The Sanctity of Homes

by John Howard.

Some years ago I arrived at a farm just after Israeli troops had left having demolished a home in the Jordan Valley. Around me was a scene of devastation, not just the remains of the building strewn across the land, but every item of possession that helps make a house a home. I helped the family recover some of the objects and then, with their lives desecrated around us, the wife and mother of four small children asked me if I would like a cup of tea. Despite the tragedy all around us Palestinian hospitality had to take over – despite everything this was their home and I was a guest in it.

The memory of this incident was brought back to me this week when the news came through of the multiple house demolitions in Sur Baher, East Jerusalem. After a ruling in the Israeli Supreme Court that these buildings were too close to the Separation Barrier,  despite having been built legally with permission from the Palestinian Authority, the court ruled that the demolition orders on the buildings should be upheld. These demolitions are the first to have been carried out for this reason, by the Israeli Military in Palestinian controlled area A.[i] This now leaves many hundreds of other homes vulnerable to such treatment.

What does a home mean? What makes the distinction between a house and a home? For many of us there is an experience of home – we know when we feel at home. Returning home is a different experience to arriving anywhere else – places may be very comfortable but that doesn’t mean they are home. That family in the Jordan valley knew their home had been violated and their hospitality to me affirmed their sense of what was still their home despite the best efforts of the Israeli Defence Force.

The Bible is clear in many places that hospitality is a virtue. The writer of the first letter of Peter encourages practice hospitality ungrudgingly (1 Peter 4:9). But the virtue of hospitality is closely linked to home. How do you practice hospitality if you have no home? The family offering me tea after their house had been demolished were not only practicing hospitality – they were also offering non violent resistance. Despite the wrong that had been done to them, they were affirming that this was their home from which they could still practice hospitality. They were demonstrating sumud – the Arabic word for “steadfastness” that has come to mean so much in the struggle for justice in Palestine.

The Bible doesn’t reflect upon the nature of what makes a home as such, however, the context of the many references to “home” illustrate that it is a place to be revered, a reward that is linked to good life. Proverbs 3:33 says, “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.  One of the rewards of peace is security at home. Isaiah 32:18 says that in God’s reign, My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.

In the Gospels, again, we see that the home is a place of comfort and security. Jesus rests in Mary and Martha’s home (Luke 10:38). After the crucifixion John takes Mary “into his own home.” (John 19:27). When in the Acts of the Apostles, in Macedonia, Lydia, a new convert, is accepted into the church, she immediately invites Paul and his companions to stay in her home. She is showing the virtue of hospitality, but this incident is more than that. By accepting her offer, Paul and his companions are accepting Lydia.  In Matthew 8:20 Jesus laments Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. The absence of a “home” is clearly a reason for sadness.

This very brief set of biblical examples could be expanded upon with many other references that illustrate that a home is a blessing, a place that is special. Is it too much to say that there is a sanctity in a home and its violation is an especial sin? In Micah 2:2 this is addressed quite specifically: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it because it is in their power. They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away; they oppress householders and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord…..”

Homes are special. To violate them in any way is wrong. Violation can come in many forms but the deliberate destruction of Palestinian homes such as we have seen in the last week is especially sinister. Such destruction is explicitly condemned by Hebrew scriptures.

 

 

[i] In the Oslo Accords most of the West Bank was divided into three areas, A, B & C. Area “A” was in full Palestinian control, area “C” in full Israeli control and area “B” in shared control. This was meant to be a temporary measure in 1993 for up to five years but it still applies today.

Interrupting Stories

by Barbara Glasson.

It is of course an amazing thing that new technology is being invented to scan the brains of people who cannot speak and formulate sentences from what they are thinking. With such incredible technology someone stuck without verbal communication can indicate their needs and desires. It is also quite terrifying. Supposing, down the way, every thought that passes through our heads will be heard: ‘That person looks awful in that hat’;  ‘I really don’t like you’; ‘ This food is horrible’…!

Of course, our inner discourse can be released in other ways than by technology – by dementia or alcohol or any substance that causes us to lose our inhibitions. And it can also be released by the use of the internet, in which a stream of consciousness can emerge into the public realm without any of the filters that would be applied to a face to face encounter.

I am part of a small intentional community that prays together each day. In this community we are using the prayers of the Corrymeela community and in the morning, in our separate places we say the words, ‘We begin this day alone ….’ I have repeated this morning prayer  in the quietness of a multitude of bedrooms that I have stayed in over the last few weeks as I begin to travel around the Methodist Connexion as President, these words have deepened both my sense of privacy and community. I am alone in company, we are together alone.

This dynamic of alone-ness and community runs like a thread through the stories of Jesus, as he travels with the disciples. Jesus is continually in relationship with others and yet also curiously aloof from others as he is interrupted by a series of extraordinary encounters on the way. In particular we hear of encounters with inconvenient people, Zaccheus, Bartimeus, the woman with the flow of blood, all of which are not on the original travel itinerary. Walter Brueggemann in his book Interrupting Silence says, ‘Our tradition in faith is a long series of inconvenient interruptions’.[i]

Over the last few weeks I have had a wonderfully rich programme of experiences, from a celebrating communion on Susanna Wesley’s Epworth kitchen table to marching with the trade unions and honouring our history at Tolpuddle, visiting an observatory on the Isles of Scilly and opening a  new church in Poole. And whilst I have been busy doing all these things there have also been a long series of ‘inconvenient interruptions’ that are probably more important than the job in hand. Conversations in vestries, stories told at church doors, insights from scholars and practitioners, feisty e-mails, a very fine chat with a little boy on a boat wearing a shark hat! I am learning that these ‘interruptions’ are the threshold of learning and new ways of seeing, rich and precious as well as incidental and inconvenient.

The Corrymeela prayers go on to say, ‘Let us live the life we are living …’  Living what is happening rather than what we feel should be happening, being present to others in their inconvenient interruptions, means a stilling of the inner discourse that we are glad people can’t hear. To live with integrity means holding together the contradictory convictions of myself and honouring all the parts of my inner world in order to be fully present to others and their contradictory convictions. We, that is the we that is me, begins the day alone, in order that we as separate human beings can be present to to the inconvenient interruptions by which the spirit can make doorways of grace.

As vice president, Clive and I travel with our question, ‘So what’s the story …?’ we are also discovering stories being written as we go, stories of encounter and reflection, of community and solitude and formed of many joyful and challenging inconvenient interruptions.

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Interrupting Silence (Westminster John Knox Press 2018) p.57.

Reconciliation – Widest Extremes to Join

by Inderjit Bhogal.

When Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa 25 years ago he made his former enemy F. W. De Klerk of the national Party his Deputy.

The handshake between two extreme enemies, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at the beginning of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland is miraculous.

People who are poles apart can be friends, reconciled, and work together.

I love Charles Wesley’s lines:

“He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join.”

Focus on the words “widest extremes to join”.

It is possible.

We, as a church, are a rich mixture of people.

We have all the range of diversity, not least the widest extremes in terms of theology.

We want to enable each other to grow and flourish in our relationships.

In any context we do make mistakes.

We hurt each other.

We can be become poles apart.

But we are called and committed to a ministry of constructive dialogue and reconciliation.

We can go down two tracks as we do this.

We can see conflict as a place of different opinions, good or bad, depending on your place in the conflict.

In this scenario, one side tries to overcome the other.

Conflict can get ramped up and up and up, and can build resentment, hatred and mistrust.

It is then about conflict management, or conflict transformation – neither of which tackles the root causes.

Alternatively, we can see conflict in terms of mistakes that have been made, come to admit the mistake made, confess, repent and respond with grace and respect, and learn from our mistakes.

In either case, the important factor is to cross the river of turmoil upstream, before it becomes a torrent, or so wide that people are on two sides wondering how to bring the parties on different sides together.

The Bible gives us two important pillars, two legs, on which we build our theology of community and church.

Image of God, and the Body of Christ.

All are made in the Image of God. This mean we are all created, not the same, but equal.

The theology of the Body of Christ brings in the idea of difference.

These two themes of Image of God and the Body of Christ allow no room for any practice of exclusion or discrimination.

The Body of Christ model is used in the early church to address diversity and integration, and holding people together, preventing disintegration.

In Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12, this model is used to address hierarchy, factions, divisions and disrespect within congregations, especially if not only at Holy Communion.

1 Corinthians 12 particularly refers to “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (verse 13). In using these categories, the writer is referring to people who were the furthest apart from each other in terms of ethnicity and rank, and is insisting that with all the differences in a congregation, all are one.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (verse 12).

And all of us are called to exercise the ministry of reconciliation.

The Bible records and reflects Gods continuing reconciling work in the history of a people on a journey who are in regular conflict, constantly desiring nothing less than a restoration and renewal of their relationship with God, and their relationships among themselves, and ultimately the renewal of all creation.

There is a claim in the New Testament that this journey reaches a climax in the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, following which God’s work of reconciliation moves to a new level towards renewing and building a “new heaven and a new earth”, realising the fullest potential of all creation.

The crucifixion of Christ at the centre of God’s work of reconciliation insists that reconciliation comes at a cost, even to God.

Reconciliation requires holding and healing each other through remembering, sharing stories of hurt, arriving at repentance, forgiveness, and a commitment to living with more grace and generosity.

We dare to hope for and dream of a different society, a decent society where “widest extremes” can be joined, all people can be safe, flourish and have equal opportunity, and enjoy the fullness of life; where different parties agree to be in an open and honest relationship in which they can share openly and honestly in what are  undoubtedly difficult conversations.

A reconciled society, or congregation or church will not be one without differences and disagreements but it will be one where division is not destructive because there is a shared commitment to the enhancement of life for all.

Wrestling for what is of Value

by Anne Ostrowicz

Another school year is over and as I reflect upon it as an RE teacher, I return to the idea of ‘wrestling’, inspired by some lines in Jonathan Safran-Foer’s latest novel:

“Israel literally means ‘wrestles God’. Jacob wrestled with God… with Esau… with Isaac… with Laban… He wrestled because he recognized that the blessings were worth the struggle… [For Jews] wrestling is not only our condition, it is our identity, our name…. Arm wrestling, sumo wrestling, wrestling with ideas, wrestling with faith… They all have one thing in common: closeness…. You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of…. It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas… Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle.”[i]

Gerard Hughes, in God of Surprises, includes a discussion of Von Hugel’s analysis of three stages in religious and spiritual development: from an institutional element in childhood, to a questioning element during adolescence, to an element of mystical experience in adulthood, with essential continuous overlap. [ii]

At the start of secondary school, pupils are for the most part fundamentally comfortable in the beliefs they have received from their family, though interested in systems of thought other than their own. But inevitably the questioning begins and with it, ‘wrestling’, with questions around God, value and meaning. This year I have watched younger pupils wrestle with both delight and confusion. Delighted wrestling in terms of personal ethical response filled the room as year sevens encountered Satish Kumar’s description of his mother’s Jain lifestyle which expressed utterly beautifully and inspirationally her passionate belief that “God permeates all”.[iii] In contrast, marked confusion arose as year eight Muslim pupils read about the Berlin mosque with a female imam: “That is not Islam!” Yet by the end of a term’s study of Islam, the concept of ‘liberal’ had been happily and helpfully absorbed into their understanding. A letter from a year nine pupil thanked me for getting him to wrestle this term with ethical challenges arising from researching and writing an essay on the effects of meat-eating on our bodies, animals and the environment.

Sometimes such wrestling can seem particularly tough. A pupil from Afghanistan told me that this year almost every assumption he has ever held has been challenged: from the existence of free will, to the existence of God, to the motivation to do good being flight from hell. Nevertheless he was insistent that he was glad his assumptions were being challenged, glad he had realised the arguments of fellow pupils ‘on the other side’ had weight, glad to have to consider what foundations lay beneath his own beliefs.

A very few pupils venture into Von Hugel’s  third stage: mystical experience. A pupil who left last Summer has just emailed me for my thoughts on how to begin a journey into spirituality, in need of an inner anchor in the whirl of London life. In the Autumn our RE department launches an on-line forum for former pupils to share thoughts on their journeys in theology and philosophy, and they will be invited to our very first ‘discussion over a meal’! And so the wrestling goes on!

As an RE teacher I wrestle constantly with questions around what is most needful to teach? How can I aid theological, moral and spiritual understanding in the deepest sense? How can I help pupils progress in their own journeys in seeking metaphysical truths? As  I read some of the wonderful insights of writers like Gerard Hughes, I wonder in what form I might offer these to my pupils for their consideration: the need for inner integration; finding God in the world around us; finding God’s will in who God has made me in my deepest being.[iv] At the moment I am working on bringing some of the insights of psychologist Jordan Peterson to discussion;  many older teenagers are avidly listening to him on You Tube. I regularly find myself bursting with emotions as I wrestle with the joyful weight of how to birth into a classroom potentially life-transforming ideas.

Viktor Frankl writes that we are made for tension, when that tension is linked to something of real value.[v] I like that Jonathan Safran-Foer links wrestling with loving. May we have the courage and dedication to wrestle lovingly for what we believe to be of real value.

 

[i] Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am (Penguin 2017), pp.511-512

[ii] Gerard W. Hughes, God of Surprises (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), p. 11

[iii] Satish Kumar, You are Therefore I am (Green Books, 2002 ), pp. 37-38

[iv] Hughes, God of Surprises, pp. 9, 56, 62

[v] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Rider, 2004)

 

For the healing of the nations

by Richard Saunders-Hindley.

A recently published report has claimed that there is enough space around the world to enable the planting of trees equal to the area of the United States. On that kind of scale, the trees would help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere by up to 25%. It is, say the researchers, the most effective weapon against climate change currently available.

On the flip side of this coin is another recent news story, which reported that trees covering an area the size of a football pitch are lost from the Amazon rain forest every minute. The impact on the local environment is devastating, and effect on the global climate is reckoned to be considerable and negative.

These recent stories on the important therapeutic properties of trees have put me in mind of part of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem as his angel guide shows him inside the city that has come down from heaven:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22.1-2, NIV)

Here, John seems to be bringing the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3 full circle. In the original creation, the tree of life was denied to the disobedient man and woman, with the terrible curse of expulsion and death. Now in the new creation there is a new tree of life that is for healing, specifically “the healing of the nations.”

“The nations” in the Jewish sense of the term refers, of course, to the Gentile nations, the goyim, or ethnoi. These nations often represent rebellious and disobedient humanity, seeking to follow their own way, in contradiction to God’s rightful place as the world’s true sovereign:

“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed…”(Psalm 2.1-2, NIV)

It is from this rebellion, which started in Eden and has continued throughout human history that the nations need the healing given through the leaves of the tree.

Perhaps the most pressing theological question here is whether Christians should look beyond the whole concept of ‘nations’ altogether. The nations frequently pit themselves against one another, with the strong oppressing the weak, the rich exploiting the poor, the powerful subjugating the powerless. These unbalanced dynamics lead to conflict and violence, either as the oppressed rise up, or as the powerful vie among one another for domination, or indeed a combination of both. To compound it all, the international institutions that are designed to deal with all this, such as the United Nations and the European Union, have failed to end the that blight so much of the human race. Is it time simply to withdraw and become a separate, transnational people of God, letting the rebellious and godless ‘nations’ go their own way?

But what about the promised healing? At least part of the answer to this comes in the next three verses of Revelation 22:

“No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22.3-5, NIV)

The human vocation described here is twofold: to serve God in his presence, and to “reign” over the renewed creation. As Tom Wright puts it,

‘The royal and priestly vocation of all human beings, it seems, consists in this: to stand at the interface between God and his creation, bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker … in the book of Revelation, as elsewhere in the New Testament, this ultimate destiny is anticipated in the present time.’[i]

It therefore simply won’t do to abscond, and leave the wicked world to go its own way. If the vocation of humans is to bring God’s saving and, yes, healing rule to earth now, then our default theological position must be that we affirm “the nations” as being under that rule, whether or not they and their leaders acknowledge it. But it cannot stop there. It must be the place of the church to anticipate “the healing of the nations”, calling them back from their conspiracies, their plots, their risings and their banding together in the face of God’s good purposes.

“The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.” Donald Trump’s words, spoken in an interview with NBC in 2017, provide an accurate enough diagnosis of our age, but they offer no treatment, let alone a cure. Thinking of our own nation’s little local difficulty, as a new Prime Minister will soon assume office and attempt to mend divisions over Brexit that seem beyond repair, we must assume our divinely appointed role as priests and rulers: we must intercede for healing, but we ourselves must also bring that healing into the nation. In the end, until we see the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, it is in fact we who are the leaves “for the healing of the nations.”

 

[i] Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn, London: SPCK, 2010, 70-72

Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

by George Bailey.

I have sort-of tidied the kitchen, we have done half the homework before getting upset, and one of the children has fed the dog (I think). It’s not perfect, but is it good enough? ‘Good enough’ is a popular concept in the world of parenting theory. The idea was pioneered by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott,[i] and is now popularised in parenting books, including Christian ones such as Good Enough Mother by Naomi Starkey; she writes,

“We may feel that we will always truly doubt whether we are truly good enough mothers – but we should never forget that in God’s eyes we are, fundamentally, good enough […] Knowing this should fill us with confidence – the sense that we can, with our heavenly Father’s help, continue the work of looking after the sons and daughters with whom he has blessed us.”[ii]

This reflects a common feature of popular theology in the last fifty years or so whereby striving to achieve an ideal lifestyle is seen as the mistaken path to an over-anxious, guilt-ridden spirituality. The ideal of perfection is unhelpful: nobody’s perfect, and that’s how God intends it to be.

I do think that there is much spiritual wisdom in Starkey’s book – when we bear weighty responsibilities which it really is not possible to fulfil in all their potential fullness, and parenting, in my experience, is certainly an example of this, it is very wise to trust in God’s mercy and redeeming love. However, I am always wary of this ‘good enough’ way of talking about God and our response to God. It is not an attitude that is easy to locate in scripture, which describes God’s promise for those who are in Christ, and the complementary call to follow. When Paul prays for the Colossians, “…that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God,”[iii] does he imagine that the prayer could become reality? Or would he settle for ‘good enough’?

In one of the most significant recent books on the Christian theology of perfection, titled Diagonal Advance, Anthony Baker analyses the ‘good enough parent’ concept as proposed by the US psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.[iv] Baker acknowledges that Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic point is sound – “the honest and painful acknowledgement of the boundedness of life in time and space, and of the inconsistencies of human desires, is central to any possible happiness”[v] – but he is wary because, “Having rejected perfection as pathology, ‘good enough’ can become the new perfection.”[vi] There is a hint of this in the quote above from Starkey with the use of the word ‘should’. The rejection of the ideal can simply make way for a new lesser measure, possibly even more problematic as hidden behind softer language; to go forward on the basis of ‘good enough’ entails an often unspoken acknowledgement that there is also ‘not good enough’. Furthermore, once we are adrift from scriptural moorings, all manner of ideologies may rush in to fill the vacuum left by a truncated vision of Christlike living.

Baker’s great insight is that both sides of this common debate in the theology of recent centuries are working with an unhelpful theological frame. He terms them ‘Promethean’ and ‘anti-Promethean’. Prometheus is the Titan of Greek mythology who stole the divine fire and so became like a god, and by giving it to humans sparked the beginnings of civilisation; he then suffered eternal punishment for his transgression of the right order of things. Baker identifies some Christian theologians who champion the ideal of perfection and so are accused of desiring to become like gods (and so cease to be human?), and others who resist this ideal and so limit human achievement to isolated human endeavour detached from divine intervention. Both are unsatisfactory – can we recognise instead that we may fully desire union with God without ceasing to be human, and also that no merely human-bound ideal for life can allow us to fully realise our God-given potential? The incarnation is central to uniting these two notions, one spiritually ‘vertical’ and one ‘horizontal’, making a ‘diagonal’ resolution whereby we advance into the perichoretic love of the Trinity. I commend Baker’s voluminous study of numerous authors on this, not least John Wesley. Overall, Baker favours the work of Maximus the Confessor, as the pinnacle of centuries of patristic developments.

“Creatures do not want to be homousian to patria [the same substance as the Father]; they want to be in love with the Father’s ousia [being/substance]. The perfecting that emerges in the Church Fathers originates in this desire, and develops in stages, as the fathers generate a vocabulary capable of defining creation as that dependent being which receives God without destroying itself. This is the end of all things, ‘the rest of the loving heart in eternal motion around the beloved’ (Maximus; Quaest. ad Thal. 59)”[vii]

How does this help me go an extra mile with the daily challenges of parenting, rather than too quickly saying ‘never mind, that’s good enough’? Baker’s diagonal resolution is about incorporation of the human into the Trinity by the bestowal of a divine gift, received by human loving desire for God. Maybe seeing the tasks to which we are called as gifts through which we can know God’s love could transform our attitude and help us avoid getting caught on either side of a Promethean dichotomy?

 

 

[i] See for example D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin, 1973), and his earlier term of the ‘Ordinary Devoted Mother’ in Babies and Their Mothers (Free Association Books, 1988), pp. 1-14.

[ii] Naomi Starkey, Good Enough Mother: God at Work in the Challenge of Parenting (BRF, 2009), p.102.

[iii] Colossians 1: 10, my italics added

[iv] Baker cites Bruno Bettelheim, A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Child Rearing (Random House, 1987), in Anthony D. Baker, Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (Wipf and Stock 2011), pp.14-18. Bettelheim draws on Winnicott’s earlier work.

[v] ibid., p.14.

[vi] ibid., pp.14-15.

[vii] ibid., p.194

Theology in a Postcolonial Key

We are pleased to welcome Barbara Glasson and Clive Marsh as President and Vice President of the Methodist Conference this year. Between them, with a new post the first Monday of each month, they will be contributing to our collective Theology Everywhere thinking by sharing theological reflections on their experiences across the connexion and the world. 

Theology in a Postcolonial Key

by Clive Marsh.

The challenge to ensure that we are all doing theology in a postcolonial way has been around for many years now. From Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner and Mayra Rivera’s co-edited Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire back in 2004, through Michael Jagessar and Anthony Reddie’s Postcolonial Black British Theology: New Textures and Themes (2007) to Reddie’s latest –Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Routledge 2019), and with a whole host of other texts from inside and outside theology in between, it’s been a hot topic. At the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies meeting in 2018 it was often on the lips of theological educators. But what does it mean? And what can it mean for White, male, Western, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual academics and churchgoers such as myself?

The first thing to say is that postcolonial approaches must be for everyone, though it’s probably precisely the likes of me that need to listen up first. The layers of privilege that have accompanied me through life mean that unless I do some hard work, I am less likely to deconstruct my colonialism in order to work out how to be postcolonial. But as a manifesto, postcolonialism has to be a serious call to overthrow any kind of domination in theology.

The second thing to note is that there’s a narrow and a broad definition of postcolonial. The more precise definition focusses upon imperialism, conquest, and its impact. The focus is on where land has been claimed and people have been colonized (and sometimes enslaved). Postcolonialism therefore refers to how generations of colonial behaviour have to be examined, critiqued and re-thought and what a future might look like in a way which does justice to those who have been colonized, once the powerful have been brought down from their thrones (Luke 1.52). A broader definition may refer to any form of domination so that theology has to be done ‘from the underside’. From this perspective, postcolonialism and liberation theologies converge in their interests. There could, though, be the danger of diluting, or spiritualizing, the edge which postcolonialism brings to theological debate. So care is needed, if a broader view of postcolonialism is adopted, that tough challenges are not dodged. Wherever power has been misused, then a re-think and a re-structure are needed. But re-thinking and re-structuring can sound tame where actual enslavement, violence and the crushing of people have been involved.

Third, postcolonialism has become a theory. This may be good in so far as it has taken on a life of its own, as a package of ideas and a set of commitments which need to be taken up and not simply ‘applied’ but used as a thoroughgoing method of thinking and political strategy to change society and behaviour. Yet as a theory, it always runs the risk of being an academic fad. Speaking to Zimbabwean educators recently I discovered some reluctance to accept the way in which postcolonialism has taken shape in the West. Though accurate in its critique of imperialism, it was difficult to applaud all of the ways in which postcolonialism was being used in the comfortable, wealthy universities of the West. One might have expected it to be welcomed in all respects in former colonies. But it is not so simple when sometimes the colonized have become a new type of colonizer. Postcolonialism needed, and needs, more nuancing.

The call for more nuancing raises a fourth point of particular consequence for theology. Postcolonialism can too easily overlook any positive dimension to missionary activity. Because of alliances of varying kinds between imperial domination and missionary activity it is understandable why the notion that nothing good could come from missionaries might be part of postcolonial thinking. Yet the missionary legacy is ambiguous and complex. The same education which transported too much of Western thinking disrespectfully into new places also provided the seeds of thinking which could overthrow the colonizers. Postcolonial theology, then, will need to absorb pre-colonial insights – God was already there before any colonizers came – and to examine carefully and critically how theology takes shape in colonial times, in order to see what postcolonial views of God should look like. But it is clear that postcolonial theologies will need to be quite assertive to ensure that God is still spoken of, and believed in, at all when much secular Western postcolonial thought may prefer to assume that God has, and should be, left behind.

Theology in a postcolonial key is, then, itself to speak against the grain. But such speaking must be undertaken with great care.