For colonialism, hegemony is a practically ubiquitous goal. A colonizing power must
convince, if not the larger native population, at least the subaltern elite that the
colonizer's interests are its own, and it seeks to do so through not only economic and
political control but more subtly through the control of education and media. Colonization
is often more than the simple exploitation of another culture's people and resources, it
is an ideological struggle, an attempt to shape what a culture perceives as actual
reality. Lord Thomas Macaulay's 1835 "Minute on Indian Education" is a classic
instance of this, but one could find any number of other examples, as the imposition of
European systems of politics, law, church government, trade, agriculture, fashion, sport,
etc. in any number of countries would show.
Going hand in hand
with colonial hegemony, is the question of metanarratives ("grand narratives,"
"master narratives"), that is large cultural stories that seek to explain within
their borders all local narratives. Metanarratives are as often secular as they are
religious. Not only are the major world religions metanarratives, but so are beliefs
such as the Communist theory of history and the Enlightenment view of progress. It was
Jean-François Lyotard who popularized the notion that postmodernism is "incredulity
to metanarratives." The problem according to Lyotard and others is that no
metanarrative can actually reflect the experiences and truth-claims of all peoples and
cultures; therefore, metanarratives are inherently oppressive because they actually mask
the attempts at hegemony of particular groups. Very often post-colonial critics make a
similar charge. The local knowledge and power of a particular culture is inevitably
coopted or made inferior by the larger metanarrative of the colonizer. Now, it is
worth noting at this point that local stories can equally be dangerous and violent, a.k.a.
the ethnic and tribal violence that the world has witnessed the last two decades.
Nonetheless, this charge is worth considering. Must a metanarrative, such as the
Christian Bible, be inevitably a tool of power and oppression? Do the claims of
scripture eventually lead to violence?
The Christian scriptures have often be used to justify violence and
mistreatment of others. In the United States, slave-owners often quoted biblical
passages to support their abusive practice (cf. Luke 12:47, Col 3:22-4:1), including the
infamous claim that the "mark of Ham" (Gen 9:20-27, 10:6-14) is black skin.
Likewise, men have often oppressed women in the name of biblical submission (cf. Eph
5:21-33, Col 3:17-20) or used Eve as a model of supposed female incapacity. Still to
acknowledge that scripture has been used to justify violence does not mean that it must inevitably
do so. I would contend that there are three aspects of the biblical witness that
work against this:
- the diversity of the biblical canon,
- the communal nature of interpretation,
- and the call to critical self-knowledge and epistemic humility.
The Bible is a diverse book. While Christians believe that
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is [thus] useful for teaching, rebuking,
correcting and training in righteousness" (II Tim 3:16), we also acknowledge the
human element in the creation of the scriptures. God did not simply dictate the
Bible word-for-word as one would a letter to a personal assistant; instead, he worked
through the multiple personalities and experiences of authors and their communities. II
Timothy tells us that scripture is "God-breathed" (theopneustos), a
infusion of Spirit-filled life much as Adam received life from God (Gen 2). That infusion
acts within the particular settings of people. The self-disclosure of God is always
incarnational--in Christ, in Church, in history. Thus, it shouldn't surprise us that
scriptural texts reflect the varying styles, periods, genres, and focal concerns of its
human writers. Nor should we be surprised that such a set of works evinces a composite of
overlapping themes that correct potential misunderstandings on our parts. For
examples, there are two lines of history in the Old Testament--the Deutronomic (Joshua,
Judges, Samuel, Kings) and that of the Chronicler (Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah), as there
are four gospels in the New. Torah is realized through the priestly, prophetic, and wisdom
traditions, each which complements and corrects the other. The New Testament communities
that received the gospel of John, the epistle to the Hebrews, the Pauline letters, etc.
were also diverse with differing emphases in their theologies. And there are biblical
elements which stress the value of the king (Judges 21), while others warn against having
a king (I Sam 8); passages which stress the elements of justification by faith (Galatians)
and those, the expression of works (James); and circumstances which exemplify the
importance of questioning God (cf. Habakkuk, Job) versus those attitudes that warn against
questioning God (Romans 9).
We should be careful here to avoid language which suggests that
scripture is contradictory, for as a believer in the infailabilty of God's revelation I
would stress that it is not. However, what we can see is that the diversity of scripture
allows, even calls, for an adjustment of our understanding. We can see that God built such
correction into the very process of canonical formation itself. Within the Torah
community, God raised up various streams of prophecy, wisdom, and priestly ritual in order
to keep one emphasis from distorting God's way. God inspired the authorship of the New
Testament in answer to various questions and concerns of first-century Christians. The
diversity God uses prevents a totalizing stream of interpretation and life. Multiple
voices have to be listened to.
This acknowledgement of diverse correction leads us to the second
reason the Bible is not inherently oppressive--it assumes that interpretation is communal
in nature. Christians are within a community of faith, the Body of Christ. The New
Testament teaches both that divinely-gifted teachers are necessary for the church's
maturity (Eph 4:11-13) and that Christians together have an anointing from the Holy Spirit
that teaches them the truth (I Jn 2:20-27). [Note: The Greek in this later passage uses
the plural second person-"you all," suggesting a focus on the church as a
corporate receiver of Spirit-lead truth.] The illumination of scripture is the work of the
Spirit of God in our midst. No one person is the keeper of scripture (II Pet 1:19-21). And
even a cursory glance at Christian history will show that this has been the case.
We do ourselves a mistake to discount the genuine,
God-given plurality of the universal Church. Scripture, as a metanarrative, has what
Francis Fiorenza calls a "constitutional role," for it constitutes our
communities (Grenz 508). It shapes our self-understanding, our practice, and our complex
diversity. The Holy Spirit has emphasized different facets of the unity of his truth
through different branches of the people of God. Indeed, as we suggested the first
week, God the Spirit is carrying out his creational goal when he does so. No
Christian tradition has a monopoly on scripture and theology. Instead, we learn from
each other how to better unpack the richness that is there. The nature of the Church
reminds us that truth is intersubjective and connective. We come to the truth through a
variety of approaches and methods and best uncover it by drawing on the insights of a
larger scope of interpreters than ourselves alone. The Holy Spirit has intended that
it be so.
The way we interpret a text is deeply a
part of our communities and traditions. We have a heritage of response that shapes
our own questions. Thus, the Catholic, Orthodox, Magisterial Reformation,
evangelical, and charismatic communities shape their participants to interpret
differently. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has noted, "To think is to thank." In a very
real sense, we are dependent on all who have gone before us for understanding. The issues
we raise, the questions we ask, even the words we use arise out of a specified time
and place in history. And because these communities of faith are not incommensurable to
one another, we can avoid the use of our metanarrative as a tool for oppression.
Of course, a community can become oppressive, seeking to suppress
difference. Thus, the need for the third area I mentioned above--critical self-knowledge
and epistemic humility. The Christian view of humanity stresses our innate propensity for
pride and presumption. We are warned that "the heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer 17:9) We have an infinite
capacity for self-deception. Thus, we need the mutual accountability of communal, diverse
interpretation and the self-correction that scripture offers to our readings of it.
Post-colonialists often mistrust metanarratives because they claim perfect and absolute
knowledge, and then their purveyors proceed to enforce such knowledge with a sledge
hammer. In response we should seek out and remain open to scriptural interpretation from
non-Western sources. While scripture warns us against false teachers and there are
parameters under which a belief can be declared heretical, we should be wary of doing so
without the diverse accountability of the larger church. Sin has noetic impact.
Thus, the call to scriptural truth is not a closed one; we must ever return to a testing
of what we believe in order that we not become makers of hegemony. The Bible, if you will,
is a post-colonial Bible too.
Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God.
Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994.