Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59pm Conversation by Randy S. Woodley and Bo C. Sanders

Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59pm Conversation
| |

Editor's Note: The Banner reviews books/items from various perspectives, including controversial ones, to foster conversations and does not necessarily endorse any of those views.


I see more and more Canadian Christians learning about the history of colonialism, and for that I’m grateful. We can’t avoid it any longer. Our news feeds regularly announce newly discovered unmarked mass graves for Indigenous children on the grounds of residential schools. Political and church leaders addressing the unfinished work of reconciliation is becoming more common. We are more conscious today that the words of our national anthem only need a slight adjustment to be accurate: this is “our (settler) home (on) native land.” (I’m sorry that I can’t comment on the specifics of this in the USA.)

From what I’ve been able to tell, all of this still seems fairly foreign (or up for debate, even) for many CRC members. Thankfully, Woodley and Sanders offer us a book packed with resources on this topic, written specifically for evangelical Christians. Another CRC campus minister Todd Statham and I used this book during the 2020-2021 (pandemic) academic year with an online group of undergraduate students to talk about these important issues. We had an amazing discussion!

In her foreword, the Canadian Christian scholar Grace Ji-Sun Kim reminds us that “the effects of colonialism last for generations.” In fact, “Living under foreign rule forces change upon individuals and communities, who may never be able to fully regain the culture they once had.” This makes our work as Christians to learn about this issue even more important because “if Christianity is to be reflective of the life of Jesus, then colonial forms of Christianity cannot be considered to be Christian.” 

You might be wondering: What is colonialism? And what are colonial forms of Christianity? Colonialism is a form of Christian expansion that blends church and state to dominate other peoples, cultures, and lands (what the authors call “the amalgamation of Christianity and empire”). The authors claim that this understanding—that the church can hitch its wagon to the state in order to accomplish its missionary purposes—is “normative in Evangelical Christianity today.” I don’t disagree.

Colonialism, therefore, is a way to subjugate others through the combined power of church and state. Colonial Christianity is a form of Christian faith and theology that supports and legitimizes this coercive arrangement. “The misuse of power is among the primary features of colonization and it has, unfortunately, often been justified through colonial theologies embedded in empire, particularly Evangelicalism.”

The result of these “colonial theologies” is the belief that the enforced conversion and control of others is justified as a form of “missions.” As Woodley and Sanders remind us, “Love as expressed by Jesus and the use of power over others are simply incompatible.” We don’t often perceive this incompatibility between Jesus and colonialism because “we get unwittingly conscripted into stories that pacify us.” This would be their explanation why white Christians in Canada don’t see the racism inherent in our society: we’ve been led to believe, through persuasive stories, that our society makes sense.

These two Christian authors, one white and one Indigenous, offer any evangelical Christian in North America who wants to begin understanding the dynamics of our society and theology rooted in colonialism a valuable resource. They walk the reader through some of the history of colonization. They show us the abuses of power inherent within colonialism. They reveal the underbelly of our history that is often hidden from view. 

But they also offer a profound hope: that a more genuinely biblical and loving way to follow Jesus here on native land is possible and that it can be beautiful. They point us to the path of justice and reconciliation even though we live today downstream from our founding histories of cultural genocide. And they give us practical ways in which we can step out from the colonial/imperial forms of Christian faith and adopt a more holistic and more embodied worldview and way of life—a way of life that’s more rooted in the land, the people, and the stories that make us more human rather than less. 

I would encourage every congregation of the CRC in Canada and the USA to get this book and start a small-group discussion of it in the year ahead. It would represent one small step of faithfulness to Jesus rather than colonial empire. It very well might be a catalyst for us to realize with the authors that through the gospel “every area of society is up for critique” and that it is “in listening to the voices of the people who are themselves struggling against the illegitimate use of power that the answers to our theological questions are most often found.” The prime example for these authors and us is Jesus himself. (Cascade Books)

About the Author

Michael Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

X