by Ekaputra Tupamahu
Colonialization is a global phenomenon. Many people groups in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even the United States, have historically experienced the pain of colonialism and fought to free themselves from it.
However, theological discussion has largely missed serious reflection about God in the experience of colonial subjugation, oppression, and exploitation. This exclusion comes because theology as a discourse has been dominated by the voices of the colonizers, primarily white European male thinkers, and consequently, as Grace Ji-Sun Kim correctly points out, it has long been participating in the empire building project.
In the past few decades, post/de-colonial voices have begun to flourish, not only engaging but also resisting discourses against the dominance of mainstream European theologies. Scholars from many world areas have been pushing their voices, deeply embedded in their soci-political struggle for liberation against colonial rule, into the mainstream of global theological discourse. This is truly an encouraging development, because it opens more spaces for people to think critically about God through the particularity of their experiences.
This short reflection essay considers the possibility of interpreting Thomas Oord’s work, The Uncontrolling Love of God, through a decolonial lens. In doing so, I will begin with the concern of Frantz Fanon about the role of theology not only in promoting colonial subjugation but also luring the colonized to accept their subjugated condition.
Fanon is critical of the way churches in the colonies operate. In The Wretched of the Earth, he writes, “The church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor.” This is true not only in North Africa, but also in other colonies.
For instance, churches in my home country, Indonesia, are basically imitations of European churches ranging from the physical architecture of their buildings, to formation of their liturgies, to the construction of their theologies. European theologians are often perceived as authority figures instead of discussion partners, and college classrooms become a venue for indoctrinating European theological ideas.
Fanon, furthermore, argues that one particular theology that has tremendously shaped the social condition of the colonized and prevented them from resisting the oppressive power of the colonizer is that of fatalism–that is, God has predetermined everything from the beginning. After being oppressed for so long, people in the colonies begin to develop a denial and acceptance strategy, persuading themselves “that colonialism does not exist, that everything is going on as before.”
Fanon argues that theology plays an extremely important role in shaping this social acceptance of colonialism. He explains, “A belief in fatality removes all blame from the oppressor; the cause of misfortunes and poverty is attributed to God: He is the Fate. In this way the individual accepts the disintegration as ordained by God.” Fanon apparently sees the concept of God as the prime-cause of all things in the world–a theological model that Oord calls “God is the omnicause,”–as plain dangerous. If God has (pre)determined everything, then why on earth do we have to do anything to change the unjust social structure? This idea is a pacifier that will put the colonized to sleep in their suppressed condition.
Oord’s challenge to the traditional view of God can be well appropriated in the context of colonial struggle from two different angles—the angle of God and the angle of the world. These two angles are directly related to the doctrine of providence, the relationship between God and the world.
The all-powerful European God who controls everything is both the product and the promoter of the colonial expansion and subjugation of the world. Thus, it’s not a surprise that colonizers often see their mission, to conquer and dominate the world, as doing the work of God.
Essential kenosis seriously challenges this picture of God. God does not coerce: God loves. The uncontrolling love of God stands in stark contrast to that of a sovereign ruler. God cannot unilaterally decide on the exception. Hence, the exception is not a space domination, but negotiation. As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out about the “state of exception,” essential kenosis will foster the dynamic of biopolitical engagement. It is the site where bare life, in all its nakedness and vulnerabilities, becomes the center of politics. Love that promotes well-being of all must be the motivating force that drives every socio-political interaction. In this way, essential kenosis strips the empire of its total power.
At the heart of Oord’s proposal of essential kenosis lies the concept of genuine human freedom. “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control,” Oord argues. The uncontrolling love of God is the very reason for true freedom. Now, we need to understand that in the colonial context, the term “freedom” is never taken lightly. It reminds the colonized of their struggle, battle, blood, and death.
Hence, Fanon often employs the phrase: “struggle for freedom.” Freedom is not a pleasant word. Freedom is a struggle. Essential kenosis opens the door for the possibility of struggle and resistance against subordinating and oppressive social structure in the colonial world. Stating that “some may worry about political or social implications should they rethink their view of God’s power,” Oord seems to have rightly anticipated the social uncertainty and instability caused by this theological proposal.
If God is essentially uncontrolling, then there’s no group that can socially and politically claim that they possess an absolute authority over others, nor can they tell others to submit to their authority because God has designed them so. It consequently creates a messy, unstable, and uncertain social space of constant struggle, resistance, and negotiation.
Fanon describes decolonialization as “a program of complete disorder.” If we think about essential kenosis from this perspective of struggle for freedom in the colonies, then the eradication of the colonial superstructure is precisely the promise of essential kenosis. Through the absence of the totalitarian power, essential kenosis promises and pushes for the decolonial disorder into the ordered colonial world.
Ekaputra Tupamahu is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Vanderbilt University. His dissertation research examines the intersectionality of the politics of language, racial-ethnic identity construction, the subjective performativity, and the colonial relations of power in the early Christian movement.