Recently, I did a post covering the absurdity of labeling ideas “post” when the idea isn’t really “post” anything. Conveniently enough, today I came across a post by Brian McLaren talking about ‘postcolonial theology.’ True to form, just because he labels theology postcolonial doesn’t mean he’s moved past the colonial idea of conquering and subduing what is viewed as inferior or as a blockade to change, rather, he’s simply change the target of colonialism. Sadly, it’s still a racist theology, but the target of the racism has changed.
McLaren’s antipathy towards orthodox Christianity is summarized when he states,
By distinguishing some theology with a modifier – feminist, black, Latin American, eco-, post-colonial, or indigenous, we are playing into the idea that these theologies are special, different – boutique theologies if you will.
Meanwhile, unmodified theology – theology without adjectives – thus retains its privileged position as normative. Unmodified theology is accepted as Christian theology, or orthodox theology, or important, normal, basic, real, historic theology.
But what if we tried to subvert this deception? What if we started calling standard, unmodified theology chauvinist theology, or white theology, or consumerist or colonial or Greco-Roman theology?
The covert assumption behind the modifier post-colonial thus becomes overt, although it is generally more obliquely and politely stated than this:
Standard, normative, historic, so-called orthodox Christian theology has been a theology of empire, a theology of colonialism, a theology that powerful people used as a tool to achieve and defend land theft, exploitation, domination, superiority, and privilege.
If that doesn’t sound disturbing, I’m not writing well or you’re not reading well.
To any casual student of Church history, this is a highly faulty description of orthodox theology and simply shows the nefarious intentions of Brian McLaren and other emergents in subverting the true Gospel of Christ. Notice how Brian makes a blatantly racist statement; he shows he’s comfortable with black theology, latin theology, feminist theology, et al. But normal theology – the theology he thinks is bad – he labels as “white” theology. In other words, “white” is bad and if you’re white, you have a hell of a lot of conforming to do in order to please God, whereas non-whites are already there since whites have persecuted and colonized non-whites.
Such drivel flies in the face of Biblical Christianity. To McLaren’s credit, he does offer somewhat of a solution to the overbearing ‘theology’ of the past:
Is a colonial mindset resonant with or in conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus? Is it resonant with or in conflict with the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it resonant with or in conflict with the life and teachings of the apostles and early church?
These are exactly the kinds of questions raised by a postcolonial theology.
It’s commonplace to talk about the extinction or evaporation of Christian faith in Europe, and in the US, we see this as a sad and tragic thing. But could it be that the faith that has been rejected in Europe is not the essential and original Christian faith, but rather the colonial Christian faith – the chauvinistic, Greco-Roman, consumerist, white-man’s Christian faith? And could it be that this faith should be rejected so something better can emerge in the void it leaves behind?
Could it be that our various modifiers these days signal parallel quests to rediscover – or create, or both – an authentic Christian faith, rooted in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, informed by the Scriptures, instructed by Christian tradition and history – and purged of longstanding and deeply embedded patterns of injustice? Could it be that diverse adjectives that have arisen – modifiers like emergent Christianity, big tent Christianity, missional Christianity, not to mention feminist, eco-, Latin American, black, and otherwise modified Christianity – are signs of diverse expressions of the same underlying impulse, or parallel mini-movements that will someday become one integrated movement?
While I agree that we should always compare our theology to Scripture and the early Church, McLaren’s inherent mistake is calling such an attitude ‘postcolonial.” It’s not postcolonial because it doesn’t seek to create an ‘other.’ Notice how in McLaren’s article, he’s still very much colonial, just with a different target for colonization. For instance, McLaren summarizes theological colonialism as such:
A. It would explain – historically or theologically – why the colonizers deserve to be in power – sustained in the position of hegemony.
B. It would similarly explain why the colonized deserve to be dominated – maintained in the subaltern or subservient position.
C. It would provide ethical justification for the phases and functions of colonization – from exploration to settlements to land acquisition to minority marginalization to segregation to hegemony-maintenance, even to ethnic cleansing.
D. It would bolster the sense of entitlement and motivation among the colonizers.
E. It would embed the sense of submission and docility among the colonized.
F. It would facilitate alliances with political and economic systems that were supportive of or inherent to colonialism.
G. It would camouflage or cosmetically enhance its ugly aspects and pre-empt attempts to expose them.
All these points, I am sad to say, describe the emergent conversation (and many conservative theologians as well, I’m not saying conservatives are without problems or false philosophies); the only difference is that emergents tend to be less abrasive about points A-G, but such points still exist. For instance, think of the recent “Big Tent Christianity” event where Christians were supposed to come together to find their commonalities. What strikes me as both odd and funny is in all the pictures of the event, the leaders are on stage while the audience sits below the leaders and are separated from the leaders. Such a stage setup simply entrenches the hegemony of the leaders, that “We are up here and you are down there, listen to us.”
But you look at the other points on there and we see that McLaren and others use these tactics just as much as some conservatives do; they hardly ever deal well with criticism and seek to silence opposition within their ranks rather than deal with it (ref. Mark Driscoll), they feel entitled among the liberal elite, as though the liberal elite should listen to them (ref. Franky Schaeffer on the Huffington Post), they want conservative Christians to submit to emergent ideas, they facilitate alliances with political systems (ref. Doug Pagitt forming a campaign in Minnesota, but backing out, or how many Emergents campaigned for and worked for Obama or any other Democrats), and finally how any attempt to defrock the Emergent movement or point out its flaws is met with overt hostility (3rd comment down).
In short, McLaren and others are still colonial, they’re just colonizing different people. They have the exact same mentality that justified Manifest Destiny, but simply target different people groups and in different ways. McLaren isn’t postcolonial because there is no such thing as postcolonial. If we imagine the British fighting the Zulu people in the mid-1800’s we have a perfect example of what is occurring. The colonists (British) have set up a fort with the cannons pointing outwards, aimed at any native people who would dare to challenge the British superiority. Anytime the Zulu army runs up against the British, the cannons are fired, the Zulus are killed, and colonialism reigns supreme. But one day, due to the weakness of the British forces and the strength of the Zulu people, they overrun the fort and turn the cannons on the people inside the fort. Is this post-canon? Are they beyond the oppressive use of canons? No, they’ve simply turned the canons around! They’re not post-anything; the Zulu mentality is the same as the British mentality, that in order to win a battle and to subdue a people you must use a canon. The only difference is the canon’s are now pointed at the former oppressors.
That is how the postcolonialism of McLaren and others functions. It simply turns the cannons of colonialism on the former colonizers. Whereas the ‘white man’ had the advantage in the days of old, now the ‘white man’ is the target of colonization; eradicate his culture, eradicate his beliefs, eradicate his lifestyle and conform it to our own. Such a theology is not found in Scripture and cannot be erroneously applied to Biblical Christianity.
Sadly, however, there are colonial ideas among conservative Christians. I think of the quote from Ann Coulter on September 12, 2001, where she said, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” This is the mentality of the conquistadors of Spain (although, the conquistadors weren’t necessarily evil; stopping human sacrifices isn’t exactly a bad thing). This is the mentality of slave-traders and plantation farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea that we need to change someone’s culture to our culture is always flawed; while cultures need to be changed, we should never be arrogant enough to assume that our culture is better.
But what of the true Gospel? If McLaren is wrong, what is left? The fact of the matter is that the Cross is left and it is as the foot of the cross that we are truly equal in all ways. While we are equal in our position as human and in terms of our rights simply for being made in the image of God, we are equal in our status, our income, in all things in front of the Cross. Before the Cross of Christ it doesn’t matter if someone is Anglo-Saxon, Italian, African, Mexican, Columbian, Chinese, Japanese, Australian, or Syrian; before the cross all are equal and all are part of the same family. All of them, regardless of color or background, are brothers and sisters. Historic, Biblically based, Christianity doesn’t seek to appease any culture. To God, we’re all evil and all fallen images of Himself. We’re all in need of His Son.
We can look to the words of Galatians 3:28-29, where Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” When we view the colonialism of the past – the slavery, the genocide, the idea of manifest destiny, the conversion to Christ by the sword – we quickly see how the Gospel does not allow for such colonialism. But this isn’t some new discovery we can come through by adopting a postcolonial paradigm; such a view is adopted by looking at Scripture and historic Christianity. The early Church was composed of multiple people from various backgrounds. Different cultures and ethnicities made up the Church, but the Church didn’t seek to appease any culture over the other. For instance, there was never a “postroman” movement that attempts to subvert the colonization of Rome. There wasn’t some “neo-hellenistic” movement that sought to restore Greeks as rulers instead of Rome. There wasn’t a “slave liberation theology” that attempted to view the life of Jesus through the mentality of a slave. Such movements didn’t exist because such movements give preference to one type of people over the other.
Rather, the Gospel sees all humans – regardless of creed, class, culture, or ethnicity – as equal in all aspects. We are equally sinners (Rom. 3:23), but all equally justified by Christ (Rom 3:24). In the Bible, all races are equally fallen rather than one more fallen than the other. Consider Romans 5:12-17:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
In other words, all cultures are fallen before Christ. This means that we do have a need to look at our biases and make sure these biases don’t play into our theology. A person’s bias against the poor will create a false reading of Scripture regarding our obligation to help the poor. Alternatively, a person’s bias towards the rich will create the same effect in reading Scripture. We do approach theology with biases, but the solution isn’t to adopt ‘postcolonialism’ or to to deconstruct Scripture itself. Rather, the solution is to look to the heart of the Gospel – that all men are equally sinners and equal before the foot of the Cross in all things – and build from that basis.
The postcolonial theology is really an attempt at liberation theology that seeks to call some people saved based on their economic status, race, or cultural background. It attempts to create a universal Gospel, but it’s actually highly exclusive. How the ‘white man’ is saved in black liberation theology is different from how the ‘black man’ is saved. How the colonial is saved in postcolonial theology is different from how the indigenous tribe is saved. Such theologies are actually far more exclusive than traditional Christianity. In fact, traditional Christianity is universal in its scope of salvation; all men are lost and all men need to be found through Jesus Christ. Now once this occurs, the sanctification (or Theosis) of the believer will look vastly different depending on the cultural background and what needs to be ejected, but all begin to work towards a common goal. The white American CEO may need to abandon his colonial ideals, his idea of cut-throat business tactics, and the oppression of overseas workers, the Latino illegal immigrant by need to abandon his idea of liberation theology, the mistrust and disgust with anyone who is not Latino, or other aspects of his previous life.
This doesn’t call for an end to cultural distinctions and that is the beauty of the Gospel. The unifying factor of the Gospel isn’t the eradication of a culture, but rather Jesus Christ. Even under Christ our cultures will function differently and have distinctive that make us unique. It is the sinful divisions of cultures that Christianity seeks to eradicate – that which does not correspond to the Gospel – not the cultures themselves. That is the flaw of postcolonialism; it attempts to destroy certain cultures while lifting up others. True Christianity embraces cultural distinctives without destroying the culture itself.
All of us do have cultural baggage when we come to Christ, but the solution isn’t to embrace postcolonialism or to lash out against the oppressors. Rather, the solution is Christ. It really is that simple. We should pray for the oppressed and the oppressors. We should pray that both will recognize their equality in Jesus Christ. That is the true Gospel.