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

Posted by steve at 05:38 PM


  1. Steve, very interesting and I look forward to following your review. I am particularly interested in the connection between the attitudes of the established church (specifically American Southern Baptists) and the attitudes of the US Millennial generation. Southern Baptists have “repented” of our slave-holding past, but we still are predominantly white. However, denominational leaders realize that to survive and thrive, the SBC must become multi-ethnic, and thus are seeking to plant multi-ethnic churches. Is this a new form of colonization? Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism, offers the minority view on these nascent multi-ethnic churches. But behind all of this is the idea of white domination, and behind that is the history of colonization. Perhaps this is what scripture means when it speaks of the sins of the fathers being visited upon subsequent generations. A complex web of social, cultural, and spiritual relationships is revealed when one looks closely at this subject. One also must ask the question of Southern Baptists in particular, Can a denomination born out of slavery and slaveholders survive, or even deserve to survive? I would be interested in your thoughts on the whole spectrum of this issue. -Chuck

    Comment by Chuck Warnock — September 10, 2009 @ 4:03 am

  2. It bothers me deeply that the bible has been used to justify all kinds of injustice and superiority of groups of people over others. Its a hard lens to read a book through – one that God is supposed to use to speak to me. Yet its like the splinters in church history post you made – its a humble approach. Always checking is that what the author meant or what tradition had told me?

    when I first came back to faith in a formal way in an evangelical presbyterian church I bashed the liberal presbyterian church of my childhood in rather open and embarrassing ways when I look back. One minister told me he wasn’t going to preach a passage from Paul as he argued with Paul too much. I was horrified and very offended that parts of the bible would be unaccepted without question. Now I understand and argue with parts of Paul too – humility. A light reading is never as good as a deep one I guess

    Comment by Jo Wall — September 10, 2009 @ 7:21 am

  3. thanks to you both for your considered and thoughtful replies. it is conversations like this that reassure me that the emerging church can be far more than a stylistic makeover, but actually is asking fundamental questions including the place of the Bible in being Christian and being church.


    Comment by steve — September 10, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

  4. It bothers me a whole lot, and I think it should – part of living in a post-colonial society IS that we have to engage with the past in a truthful way and let it bother us. When we do that, we can learn how to live with the tension and the discomfort and build better relationships as a society and as individuals.

    I dislike the Western tendancy to avoid discomfort, I think it is what leads us to try and ignore/repress the past and for this reason we are unable to be fully post-colonial and we continue to exist in a very weird limbo place. By we, I mean New Zealanders or I guess more precisely Pakeha.

    Comment by Sharyn — September 10, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  5. Part II: It doesn’t really lessen my respect for the Bible, but I think it further increases my wariness when it comes to drawing conclusions on how to act or what I believe when reading the Bible. As with any text, of course, it can be used in whatever manner the reader chooses. Certianly, the Bible has been applied forcefully and abusively in my past.

    For me, the resolution to this is to look at the Bible as a whole piece of work, and look for the themes that can provide guidance, rather than taking any parts of the Bible as normative or instructive. I shy away from going: the Bible says I should not pierce my ears, therefore I shall not pierce my ears. Rather, I say: the Bible goes on and on about looking after widows and orphans. What might that mean for me in my particular moment and my particular context?

    Comment by Sharyn — September 10, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  6. thanks Sharyn. I totally agree that this has real relevance for us as Pakeha and it’s one of the reasons I read this type of book and blog this type of stuff.

    I like your resolution to look at Bible as a whole. For me it also includes wanting to pay attention to potentially absent voices and to approach it as an apprentice, not an authority.

    I apologise to you if Opawa was part of your experience of the Bible been applied abusively in your past.

    steve taylor

    Comment by steve — September 10, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  7. Thanks Steve, and no, I was thinking a little further back really.

    Comment by Sharyn — September 10, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

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