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Book review: Deconstructing Whiteness, Empire and Mission by Anthony G. Reddie and Carol Troupe, editors

22 December 2023

Duncan Dormor looks at coming to terms with the colonialist legacy

AT THE Venice Biennale 2022, visitors entered first into a grand cavernous room to encounter a large sculpture by Katharina Fritsch: a full-scale and pretty realistic Elephant.

This book is shot through with references to the associated metaphor. Timely — or frankly, long overdue — this excellent collection of essays not only shouts “There is an elephant in the room,” but allows us to come close, to touch, and to feel.

Deconstructing Whiteness, Empire and Mission is a cry for a more critical and less myopic theology that recognises that our global present is deeply shaped, politically, economically, and culturally, by 500 years of European colonialism. And at the heart of this lies the “invisible norm” of Whiteness and of White supremacy, a system rooted in a colonial ethic of possession, control, and mastery, which justified genocide and slavery and has left multiple legacies — material, economic, political, cultural, and psychological.

Divided into four sections: the nature of theological education and how it might be decolonised; re-readings of missionary history; some personal reflections; and, finally, how Whiteness “plays out” in the everyday structures of national, community, and church life, this book is essential reading — especially, for those of us racialised as White.

Drawing on a rich theological heritage, but especially you-must-read Willie James Jennings, the single greatest strength of this book lies with its reflexivity and honesty. This begins with a personal account from Mike Higton, on being formed within the tradition of the “self-possessed” (White male) scholar, for whom “Christianity is above all a conversation about texts.” It is developed particularly in the last two sections through Paul Weller’s reflections on Brexit and national belonging, Jill Marsh on the cultural assumptions operating within White Methodism, Rachel Starr’s on “unbecoming”, and Al Barrett and Ruth Harley on the process of practices of facilitation within social-justice-focused models of mission.

A second main theme of this book is epistemology, raised in Eve Parker’s excellent essay on the pursuit of epistemic justice (including hermeneutic and testimonial justice) within theological education. These themes are developed especially in part two, through the interrogation of the telling of missionary history.

Here, two chapters seek to re-story from a post-colonial perspective: Peniel Rajkumar’s providing a critical re-narrativising of the ecumenical movement from a global perspective, and Jione Havea’s seeking to re-habilitate Tongan words, concepts and myths distorted by appropriation into the missionary enterprise by palangi (Europeans). Three further chapters, from Victoria Turner, Carol Troupe, and Michael Jagessar, focus on the archives of the Council of World Mission (formerly the London Missionary Society), providing critical reflections on the complexities of missionary history and their wide-ranging legacies.

This book is testimony to a growing sense that it is nonsense to try to do serious theology without talking (a lot, and honestly) about the violent effects of 500 years of European colonialism. How can we speak of the wounds of Christ and not of the deep and bloody wounds of the histories with which we are all entangled?

Anthony Reddie and Troupe, through their own contributions and careful editorial work, have drawn our attention to the elephantine reality, which, whether seen or ignored, is the dominant reality for our Church today. In so doing, they open up possibilities for interrogating, repenting, repairing, and restoring, as well as re-discovering the liberative possibilities of our diverse being in Christ, together, sisters and brothers.

The Revd Dr Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of the USPG.

Deconstructing Whiteness, Empire and Mission
Anthony G. Reddie and Carol Troupe, editors
SCM Press £25
Church Times special price £20

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