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Pilgrimage and Postcolonial Theology

Authored by the Rev. Clelia Pinza-Garrity, LCSW


If postcolonial theology is going to have a future, it must be embodied in new religious and social practices in our heterogeneous and richly textured social worlds, in which the local intersects with the global. These practices are counter-hegemonic, creative, and subversive, poised to produce new forms of beings and institutions in our church, community, and society. (Kwok Pui-Lan)


Everything has meaning only as it is located both in its particularity – whether social, cultural, gender, racial, or economic power relationship – and within a “densely woven web of relationality”. Therefore, no single nation or part of the world or race can be privileged over and above others. (Christopher Duraisingh)


A pilgrimage is a journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about themselves, others, nature, or a higher good through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life. The reason pilgrimage is such a powerful experience is because it involves leaving behind what is comfortable and known in pursuit of transformation. (Wiki)


At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention held in Baltimore, Maryland, in July 2022, the Standing Commission for World Mission submitted for consideration Resolution A01 – Assessment of Past Colonialism in the Church’s World Mission Ministries. In part, this resolution stated that “…Colonialism and its continuing impacts are antithetical to the Gospel as proclaimed by our Savior Jesus Christ…and that the Standing Commission on World Mission encourages the Episcopal Church to use principles and practices in the name of Christ in the missionary field which turn from the colonial mindset of the past towards mutuality of relationships in our mission, ministries, and outreach.”


The report addressed the commission’s belief that “Looking back we are now aware that Episcopal Missionary efforts…suffered the unmistakable connection to colonialism…and [recognize] the difficult reality of our complicity in colonialism and how we have unwittingly done harm to the propagation of the Gospel.” (A017) The authors concluded with a charge for the Episcopal Church. One that is designed to establish a core ethic for all future mission efforts with global partners.


The charge was To Walk the Way of Love in a Global Context.


The charge pointed to a new definition of world mission that insisted, “World mission implies being present with others, as Jesus was incarnate and present with us.” And that “As companions in mission, we [must be] open to one another, learning from one another, and through that experience be transformed as we reach a deeper understanding of what it means to be Christians together, even across boundaries that might otherwise divide.”


In this essay, I argue that the commission’s charge to be present with others is the very essence of the transformative journey of pilgrimage and not the implementation of targeted goal(s) of an assigned mission carried out for political, religious, or commercial purposes. A transformative journey that cannot be undertaken without, as so accurately stated by the Standing Commission on World Mission in Resolution A017, “Looking back we [become] aware that Episcopal Missionary efforts…suffered the unmistakable connection to colonialism…and [recognize] the difficult reality of our complicity in colonialism and how we have unwittingly done harm to the propagation of the Gospel.” (A017)


Mission as defined by Oxford English Dictionary is an important assignment carried out for political, religious, or commercial purposes, typically involving travel; or alternatively, the vocation or calling of a religious organization, especially a Christian one, to go out into the world and spread its faith. To embark on a mission means that one has a strong commitment and sense of duty to do or achieve something.


Pilgrimage on the other hand is the transformative journey of being present with others, often in an unknown or foreign place. A place where one goes in search of new or expanded meanings about themselves, others, nature, or a higher good.


Pilgrimage, is the act of leaving the safety of home, abandoning the comfort of the known, and going forth into the unknown to encounter the “other” in their particular cultures. Pilgrimage entails living into encounters which allow one to experience transformative understandings of how God is present in different cultures and their alternative ways of celebrating the presence of Jesus in their everyday lives. Only after this new appreciation of God in “the other” is it possible for any true missional endeavor to be conceptualized. And, even then, God’s mission can only be developed in partnership with the other, not pro se.


Substituting the word “pilgrimage” for the word mission in our discussions of “global mission” allows for a more accurate understanding of the intent of the commission’s charge, and of the postmodern, postcolonial work that must be accomplished if the mandate of the Standing Commission for World Mission established by General Convention in its 2021 Resolution A01 is to be realized.


Being transformed, eliminating barriers, reaching a deeper understanding of what it means to be Christians together in our rapidly expanding global context with its many cultural variations is the essence of pilgrimage, not the goal of mission.


However, without first examining and fully appreciating the deep roots of colonialism still present in our nation’s theology of Christianity it will not be possible to develop a successful commitment to the concept of pilgrimage. A Christian theology that continues to reflect the nation’s settler’s conviction that they were chosen by God and sanctioned by the missional philosophies of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny to bring “civilization” to the uncivilized, ungodly, and ignorant natives. Kwok Pui-Lan in her book "The Anglican Tradition from a Postcolonial Perspective," addresses this missional policy of Manifest Destiny writing, “The American myth of chosenness provided religious legitimization for the dispossessing of native lands, forced conversion, and numerous and repetitious warfare and genocide of the Native peoples.”


Dr. Kwok underscores the imperative of fully understanding the negative impact of colonialism on our current day struggle to achieve a mindset of pilgrimage, of being open to being with and learning from the “other.” She writes, “The goal of “…[reaching] a deeper understanding of what it means to be Christians together, even across boundaries that might otherwise divide is precisely what must be embodied in new religious and social practices in our heterogeneous and richly textured social worlds, in which the local intersects with the global.”


In his book "The Christian Imagination: The Theology and Origins of Race," Willie James Jennings writes, “Sadly, Christianity and its theologians live in conceptual worlds that have not in any substantive way reckoned with the ramifications of colonialism for Christian identity or the identity of theology. The intellectuals whom theological education in the West produces continue to have a massive gap in their conceptual imaginations…I yearn for a vision of Christian intellectual identity that is compelling and attractive, embodying not simply the cunning of reason but the power of love that constantly gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know, and to embrace.”


Christopher Duraisingh in his essay "Toward a Postcolonial Re-visioning of the Church’s Faith," insists that postcolonial theology must “decenter” Eurocentric coloniality by “decentering the center” of the power relationship through a decolonization of imagination and rather imagine decolonizing methodologies with the end goal of developing relationships that are polycentric and multilayered. For Duraisingh, postcoloniality is a three-pronged way of visioning things as multivoiced, (where each voice matters and has a say), dialogical and polycentric. He suggests substitution of the term postcolonial with the phrases “polycentric, multicultural, and dialogical to better portray the work of decentering the concept of coloniality.


In the “The Darker Side of Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options” Walter D. Mignolo discusses decoloniality as one option of delinking from coloniality, or the decolonial matrix of power. He suggests that “The decolonial option does not mean decolonial mission(s). Missions imply projects of conversion of achieving an end programmed in the blueprint…we decolonial intellectuals are not missionaries going into the field to convert and promote our form of salvation. We…put on the table an option to be embraced by all those who find in the option a response to his or her concern and who will actively engage, politically and epistemically, to advance projects of epistemic and subjective decolonization and in building communal futures.”


Kwok Pui Lan, Christopher Duraisingh, Walter D. Mignolo, Willie James Jennings and other postmodernist theologians all agree that if we are to truly appreciate and sincerely address the persistent negative impact of colonialism we must first “debunk” traditional or orthodox definitions of Anglican identity and instead actively engage, politically and epistemically, to advance projects of decolonization and through pilgrimage develop ways in which to build communal futures based on love and forgiveness.


Resolution A01, Assessment of Past Colonialism in the Church’s World Mission Ministries strives to address “…Colonialism and its continuing impacts [which] are antithetical to the Gospel as proclaimed by our Savior Jesus Christ… the Standing Commission on World Mission encourages the Episcopal Church to use principles and practices in the name of Christ in the missionary field which turn from the colonial mindset of the past towards mutuality of relationships in our mission, ministries, and outreach.”


Resolution A017 puts forth the commission’s charge To Walk the Way of Love in a Global Context. The intent of the charge is theologically sound; however, praxis of the charge has been elusive and indeed will continue to be elusive without a firm understanding of the church’s deep-rooted theologies of coloniality and its continuing participation in these theologies and their many ramifications.


For the convention’s resolutions to become reality a commitment to engaging in a decentering of the white, Eurocentric mindset and the decolonizing of imaginations and methodologies must be viewed as a task of pressing importance. We must begin to see and experience the world as “polycentric, multicultural, and dialogical if we are to “decenter” our concept of coloniality and develop a true understanding of the concepts of pilgrimage and mission.


This task of “decentering” requires both theological and practical consideration and must be undertaken by not only the academy but also, and perhaps most critically, by the congregation. The task of engaging in postcolonial-based studies and engaging in subsequent “decentered” pilgrimages will begin reveal to us God’s presence in the other and in the world. Only then we will begin to see God in all his glory. Only then will we be able to ensure that any missional endeavor that might be undertaken is rooted in the experience of and with the partnership of the other as together we experience God in our various lives and cultures. Only then will truly Walk the Way of Love in a Global Context.


The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in one of his many conversations with the press, “All of God's children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God.”


Throughout his career Tutu repeatedly made clear that any world mission cannot be thoroughly explored simply from a theological point of view. Any in-depth discussion of world mission must involve many dimensions. These include the history of colonialism and racism, postcoloniality and the concept of decoloniality, the question of globalization, consumerism, and a reconsideration of developmentalism.


References


Battle, M. (2021). Desmond TuTu: "A Spiritual Biography of South Africa's Confessor." Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.


Douglas, Ian & Kwok Pui-Lan. (2001). "Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century." New York: Church Publishing Incorporated.


Jennings, W. J. (2021). "The Christian Imagination: The Theology and Origins of Race." New Haven: Yale University Press.


Mignolo, W. D. (2011). "The Darker Side of Western Modernity Global Furtures, Decolonial Options." Durham: Duke University Press.


Pui-Lan, K. (2021). "Postcolonial Politices and Theology." Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.


Pui-Lan, K. (2023). The Anglican Tradition from a Postcolonial Perspective. New York: Seabury Books.



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