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The Brink

Decolonization at the Intersection of Political Theology and Settler Colonial Studies

From the perspective of political theology, the presence of Indigenous peoples and settlers shaped by historical and ongoing settler colonial relations raises important political and religious questions about the possibilities and conditions of sovereign Indigenous existence and the (im)possibities and conditions of restorative or reconciled settler futures.

This blog post also serves as the introduction to the newest issue of Political Theology, a special issue on “Political Theology and Settler Colonialism,” edited by Dana Lloyd and Jan Pranger. It contains articles from Natalie Avalos, Abel Gomez, Bahia Munem, Sarah Dees, Raef Zreik, SueJeanne Koh, Mohamed Abdou, Joëlle Morgan, and Himanee Gupta, with an essay from Zahiye Kundos and a response from Jace Weaver. This special issue was prepared before the recent war broke out in Gaza, but some authors reflect on ideologies and ideas that undergird the Isreali occupation.

In March 2023, the Vatican issued a statement repudiating the doctrine of discovery. The repudiation is a result of dialogue with Indigenous Catholics:

In our own day, a renewed dialogue with indigenous peoples, especially with those who profess the Catholic Faith, has helped the Church to understand better their values and cultures. With their help, the Church has acquired a greater awareness of their sufferings, past and present, due to the expropriation of their lands, which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors, as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.

There is a lot to unpack in this statement: for example, the acknowledgement of present suffering, not only past suffering (historian Patrick Wolfe would say that settler colonialism is a structure rather than a discrete event), that lands that were stolen from Indigenous peoples were—are—sacred to them, and the Catholic Church’s active (even if only tacitly admitted) role in executing policies of forced assimilation. There is a throughline that runs from the papal bulls that applied the doctrine of discovery in the Americas in the fifteenth century to the mass graves of Indigenous children unearthed at sites of Native American and First Nations residential schools in the United States and Canada. Investigating this throughline is one of our goals in gathering scholars to think at the intersection of political theology and settler colonialism.

But it is not just a theoretical investigation that we are interested in. As we see in the above statement from the Vatican, dialogue between Indigenous peoples and the church can lead to desired, if limited results, from official apologies to the return of stolen lands to Indigenous nations.   

Political theology explores connections between religious and political ideas and practices in today’s world. It particularly interrogates, contests, and constructively reimagines the organization of the relationship between religion and politics in discourses on modernity that organize these fields by means of binary oppositions between secular and religious, or private and public. The study of settler colonialism, as initiated in works of Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini, and Edward Said, explores colonial formations in which groups of exogenous colonists take political and economic control of territory and seek to eliminate and replace Indigenous populations. Understanding these colonial formations as structures, settler colonial studies critically investigate the ideological, social, legal, economic, and political structures that enable and support settler colonial formations historically and in the present.

This special issue explores how and where political theology and the study of settler colonialism intersect, and how the cross-fertilization between these areas of study can generate new approaches in both. From the perspective of political theology, the presence of Indigenous peoples and settlers shaped by historical and ongoing settler colonial relations raises important political and religious questions about the possibilities and conditions of sovereign Indigenous existence and the (im)possibities and conditions of restorative or reconciled settler futures. How can the critical engagement of ongoing settler colonial structures contribute to anti-colonial or decolonial political and religious discourses and practices for greater racial, economic, and ecological justice between and among Native peoples and settlers? What politics should guide the future of the deeply unequal and historically traumatic relationships between Native peoples and the settler presence?

Political theology and the study of settler colonialism pursue many related questions and similar concepts, including issues of sovereignty, race, religious and political identity, though often through different lines of approach. For instance, the development of political theology is often traced back to discussions about the modern state’s sovereignty and state of exception as secularization of the religious authority of the divine. Yet, European settler colonialism was also enabled by Christendom’s divine cosmology, first applied to European royal sovereigns and subsequently secularized and transferred to their successor states as the right of discovery of non-white, non-Christian lands and peoples. An exploration of the intersection between political theology and settler colonialism thus needs to interrogate modern Christian constructions of race, religion, and religious others, as well as of place itself.This exploration should also inquire how concepts of sovereignty can support Native bodies, communities, landscapes, sacred places, and ecologies.

We are interested in the understanding, character, origins, and significance of modernity and racial and religious pluralism in the study of political theology and settler colonialism, including the question of racialization as constitutive in the genealogies of modernity and settler colonialism. We also want to address the complexity of religious ideas and practices in settler colonial formations and in resistance to them. Forms of religion, e.g., settler colonial Christianity, are part of the ideological structures and political practices of settler colonialism, while other forms of religion, including Indigenous religious practices or hybrid religious forms are often central to practices of resistance and the survival of Indigenous communities under assault by settler colonialism. What are the conditions for decolonial settler religious practices that politically and religiously accept responsibility for the great harm inflicted by histories of religious exclusivism, assimilation, and colonial missions? (How) can settlers learn from Indigenous ecological and spiritual insights without renewed colonial extractivism and appropriation?

This special issue addresses these and related questions with a focus on two settler colonial contexts: North America and Palestine/Israel. Other geographical contexts can and should be investigated as well, including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and we look forward to future projects that would carry on these questions as applied to these contexts.  

As Mahmood Mamdani wrote in 2015, “The American autobiography is written as the autobiography of the settler. The [N]ative has no place in it.” But we are starting to see change in this regard—Indigenous dispossession and genocide, as well as Indigenous survivance and thriving, are increasingly present in this autobiography. An investigation into the horrors of boarding schools has resulted in a 2022 Bureau of Indian Affairs report that counts, among other important things, the church’s role in perpetuating anti-Indigenous ideology and implementing assimilation policies. That same year, the U.S. government acknowledged Indigenous marginalization, ethnocide, and genocide in its internal guidelines to government agencies, and explained that in order to create and promote a relationship of trust, the government must protect Indigenous religiosity. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) put the protection of Native American sacred sites on the U.S. agenda shortly after she was sworn in. Pope Francis apologized for the church’s role in the atrocities of residential schools and the Vatican is grappling with the meaning of the doctrine of discovery for our world today. These developments are not perfect, and they are not enough, but they are welcome, and a dialogue between settlers and Indigenous peoples about religion is essential to them.

At the same time, Zionism and extreme religiosity come together to expose again and again that the Israeli state, referring to itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, is built upon Jewish supremacy. No dialogue between Jewish settlers and Indigenous Palestinians seems to be on the horizon. Yet, the close ties between race and religion, and the settler colonial structures that support these ties, are now part of the mainstream political discourse on Palestine/Israel, whereas before such discourse was only possible in certain activist and academic circles. Here, too, the intersection between political theology and settler colonial studies seems productive. Can it bring to more meaningful results? Can it advance #LandBack and decolonization?

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