Wednesday, September 09, 2009
is God holding a white-y Bible? (introduction, chapter one)
Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire is a fascinating read by Australian, Mark Brett. He’s a lecturer in Old Testament at Whitley College and has been a researcher in Aboriginal land claims. It gives him a unique perspective from which to consider the question of whether God is a white-y, and whether God’s book really is an instrument that increases the power of white-y/Western cultures. In this chapter by chapter review, I plan to summarise the book and offer some down-under reflections, specifically from where I sit in New Zealand. It’s an urgent discussion for those of us who live in a post- world, and have to face the abuse of the Bible, it’s complicity in slavery and colonisation and whether we can have any confidence in our ability to use it better than those who have gone before us.
In the Introduction Mark lays out his aims. He acknowledges the crucial role of the Australian context in shaping his work and the fact that he Bible has been used, historically, to legitimate colonization. He outlines his method, in which he refuses to adopt one particular hermeneutic. Instead he uses a range of questions and methods to ask the question: Can God be decolonised, freed from this past? What might it look like for Christianity to not only say sorry, but to find ways to live that are freed from historical injustices and power imbalances?
Chapter one The Bible and Colonisation explores how the Bible was implicated in colonisation and the key texts that might help a ‘post-colonial’ re-reading of the Bible. Brett notes the uniqueness of Australia (unlike New Zealand, South Africa or North America) it was settled with a mindset that which considered Australia “waste and unoccupied.” Social evolution was a huge driving factor in European colonisation, applying Darwin’s theory of evolution to suggest that white people were superior.
“[William] Ward’s prediction was based on the assumed superiority of European literature in general, of which he took the Bible to be a part – even though not a single line of it was first composed in the colonizing nations of Europe.” (Brett, 22).
Brett notes a variety of responses: from evangelical Anglicans like William Wilberforce advocating for indigenous peoples (influencing the thinking of the British Government in relation to the Treaty of Waitangi), through to the published opinions of Australian missionary clergy that Aborigines were “brutes” and “beasts.”
Genesis 1:28 was interpreted (for example by John Locke) to suggest an original empty creation. Land could be owned by no-one until the advent of agrarian labour (ie colonisation).
However, missionaries could not control the reception of the Scriptures once they were translated. “[B]iblical faith presented a form of sovereignity higher than government and it thus provided a foothold for Indigenous resistance.” (Brett, 26). Hence Gandhi drew on the Sermon on the Mount to shape his resistance to British rule, as did the Gikuyu tribe in Kenya in the 1920′s. In New Zealand, Te Kooti drew on the Bible in founding the Ringatu faith. Aboriginal leader David Burrumarra urged holding together both traditional and Christian life.
Despite this subversion, “the overall effect of most of the missions was cultural genocide.” (Brett, 29, quoting George Tinker, an Osage/Cherokee theologian). Ironically, “most biblical texts were produced by authors who were themselves subject to the shifting tides of ancient empires,” (Brett, 31) and this is the focus of Chapter Two.
For discussion: Does it worry you that the Bible might have been used to endorse colonisation? What does such knowledge do to your respect for, and reading of, the Bible?
For all the posts relating to this book/blog review go here