by Aaron Edwards.
The logic of western colonialism in Christianity is often summed up via a pithy quote from Desmond Tutu:
‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.’
Whether the missionaries used the colonisers, or the colonisers used the missionaries, is another issue for another time. Whichever way one interprets the motivations of the missionaries, Christian theology rightly winces at the logic of colonialism, particularly under the aegis of Scriptural authority. Those Christians who felt able to justify colonialism theologically were able to do so because they believed they knew things that the colonised did not know, and that the imposition of such things would be ‘good’ for them, in the end. As many have since observed, such condescension was not unlike the way a parent makes decisions on behalf of young children.
Yet this logic is alive and well today, not only in the places you might expect to find it, but especially within the logic of ‘progressive’ Christianity. Any progressive Christian, of course, would recoil at being associated with colonialism. But that’s the thing about logic: wherever you hide from it, in deeds, intentions, statements, or hashtags, it will find you in the end. Indeed, it is quite possible to be so committed to ‘postcolonialism’ as to become guilty of colonialism 2.0. I speak, of course, of the western reinterpretation (and exportation) of a positive Biblical view of same-sex relations.
I spent a delightful few days in Nigeria last year with twenty bishops and archbishops of the Nigerian Methodist Church talking about preaching. I showed them how many western Christian leaders and theologians now interpret passages of Scripture on sexuality. Most were aghast that it was even possible to believe that such views could be claimed as having come not from western secular culture but rather from textual exegesis. I tried to play Devil’s advocate for a while, describing the arguments about historical context, and the views that speak of the Spirit’s varied illuminations in various moments, etc., but it wouldn’t wash. These bishops were well taught to ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2Tim. 3:14-15).
The Biblical hermeneutic that accompanied the first western missionaries was by no means infallible, but neither was it easily separable from the spiritual fruitfulness wrought in those churches, a fruitfulness which endured and now sends many impassioned African missionaries back to the west today, to reconvert what has long been forgotten. African churches legitimately ask why they should listen to any wholesale western reinterpretation of Scripture which requires new western commentaries which it would never have occurred to a non-western Christian to write.
The progressive view is underpinned by a belief that the colonial imposition upon land/rights also entailed the imposition of particular approaches to Biblical interpretation (and thus, to sexuality). When I have challenged postcolonial missiologists on the fact that the vast majority of African Christians willingly accept such Biblical interpretations, I have actually been told that such beliefs are merely a kind of ‘mimicry’ of what the colonial missionaries once told them. I once observed a conversation where a West African woman was passionately opposing the progressive western view on same sex marriage and was met with barely concealed wry smiles and bitten lips by her western counterpart, as though this person was just waiting for the penny to finally drop. This is not an unfamiliar recurrence. The assumption is that once the African churches have encountered the books that we have read, imbibing the deeper nuances of postcolonial contextual hermeneutics, they will be liberated from their childish reasoning (cf. 1Cor. 13:11). The implicit assumption is that African Christianity is founded upon a form of ideological brainwashing, and generations later has yet to realise this for itself. The logic is precisely this condescending, and precisely this shocking. The end-goal of colonialism has always been to civilise the uncivilised.
The curious notion of ‘living in contradiction’ has been much touted in recent years to suggest that there is, of course, no such imposition implied by the progressive view. Today, the progressive Christian calls for unity and genuinely respects the conservative’s right to disagree. Tomorrow, however, the logic will begin to catch up: perhaps some ‘further education’ would improve the quality of this unity? The day after that, it may be realised that such unity is only truly possible if there is mutual agreement over the Scriptural validity of both views, thus gradually removing the possibility of genuine opposition.
As Tutu demonstrated, the genius of colonialism was managing to achieve large-scale conquest whilst avoiding large-scale conflict. There was no war, but there was a very definite victor. To adapt Tutu slightly, this is what the vast majority of African Christians rightly fear when unity is spoken of in contrast to functional submission to Scriptural authority:
‘When the missionaries came back to Africa they had the hermeneutic and we had the Bible. They said “Let us interpret.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the hermeneutic and they had the Bible.’