Political Theology Needs Its Own “Pivot To Asia” (Kwok Pui-Lan)

Postcolonial Theology, State of Political Theology
This essay first appeared as part of an announcement for the print journal Political Theology in July, 2016.  It is reprinted here because of its timeliness.  The original posting can be found here.
When scholars discuss modern political theology, they usually refer to Carl Schmitt’s book Political Theology as the founding moment. Then they would trace the development of political theology by Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltman after WWII, and move on to the present theological turn in political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.
This (white) genealogy of the field shows Eurocentric biases in privileging European and American experience.The late Edward Said in his Culture and Imperialism taught us to read histories contrapuntally and to see histories as intertwined and overlapped (18). For while Schmitt was working on Political Theology, published in 1922, large-scale demonstrations broke out in many Chinese cities in protest of the Versailles Treaty, signed after WWII.The Treaty transferred German concessions in China’s Shandong Peninsula to Japan, rather than returning sovereign authority to China, even though China had entered  the war on the side of the Allies. In 1898, Germany had obtained the rights to build a naval base in Qingdao to expand its military power in the Pacific. Germany’s colonial interest hardly figures in the discussion of German political theology.
Prompted by the mass demonstrations, Chinese theologians began to reflect on how Christianity could save China from foreign humiliation and encroachment. In the 1930s Wu Yaozong advocated that only a social revolution would save China and transform the world.

His anti-imperial rhetoric challenged the aggression of the capitalist powers and the havoc they had wreaked in China and in other parts of the world. His appeal to Marxist social analysis and his critique of idealist Christianity anticipated the liberation theology that came decades later.

A postcolonial approach to political theology insists that people like Wu Yaozong and many others like him around the world, who had raised their voices against colonialism and imperialism, must be included in the historical memory of political theology. Today, if the climate for political theology in Europe and the US is postmodern and postsecular,4 the context for political theology in the Global South continues to be postcolonial and “de-imperial”.

The geopolitics of the world has shifted and Asia Pacific will dominate world affairs in the twenty-first century. The US government has spoken about the “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia. Asia Pacific has become a strategically important military theater for the US, especially in the disputes among the Asian countries over the control of islands and resource-rich waters in the South China Sea. But surprisingly we find political theologians still focus largely on the Atlantic as if the world has not changed!

A postcolonial political theology in the Asia Pacific will need to emphasize that “Asia Pacific” was a regional structure formed as a result of European and American colonial impetus. Taiwanese cultural critic Kuan-Hsing Chen argues that the process of disentanglement from the colonial legacy will be long and tortuous. The first component is a decolonization process and the recovery of postcolonial subjectivity.

The second process is to “de-Cold War”, since the Cold War has disrupted and truncated the evolution of political structures in the Asian region. The third is de-imperialization, which involves an honest critique of the desire to identify with empire and collaborate with imperialist projects.

Chen in his Asia as Method calls Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong “subimperial spaces,” because they have colluded with imperialist desires of Japanese and American empires.  China is competing for hegemony in this region and the slogans of “China dream” and “big country rises up” show its ambitions.

The new development in the Asia Pacific requires us to pay much attention in our theological reflection to militarism and the arms race, and their effect on people’s lives. The “war on terrorism” has brought not only devastation and insecurity to the Middle East, but also fierce arms races in many Asian countries.

There is a realignment of power as China and the US are vying for military hegemony in the region. The old frameworks such as just war theory and the use of force for self-defense are no longer adequate in the age of preemptive strike, weapons of mass destruction, costly collateral damage, and undeclared wars (as in the use of drones). We will need new theological and ethical principles to critique the use of military might in exerting global hegemony.

The people have not remained passive or silent in the expansion of military, political, and economic power and might. The past several years have seen massive grassroots organizing and demonstrations. The Occupy Movement across the globe, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and the rise of people’s power in Myanmar are but a few examples.

These movements have shown the rising political consciousness of the multitude. Through songs, posters, slogan, symbolism, street theater, and live-streams, the protesters have created a new political culture. They have formed transnational networks through the social media and challenged the old form of democracy in what they called direct democracy.

As the older forms of imperialism have been replaced by a de-centralized and de-territorialized “empire”, as Hardt and Negri argue, political resistance will take new shape. If empire is based on globalization from above, people’s resistance movements demonstrate the power of globalization from below. A postcolonial political theology needs to pay attention to new forms of politics that are evolving and bear witness to people’s unceasing quest for freedom and dignity.

This is especially important as racism, xenophobia, and bigotry dominated the airwaves during much of the presidential campaign in 2016. In order to speak to the present situation prophetically, political theologians must decolonize our minds and disengage ourselves from Eurocentrism and the colonial syndrome. A necessary first step is to rethink about the history, scope, legacy, and concerns of doing political theology.

Kwok Pui-lan is William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, USA, and a former President of the American Academy of Religion. She is the author and editor of numerous books, including Postcolonial Practice of Ministry(Lexington Press, forthcoming) and Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005).

3 thoughts on “Political Theology Needs Its Own “Pivot To Asia” (Kwok Pui-Lan)

  1. We need to remember that colonialism and imperialism did not start with the West and will not end with the West. China’s arm was long indeed before the 19th Century. The Q’ing ruthlessly colonized Tibet, Mongolia and Sinkiang, annihilating the Dzungar Mongolian nation in the process. And China’s economic reach in Southeast Asia exceeded it’s political grasp then as now. Overseas Chinese communities might qualify as colonies.
    Nor were the Chinese the only colonists. The Japanese ruthlessly dominated the Ainu people on Hokkaido and Sakhalin and the Ryukykus somewhat less. Vietnam supplanted the Cham People. And the Thai suppressed and the Burmese created empires of their own. Not to mention the Muslim empires in what is now Indonesia.
    As for racism and xenophobia, it’s more than a bit hypocritical for Asian nations to accuse the US and Europe of racism and xenophobia when few if any Asian nations allow migration from abroad in any significant numbers.

  2. I don’t think I’ve grasped what, exactly, the author understands under the term ‘political theology’ (it certainly does not sound like the kind discussed by Lefort in “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?”), and why an understanding of Germany’s colonial interests in China (or their enforced abandonment) would be a necessary supplement to understanding German political theology. Surely “political theology” is not just a synonym for ‘politicized theology’?

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