Book review: Postcolonial Politics and Theology

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Kwok Pui-Lan, Postcolonial Politics and Theology: Unraveling Empire for a Global World, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021)

reviewed by Cathy Ross, Church Mission Society

Kwok Pui-Lan wrote this book during the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. As she reflected on these and other major world events, she struggled to find theological resources to help her make sense of what was going on in the Asia Pacific region. Much of the political theology that she found remained immersed in a Eurocentric mindset, so she decided to use a postcolonial approach to reflect on these issues. She claims that we also need imagination to do this, so she defines postcolonial imagination as “a desire, a determination and a process of disengagement from the whole colonial syndrome, which takes many forms and guises.” (p.10). She goes on to critique the classic understanding of political theology and proposes a transnational and multicultural articulation of the origins of political theology to try to avoid a Eurocentric bias. She remains true to this throughout the book where she draws on a broad range of scholars and theologians to decentre the West.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is a historical and sociological analysis of Empire with particular reference to race, religion and the role of American Empire. Much of this may be familiar, but to see it through the eyes of a feminist Hong-Kong Chinese theologian is illuminating. For example, the explanation of the concept of tongzhi with reference to identity can be seen as a postcolonial “gesture” that challenges homogeneity and binary classifications.

The second part explores decolonising theology by looking for different images and sources. She claims that we need to understand how many Christian symbols have been borrowed from imperial cultures and how this has reinforced Empire, so we need to look for alternative sources – the forgotten, hidden or silenced voices. Too often theology has been done by elites, clergy, the academics (I note the irony here of reviewing such a book), while we need to hear the voices of lay people, women and those outside the gilded circles. There are informative chapters on Asian feminist theologies and a fascinating case study of the Hong Kong protests and civil disobedience.

I found the final section on practices the most helpful. Her chapter on “Teaching Theology from a Global Perspective” is a must read, where she raises questions of pedagogy, approach and what it actually means to teach theology from a global perspective. These are questions with which we wrestle constantly as a teaching team at CMS. How do we avoid treating Majority World students as representatives of their entire culture? How do we help Western students feel they have something to share? She begins this chapter with a compelling quotation from African American scholar and activist bell hooks, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognising one another’s presence” (p.141). That is the dream. There are chapters on postcolonial preaching, inter-religious solidarity, peacebuilding and finally a postcolonial critique of mission. These chapters are full of practical examples and stories. If you want idea on how to decolonise preaching and worship, you will find some here.

I warmly commend this book. It is a book that engages theology with our current issues such as #BLM, climate change, the political struggles in Hong Kong, the ongoing injustices of the pandemic. These are the issues that we need to discuss and reflect on theologically and she brings a perspective and insights that will be challenging for some Western readers. It is not an easy or comfortable read but these are the books that stay with me and force me to ponder and reconsider a Eurocentric mindset that needs constant disruption.

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