Review: Post-Colonial Theology – sit with it

The cover image of Post-Colonial Theology: Finding God and Each Other Amidst the Hate

A new book provokes Dr Cathy Ross to discomfort and deep reflection.

Post-Colonial Theology: Finding God and Each Other Amidst the Hate, Robert Heaney (Oregon:Wipf and Stock, 2019)

Robert Heaney is a brave man. He is also a friend. It is a brave person who writes a book on postcolonial theology from the heart of Empire – from a wealthy theological college in North America, near Washington.

On the other hand, maybe this is exactly the sort of person who should be reflecting on the necessity to engage with  postcolonial theology – and there is the nub of the issue. What can we say about theology, Empire and our role in cultural domination and who has the right to say it?

This is a challenging read but it is a read for our times, as its subtitle indicates. Heaney grew up during the (euphemistically named) “Troubles” in Northern Ireland so is well aware of enmities, segregation and conflict.

I cannot adequately review this book for you in a blog post but let me tell you two of its challenges for me. It also challenged one of my colleagues who read the book at the same time. We have been having ongoing, uncomfortable conversations and if you read to the end, you will see one of the outcomes of our conversations.

Reading this book has reminded me of my white privilege and situatedness and how I can be blind to this.

A good example of this is found in our education system. Heaney explains that academic institutions in the North are proud of our tradition of critical thinking. We think this is a good thing and it is a skill we encourage our students to develop. However, we can be blind to this skill when it is expressed in different ways.

Students from the Majority World come with profound experience of complex and pluralist contexts, multilingual communication skills, the legacy of colonialism, the experience of inter-religious living and probably hybrid identities.

We may have less capacity in those areas and yet, as Heaney points out, “it seldom occurs to those in the dominant culture that we might also question our pedagogies, curricula, or methods of assessment” (p75). This is resonant of a recent BBC Radio 4 series, What If Our Textbooks Were Black? Well, what if they were? How would we respond?

Another challenge is to sit with my white privilege. “Sit with it,” Heaney says. He claims that white Christians find counter-readings of history and theology threatening and difficult. We tend to stop listening, to check out, to justify ourselves or to walk out.

Heaney invites us to remain and to sit. He urges us to listen, to read and to read again. He encourages us to learn about colonialism and anti-colonial movements in our own context. This is not easy. It is humbling and can be humiliating.

I remember the shock I experienced after reading Brit-ish: On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch and realising that even in the far flung former colony of Aotearoa/New Zealand, as a Pakeha (white New Zealander) I was a beneficiary of the slave trade. I had never thought about that before. Sit with it.

There is so much more. So what are my colleague and I going to do? We, along with others, are going to go walking on the Uncomfortable Oxford Tour, which focuses on Empire. Then together with others from former colonies, we will try to listen, learn and sit with it.

Dr Cathy Ross is Head of Pioneer Mission Leadership Oxford

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