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Robert Heaney: evangelical and postcolonial?

I know this author a little so I’ve been especially looking forward to this one: Robert Heaney’s chapter in Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations is ‘Prospects and problems for evangelical postcolonialisms’.

He’s asking: in what sense might evangelical and postcolonial go together? It’s a pretty academic chapter covering a lot of ground, but this is a key question. Heaney spends time defining both ‘evangelical’ and ‘postcolonial’, but I’ll just mention a couple of these dimensions here.

For example, postcolonialism offers a critique of power relations homing in on the ways in which colonial forces seize power not just by gathering land but by gathering knowledge.

Against those colonising discourses are the counterdiscourses of decolonisation, shedding light on alternative stories.

That leads us to hybridity, the deliberate fusion of diverse voices, a form of resistance against the conformity and homogeneity of empire.

For each of these aspects (and more), it’s pretty easy to think of face-value similarities with an evangelical perspective. We could explore the intersect between ‘gospel’ — an alternate knowledge based on a subverted imperial term — and power criticism/decolonization. Or we could talk about Paul’s body theology — many diverse parts synergised in Christ — and hybridity.

But all of this changes colour depending on which side of empire evangelical Christianity finds itself. What if evangelical Christianity has been the coloniser?

Globally speaking, evangelicals straddle both sides of empire. Evangelical Christianity is a tradition that has taken diverse roots worldwide, so we’re talking about evangelical Christianities — and Heaney’s argument really finds its focus for the evangelicals living on the margins (loc 420). The margins, of course, is a place we Western evangelicals are negotiating rather than inhabiting. So the way we approach this depends on where we’re coming from.

Heaney reckons there are good resources in the evangelical tradition for postcolonial practice, and he develops this by sketching out a fourfold evangelical protest. For example, we protest liberal theology insofar as it’s in league with the modern intellectual project — a project with a colonising ‘rationality’, a rationality which subjugates other agents and forms of knowledge. Of course, liberal theology is the traditional nemesis of evangelicals, but Heaney indicates we may have dropped the ball anyway: our (systematic) theologies have treated this as an intellectual issue and not a moral issue. Our silence on that count makes us complicit in modernistic expansion.

It’s complicated! We have some good resources to draw on, but our tradition doesn’t necessarily lend itself to postcolonial practice. We might like the rhetoric of postcolonialism, but do we have the practice to back it up?

Evangelicals may be tempted to adopt a cheap postcolonialism, and evangelical attributes may stand in tension with postcolonial practice. (loc 495)

We might talk about the Reformation as our anti-imperial pedigree, but the Reformers were caught up in empire (think of Luther and his sponsoring princes) and this continued in the Protestant missionary movement 300 years later. Or we might draw attention to ‘the Global South’, saying that we no longer have a single Western centre, but that’s hardly a guarantee of renovating our theological practice.

Heaney is saying that history and geography are no basis for an evangelical postcolonialism. Instead, he looks to the idea of Jesus as ‘Lord’. The cross is the ultimate inversion of ‘lordship’:

Marginalized theologizing will not confuse Christ with nation nor see Christ as some kind of über-Caesar. Salvation is not the domination of Christ over all. Salvation is the ending of all dominations. The lordship of Christ is not Caesarian but subverts all Caesars. (loc 516)

But for me this quote encapsulates the difficulty of the task, because we evangelicals have an ambivalent relationship with ‘lordship’. Heaney’s concerns come to light in ongoing evangelical practices — such as ‘the drawing and policing of boundaries and borders’ (loc 526) — calling into question how much our idea of authority really has been upended.

So although Heaney highlights evangelical resources with which to engage postcoloniality, this chapter isn’t a how-to guide for getting a postcolonial perspective, because our ability to access these resources depends on where we’re coming from. The evangelical tradition is pretty wide (it’s been characterised as an ethos), and although majority world evangelicals may be in a place to practice the ‘protests’ Heaney discusses, we Western evangelicals might struggle. Instead of returning us to the debate about defining ‘evangelical’, Heaney’s chapter leaves us asking what our context is and how it shapes us.

There’s a challenge here to evangelical Christianities that set up ‘settlements’. Heaney says the Spirit keeps evangelicals on the move to ‘hybridize and contextualize in the contexts the providence of God has led them to’ (loc 440). But we’re inclined to build power bases, creating a settler Christianity that is not faithful to evangelical tradition. This is a great call on Heaney’s part, and as both a Westerner and an evangelical it is a challenge from within. It’s another call to leave Christendom. And it calls us back to who we are and asks, are we being true to ourselves?

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. I like this a lot. Two possible points of intersection with two Western theologians (who, I think, are better than most at realising the difference being a Western theologian makes): Miroslav Volf, who argues that Christianity is at its best on the margins and in a situation of pluralism, not dominance; and Rowan Williams, who, engaging with South American liberation theology, argues that liberation theology for churches who are part of the elite (like C of E!) means deliberately giving up power and privilege for the good of those on the margins.

    But how do we actually *do* that, as privileged, powerful Western Christians?! That’s a hard question.

    1. Thanks for commenting Richard and for these thoughts! I was reading a little more about pluralism here in light of the IFES group getting kicked out of Vanderbilt. Just perceiving our own privilege and centralism is so difficult that I wonder if the active exploration and promotion of pluralism should be one of the very first steps. What do you reckon?

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