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

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.


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.


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?

Colonial church and theology

Churches too often sit with the powerful, and that sitting distorts the story of Jesus.

In the colonial context of Australia, the church did, on the one hand sustained a view that people were made in the image of God, contrary to the racism of the day. They tried to protect and care for people, to educate and convert.

But they also shared the view of the superiority of British civilization, and of the need for people to become good citizens. Citizenship and discipleship were virtually indistinguishable. The story of Jesus that was told dealt only with spiritual realities and rewards after death. Jesus did not help with liberation and protest, only becoming good citizens.

The church also had an imperial view that only their view of God was right, and all other claims were pagan. The church denied people’s spiritual life, and the very foundations of their world, connection to the earth and identity.

The church still assumed the rightness of the Papal Statements of the 11th and 15th Centuries that shaped the Doctrine of Discovery – that European powers had the right to occupy Non-Christian lands in order to take the land and wealth and to civilize and convert the local people. First Peoples are not ‘met’ as people usually are; but ‘discovered’

Shifting location

The challenge of postcolonial theology is, first of all, a challenge to shift location – to sit with the invaded and marginalised, and to ask what the story of Jesus looks like from that place. It is to ask how the story of Jesus can actually help people engage with a colonial world in ways that are life-affirming. It is to read the story of Jesus as a struggle not simply against spiritual powers, or to see salvation as the overcoming of personal sin, but to see Jesus as one who forges new forms of life and community in the face of the abuses of empire.

Legion and Empire

Let me give you an example, in the well-known story of the healing of Legion (Mark 5: 1-13).

To understand this story, we need to think of it as a political cartoon. It pokes fun at the leaders and the political system. And like all good political cartoons it works at two levels. There is a surface level to the story that the leaders and powerful people can hear, and which is not too threatening. And there is a deeper meaning for those who have ears to hear.

On the surface of it, this is just another healing story with an odd ending – a great herd of pigs are sent to their death by a cast-out demon.

Yet consider this. This event occurs in territory that had been conquered by the Romans. The soldiers who had fought for Rome were rewarded with gifts of land taken from those they had conquered. They were settler-colonists. This situation of invasion and colonial occupation explains the military imagery found throughout the story.[3]

The story portrays a person whose is possessed by more than an evil spirit. Here is a person who has internalised the oppression and trauma that arises out of colonisation. The oppression is written onto his body and mind.

That is why this man is called ‘Legion’. It is to remind Jesus’ listeners that the cause of his destruction are the legions – a term that that those listening to Jesus could only understand as meaning a division of Roman soldiers. The story reflects what people know and have experienced. Roman occupation of land and people is destroying people’s lives.

The story’s concern for pigs continues the military language because military recruits were known as a band of pigs, and “the swine cult was popular among Roman soldiers”[4].

This isn’t simply a story about personal healing. It is a story that says that in the life of Jesus God opposes the false claims of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was extremely powerful, very violent, and really oppressive. There seemed to be no limits to its power, and no way to restrain it’s evil. Jesus is shown to be the Son of the Most High God who could do just that.

That is why the pigs – representing the Roman occupation – perish in the sea. Those who listened to Jesus are reminded of God’s liberation of people from slavery, and how Pharoah’s army are swallowed in the sea (see Exodus 14). Jesus declares that God can still oppose even the most powerful empires.

And in doing that he can cure the pain and oppression that is written on people’s bodies and minds by abusive powers and dominant cultures. Jesus can set us free from all the oppressive powers – personal, social, political – that bind us. In transforming our lives, and opposing powers, Jesus empowers us to be partners with God in bringing justice and goodness into the world. Our healing assists the healing of the world – people and earth; and their healing makes us well.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart

I had intended to look at the Preamble to the UCA Constitution, Australia Day, and the Uluru Statement. However, given events of the last few days I am going to use my time to explore the Statement and those events. (I have included a brief comment on these issues as an appendix to this paper.)

For some years there were conversations around Australia about ways First Peoples could better be included in the Constitution. What was increasingly clear in the last couple of years was that there was not a lot of grass-roots support within the Indigenous community. Such a move may have spoken of better inclusion, but it denied their rights as sovereign peoples.

Reconciliation Australia supported a series of First Peoples dialogues around Australia, and a major gathering at Uluru in 2017 – the National Constitutional Convention. The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ offered the following challenges as a roadmap to peace and reconciliation. It asked for:

i.          A First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution, a voice that had to be heard in Parliament.

ii.         A Makarrata Commission – ‘Makarrata’ means the coming together after a struggle – “to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.”[5]

The Statement and its recommendations were quickly dismissed by the Government. Now. however, Ken Wyatt – Minister for Aboriginal Affairs – has in the last few days suggested a conversation that could lead to the inclusion of First Peoples in the Constitution.

Let me say a few things about that.

  1. This is a significant and important suggestion from a Government Minister. Indeed, as has become clear in the few days after the announcement, it is very likely that the Prime Minister is going to publicly oppose and humiliate his Minister.
  2. As Senator pat Dodson said, and as is reflected in some of the initial knee-jerk reactions to the Ministers suggestion, the danger is a process that keeps white people feeling good about themselves, rather than a full entrenchment of the Uluru Statement.
  3. If the church deals with this – and most will not – they will deal with it as an ethical issue. It is that, but more than that it is an issue of soteriology – of the wholeness and well-being found in and restored in God seen in Jesus. That is our difficult task – articulating that sort of theological response.
  4. One issue highlighted by the Statement is truth-telling. We need to create opportunities to name the truth.

This community was invaded, the people largely dispossessed of land, their culture and language broken, people killed, children stolen, people imprisoned, and trauma passed from generation to generation.

Did you know that there were probably 1 million First People in Australia in 1788, and yet by 1911 the ABS said there were 31,000? Even if we work on the conservation figures of 750,000 and 100,000 still alive, that is a loss of 87% of the population. The estimates are 96% for Tasmania, and 90% for Victoria. It is estimated that some 60,000 First Peoples were killed on the Queensland Frontier.

These are crimes against humanity; even cultural genocide. But the dominant narrative is of peaceful settlement and a lucky country with equality for all. And the theology of the church – its understanding of God, Jesus, salvation and Christian life – has for the most part kept it silent. At best it has been morally outraged, but its own location and understanding of God and God’s place in the world has remained unchanged.

The story that the invaders told themselves to justify these actions was that the people were too primitive to have laws and engage in international politics – thus there was no need for a treaty. The assumption was Terra Nullius – the land was empty and unoccupied in the sense that the people did not own the land in ways that could be recognised in English law. The people were said to exist on the bottom end of the Chain of Being, just above the monkeys, and had no recognisable religious life. There is a deep racism in the history of relationships between First and Second Peoples that is still there – as the Adam Goode story reminds us.

In a denial of reality, the story would be of brave explorers and peaceful settlement, with massacres and rapes and brutality and stolen children denied. John Howard would call the more brutal and truthful telling of history a ‘black arm-band’ view.

One of the causes of trauma for invaded people is that their stories are denied – both those before invasion, and their account of the invasion. The account of the world First People are offered does not accord with their life and experience; they are deemed by the national stories to be non-people if you do not adhere to the ways of this new world.

We need a new truth-telling, and a new foundation for reconciliation.

Some modern theologies are so busy escaping the distorted emphasis on fall and sin that has marked Protestant theology, that they find it hard to name evil and wrong-doing. But we need a theology that encourages truth-telling, acknowledgement/ confession, reparation and, hopefully at some point, forgiveness.

Postcolonial theology reminds us that sin is not just personal and between us and God. It is also communal; it destroys and fractures our common life and makes peoples’ relationship with God quite unhealthy.

A new settlement

The central claim that underpins the Statement is sovereignty and treaty. It is the claim that First Peoples have a right to negotiate the settlement of this country. Settlement is not simply a past event; it is an ongoing conversation. It is a conversation about truth-telling, access to land, respect for spiritual life, voice, inclusiveness, respect, and access to life’s resources.

Theologically this is about the nature of salvation, and the centrality of community. I would argue that what Jesus sought to do was to strengthen local communities so that they could better engage with colonial power. Broken and traumatised people tend to turn inward, to protect themselves and harm those closest to them to survive. Jesus taught them that they were extremely valuable to God, were not outside God’s love, and that God’s was a world of plenty if they shared in a Jubilee way. Jesus taught people about new forms of community and mutual care and offered the Spirit to enable people to live that way. This was salvation, or at least a foretaste of it.

That is the theological challenge from postcolonial theology and these issues. Does the church understand itself to bear a glimpse of kingdom/ reign of God life that is diverse and inclusive, welcoming of the other, more committed to the community than our own personal needs, and willing to live in solidarity with God who lives on the margins? Is it genuinely – in daily and practical ways – a community of justice and reconciliation, of reparation and servanthood?


An issue for all theologies is whose interests do they serve, and what other narratives do they support (e.g. neoliberalism and the prosperity gospel, and faith as another form of helping us to do well in this economy).

So, here are my last two questions for you:

  • Whose interests does your theology support, and what messages does your gospel re-enforce without you thinking about it? What are the continuing colonial marks of your theology?
  • How does your theology contribute to these conversations that are crucial to the lives of First Peoples?

Further reading

Budden, Chris. Why Indigenous Sovereignty Should Matter to Christians, Unley, SA: Mediacom Education Inc., 2018

Heinrichs, Steve, ed. Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018

Schultz, Julianne and Sandra Phillips, eds. ‘First Things First,’ Griffith Review 60 (2018)



The 2009 Preamble to the UCA Constitution is, in some ways the highpoint of a series of inter-related events and actions taken to change relationships between First and Second Peoples. Central to this was the recognition of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in 1985, and the commitment to Covenant relationships in 1991/1994.

Where the old Preamble told the story that led to Church Union, the 2009 Preamble tells the, often difficult, story of the relationship between the Church and First Peoples. Most of the claims in the Preamble are not terribly new – they recognise history and record sorrow for the part the church played in the oppression of First Peoples. Their importance is that they are written into the major legal document of the church.

The really significant clause is the one that recognises the faith of First Peoples:

The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

This is a major shift for the church. God is present with the most marginalised people. God has another story in this place besides the Christian story. Christ remains a unique but not exclusive revelation.

The church needs to hear this story to more fully understand the One they confess in Jesus. We learn from each other.


National celebrations like Australia Day are part of the narrative of national identity and belonging. They are statements about who we are, and who the ‘we’ is.

Australia was not a nation until 1901; only a collection of independent states. Australia Day was a very minor celebration until 1988. Indeed, Australia Day has only been a national public holiday since 1994.

The increasing celebration of Australia Day is integrated into the attempt by John Howard and others to build a new narrative that includes ANZAC Day – a national identity built in another land and not this one, and cultural wars around Australian history.[6]

Questions around Australia Day happen because Indigenous people insist that there is another perspective on Australian history. Australia Day is a struggle around truth-telling and inclusion, and protests deny the claim that it can be a benign, even good day; which is why calling it ‘Invasion Day’ really matters.

As McKenna says, we need “to find a path towards that elusive national mythology, one in which the legitimacy, “equitable sovereignty” and “equal custodianship” of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia are acknowledged.”[7]

There are two central theological issue here. The first has to do with the relationship between shame and guilt, and the way the church contributes to the healing of both. (Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong – which involves apology and forgiveness. Shame comes from a sense not just that we have done something wrong but are bad, unloved and unlovable ourselves.)

The second is about the location of the church, and its ability to sit on the margins. It is about truth-telling, and what truth-telling leads to. It is about the way the church can contribute to this sort of national story.

[1] It has become my habit not to use the term ‘traditional custodians,’ because this can imply that they used to be the custodians in the past. I wish to honour people as the continuing custodians.

[2] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), vii

[3] Ched Myers, et al, Karen Lattea, ed., “Say to this Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2000), 58

[4] Myers, “Say to this Mountain,’ 59

[5] For an excellent account of the issues and challenges see Julianne Schulz and Sandra Philips, eds, ‘First Things First,’ Griffith Review 60

[6] Aileen Moreton-Robinson builds a good case for Howard’s use of ANZAC Day. See The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis/ London: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), chapter 2, “The House that Jack Built.”

[7] McKenna, 71


1 thought on “CD5 Paper – Post-colonial theology and sovereignty

  1. Paul Inglis Post author

    Thanks for this, Paul.
    A valued and valuable paper indeed if up against the current inbuilt racism confronting us all.
    Warm regards and best wishes to Chris Budden.
    A priority in my mind is to press our NSW Government to recognise responsibility for the first known massacre of the First Peoples within the colony of NSW at Appin in 1818 (just over 200 years ago) affecting the Dharawal people whose descendants are still with us under the Governorship of Lachlan Macquarie.
    Until we can take that step here in NSW, nothing has been really achieved.
    This would be a clear public statement that we erred in presuming British sovereignty over NSW and Dharawal people were unjustly put to death as a result of our political and social arrogance.
    Action has to arise out of our words.

    Christopher N Ridings

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