Settler colonialism is a distinct form of colonialism, originating in the invasion of already-occupied lands when colonizers formed permanent settlements on native land, separated from their home countries, and dominated Native populations. In this process the “demographic balance between the settler population and the Indigenous population gradually favors the former as a result of methods of dispossession, expulsion, or extermination” (Sabbagh-Khoury, 2022, p.46). Such colonial processes are not constrained to the past; settler colonialism remains a persistent colonizing structure, featuring an ongoing zero-sum battle over land, denial of Native sovereignty, and settlers narrating the justification and naturalization of their own supremacy.
Settler colonial studies, which makes settler colonialism its field of inquiry, highlights the distinctive nature of settler colonialism and its essential difference from other forms of colonialism (such as extractive or franchise colonialism). It also draws attention to the differences between a settler society and a postcolonial one. In their account of the origins of settler colonial studies, Jane Carey and Ben Silverstein wrote that it “began as a response to the perceived limitations of postcolonial theory. Where the ‘post’ in postcolonialism refers to the ongoing effects of colonial rule in states that have been formally decolonized, settler colonial studies consider those political and geographic contexts in which the colonizers never left” (Carey and Silverstein, 2020, p.1).
Settler colonial studies has a rich genealogy, developing in many locations and disciplines (Kauanui, 2021, p.291). Drawing on anthropology, legal studies, geography, political theory, comparative colonial history, and Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies has emerged as a critical theory or interpretive framework “discovered” by Australian Patrick Wolfe and developed by Lorenzo Veracini and others (Veracini, 2015, pp.1, 27–29), but lived through and described by Indigenous peoples since the first instances of colonization (Trask, 1999, p.25). Wolfe acknowledged the Indigenous as the real experts on settler colonialism (Kauanui, 2021, p.292), as those directly impacted by settlers in lands as widespread as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Hawaii, Palestine, Tibet, Manchuria, Kenya, South Africa, Patagonia, Lapland, New Caledonia, and West Papua (Cavanagh and Veracini, 2016; Veracini, 2021). As a critical theory, its interpretive power also extends to other contemporary and futuristic settler narratives, such as sea steading, extraterrestrial colonization, and the board game “Settlers of Catan” (Veracini, 2015, pp.70–88; 2021, pp.238–247).
History implicates Christianity in the push and pull factors which helped create European settler colonies – the push being religious intolerance and persecution in early modern Europe, the pull being “vacant” lands where one could freely practice one’s religion. Mormonism offers one example of this settler mentality within the USA (Veracini, 2021, p.108). Across the globe, mainline churches sent missionaries around the world to support settler Christians. While secular settler colonial studies acknowledge this history, neither its Indigenous nor settler scholars have had much engagement with theological texts.
Indigenous responses to settler colonialism have resisted and kept alive the memory and ongoing effects of invasion. Religiously, the formation of “adjustment cults” by Indigenous prophets in New Zealand and the USA have been pan-tribal moments of resistance, often melding Christianity with Indigenous culture in creative ways to resist settler colonialism (Veracini, 2015, p.25). Theologically speaking, there have been Indigenous challenges to the doctrine of discovery, which helped to justify invasion and ongoing occupation (see Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s book Unsettling Truths  and Sarah Augustine’s The Land Is Not Empty ). Indigenous theologies of land also challenge settler invasion and the commodification of land (see the collection edited by K. K. Yeo and Gene L. Green on Theologies of Land  and Tui Cadigan’s article, “Land Ideologies that Inform a Contextual Maori Theology of Land” ). Mention must also be made of Indigenous theologies of sovereignty (see George Tinker’s American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty  and “Sovereignty: Indigenous Counter-Examples” by Mark Brett and Naomi Wolfe ).
These Indigenous political theologies have few counterparts from settler political theologians, despite the rich potential that exists for such work. In order to resource Indigenous theologies and decolonial settler political theologies that challenge settler colonialism, this article outlines key insights of settler colonial studies, as represented in the following sections headed by key maxims of settler colonial studies. They help to reveal the logic of settler colonization, which is obvious to Natives, but can be especially difficult for settlers to recognize given the “collective amnesia” within settler societies (Cassidy, 2020) and the predominance of notions that settler colonies have already decolonized, are “postcolonial societies,” and that decolonization is a metaphor (Strakosch, 2015, p.40; Tuck and Yang, 2012).
Settler colonization had to be imagined
The social imaginary of moving somewhere else has had a long history (Pateman, 2007; Veracini, 2021). It can be traced back to 1516 and the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (1989, p.56). Such ideas have had religious proponents, with Puritan John Cotton preaching his infamous sermon, “Gods Promise to His Plantation” (1630) on the text 2 Samuel 7:10: “Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them anymore, as beforetime” (KJV). This settler theology makes settlements God-ordained places in which settlers can live peacefully forever, a mythos that appears throughout the biblical narrative (eg Enoch, post-Ararat and post-Babel settlements, Canaan). More recently, the misuse of the Bible to justify settlement of Indigenous land came under the scrutiny of Pekka Pitkänen (2014a; 2014b, 2015) and Michael Prior, author of The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique (1997) and Zionism and the State of Israel: A Moral Inquiry (1999). Christian settler theologies have given ideological support to settler colonialism, yet because this is a social imaginary, political theologians can reimagine it.
Structure, not an event
For Patrick Wolfe, settler colonialism is a structure, not an event (Wolfe, 1994, p.96). Settler colonialism is not found in the past; it did not only happen in 1492, 1788, 1840, or 1967. Settler colonialism, according to Wolfe, describes the structure of settler societies that persist to this day. This means that settler colonialism is not something historical that can be simply left behind, or forgiven and forgotten, as is often demanded of Natives by settlers. Settlers, having bought a one-way ticket, have not left. Settler societies are not postcolonial societies; they are structurally settler colonies with entrenched settler supremacy. This analysis highlights how settler colonialism works in the present, rather than in the past. It helps settlers see the ways that current constitutions and politics impact Indigenous peoples and attend to structural injustices in society today. This structural analysis, however, makes it difficult to see how settler societies can be decolonized (Busbridge, 2018), raising important eschatological questions about how settler societies end and whether reconciliation between indigenes and settlers is possible (Maddison, Clark and de Costa, 2016).
The Logic of Elimination
In his seminal book on settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe writes, “Settler colonies were (are) premised on the elimination of native societies” (Wolfe, 1999, p.2). Wolfe posits that it is the land which is of interest to the settler. In his view, there is a zero-sum contest between settler and indigene over land; the settler does not aim to exploit the Indigenous person’s labor – they want land. By simply staying at home, the indigene becomes an obstacle to the settlement of the land (Wolfe, 1999, p.1). As Martin E. Marty commented on the Protestant settlement of America, Natives “occupied space which an expanding nation needed. They had to be dislodged” (Marty, 1970, p.6).
Elimination does not simply mean the complete eradication of a people by murder, although this happened across the frontier. Assimilation into settler life, destruction of food sources, and the driving of Indigenous peoples from their land into urban areas are all forms of elimination of the structures of Indigenous sovereign life (for the many forms elimination may take, see Veracini, 2010, pp.33–50; Wolfe, 2006).
Such violence may call to mind the genocidal writings of the Old Testament where the land is cleared for settlement by the people of God. In this settler colonial imaginary, the destiny of the chosen people is to settle the land and make it something better. Hence, the settler narrative features a redemptive element, with settlers receiving a divine task to redeem wilderness from apparent underutilization by Indigenous peoples by bringing it into productivity and thereby releasing its true God-given potential (see Locke, 1988, sec.II.34). Settlers themselves are able to be redeemed, leaving a state of persecution or exile at home, shedding the legacy of metropole domination, and remaking themselves by settling and recreating a better society in virgin territory. The “new man” is made at the frontier where Europe breaks into new territory (Veracini, 2010, p.22).
The Negation of Exile
Veracini suggests that “all settler colonialisms … are a negation of exile” (2015, pp.108–109). Displacement leads to replacement insofar as a displaced population seeks to re-establish itself somewhere else permanent, inevitably replacing the people they displace. The Exodus story illustrates well the later analysis of Veracini (2021). Rather than a revolution for workers’ rights within Egypt, the Israelites sought better fortunes elsewhere. Permanent exile in the wilderness was rejected in favor of settlement in the promised land, which entailed displacing its existing population. Negating exile is also a central tenant of modern Zionism as it relates to the case of Israel, the settler state par excellence, with its ongoing settlement of Palestine (Piterberg, 2008, p.94). Furthermore, it is not just Christian Zionism which offers external ideological support to Israel’s occupation, but also settler colonialism, which helps to explain the support given to Israel by other powerful settler states, such as Canada, Australia, and the USA (Veracini, 2015, pp.90–91).
As Veracini suggests, reversing this logic by embracing exile is one way out of settler colonialism. Exile, being a central biblical theme, alerts us to how exilic status was either overcome or embraced by the peoples of the Bible. Embracing exile was seen in the journeys of Abraham and Moses (who did not settle in the promised land) and in making the best of the Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 29:7). In the New Testament, exile is adopted by Jesus (who had nowhere to lay his head, Matthew 8:20) and Christians calling themselves pilgrims, sojourners, or exiles (1 Peter 1).
Decolonial Settler Theology
Settler colonies offer fruitful contexts for generative work in political theology. For settler political theologians, there is a growing theoretical basis in settler colonial studies to draw on, as well as studies in comparative history, area studies, and other fields grappling with the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples. The theological work has begun, and is often autobiographical in nature (see articles by Ronald A. Kuipers  and Peter Grassow  and books by Chris Budden, Following Jesus in Invaded Space ; Why Indigenous Sovereignty Should Matter to Christians , Susan Healy, Listening to the People of the Land , Denise M. Nadeau, Unsettling Spirit , and Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Healing Haunted Histories ). Building on these anti-colonial theologies and the critical insights of settler colonial studies, there is possibility for settler political theologians to develop what I call “Decolonial Settler Theology” as a settler complement to Indigenous political theology that resists settler colonialism and its narratives. There is also great scope for works combining perspectives from Indigenous and settler theologians in cross-cultural dialogue, as demonstrated in the books Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry (Heinrichs, 2013) and Unsettling the Word (Heinrichs, 2019).
Decolonial Settler Theology could be apocalyptic in two senses of the word. First, there is a revelation of the masked nature of the truth of settler colonialism. It could work in tandem with Indigenous theologies to unmask the inherent violent, genocidal nature of the settler project and its justificatory narratives of settler innocence, in which the metropole is to blame for colonization, and in which the settler earned the right to land through hard labor or “just” purchase. This unmasking of the truth of settler colonialism leads to the other sense of apocalyptic: the end of the settler world as we know it, through the destruction of the settler worldview and the clearing of the way for a new heaven and a new earth through decolonization.
Providing an alternative eschatology for settler societies could be an important contribution of Decolonial Settler Theology. The settler aims at the progressive realization of a society that is no longer colonial nor settler, but in overcoming its origins the settler attains Indigenous status. This requires a historical narrative in which settlers are able to transcend themselves and their history. This is an unrealizable goal, given the resilience of Indigenous people and their resistance to elimination. Yet, ongoing Indigenous resistance by itself has not overcome the persistence of settler colonial societies. Decolonization of settler societies is almost unimaginable to structuralists like Veracini (2011), while other scholars resist the notion of a structurally inevitable settler society (Macoun and Strakosch, 2013). Without an alternative narrative, both settler colonial and decolonial projects are stuck. The challenge for Indigenous and decolonial settler theologies is to narrate an alternative realizable decolonial eschatology. In responding to settler colonialism, therefore, there is the possibility for adopting settler colonial studies as a critical theory for the development of contextual political theologies. Indigenous theologians have begun this work. Settlers can support and engage with them but have their own work to do. I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing. In addition to unmasking the settler colonial narratives that perpetuate colonial imposition and deny Indigenous sovereignty, another important role is to divert the eschatology of settler societies onto a decolonial path.
Settler Colonial Studies (Print ISSN: 2201-473X Online ISSN: 1838-0743).
This is a journal of the field with a wide range of articles, including some biblical studies.
Bateman, F. and Pilkington, L. eds., 2011. Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230306288.
A useful anthology of articles on settler colonialism in history, theoretical approaches, and its current manifestations.
Prior, M., 1997. The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. Biblical Seminar. Sheffield: Academic Press.
While not using the term, this is a searing moral critique of the settler colonial narratives found in the Bible.
Veracini, L., 2011. Introducing. Settler Colonial Studies, 1(1), pp.1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2011.10648799.
Veracini’s opening statement in Settler Colonial Studies of what settler colonial studies is and how it differs from colonialism.
Veracini, L., 2010. Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230299191.
An attempt to systematize settler colonialism as a unique field of study.
Wolfe, Patrick. 1999. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. London; New York: Cassell.
The seminal book of settler colonial studies.
Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. ‘Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’. Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4: 387–409. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240.
Wolfe’s seminal article on the logic of elimination, linking settler colonialism to genocide.
Wolfe, P. and Kauanui, J.K., 2018. Patrick Wolfe on Settler Colonialism. In: J.K. Kauanui, ed. Speaking of Indigenous Politics: Conversations with Activists, Scholars, and Tribal Leaders, Indigenous Americas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.pp.343–360.
An interview with Patrick Wolfe that provides an accessible introduction to his thoughts on Settler Colonialism.