Decolonizing God by Mark Brett
MARK G. BRETT, Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire
Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-906055-37-0 (hardback). Pp. 237. RRP £39.50; Scholars price £19.50
Decolonizing God will be published in a paperback edition by Australasian Theological Forum RRP $AUD 33.95.
Mark Brett introduces Decolonizing God as follows: “The argument of this book oscillates between ancient and modern contexts without suggesting, in line with current solipsistic fashions, that readers can only ever recreate the past in their own image” (p. 1). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dispossession and displacement due to European colonization of Australia (by “colonial agents of the British Crown”) forms the specific, but not exclusive, modern context of engagement for Brett. Biblical texts situated in their own social, cultural and political circumstances supply the ancient contexts of Brett’s work. Using empire, in its ancient and modern manifestations, as one focus of his analysis, Brett interrogates the biblical text with a view to critical recovery of the Bible for a post-colonial ethics. His own ethical stance is clear from the outset; in relation to “the unfinished business of reconciliation with Indigenous people… [t]he recognition of past wrongs and the restoration of mutually respectful relationships are projects that have barely begun. A critical theology requires the praxis of repentance and genuine dialogue with Indigenous people. Moreover, the construction of Australian national identity needs to free itself from legal and economic dependence on historic injustices” (pp.1-2). With this ethics of reconciliation and restitution in view, Brett brings to his analysis of biblical texts—especially those which have been used by imperial interests to support colonisation— categories which have come to his attention in his dialogue with Indigenous people and which may form the basis for ongoing dialogue, in particular the concept of “traditional owners”. He holds that a genuine and open conversation with the biblical texts is possible. Where he finds them useful, Brett draws on a variety of critical and post-colonial theorists to inform this conversation.
The first chapter uses narrative to illustrate the uses of the Bible in colonisation, colonialism and resistances to such. Much of the Australian story will be familiar to Australian readers even if the specific examples are not. The narrative is filled out with parallels and contrasts with the Americas and Africa. Key points that Brett considers are the role of natural law, English critiques of colonial excesses, links between colonisation and English class ideology and the colonisation of minds and cultures accompanying the colonisation of communities and lands. The Bible figures both as an agent of colonial power, exploited by the colonisers, and as a source for critique of, and resistance to, colonial oppression. Recognising that the production of most biblical texts occurred under the influence of, and in response to, “the shifting tides of ancient empires”, Brett is prompted by the ambiguous status of the Bible in relation to the colonisation of Australia to re-read key biblical texts with a view to opening an interpretive space for a “decolonization of God” (p. 31).
Chapter 2 rereads the command to subdue the earth in Genesis 1:28 in the context of the narrative portions of Genesis 1-11, as an anti-monarchic democratisation of human rule over earth. Brett reads that such rule need be oriented toward care for, rather than dominance of, the earth. In relation to the depiction of humankind in these narratives, he offers alternative readings of narratives encoding human-human domination. He shows that a democratic thread, for example, an egalitarian approach to cultural diversity can be found in Genesis 1-11 beside texts that reinscribe unjust social relations, such as slavery. The notion of “mimetic circulation” provides a postcolonial lens through which to view the couching of resistance to monarchic and imperial domination in terms derived from those very structures of power.
Asserting that “a fresh appreciation of ancestral religion is crucial … to the formulation of a postcolonial approach to the Bible”, Brett proceeds in Chapter 3 to offer a reading of key texts with an ear to underlying ancestral traditions. He opens up alternative threads in the text through a focus on ancestors and examines three components of ancestral religion: ancestral land tenure; veneration of ancestors; and ancestral ‘gods’. This chapter represents one of Brett’s most important interventions in a postcolonial approach to the Bible, when attentive to major contours of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spiritualities and connections to country, he attends to corresponding religious/cultural threads in the world of the Hebrew Bible and makes available the possibility of a genuine conversation between biblical world views and Australian Indigenous ones, in terms hospitable to the latter.
In Chapter 4, Brett draws on contemporary archaeology and anthropology to consider the question of the relationship between indigenous spiritual/religious cultural practices and the emergence of Yahwism in the formation of Israelite identity. He examines both the influence of the biblical traditions in shaping this identity and the ongoing hybridity evident in these traditions, particularly against the question of the relationship between Canaanite and the emerging Israelite cultures. Read in the light of cultural negotiations in Australian Indigenous communities, “there is no reason to assume that ancient Canaanite culture was incorrigible and that ancient Israelites were not free to develop their own self-definition in fresh religious terms” (p. 78).
Biblical discourse concerning Israelite identity becomes problematic for Brett when it is supported by images of violence toward other nations, including images of genocide, in the book of Deuteronomy, especially Deut. 7:1-3, 20:16-17. Chapter 5 addresses this problem. For Brett, the “colonial reception” of such texts cannot be ignored. Exploring the development of the notion of herem in relation to traditions of the conquest, Brett describes the tensions inherent in the conquest narratives, in particular, tensions between “Deuteronomy's legislative theology and Israelite experience” (p. 86). Drawing on the notion of mimetic desire, similar to the notion of mimetic circulation invoked in chapter 2, Brett suggests that a process of scapegoating, encoded in the narrative, overlays a narrative of civil tension. “[T]he legal discourse excluding the Indigenous peoples arises precisely from a need—perceived by the Deuteronomic authors—to inscribe new boundaries of exclusive loyalty to Yahweh within an Israelite society which over the previous centuries had commonly worshipped other gods alongside Yahweh” (p. 89). Thus, “[w]hat appears on the surface … as a program for genocide is actually part of an internal social and religious reform in the seventh century [BCE]” (p.90).
Chapter 6 turns to the vision of the prophets, their proclamation of judgment on “the misappropriation of land” and other social injustice and their visions of non-violence. In the narrative of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kgs 21), for example, divine authority provides the criterion against which to measure imperial/colonial dispossession of traditional owners. Social stratification, and its accompanying economic exploitation of lower social classes, is an effect of parasitic rule. The prophetic acclamation of universal divine sovereignty raises a question concerning the sovereignty of traditional owners and of the nation. The universality of the prophetic vision speaks more to a global vision of peace than to individual cases of land tenure. More “like a collage than a coherent set of images”, the prophetic utopias, however, retain elements of tension between a vision of non-violence and images of divine violence/retribution which carry traces of imperial imagery. But they offer no mandate for colonial dispossession of traditional owners. Indeed Amos 1:13 and Isaiah 10:13 reflect an assumption that “borders—whether of clans or of nations—should not be moved” (p. 102).
Chapter 7 moves to a discussion of what might be considered “the most exclusive biblical theology, in Ezra and Nehemiah” (p.112) . Brett interrogates a logic of exclusivism, linked with the notion of the holy seed, against the ancestral narratives of Genesis that took final shape in the Persian period. Drawing on the work of Daniel Smith-Christopher and in debate with the work of Christopher Heard, Brett suggests both that the exclusivity of Ezra and Nehemiah, equating holiness and ethnocentrism, arises as a strategy of resistance to imperialist strategies of assimilation and that the Priestly traditions do not support such an ethnocentric impulse. He cautions, moreover, that postcolonial interpreters needs to be careful to recognise “the complexities and layerings of colonial power and resistance to it” both in ancient biblical and contemporary contexts (p.131).
In chapters 8 and 9, Brett turns to a consideration of the Gospels and the Pauline corpus. While acknowledging the difficulties with the violent imagery of some of the parables, Brett argues for non-violence as essential to the ethos of Jesus. He offers a helpful reading of the synoptic pericopes which contain the saying: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. As with the Hebrew Bible, here, too, Brett reads a subtle undermining of imperial sovereignty under the appearance of accession to it. Although he touches on many important issues in relation to the Gospels, for example, the question of a spiritual displacement of sacred places in the Gospel of John, I was concerned that where Brett tries to separate Jesus from the violent imagery of apocalyptic, he might also separate Jesus from his humanity as a person of his time and worldview. However, Brett’s focus is on a new social imagination that the Gospels offer in tension with any imperial cooption of them. Despite the questions raised by Romans 13 concerning Paul’s accommodation to Roman rule, Brett argues that Paul, too, articulates a new social imagination. Important for Brett is a distinction between related cosmic and apocalyptic vocabularies, an egalitarian ethos that underlies hybrid Christian identities within the social stratification of the Roman empire, questions of cultural negotiations between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and the relationship between body, spirit and the body of Christ. For Brett, the Pauline vision of kenosis (self-emptying) is central to Paul’s understanding of life in Christ. It is this vision of kenosis that informs Brett’s concluding chapter on postcolonial theology and ethics. Drawing on a variety of sources, including Derrida’s understanding of sacrifice and gift, Brett argues that the tone and practice of a genuine postcolonial public theology, open to the multiple voices and nationalities of those oppressed by and resistant to “the recent manifestations of empire that threaten to turn the world into the ‘smooth space’ of global capital” needs to start “from the view that the divine ‘counter-empire’ is constituted by kenotic hospitality” (p. 204).
Decolonizing God ranges widely through biblical texts to offer a reinterpretation of a sacred book that arrived as an adjunct to imperial colonisation, from the perspective of its own relationships to empire. Brett leans toward showing the ways in which key biblical texts can be re-read as hospitable to the claims of Indigenous people to country, culture and restitution. However, he acknowledges the tensions that remain in many texts where a (sometimes covert) resistance to, or critique of, empire is couched in terms that mimic imperial attitudes and values. While much of the tension that Brett admits remains unresolved, his readings of the texts chosen open a space for engagement in the ongoing negotiation of Indigenous cultures with biblical religion. The strength of the book lies in its reading the texts for the underlying perspective of the ancient Middle Eastern traditional owners whose interests and experience are encoded therein, especially as their lives and stories were shaped and reshaped under successive empires. This mode of reading offers an approach to the text that is respectful of its ancient context, and offers a genuine contribution to traditional biblical studies. More than this, the movement between ancient and contemporary contexts provides a model for postcolonial engagement with the Bible that speaks to our time and place in Australia. Beneath Decolonizing God lies a breadth and depth of scholarship that is not always spelt out. On occasions, I longed for greater detail in the arguments. I hope the threads of inquiry opened up in this volume will prompt further work from Brett and others toward decolonising readings of biblical texts that are, like this work, a careful dialogue between ancient and contemporary contexts. Decolonizing God is a book that will repay close reading and engagement not only by theological students and biblical scholars, but by any who are concerned to engage with relationships between the Bible, colonisation, reconciliation and postcolonial restitution. I recommend it highly.
Monash University and Melbourne College of Divinity