By Daniel Fan
Day three of the Emergent Village Theological Conversation started out thirty minutes late. As bleary eyed-participants filtered in onesy-twosey, it became clear that the brilliant alcohol-assisted-into-the-wee-hours theologizing I experienced in the Kirkwood Public House last night most certainly came with a steep price tag. I personally limited myself to an embellished burger (bacon is my anti-drug), which is why I’ll never excel at theology. The more I hang out with theologians the more I’m convinced that there is an intimate relationship between alcohol and theology: either good theology requires alcohol as a prerequisite creative catalyst; or the ordeal of producing good theology drives one to drink. It’s definitely one or the other…maybe both.
Since it took a while to form a quorum, those who were present broke into cohorts and discussed the previous day’s topics. We were wrestling with the idea of identity and how to express the truth in identity without projecting a colonial agenda onto the listener. The conclusion we reached (and I use “we” loosely as I can hardly be credited with the final product) was that epistemological humility was the truth underlying whatever explicit message was being projected. In other words, we had to proceed holding whatever “truth” we were offering with open hands, not closed fists. It’s something I’ve heard before and a good reminder—truth is to be offered, not forced.
Despite early technical difficulties, Interaction Three was mostly recorded, so again, I’ll only be pulling out small pieces of the whole.
One of the things that really bothered me was Colin Greene’s observation about bumping into Chinese nationals everywhere in Africa. Musa Dube confirmed this and flatly characterized their activities as colonial.
In order to explain how I feel about this, I have to import Melissa Harris-Perry’s (formerly Harris-Lacewell) concept of fictive kinship. It’s basically an ethnicity-wide sense of collective accomplishment or shame. Some examples are black elation at the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the pervasive shame of Asian Americans at the revelation that the Virginia Tech active shooter was an Asian, and to some degree, the collective face-palming of whites every time Sarah Palin opens her mouth.
I’ve been to China (PRC) once in my life. I don’t have any family there (that I know of). But as a Chinese-American, I still feel some tinges of shame that Chinese nationals are conducting colonial exploits in Africa. China, in many ways, recalls the growing American empire of the late 1800s-early 1900s, with its expanding economy and general rise in material wealth and standard of living along with a corresponding sense of heightened nationalism. During that period of US history there were a few anti-imperialists, perhaps the most popular of whom was Mark Twain. Of course, I didn’t learn about that side of Twain until after college (I wonder why?). I was kind of hoping to ask Musa Dube if she was aware of any Chinese anti-imperialist thinkers, but I never got that chance.
Admittedly, America as a nation doesn’t have a lot of moral currency with which to preach anti-imperialism. But the indigenous peoples who suffered under the American empire do, and as much as I can, I would encourage them to speak out against the colonization of other indigenous peoples even if they have to use their American experience as an example.
If anyone has a right to be proud of their economic growth it’s modern China, but it’s my hope that the Chinese come to understand that taking away someone’s agency, culture, and opportunity is the same, no matter whose flag it’s done under. The America Empire is an example of an experiment to be avoided, not one which should be done “better” or “more benevolently.” If pursuing “our time under the sun” means burying Mother Africa in another unmarked colonial mass grave, there will be an unavoidable price deducted from China’s own humanity.
Lori Wilson asked the panel about the difference between contextualization and syncretism, and whether they were in fact synonymous in practice, if not in theory.
Colin gave a baseline definition that, within orthodoxy, syncretism was to be avoided always, but never to be defined. However, he believed that a generous orthodoxy would allow the inclusion of indigenous elements.
Richard Twiss went further to say that syncretism was a normal part of a person’s religious growth but becomes problematic when it stagnates as the fixed end state. It was either Richard or Colin that said we’re probably all syncretistic to some degree all of the time. My read on this was that no one’s faith is static. That doesn’t mean you abandon faith, but the expressions of that faith change. You’re experimenting whether you know it or not and your experiments are likely to be affected by, or at least be reactions to, outside influences including ones that are not purely sacred (if there is such a thing).
Musa Dube had a smile on her face the whole time. She hinted that syncretism was an inherently colonial term because it was always defined by “those in power.” Thus the mere use of the word “syncretism” inherently included a power differential. Musa went on to say that the term she prefers is “hybridity” which comes from the langauge of the oppressed and doesn’t carry with it the baggage that syncretism invokes. She also stated that sometimes the colonized don’t want to admit to hybridization because it amounts to a concession of identity, to the colonizer. However, she believed that this influence was unavoidable and she cited the fact that she was speaking in English as an example of her own hybridity.
I have to agree with her that hybridity is an inherent phenomenon of the post-colonial age. I’d go even further and theorize that prolonged exposed inside the contact zone shared by the indigenous and the colonizer hybridizes both. Though the changes are not equal, neither can resist being changed by the other, for better or worse. The degree of hybridization is likely directly proportional to the time spent immersed in the soup of the contact zone.
The question was posed to Musa, asking if Scripture was a “loaded gun” in terms of its propensity to be misused, whether accepted Christian rituals (sacraments, etc) were also subject to the same colonial misuse. Musa’s response was that both needed to be re-evaluated all the time. I was reassured to hear her comments because it reinforced the notion that the Jesus Way was really that, a path and a journey, rather than a fixed, door-less cube composed of an interlocking series of incomprehensible and untouchable sacred cows. If nothing more it encourages us to study more deeply the nature and implications of both text and ritual.
The speakers were asked to give some closing thoughts at the conclusion of the interaction.
Colin thanked Emergent Village for giving him the chance to sit in a panel with Musa Dube and Richard Twiss and extolled the virtues of “sinking a pint” and future meetings (see I told you there was a connection between alcohol and theology!).
Richard explained more about becoming friends with native peoples and mentioned Andrea Smith’s “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” as a way to gain insight on the post-colonial plight of Native Americans. [This was a good thing since I had already begun promoting “Conquest” in personal conversations. I think I sold at least three copies…I’d recommend “Conquest” to anyone who is trying to understand the effects of colonization on various native populations under direct American hegemony.]
Musa told a joke. I want to encourage you to listen to the recording so I’m not going to steal her punchline here.
The event concluded with a form of communion that I’ve never witnessed before. Someone holds the cup and the biscuit for you, you break off a piece, dip it in the orange juice (remember, it’s orthodoxy, but a generous one) and partake. Then you hold the the cup and biscuits for the next person and so the entire gathered body both partakes and serves.
And I did finally buy a copy of “Metavista.”
I have more than a little digesting to do but I’d like to make a final post, in the near future, with personal thoughts on the experience as a whole and the Emergent Tribe in particular.