Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations ~ The Praxis Question

The authors of this volume engage contemporary postcolonial theory primarily to articulate a critique of Western Christianity, as it has been practiced for centuries, and to suggest lines for reconstructing evangelical identity and constructive theology in a more inclusive and liberating key. Still, postcolonial theory is not taken for granted without critical pushback. In one particularly intriguing piece, "The Problem and Promise of Praxis in Postcolonial Criticism" (which earns high marks not only for its content but also for the alliteration in the title), Gilberto Lozano and Federico A. Roth interrogate academic postcolonial thought, especially in its impact upon biblical criticism: Is this mode of theoretical inquiry practical for human flourishing? Does it liberate? The authors sharpen such questions by bringing postcolonial theory into dialogue with Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, Edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk (IVP Academic, 2014)

Lozano and Roth offer a friendly critique of postcolonial thought with the intent of retrieving it for theology. I'm not qualified to evaluate postcolonialism as a body of thought nor to propose possible rejoinders to this essay from the critical theory guild, so I will stick to summarizing the main arguments.
Postcolonial theory is, first and foremost, just that: theory. It subsists within an interdisciplinary academic context, with all the socio-economic and cultural ambiguities and compromises that beset that milieu. The foundational text for the discipline is the classic Orientalism, by the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, who lays out a damning genealogy of how nonwestern peoples have been stereotyped and silenced in Western literature and literary criticism. This analysis evokes a justified suspicion of any totalizing discourse that obscures the cultural diversity and agency of among the members of colonized groups. (This concern with false totalities brings postcolonial theory into line with a general worry of postmodernist theory. On this point, see Brian McClaren's introductory remarks to this volume, pp. 13-15.) Postcolonial criticism along Said's model is a species of ideology critique, unmasking oppressive power dynamics between the colonizers and the colonized.

This critical project, which originates with secular theorists, is taken up within contemporary biblical and theological studies as well. Lozano and Roth write:

More an approach than a method, postcolonial biblical criticism seeks to accomplish a pair of indispensable goals. As a style of inquiry it attempts to catalog the presence of imperialistic impulses in the biblical text as well as in the academic and ecclesial appropriation of the biblical text (p. 185).

(Not surprisingly, the prospect of applying such a hermeneutic of suspicion to the biblical texts themselves is controversial in conservative evangelical circles. This issue comes to the fore, for example, when Gene L. Green recounts some of the bewilderment he elicited from both students and colleagues while teaching a course on "World Christian Perspectives" at Wheaton College, Illinois. See pp. 19-21. Like the authors of the "Praxis" essay, Green discerns the natural affinity between postcolonial conversations and theologies of liberation.)

Still, despite the critical perspectives informing postcolonial biblical interpretation, the Lozano and Roth fault the discipline for failing to engage concrete, transformative political practice. They attribute this lacuna to several factors -- for example the open-ended and pluralistic (non-totalizing) character of the discipline, its use of abstract jargon (terms such as "subalternity" and "hybridity" feature prominently throughout the essays in this volume) and an academic tendency toward hyper-specialization. The authors quote theorist Gayatri Spivak, who levels the charge that postcolonial discourse alienates its practitioners from the very populations for whom they presume to speak. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, postcolonialism exhibits a certain "tendency to romanticize oppression" (p. 186). The authors write:

A roll call of its scholarly voices would reveal many who number among the self-exiled, wealthy and socially advantaged. Some use the postcolonial marker to incite Western guilt and sentimentalize subalterneity [meaning low or marginalized social status] (pp. 187-188).

Such tendencies, the authors argue, tend to reify victimhood and minimize the agency and power of those who suffer the effects of colonial oppression. Are these charges completely fair and to the point? Again, I'm not sure, but they seem plausible enough to me, on the face of it. Perhaps the constructive part of essay is the main point, anyway.

To remedy these problems, the authors seek a corrective in Friere's pedagogy of liberation. A unified proposal, along these lines, would integrate critical reflection -- which postcolonial analysis is well heeled to supplement -- with concrete action to alleviate actual human misery. This would be a liberating, non-patronizing praxis from below, in which members of oppressed group learn to articulate their own aspirations for freedom and justice, thereby empowering themselves to work toward a new society. This entails consciousness raising among the oppressed themselves, the expression of solidarity by the erstwhile oppressors with the erstwhile poor and oppressed and radical reconfiguration of socio-political relations from bottom to top.

Essentially, the postcolonial angle is, quite appropriately, ingrafted into liberation theology. In Friere's ethical vision, the goal of pedagogy is not simply regime change wherein the last are now first, but rather a transformation that dissolves oppression as such. Rather than seek retribution, the oppressed seek the reclamation and liberation of the oppressors as well -- within a more just and egalitarian society. The proposal that Lozano and Roth suggest is both evangelistic (that is, about spreading good news) and humanistic:

Affirming the diversity of human experience and human knowledge, we have proposed that truth is found in the joint and collaborative efforts of people across multiple boundaries of wealth, geography, class, gender and so forth. Believing that postcolonial biblical interpretation should itself overcome the logic of colonialism, we suggest that interpretation should be done collectively by allies in solidarity with the oppressed and with them as full partners (p. 196).

My main criticism of this essay, which is overall cogent and compelling, is a bit ironic: With all the emphasis on making it real, the authors do not provide concrete examples, either of academic theorists being obtuse or of liberated critics being enlightened. I suspect that, along with other pieces in this collection, strict space limitations may be partly to blame. Positively, though, Lozano and Roth have laid some promising groundwork for further exploration.

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