Category Archives: Common Dreams Paper

CD5 Paper – Post-colonial theology and sovereignty

From the recent Common Dreams Conference in Sydney

Rev Dr Chris Budden

[Published with his permission]

Cert. Bio-Ethics, Cert IV A&WT, BA(Hons), GradDipRelEd, DMin
Sessional Lecturer
Phone: (02) 8838 8981
Email: rdcgb49@bigpond.com

Chris is a Minister in the Uniting Church, a resource worker with UAICC, an adjunct member of faculty at UTC, and an associate Researcher in the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre at CSU. He has a long interest in relationships with Indigenous people, and a commitment to more just ways on being the church in this country. His particular research interests are theological method, theology in Australia, justice for Indigenous people, the relationship between discipleship and citizenship, issues in social ethics, and the social and theological location of the church.

He has a particular interest in the way theology and church practices are shaped by relationships with power. He spent the last five years of full-time ministry as National Coordinator for the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. He remains committed to supporting efforts to develop Indigenous theologies in Australia. His writings include Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land (Pickwick, 2009), and Why Indigenous Sovereignty Should Matter to Christians (Mediacom Education, 2018). He contributed to Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization (edited Steve Heinrichs; Orbis, 2019).

Thank you for the invitation to make this presentation.

I pay my respects to the custodians[1] of this place and particularly to their Elders – past, present and emerging. I thank them for sustaining the land and the stories of sacred life.

Introduction

Today we are talking about postcolonial theology and sovereignty for First Peoples. A more academic understanding of Postcolonial theology would highlight its reliance on critical theory, and the critique of structures of power, dominant systems, and embedded ideologies for social transformation.

More simply we can say that postcolonial theology seeks a more liberating response to the exercise of power – political, social, economic and religious – over access to what is needed to live, our bodies, and relationships, including with the earth. It is ‘postcolonial’ in the sense that it is focused on the struggles of those who have been invaded and settled by colonial powers, the justifying stories of those colonial powers, and the role of theology in the colonial context.

Postcolonial theology is a form of liberation theology. The difference is its emphasis on empire and empire studies of Scripture, and a very conscious focus on power.

Culture and power

Thanks in no small part to Reinhold Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture, Western Christians are aware of the relationship between faith and culture. Joerg Rieger reminds us that we can no longer think about culture apart from power. He says:

The primary context in which we think about Christ – whether we realize it or not – is shaped by large and ever-changing conglomerates of power that are aimed at controlling all aspects of our lives, from micropolitics to our innermost desires…[2]

Power is about (i) the ability to determine/ influence the shape of economy and who accesses ‘wealth,’ (ii) the ability to make political decisions that shape the structure of society – including who belongs and who doesn’t, and (iii) the ability to influence the stories and practices that explain and justify the world.

Narrative

Power has to do with both the material and relational realities and the narratives – expressed in history-telling, law-making, rituals and celebrations, education and news, and memorials – that explain, justify and defend the world.

In his book, Dominion and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, James C. Scott talks about the public transcripts that those with power tell to ensure that people see the world their way. These are the transcripts that explain why some deserve to flourish and others do not. People who invade tell stories to justify to themselves why they – as good people, and we all want to be good people – can do this.

Scott also talks of hidden transcripts – the stories that oppressed people tell in private to sustain their lives. They are stories that mock those with power and affirm their own worth. They are dangerous stories, and when they surface in public spaces they are often ambiguous stories – i.e. stories that seem harmless to those with power, but are understood as quite subversive by those with ears to hear.

Let me explore the example of Jesus and taxes (Mark 12: 13-17). The story starts with people coming to Jesus to trap him, so keep that in mind. They ask Jesus is it ok to pay taxes to the Romans? Romans didn’t pay taxes; only those who were defeated militarily. Taxes were a constant reminder of occupation.

Jesus asks the religious leaders for a coin, which they produce fairly quickly. The coin had the emperor on one side and his mother – claimed to be a deity – on the other. First class example of idolatry, and yet they used the coin. Sort of takes away their high moral ground.

Jesus looks at the coin and says: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Good answer – affirms the Romans and God – and Jesus is safe. A divided world – which we love.

But while this interpretation suits us, it is – I think – fundamentally wrong.  Jesus believes that everything belongs to God. In Jesus’ world there is nothing left for Caesar and his idolatrous claims. And those who knew Jesus heard this as a word of hope.

That is why the debate about monuments and Australia Day is important – it is about which stories shape our identity, access to power and economy, and sense of belonging. There is a questioning of the public transcript of discovery and peaceful settlement.

That is why the issue of whether people sing the national anthem at a football game matters. National Anthems are part of the public transcript, the way the nation’s story is told, how people’s history is dealt with, and what place people have in the nation. Not singing challenges the transcript – it is about voice and truth.

Because of its relationship with power and empire, the church and its theology is usually a public transcript. It is theology that has been shaped by its place alongside, and its role justifying, power.

Postcolonial theology explicitly recognises the way narratives/ celebrations support or question power and seeks to take the side of those who are oppressed and marginalised. It is a form of theology that is closer to a hidden transcript.

Postcolonial theology also stands against the way our society has, for three hundred years, divided the world into religious, political and economic spheres. It claims that religion is not a separate part of life but is deeply woven into every part of daily life.

Religion is not about personal and individual beliefs and behaviour. It is the narrative that holds together, underpins and makes sense of the world. It is a community agreed-upon set of social practices and rituals.

The problem when we let the world be divided into spheres is (i) religion is told to leave politics and economics alone and (ii) these other two areas of life have their own narrative and soteriology/ story of salvation – ‘security’ for the state and ‘the market’ for economy.

Distorted colonial theology

To understand the need for a postcolonial theology, we need to understand the distorted nature of colonial theology; the centre of which is the decision of the church to align with power and empire rather than with those who have been invaded.

There is no such thing as a neutral theology. All theology takes sides. The issue is: which side does theology take in our time and continuing colonial context, and what theology shapes that choice of location?

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