is appropriate. However, I would still submit that the appellation itself leaves open too many possible assumptions as to its true nature. My concern stems from reading various pieces by evangelicals describing post-colonial theology in a way that is seemingly ignorant of the need for liberation from the continued effects of colonialism.

    But to be sure, I will use your definition of post-colonialism from now on—it succinctly captures the genesis and intent of what the movement should be.

    • ethnicspace says:

      Actually, for better or for worse, the term “post-colonial” is being re-appropriated from Fanon, et. al. by evangelical theologians and missiologists. The pattern is familiar, (Christians, being conservative by nature-come late to the party). “Post-colonial” is used in those circles to mean, among other things, “beyond colonialism.” Perhaps we have entered into an era of “post-definitiveness” but more likely it means we are just not well educated. At any rate where definitions are concerned, it is sometimes necessary for relevancy to trump original intention in order to be a part of that particular conversation.

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