Postcolonial Study of The New Testament

Project: A year before his execution Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his Nazi prison cell to his friend Eberhard Bethge, “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” Frame your paper in the form of a personal manifesto. The spirit of your declaration should be, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” with the emphasis on the latter.

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What is Christianity and who is Christ for us today? While recognizing that the answer to the question would have been different for the Jewish people of the first century CE, for those in the present-day ‘Global South’, was different for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and was different in my past, for the purposes of this paper I will be focusing on the context of present-day Western culture in contrast to first century Roman and Jewish society.

We have learnt that that there are differing ways of interpreting the Bible: literary critique, via an ideological or theological lens as used in the Global North, or via a purely historical perspective. Instead, we have read the New Testament with a postcolonial hermeneutic which considers the historical, political, religious and cultural aspects of Jewish and Gentile people colonized by the Romans. We have considered the relationships between the colonized and the colonizer, and Jesus’ movement within that context. Doing so has revealed new meanings in the New Testament texts.

Christianity has been confused with theology in the West. Western Christianity became a rationalization for empire and colonization in the form of manipulative propaganda, justification or critique of ideologies, a coping mechanism in the context of justification and personal salvation, and a Platonic dualistic philosophy. As soon as the New Testament writings were understood via a Greco-Roman Platonic worldview much of the New Testament backfired and worked in the favor of empire. Western systematic theology resulted in a perception that the Bible is standard, universal, immutable, and irrefutable which resulted in wars, oppressive patriarchy, oppression of women, oppression of indigenous peoples, slavery (mass incarceration in our modern times), oppression of sexuality and evangelical heresies such as Dispensationalism, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Homogeneous Unit Principle.

In the ‘Global South’ Christianity became a hope– a liberation faith in the face of oppressive Western empires. For the modern ‘secular world’ Christianity is stereotyped by ‘creationists’ out of touch with reality and science. In my own life, Christianity as a child in England was all ceremony holidays and no faith, as it is for many. Later in my twenties evangelical Americans introduced me to “true” Christianity. If I didn’t believe and live up to their outward show of piety I would be judged and damned to a pit of fire and brimstone, while living a life of guilt and shame up until my damnation. I believe this is the Christianity most Western Christians suffer through. At its worst, Christianity has become a coping mechanism, a self-improvement product to be bought and sold, social media Likes and sound bites, fundraising for “The Lord’s work” and the hypocrisy of the separation of church and state. In this regard, present-day America’s version of Christ and Christianity is no different for me now than it was when it was first introduced to me thirty years ago.

As a vast generalization, modern pastors struggle as much as the scribes and Pharisees of ancient Palestine. “Scribes were embedded in elite interests that preserved both the Jesus and the rabbinic traditions.”(1) Pastors represent a diversity of church leadership who are ambivalent, compromised and embedded in hybridity within the American empire to differing degrees. Nothing has changed since Jesus walked the Earth. Empire’s version of religion remains offensive. To the secular world, America’s version of Christianity is a religion of the insane and a frightening cult. Christ, Christianity and individual verses used out of context continue to be used as manipulative tools and an opiate for the masses. At worst American Christians are mentally ill, murderers, politicians playing games to win votes, and white supremacists. They are peer pressure and snake oil salesmen. However, I believe the majority of Western Christians are well meaning but a sadly misled people. White Christ and Christianity are a hot mess.

I have been one of the misled. Now, using a postcolonial hermeneutic my reading and understanding of the New Testament and Jesus Christ has changed. I know that I do not want to speak in selected verses of affirmation or discipline, or to dissect Biblical passages piece-by-piece. Out-of-context scripture can be dangerous. I would prefer to speak to the overall spirit of the text rather than use theological concepts. I want to ‘midrash’ people back to health and restore Christ and Christianity to their rightful place as guides to experiencing Heaven on Earth in the present.

For many the Gospels, the Johnine and Pauline letters, the Pastoral and Catholic Epistles, and Revelation amount to abstract concepts to live by. With a postcolonial reading of the books the text has become a healthy guide on how to live together economically, politically, religiously and culturally. They are promises for provision while living in a ‘patron/client’ framework. The concept of sin changes from a personal concept to a more communal concept. Phrases used such as of “Son of God,” “Lord” and “Savior” change to subversions of a Roman Emperor’s power. The Book of Hebrews remains a beautiful book of wisdom but stripped of a dualistic Platonic lens. James becomes a book of relevant and practical ways to live. 1 Peter becomes “the talk,” turning a text that’s been used to oppress black people, slaves and women into an exhortation of protection for their safety. The Letter to the Romans changes from a critique of the Jewish tradition to a defense of the tradition while welcoming Gentiles into the flock. The concept of dualism changes from a Platonic dualism to a Hebrew bifurcated dualism in which heaven and earth, good and bad are intertwined and not separate. The Bible remains authoritative but not in an immutable manner.

A postcolonial and historical hermeneutic changes Jesus’ life from being unrelatable to a man rooted in a very relatable movement against injustices, the illnesses an oppressive society causes and restoring kinship. During this period I have experienced a fundamental shift in how I relate to the New Testament, Christianity and my own so-called ‘salvation’. As Ched Myers wrote “Mark was for many, including myself, the invitation to a ‘second conversion’ and fired our battle against acculturated Christianity.”(2) I resonate with Ched Myers’ sentiment. I have sensed my own second conversion. In the past six years I sense I have developed from a struggling believer abstract concepts, to being regular church member, to being a friend to pastors, to relating to the apostles, and culminating in a new relationship with a relatable Jesus who represents an ordinary man like me trying to make a difference– a like-minded friend.

Since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 C.E. the Western understanding of ‘salvation’ has been one of an anticipated reward, the acquisition of some abstract passport into an abstract heaven at the end of life, much like a Roman emperor was made into a god at the end of his life. For most, salvation is something we’re never quite sure of. In a postcolonial context I have come to learn that salvation means something else– literally being saved from the pressures of a dog-eat-dog ‘civilized’ social structure. It is salvation from struggles, oppression, anxieties, and illnesses that are consequences of living for an empire. It is a ‘coming out’ to prioritize living with and loving others. The New Testament is a guide to coming out of empire while still living within it, to bring healing, and heaven on earth.

Healing and heaven on earth require a ‘strong-group’ orientation as opposed to a ‘weak-group’ orientation. American society has a ‘weak-group’ orientation in which the emphasis is on the individual. “Individual rights are held as not only constitutional, but sacred.”(3) Individuals have made themselves the idols. We have become the religion. The individual has become so sacred that we are unable to see the sacredness in others. This wasn’t so in ancient Palestine, “…the needs of the group take precedence (“strong-group” orientation). Loyalty to family, clan, village, political faction, and religious group is fundamental. The integrity of the group is more important than self-reliance.”(4) Jesus understood that the strength of the group was fundamental to spiritual and physical health. Christianity as a faith needs to follow Jesus and lead the way in moving back towards strong-group orientation.

Cultural, political, economic and religious life were integrated in Jesus’ time. Kinship-based communities functioned together as a means to survive. Whereas I, and most in the Western church, have typically regarded Jesus’ ministry as being centered on the Temple and Jerusalem, my new perspective is that “The ministry of Jesus in Galilee took place almost entirely in villages and the countryside among the peasants… His activity involved a serious critique of the “powers that be”, a fact that is central, not peripheral, to the tradition.”(5) Jesus’ ministry was exorcising the ills of society, bringing healed sheep back into the fold while speaking out against the tyranny of the elite. Therefore our primary work should be carried out in villages while speaking to the powers-that-be directly whenever possible.

One of the ‘powers’ that Christianity needs to confront is our modern ambivalent Temple– the institutionalized church. I now fully appreciate Jesus’ words. This Temple needs to be ‘torn down and rebuilt.’ Today’s Christianity, heavily influenced by dualistic Platonic concepts of good and evil, needs to return to the ancient indigenous traditions of YHWH. We should be cognizant of the diversity of the people involved in the institutionalized church– there are those working closely with empire and politicians, those seeking profit and power, truly well-meaning individuals who have been misled by teachings in most seminaries, and those that do appreciate a postcolonial reading of the Bible. It will take resolve, shrewdness, wisdom and insight to engage with each type of person in an effective manner for widespread change.

A postcolonial reading of the New Testament provides insight into similarities between the modern American and the ancient Roman empires. The New Testament represents a people facing the first systematic, legalistic, ‘personal property’ type of empire. Rome represented “…control of Palestine’s politics and political economy, by the time of Jesus’ ministry, for nearly 100 years. Rome also influenced Israelite political religion through control and patronage of the Jerusalem high priesthood”(6) Civilization and empire seemed to have reached an apex with Roman colonization– the worst empire to rise, up to that point in history. In response to this a strong counter narrative was required– the arrival of the hoped-for messiah and a ‘Son of God’ to counter the empire’s Son of God. Our modern Western societies are a replication of the Roman Empire. An authentic reading of the New Testament provides guidelines for resistance to the empire from within.

But how we view and interact with religion is fundamentally different in today’s America than it was in ancient Palestine. In America today we separate church and state. “First century social institutions were configured and related in ways different from our own. In U.S. society, religion and economics are explicit domains (groups of institutions), while in Palestine, indeed most of the ancient world, religious and economic institutions were embedded in kinship or politics.”(7) Dividing and compartmentalizing our lives is a false way of living and enables control of society by the few in power. In rebuilding our modern church it will be important to bring the separated parts of society back into relationship.

Having more knowledge of history has helped me recognize that we should also understand that we live in a modern version of the ancient ‘patron/client’ system. Is not our current structure of politicians, lobbyists, and voters reflective of the patron, mediator, and client (peasant) system? Money has become such a factor in shaping America’s political system that it is no longer a democracy. I disagree with Hanson & Oakman that “Western democracies may not be more “efficient” than other governmental forms, but they have the advantage of participation of the governed.”(8) Participation of the governed seems to be less and less the case. Corporations, lobbyists and SuperPACS largely control government now. The anti-NRA movement following the Parkland school shooting is a case in point. While the poeple protest the NRA are using the tragedy to push for guns in schools– more guns, not fewer– and the government is listening to the NRA, not the majority of the governed. “Jesus was catalyzing a movement”(9) opposing the injustices of the empire. We should follow his lead.

One method of bringing the truth to light that Jesus used was parodying the empire. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, parodying the triumphal entries of Roman emperors. Parody and humor can be powerful tools and we have come to see them used repeatedly in the New Testament. Our stand up comedy routines as part of seminary have perhaps been good practice for a parodying of empire. In our times ‘Late Night’ comedians seem to be speaking more truth than the politicians and news outlets.

How do we rebuild the church in the correct manner? We do it by living informed, embodied spirituality. The truth is seen and then we explain. We display characteristics Paul lists: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and endurance based on our new understanding of Jesus’ ministry and living in ‘strong-group’ oriented communities. In offering unrelenting advocacy for others we will be a contrast to general society. In contrast, the fruits of living for empire are sentiment, existential dread, white fragility, competition, individualism, abstraction, emotional repression, social masks and acting. We build community, exorcise, heal, teach and preach, offer hospitality, we look for beauty in everything but we are as shrewd as serpents, we look for ways to reconcile, we share testimonies of our previous lives of living for money and title that were mostly without form or meaning, that a life led for God is heaven on earth now. We are warriors of spirit.

Assembling with others in a healthy strong-group community will be key to individual fruits of the spirit. In the Jewish tradition the synagogue was and is the place of assembly. In a postcolonial hermeneutic, the New Testament reinforces the Jewish tradition. In many ways, when read in a postcolonial context, the New Testament is aiming for similar goals as the Levitical priesthood: preserve the culture, enforce ethical rigor, ensure the common good, be medicine men, define sexual purity, all to encourage physical and mental health. Synagogues were gathering places for community elders to determine how to live in society. Likewise, the ‘ekklesia’ in the first century C.E. were assemblies of people trying to determine how to live within society. We need to do the same.

With a new understanding of what kind of movement Jesus ignited, Christ has become an historical figure no different from Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King. Christ has become relatable. My new perspective is that Jesus was an ordinary man who fully embodied the fruits of the spirit. In this way He was divine but He was also just an ordinary man, a healer, a builder of communities, a political activist and a pacifist. Our churches should move back towards being assemblies of people that are in relationship with our Creator, are followers of our Creator’s embodied and fully human example on earth (Jesus), and a group of people determined to exorcise, heal, and rebuild healthy lives.

Once people have seen true Christianity I am sure that they will want to be saved from the ills of society. Then it will be possible to baptize them into being followers of a new way, taking baptism back to its original meaning: “Baptism was to become the sign of one’s decision to live within the empire under another kind of reign. Unlike today’s overly individualistic interpretation of the Scriptures, first century baptisms had little to do with personal salvation. They represented a personal commitment to live in society as a disciple of the one doing the baptism… it witnessed to an alternative way of living that would affect one’s world. Since religion was embedded in the political economy, embracing John’s baptism was a religious act with political and economic implications; it was meant both to turn around one’s life and to subvert one’s world.”(10)

And in this way we can all experience a resurrection into a full life– Heaven on Earth, lived and enjoyed now. As I try to increasingly die to empire’s ways I can see new meaning in, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:19-20. We die to the spirit of competition, no longer living for the system but living for God.

In conclusion, I realize the reality that the Old Testament, the New Testament and particularly the mimicry of empire that Revelation paints for us reveals that throughout history there is a cyclical process of empires rising, empires falling, and empires rising again. The question of whether empire or Heaven can ever win the battle in the end seems to be irrelevant, simply because we should to engage wherever we meet that cycle and do our best to ensure that our Creator’s love is the primary focus. Our peaceful voice needs to speak louder than empire’s, as Jesus’ life did. We dream a better dream.

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Bibliography – books read and studied this semester:

  • The New Testament (NSRV)
  • ‘A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings’ edited by Fernando F. Segovia and R.S. Sugirtharajah, 2009.
  • ‘Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts’ by K.C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, 1998.
  • ‘Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine’ by Richard A. Horsley, 2014.
  • Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle’ by Neil Elliott, 2006.
  • ‘The New Testament: Introducing the Way of Discipleship’ edited by Wes Howard-Brook and Sharon H. Ringe, 2002.

References:

  • Hanson & Oakman, page 13
  • Wes Howard-Brook and Sharon H. Ringe, page 41
  • Hanson & Oakman, page 7
  • Hanson & Oakman, page 7
  • Hanson & Oakman, page 13
  • Hanson & Oakman, page 67
  • Hanson & Oakman, page 5
  • Hanson & Oakman, page 65
  • Horsley, page 27
  • Wes Howard-Brook and Sharon H. Ringe, page 23