A further ellipsis from Katongole’s Sacrifice: I didn’t anticipate so many breaks, but this week has been a very interesting week as far as western discussions of colonialism go, so I’ve had to insert a brief pause between the posts reviewing The Sacrifice. (Also, for what it’s worth, the CSM has a very interesting article exploring Newt Gingrich’s beliefs about colonialism.)
One of the most foundational questions a Christian interested in Africa must address is how to understand the issues of Christianity and colonialism. Indeed, anyone with interests in world Christianity has to look at the issue at some point. Unfortunately, few of us do. I took a course a few years ago through my church on “the world Christian movement” and it was distressing how little was said about the vital role Christianity played in the spread of western empire and the systematic destruction of indigenous cultures and peoples.
We talked about William Carey, but we didn’t talk about how the British used “protecting missionaries” like Carey as an excuse for imperial expansion in India. We talked about Christianity in China, but we didn’t address the gunboat diplomacy of Britain which was – again – justified as defending Christian missionaries. Or we could turn our attention to the Americas, where Christianity was nearly without exception the primary logic used by the so-called Indian reformers who set up boarding schools in which they took native children away from their homes, forced them to adopt western customs, and punished them for observing traditional practices. (The system they created unsurprisingly made it much easier for whites to steal practically all of their ancestral lands.)
With that backdrop, some Christians have tried to make sense of post-colonial Christianity by renouncing practically everything about the Christianity of the colonizers. They reason that if the colonialists’ understanding of Christianity could be used to justify rape, murder, theft, and empire then their understanding of Christianity is completely wrong. There’s a long list of writers working in this vein, but the latest is Brian McLaren. He tackled the subject earlier this week in a post for the Emergent Village blog. Though the post is vintage McLaren – meaning its heavy on described possibilities and scant on concrete prescriptions – I think you can still see the project Brian envisions. And if you don’t see it there, then you’ll definitely see it in his latest book.
Brian’s answer to the relationship of colonialism and Christianity seems to be renouncing most – if not all – of the faith held by the colonizers. My guess is he’d quibble with such a strong statement, but whether he likes my characterization or not, that’s what he’s done in his latest book. In any event, it’s a somewhat understandable reaction. But it also creates a few problems. Brian’s proposal boils down to theological guilt by association – if a theological tradition has been associated with egregious social evils, then the theology is bad. But guilt by association is a dangerous game to play. Often it can hide important points that will complicate the issue – and so it is with the question of Christianity and colonialism.
One major complication comes from a more well-rounded reading of Christian history. For example, how can we understand the abolitionism of men like John Newton and William Wilberforce? Both were as conservative as they come theologically. Both were staunch Calvinists and Wilberforce could pass quite easily for a social conservative, were he living today. In fact, most of the English abolitionists were Christian – and Christians of a very traditional Protestant sort, at that. Aside from Newton and Wilberforce, one of the most famous of all was a lawyer named Granville Sharp. Sharp was an enormously talented lawyer who argued against the slave trade in the famous Somerset case. Sharp won the case and in so doing effectively ended slavery on the British isle nearly 100 years before the United States would do the same. All these thinkers were evangelicals, theologically conservative, and profoundly right on the slavery question. So if we trot out theological guilt by association here, then orthodox western evangelical theology suddenly becomes progressive with a deep-seated commitment to the betterment of society. This reading is no more simplistic than McLaren’s.
But readings like McLaren’s also pose a problem for any current student of world Christianity. After all, the variety of Christian faith currently exploding throughout the global south is not the new kind promoted by thinkers like McLaren, but the old kind, the kind McLaren thinks is too Greco-Roman, the kind that is inevitably and essentially colonialistic. While the Anglicans of England and the United States exemplify McLaren’s approach, it’s the Africans who form the staunchest resistance to their theological liberalism. I don’t see how McLaren’s understanding can account for this undeniable fact.
In contrast to this understandable but extremely simplistic approach of McLaren’s, I’d suggest we reevaluate the entire question from the beginning. At this point, we must return to Katongole. Katongole’s proposal in The Sacrifice is that Christianity in Africa has traditionally been captive to a larger story. The framing story of the last 300 years in the west hasn’t been Christianity, according to Katongole, but modernity. And with modernity came industrialization, imperialism, and colonialism. Christianity – relegated exclusively to the sphere of “religion” – will then inevitably become the handmaiden of the imperialists.
Because of this, Christianity has been incapable of being what it’s meant to be – a cohesive, self-consistent story that explains all of reality and in which we are the characters. Rather, it becomes the religious dimension of the modern progressive story of imperialism. In that story, man is innately good and the world is getting progressively better via advances in science, medicine, philosophy, and religion. We progressively become more and more enlightened as we are freed from the chains of superstition and tradition to become truly autonomous individuals, free from all restraints. Within this story, it’s incumbent upon the enlightened individuals to elevate the unenlightened to their level, so you get colonialism. The Christianity of most the modern west exists within this story.
Since this Christianity is situated within modernity, it is both unable to critique modernity and must be put into the service of modernity. So Christianity became part and parcel of the modern west’s civilizing project. Missionaries took it upon themselves to introduce indigenous peoples to the civilizing forces of capitalism and to do it in the name of God. And from here we can roll out all of the consequences that McLaren and I both find so abhorrent. (Incidentally, the problem with nationalists like D’Souza is that they’re carrying on the error I’ve just described – Christianity situated within the modern story.)
But if the problem is what I’ve outlined above, then a simple renunciation of every theological belief of the modernists will not solve the problem. Instead, what is needed is a Christianity that is Christian all the way down, that is truly its own metanarrative rather than the religious component of a larger metanarrative, as the modernists and nationalists would have it. We need Christianity to exist as an alternative framing story and for the Church to exist as a true counterculture. While that could end up meaning that we renounce certain aspects of the Christianity practiced by the colonialists, it also means that we may end up keeping some. Indeed, that’s exactly what Dr. Katongole is doing in his book where he uses doctrines like the incarnation and the trinity as the basis for a workable political theory for Africa.
The great danger with the proposals (or perhaps “possibilities”) offered by McLaren is that in following them we may end up sacrificing the very things that might allow us to begin repairing the scars of modernity. Church history is a layered puzzle that no one person can fully understand. So when we evaluate it, we cannot accept such simplistic readings as those offered by McLaren. The complex nature of history forbids it. Of course, we must take note when the faith seems to create negative consequences socially or individually. But the work of any good historian is to ask deeper questions that go beyond surface-level readings. It’s on this point that McLaren’s treatment fails most spectacularly.