As I woke on Tuesday morning, my Facebook feed was exploding. I’m a Catholic, with many friends in Europe, and the death of Pere Jacques Hamel affected the sensibilities of almost everyone I know. Slain on the altar, a martyr.
The Guardian profile of Pere Jacques wrote that he was “just a good priest… doing his job to the very end.” There can be, really, no greater praise for a priest, that he simply lived out his calling. There is something deeply beautiful about a priest who quietly tends to his flock, journeying with them from birth to death, and installing himself as a quiet but treasured member of the community.
We do not speak enough about priests like Pere Jacques. And so it was heartbreaking to hear of the attack in St-Etienne-du-Rouvay, but it has been similarly difficult to see the eruption of violence spreading across European cities.
Knife attacks, shootings, an axe, a bomb. There is no pattern to the violence, the attacks have occurred in major towns like Nice or Munich, or in small towns like St-Etienne-du-Rouvay. The New York Times recently called the phenomenon a summer of anxiety. Some of these attacks have been linked to the Islamic state, and all seem to be driven by a mixture of ideological terrorism, anger, instability, and frustration.
There are other images that, too, feel like wounds. Refugees making boat journeys to the Mediterranean coast do so with great risk to their lives. At the end of May, the International Office for Migration put the number of deaths for 2016 at 1,475. This is in addition to the over 1800 deaths in 2015.
My Facebook feed also explodes with the images of navy boats fishing corpses out of the sea, of ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric, and a rise in populist, nativist sentiments, of police brutality against refugees, of overwhelming racism and xenophobia. Many of these refugees are Muslim, and the string of attacks coursing through Europe have only heightened anti-immigrant and anti- Muslim sentiment.
There are strong calls for further restrictions on immigration in Europe, and the debate over such restrictions contributed in no small way to the recent Brexit referendum in the UK. There were a few too many interviews with Brexiters who named their decisions to vote leave was fueled by a need to block off the “Muslims who can come through from Europe.”
The situation can feel apocalyptic, as if the world teeters on the edge of some final war for humanity. The anti-immigrant, racist, “othering” narrative is an alarming one, and the response from both the left and the right has been reactionary and voluminous. The narratives fall into further perversion, aided by the self-righteous fury of the right and the fragmented fury of the left.
Yet, what is most grievous at this moment is to know that the racism, populism and nativism that we see “on the rise” isn’t new. It isn’t only the fault of the “rise” of ISIS and the pushback against their extremist activities. What we have now laid bare is the ugliness of the quotidian racism and populism that suffuses the West and many “wests.”
An oft quoted statement from academic Gilles Kepel in his book The War For Muslim Minds is the acknowledgement that “neither the blood spilled by Muslims from North Africa fighting in French uniforms during both world wars nor the sweat of migrant laborers, living under deplorable living conditions, who rebuilt France (and Europe) for a pittance after 1945, has made their children … full fellow citizens.” (268)
Is this not the same story for the other visible and invisible minorities of Europe? Europe’s minorities form an internal colony and live in what is an embedded racialized reality. Coloniality is the underlying logic, as to borrow Walter Mignolo, of Western civilization. Racism is a key element of this coloniality.
The colonial situation rips apart personhood. You are faced with social death, ripped from a social existence beyond that which you have with your master. To be colonized, and to remain colonized is to be stripped of oneself as a self and to exist in a place of non-being. A shadow of death is cast upon all aspects of social life. In this, at this moment, and in this time, all are complicit in furthering this embedded colonized, racialized reality.
A catholic Cardinal recently called for Christian Europe to “resist” the dominant aspirations of Islam. This is the kind of narrative that engenders a racialized reality. But yes, Christianity is called to respond to this racialized reality, called, indeed, by Scripture and by Christian teaching. Christian theology must be decolonized. A decolonial theology must be understanding of and attuned to the transformational cultural processes emerging within the colonized subject.
We can ask, for example, as to what is happening to the subject when caught between the morass of bare-faced populism and racism on one hand and randomized physical violence on the other? Such decolonization is difficult, arduous, and, radically transforming. It entails a social, political, economic and spiritual revolution. Theology must tap into this energy, not moving itself away from the energy and passion of the people but entering into it, recognizing and remembering a God who breaks the chains of slavery.
As decolonial theology must do this, there are also calls to remember the necessary violence of decolonization. Such radicalism need not be through the taking up of arms and the further physical destruction of lives. It can be done systematically, through education and consultation, by becoming theologians who “smell of the sheep”, as Pope Francis would have it.
Neither does this bring something unheard of to the Christian understanding. John Behr, for example,in his book Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement has excellently pointed out the hybridity and complexity of early Christianity in the thought of persons like Ireaneus and Polycarp. Here we are pointed to the greatest complexity facing Christianity in the West. The denial of death.
We see this discussed in forums that look the problem of abortion and of euthanasia, but without connection to the wider social deaths that are part of quotidian racialized lives. We tell the individual stories of loss and we gather the individuals into painful statistics but don’t tell the story of the loss in our society. We don’t draw the connection between deaths in our society and death in our society.
Christ died as a human being precisely to show us the face of God. To turn our eyes from the different kinds of death we see around us, especially the social death brought on by racism/decoloniality is to remove the face of God from society. Entering into the trauma of this personhood is to take on contingency and neediness into our theology.
We see in these racialized realities, the suffering and death of the Man of Sorrows. This is a long, arduous process. Where it begins, though, is in weeping. After the recent shootings of black men, a priest in American commissioned an icon of a black Madonna, protecting a child, who’s heart was surrounded by the crown of thorns. The Madonna was weeping, not only for the deaths of these black men, but for the social death all around her.
An icon invites us to pray, to meditate. This icon invites us all to weep. Our first movement towards the decolonial transformation of hearts and minds must be in the weeping. We must take on the anguish of this social death, weeping for what has happened and our own complicity in fostering this reality.
When on the Cross, the Son experienced all the anguish of the world and because of this, we are now invited into God’s presence. Experienced in our sorrow, the Divine understands our despair. Surely, in order to enter into God’s presence, and to make His grace visible, we too are called to weep in despair.
Weeping, then, is the beginning of decolonizing our theologies.
Anupama Ranawana works in international development and researches religious and political thought at the University of Aberdeen. She can be reached for comment via Twitter @MsAMR25. Her views are her own and do not reflect the opinions of any organization that she is affiliated to. She has been a graduate teaching associate at the University of Aberdeen and served as book review editor for the Journal of Politics, Religion, Ideology.