Faith in the Postcolonial Awakening
No sooner are people getting used to postmodernism than up arises another slogan: postcolonialism. Like postmodernism, it is a complex subject and open to a range of interpretations. And it has been around for awhile, even predating aspects of postmodernism.
Post-colonialism loosely designates a set of theoretical approaches which focus on the direct effects and aftermaths of colonization (or colonialism), noting particularly how the colonizing influence is subverted in forms of human exploitation, normalization, repression and dependency (cf. Said 1993; Bhabha 1994; Segovia & Sugirtharajah 2009). For instance, several postcolonial elements prevail in the way we teach history:
- the normalization and validation of violence,
- the priority of the ruling male,
- making the loser invisible in historical text and narrative,
- prioritizing the metaphor of the hero,
- subverting what we don’t want the people to perceive.
Internalised oppression is one of the more pervasive consequences of the colonial mind-set. It can be understood in both systemic and personal terms. The political regime of the late Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, as evidenced in the opening years of the 21st century, highlights the systemic mimicry often noted in postcolonial studies. Having thrown off the imposing control of the external colonizer (namely, the British), Robert Mugabe, and his cronies, have internalized the very domination they fought so hard to get rid of, and subsequently imposed it on the Zimbabwean people through forms of oppression and deprivation, some of which were worse than ever imposed by the British colonizers.
The personal nature of internalized oppression is best exemplified in the sense of victimization incurred by abuse – physical, emotional or sexual. The consequent sense of inferiority and unworthiness, with overt or covert feelings of guilt and shame, may prevail for years. These feelings may be buried deep in the subconscious, until brought into conscious awareness deliberately (as in therapy) or accidently (as in a traumatic experience). While the person feels victimized, the oppression is at work. When the person internalizes a sense of being a survivor rather than a victim, then freedom is more likely to ensue.
Colonization of Power
Power and powerlessness tend to be the two dominant dynamics being played out – at both the personal and systemic levels. All the formal religions seem to embody this destructive quality of power. In other words, religion carries a covert agenda of control over people’s lives. And in order to exert that control, people are made to feel unworthy, dependent, needing to suffer, and virtuous to the extent that they prove to be obedient.
It is also in the religions that we see colonization and internalized oppression working hand in hand. Segovia and Sugirtharajah (2009), in their analysis of the New Testament, surface several examples. They suggest that the iconic language of the Kingdom of God is a deliberate ploy to counter the rhetoric and power of the Kingdom of Rome (Roman Imperialism). But in the process of confronting and denouncing imperial power, the early Christian preachers, teachers and writers, re-enact some of the very power-dynamics they so vociferously denounce.
Jesus and Postcolonialism
Kathleen Corley (2002) suggests that even Jesus himself at times fell foul of this “postcolonial mimicry.” A vivid example is that of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk.7:24-30) whom he initially tried to dismiss because she did not belong to the sacred enclave of Israel, thus exposing her to the risk of further victimization. While Jesus seems to accept and include women, contrary to the cultural norms where they were often excluded, he seems nonetheless to adopt misogynist values and attitudes as in his re-iterating the derogatory appellation of “harlots” entering the Kingdom of God (Matt.21:31-32). Instead of calling them women (or persons), he seems to reinforce the derogatory label already in use.
We can never be sure, of course, whether it is Jesus himself or his various biographers, who are replaying the postcolonial rhetoric. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel is unashamedly colonial in his portrayal of a powerful Jesus, even to the extent of Jesus declaring himself to be King (Jn.18:37)! The intention may be to highlight the counter-culture to Roman kingship, but placing the words on the lips of Jesus seems like a blatant contradiction to the understanding of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, a Jesus who forthrightly denounces kingship and all its aspirations to power and domination.
The baggage of history
In terms of Christian history, the most serious collusion happened at the beginning of the fourth century when Gelarius accepted Christianity as the formal religion of the Roman Empire and his successor, Constantine, fully endorsed the implementation. From there on royal power, pomp and glory became an integral part of Christian faith. In truth, it has only been in the latter half of the 20th century that scholars have confronted more directly the mis-use (abuse) of the notion of the ‘kingdom of God’ in the New Testament, reclaiming its subversive intent and its challenge to all forms of imperial power (see Crossan, Horsely).
In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King, in response to growing nationalism and secularism in mainland Europe. The people of Europe, seeking more democratic forms of government, began to reject kingship and its imposing royal domination. Many of the royal families, being Catholic, looked to Rome to halt the slide into modernism, and challenge the people to retain kingship as the more authentic (divine) form of government. The Church fully endorsed the retention of the royal families and their mode of governance – oblivious it would seem to the denunciation of kingship at the heart of the Christian Gospel.
Christian faith is still saturated in the baggage and culture of colonial oppression. Several inherited hymns and prayers acclaim Jesus as Lord and King. Church clerics dress in garb that one time belonged to kings or princesses, or to the nobility in ancient Roman society (e.g., the vestments worn by priests for Eucharist). Gestures of homage are sometimes expected from and delivered to Church dignitaries. Investiture ceremonies often follow royal protocol of former times. The oils used for rites of anointing are the same as those used to anoint Kings of yore.
Faith as a disposition of humility, passivity, submission, compliance is extensive in the modern world, although progressively in decline. However, several religious leaders (those in authority) still expect this quality of response. And sacred learning is still the reserve of those at the top, although that too is changing especially in Christian countries of the West. A cult of blind obedience is much more widespread than many care to admit, with the phenomenon of the suicide bomber being one of the more conspicuous examples in our time.
From power to empowerment
How do people outgrow the culture of the postcolonial? In short, by becoming more adult in one’s faith, and collaboratively empowering each other in more grace-filled living. This involves bringing to the understanding and practice of one’s faith a more critical mind, a more perceptive spirit, a more dignified sense of self-awareness. Above all, our world needs religious adherents who embrace their faith as a conscious adult choice, continually in dialogue with peers on how to interpret and integrate inherited sacred wisdom.
Truth is not merely the reserve of the few but the outcome of the community, the primary locus of Christian discernment. In the empowerment of the Spirit we are called into being as persons and as community. By mobilizing the diverse gifts of the community, inspired by the unifying Spirit, we stand a better chance of breaking through the false powers that ensnare us and instead move forward towards empowering liberation. This is the true freedom that God desires for every living creature, without which the New Reign of God on earth cannot be fully realized.
Bhabha, H. (1994), The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.
Corley, Kathleen (2002), Women and the Historical Jesus, Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.
Crossan, John Dominic (2007), God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Horsley, Richard A. (2003), Jesus and Empire, Minn: Augsburg Fortress
Said, Edward (1993), Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vantage.
Segovia, Fernando & R.S. Sugirtharajah (2009), A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament, London: T & T Clark