justice and grace: ambivalence as post-colonial theological virtue

For various reasons, I find myself going back to Joerg Rieger’s Christ And Empire: From Paul To Postcolonial Times. One of the terms of postcolonial theory that I keep going back to is the concept of ambivalence. This academic understanding of ambivalence is one of the descriptors for the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized; one site puts it this way, “the ambiguous way in which colonizer and colonized regard one another. The colonizer often regards the colonized as both inferior yet exotically other, while the colonized regards the colonizer as both enviable yet corrupt.”

Rieger reframes ambivalence from a religious perspective. Christology, throughout church history, has been “employed both in support and in critique of empire,” and creates space for the members of the faithful who want to disrupt colonial discourse and its authority (page 11). Imperial forms of knowledge repress other knowledge. The wisdom of the colonizer is upheld over and against the intelligence of the colonial subject. For Rieger, and other post-colonial theologians, it’s like I sometimes say, subjugated knowledge is power.

This may sound all a little confusing so let me use myself as an example. Recently, in response to yet another evangelical blog post stating a desire to resurrect the ghost of Abraham Kuyper, I tweeted:

When I was in undergrad, one of the first systematic theologians I read was Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures that he delivered at Princeton University before the turn of the 20th century. After reading his Notes on Calvinism, I identified with Reformational theology and Calvin. I still had hesitation about Kuyper’s politics, but I was more of a Kuyperian Calvinist at first. That was almost nine years ago, and now I find myself on the more critical, justice-oriented side of things now. Part of doing theology as Christ-Centered means making Jesus both as the source of criticism and appropriation of any given philosophy. Kuyper held hierarchal assumptions about culture; in fact one could very well be fair and say that it was a soft version of white supremacy. The source of resistance to cultural hieraarchies and white supremacist logic is Christ himself, the Judge, Liberator, and Reconciler.

Against this backdrop, my friend Daniel Jose Camacho has an excellent piece on Kuyper’s views on race and his doctrine of common grace that exemplifies the postcolonial virtue of ambivalence. Kuyper is an exemplar of a Christian who was politically involved in culture, but if we stop there, we fail to be truly objective, we don’t do his work justice, and neither are we extending grace to the colonized persons his writings and politics marginalized.  What Rieger refers to as the “Christological surplus” in colonial theologies, I prefer the term grace.  It is in the paradox of Law (Justice) and Grace (Freedom for others) that Christians must do theologies in conversation with society’s exiles, Scripture, and tradition.

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