Postcolonialism and Christian Ethics

by John Ellis

Of late, I’ve been studying the postcolonial (decolonization) theories of Frantz Fanon. Violent. Bloody. Absolute. In Fanon’s words, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder.”[1] What is a Christian to do with postcolonialism?

Please bear with me for a paragraph or two.

I was introduced to the dialogical nature of truth via the writings of the great Russian critical theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (who, not incidentally, spent time in a Soviet gulag for his involvement in the underground church – so, think of that before you turn your paleoconservative nose up at his being a critical theorist). With apologies to Bakhtin, the (much) lesser, yet better known, distillation of the dialogical nature of truth is “two things can be true at once.” While that aphorism is true, to the extent it has value, it does fail to adequately capture Bakhtin’s insights. Unfortunately, we Westerners dislike paradoxes. When faced with two truths in dialogue with one another, we tend to steer into our pseudo-Hegelian dialectic in order to satisfy our need to find a synthesis.[2] This is seen in our fumbling attempts to synthesize Paul’s divinely inspired claim that salvation is by grace alone with James’ divinely inspired claim that faith without works is dead. Since our Western faith is girded and decorated by information and propositional statements, that paradox must be dialectically wrestled into submission, we believe. We’ve got to beat the hell out of it – literally, I guess. That’s not how truth works, though. The problem – our problem – is that we do not want to submit to the reality that we are finite in our knowledge and, equally important, that we are existential creatures who live and breath paradoxes necessarily. In our fallen state, we can’t simply sit it in it and let it stew; we have to master it and bring it into submission to ourselves.

Truth, though, is much more beautiful than that. It pulsates. It challenges. It takes us down unexplored roads that reveal our epistemological inadequacies. It brings us to our knees. Truth causes us to submit, not the other way around. Because it exposes our finiteness. More importantly, especially since finiteness isn’t a sin, it exposes our desire to be like God, a temptation that Serpent-Satan has been dangling in front of us since time was new. The paradoxes of truth cause us to recognize our fallibility and weaknesses, graciously pushing us towards accepting our need to submit to our Creator.

So, what are the paradoxical truths of postcolonialism?

And this is where all of us, liberal and conservative alike, reveal our rebellion.

The West sinned. Greatly. Colonization is a great evil that we should mourn and seek to rectify by working the Kingdom ethics of justice/righteousness in the world. But, as Christians, our Kingdom ethics include things like turning the other cheek. And that’s not a cute hyperbolic aphorism. Literally, we are called to be Christ’s Church through meekness. Paraphrasing one of my favorite contemporary philosophers James K.A. Smith, the Church isn’t to “do” apologetics because the Church is apologetics. Our counter-culture words and actions are to cause the rebellious World to sit up and take notice. And by taking notice, they will either seek to throw us to the lions or bow their knee in submission to Jesus. That’s an either/or that we were promised in the New Testament, but, and highlighting my point, Western, Aristotelian logic has trouble accepting an either/or. So does our American patriotism.

All that to say, I empathize with Frantz Fanon. I do. A lot. My desire as a “citizen” of this wretched, sinful kingdom called the United States of America is to rise up in anger at what we have done and continue to do. What this country, and the other Western nations, have done and continue to do around the globe is a full-on embrace of the ethics of their king Serpent-Satan. Colonization was and remains sinful. It’s the (un)ethical outworking of Satanic kingdoms hellbent (literally) on building their power and wealth on the backs of others. The Kingdom I actually belong to, by God’s grace, has ethics that pointedly reveal what my King thinks about oppression and the abuse of others. My King has also revealed what he is going to do to the oppressors once he returns to claim his entire Kingdom. So, a part of me wants to take up arms with the likes of Che and Leonard Peltier and Phoolan Devi and Fanon.

But my King commands me to turn the other cheek. He also says that his Kingdom will not be spread by the sword, not until he returns, at least.

I guess, what I’m saying, is that an embrace of Kingdom ethics is our (considering that you, too, are a follower of Jesus) first order of business. Whom do we serve? Jesus or the American flag? Jesus or whomever is carrying a flag in opposition to the Western nations? It can’t be both, in neither instance.

In doing so – in recognizing that pledging allegiance to two kingdoms is a contradiction of terms – we must also be willing to be confronted with the sins of the kingdom to which our King sent us to be an ambassador. Defending an earthly, sinful kingdom out of patriotic pride reveals that we have forgotten whom we truly serve. Failing to acknowledge that the earthly comforts we enjoy are, in large part, the result of the continued actions of the rebellious kingdom in which our King calls us to be a witness to his resurrection reveals that we have fallen in love with the pleasures of Babylon and forgotten/rejected our true calling.

Practically, followers of King Jesus, of all people, should be among the first to publicly acknowledge that Frantz Fanon has a point. The West has sinned. Continues to sin.

Secondly, what are the solutions? Because there are more than one. There is an eschatological solution – repent and believe. And, make no mistake, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of Jesus is our number one priority. But, and referencing the dialogical nature of truth, recognizing a number one priority doesn’t preclude other ethical priorities, no matter how loudly churches in the self-serving thralls of Christian nationalism try to hide behind “just preach the gospel” bullshit.

But, and this is important, Fanon’s call to disorder is, well, rebellious, too.

While I empathize with those who take up the sword against their oppressors, I also realize that my King commands meekness, turning the other cheek, and the giving of our coat to those who would unrighteously sue us for our cloak (Matt. 5:40).

However, is Jesus’ greater wrath going to come down on the heads of those in the West who force others to give up their cloak than those who refuse to also surrender their coat?

Probably. Yes.

Definitely.

Justice matters, after all.

But, and I have to remind myself of this on a continual basis, my calling – our calling, brother and sister in Christ – is not that of forcing the world to conform to Kingdom ethics, no matter how much we may want to. Leaving me with the question of what my (our) ethical responsibilities are.[3]

Beyond the one mentioned above – the vocal recognition of the rebelliousness of the United States of America (or England or the other Western colonizing nations, if you live there) – I’m not sure. Really.

What I do know, is that for Kingdom ethics to have a chance at being lived out, we have to begin to embrace the “illegal immigrant” status that is the reality of God’s people in the here and now. Whom do we serve? God or America? And, yes, it is an either/or.

Christian nationalism is a syncretism of magnitude that calls into question the validity of the confessions of Christian faith by those caught in its lies. Make no mistake, though, syncretism of this kind is lurking at all our doors.

Colonization has given me much. Has given you much. We’re rich. Privileged. And that’s true thanks to the oppression of others by the country our King has sent us to be an ambassador to in his name. It’s so very easy to fall in love with our luxuries while we’re here, though. In turn, that love morphs into “patriotic” justifications. Resist them; resist those “patriotic” justifications. That’s a Kingdom ethic.

Where do your loyalties lie? Where do mine?

Until we get that settled, the question of how to best serve those oppressed by colonization will be a self-serving maze of contradictions. And contradictions are not paradoxes.

The United States of America is guilty of much sin, more than most. Where do we place our identity?

Another Kingdom ethic that I’m sure of is the willingness to point out sin and call sinners to repentance. Are you willing to risk the ire of your God and Country friends and family by calling the citizens of this Babylon-birthed kingdom to repentance for their (our) collective sins of colonization?

The irony of the “gospel only” crowd is that they fail to declare the entire gospel. That’s what syncretism does. Americans need to repent. To do that, they need to be confronted with their (our) collective sins. Hiding behind a reductionist, individualistic soteriology at the expense of the whole of the gospel of Jesus Christ while enjoying the ill-gotten gains of oppression is evil. It’s a lie, both in word and deed.

After that, though, we need to be thinking and praying through our ethical responsibilities towards the oppressed. Doing so as a community of believers, as the Church, will have far greater impact than doing so as isolated, “woke” individuals.

Beyond that, though, I don’t know.

I don’t know. Yet.

But I need to start. You need to start.

Love Jesus first. Love others second. Love yourself last. And the United States of America? Well, Kingdom ethics do not call us to love her at all.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963 – Eng. Translation 2004), 2.

[2] The so called Hegelian dialectic that is really the only thing most of us “know” about Hegel is not what Hegel believed nor taught, but it’s an entrenched part of our lexicon.

[3] And don’t give me Kuyper. He was a racist lover of colonization.

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