God, the decolonial, and the human future

By Mike Grimshaw | 1.24.2019

As we head toward the Westar 2019 annual meeting, I wish to highlight and comment on a memory from the 2018 Spring meeting. I want specially to think about and remember the noticeable discomfort, concern, and confusion that arose when “decoloniality” was discussed in the Seminar on God and the Human Future.  

Back in the 2nd century CE, the theologian Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In Santa Rosa, there was a similar question: “What does decoloniality have to do with God?” and even more poignant, “What has any of this to do with Westar?”

Let’s start with a third question: What is decoloniality?  It is first of all a way to think critically about the history and cultural violence of colonialism. Decolonial analysis is about the colonial world and its values viewed and critiqued from the perspective and experiences of the colonized. The colonized are the indigenous nations of the world, and decoloniality involves Christian theology because Christianity aided and abetted the process of colonization. Christian theology gave “rationality” to (justification for) Western nations to actively colonize the “other.” Understanding this indelible theological heritage and learning to think about it in liberating ways is definitely within the interests of Westar.

Christianity arose within the Roman Empire, spread throughout the Roman Empire, and subsequently spread as an Empire throughout the world. Central to Empire is the colonial project: the colonization of land, cultures, peoples, minds, and beliefs. Colonization is both a religious and theological event as much as it is a political and cultural event. The violence of colonization involves the forced relocation of indigenous populations taken from their ancestral lands, the coercion of populations driven into slavery, and other forms of compelled labor that involved the loss of lands and living under colonial rule.

For those who are the heirs of white settler societies in the Americas and Australasia, colonization accounts for so many privileges and powers by virtue of occupying a land that is not rightly ours. This means we need to be constantly reminded, troubled, and disturbed by the fact that Land is a theological issue central to new decolonial projects. As I have learned from my Maori friends and colleagues in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where I stand – my turangawaewae – that is, where I think and talk from, is as important as the subject I address and the issues I take up.

Decolonial thinking constantly reminds me that god and Christianity were and are colonizing tools and actions of Empire - the continuation of the emperor Constantin’s project when he used Christianity to unify his empire. Decolonial thinking also reminds me how the colonized have always undertook resistance in songs and actions, how they have always borne a type of exile in their own lands, and how they might, and we who repent might, sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, a strange land that was once their land. This is one of the challenges decolonial thought throws back at the colonizer: how might god and thoughts of god be used to critique and challenges settlers (the heirs of the colonizers)?

What if god (as expression of the oppressed and the marginalized, as liberator, as consolation in exile) is not for me as a settler or with me as a colonizer, but against me? What if I am part of the problem not part of the solution? What if I am the Roman occupier, the citizen of Empire, the one from whom the oppressed and the marginalized need liberation? What if resistance in the name of god needs to be undertaken against me as a white settler - despite all my good intentions and self-awareness? This is not just a question that applies to New Zealand and Australia or to Latin America but is one that sits at the heart of the American project of ‘The New World’.

Where we do our theological thinking raises theological questions. If theology concerns justice, then theological thinking concerns inequality. It is no wonder that liberation theology arose from the colonial environment since part of the decolonial project is being open to rethinking and reimagining liberation as a political, social, cultural, and theological change.

If I undertake theology that is not grounded in the location where I find myself, if my theology is not grounded in my settler history of violence, inequalities, and forced expropriation of lands, then how can I really claim to be doing theology? The ignorance of history in theology is another form of idolatry. Doing theology in ignorance of my privilege is like making an idol of myself and my culture. It is a politics of willful theological illiteracy.

As a white, educated, middle class, straight man, I must admit that both the world and my particular colonized society are constructed to my advantage. Yet, I am not the majority. Furthermore, theology and biblical studies, and religious studies generally, are too often constructed to the advantage of those like me. People like me, even unconsciously, because of privilege set the agenda for the “other” who is allowed – or worse, invited – to speak within patrolled lines of what is considered “normative.” Sometimes the other can only speak as the “exotic” other, as the one who is exotic to me. For those like me it might seem strange to think I should have to ask or be asked to participate in conversations with the other; those like me find it all too easy to assume that we have a normative right to do so. And it is just this often unthought and unrecognized normative power of inclusion and exclusion that decolonial thought so importantly disrupts.

An iconoclastic (idol breaking) theology that speaks against colonial power, injustice, and dispossession must also speak against me as a white settler.  A theology that draws upon decolonial thought also speaks against Westar as an overly white settler organization in a white settler society. How much of our Westar theology is really like an icon of power? How careful must Westar be, as it goes forward, in order not to be a “white males matter” form of colonial thinking?

The reader may well ask what, then, am I suggesting? Well, I still believe that theology holds within it a constructive way forward. As I like to express, the idea of God as noun is a limited idea, but the idea of God as a verb holds within it excesses of possibility. Part of the decolonial project includes understanding God at the experiential level, at the level of a verb where motion (action) and empathy are felt. The promise of the decolonial is that God is not stable and that, as such, there is never a limit to what can be despite what has been. The action question starts, as always, with who am I and from where do I stand – in the name of God?

- - - - - - - - -

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

1 reply
  1. Michael Harrington says:

    I am impressed. “As a white, educated, middle class, straight man” (myself) I will be investigating my role in the theology presented. God as Verb or Noun? Excellent jumping-off place.

Comments are closed.

Photo of Alexis Waggoner

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

1 reply
  1. Michael Harrington says:

    I am impressed. “As a white, educated, middle class, straight man” (myself) I will be investigating my role in the theology presented. God as Verb or Noun? Excellent jumping-off place.

Comments are closed.