What distinguishes white theology from Indigenous theology? This is not as straightforward a question as it might appear. Take the term' white', for starters. What, or who, is 'white'? In common parlance, 'white people' (meaning people with pale skin) are routinely distinguished from 'black', 'brown', 'red' or 'yellow' people. Of course, it is often said that 'white' people invented the categories, but that is not quite true. In fact, the people who invented the categories described themselves simply as 'people', with no qualifying adjective. For they saw themselves as the paridigmatic model, and everyone else as just a little deficient, somehow. Later on, when those of us deemed 'deficient' learned to play this game, we started to call the game-makers 'white', which was both a clever move and a stupid move, at the same time. It was clever because it brought into focus the hitherto repressed fact that human beings participate equally in the ontological quality of humanness whatever subsequent qualifiers one might then apply, whether that be skin colour, ethnicity, gender, or whatever. It was stupid, however, at the very same time, because by playing the game in this way we who were hitherto 'deficient' conceded the game. We conceded, that is, that both the game and its most basic rules were legitimate. We found ourselves, therefore, in an ethical double-bind: play the game, but by no means play the game.
A similar dynamic is at play in the word 'theology'. Those who invented the word were apparently residents of Athens in the fourth century before the 'common era' (itself a problematic notion which I cannot address here). It was a term that found its way into Jewish and Christian thinking because of the colonisation of multiple regions and peoples - including Galilee and Judea - by the Greek empires of subsequent centuries. Following the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE, the franca lingua of Jewish and then Christian diasporas was Greek for many centuries: more permanently, of course, in the Eastern Roman Empire than in the West. But the Western (or Latin) forms, which came to dominate European Christianity from at least the 6th century CE, remained essentially Greek in character. Theology, as an intellectual discipline, might therefore be understood as a language game that is essentially colonial: an absorption and modification of first century events and stories from Roman-occupied Galilee and Judea into a larger hellenistic imagination. This leaves all Christians, even the few who remain in Galilee and Palestine to this day, with an unavoidable paradox: that the Jewish, aramaic-speaking, Jesus and his followers can only be encountered in their Greek versions. Which is to say, that the only Jesus we have is already a colonised Jesus. He is a 'jew-greek' hybrid. He is, as Derrida would say, onto-theological. Colonised by empire.
Thankfully the repressed is never entirely erased, and those rendered 'deficient' still have some agency. The crucified and risen Jesus was able to escape his colonial bonds and inspire multiple movements of liberation and release. Here in the lands now called 'Australia', Indigenous people are rising up to claim what has been repressed, destroyed or stolen: country, kin, dreamings. In doing so, some of us are claiming Jesus as an ally. For the colonised Jesus who, in the hands of missionaries and colonial gubbas alike, became a whip to keep us down, is also a gift from our creator-ancestors, a gift which can be deployed against our captors. In our hands, the Greek Jesus can become Jewish again by first becoming Indigenous. For he is like us, and we are like him. Together we belong to the great company of 'deficients' imprinted with his paschal story:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.(2 Corinthians 4.8-10)
This tiny example of Indigenous theologising reveals, I hope, two things. First, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will never entirely escape the fact that we are a colonised people. I write in an Indo-European language. I am educated in European intellectual traditions. I am as much Irish and British as I am Aboriginal. I am a Christian. But the second thing my theologising reveals, I hope, is that I have not entirely lost my trawloolway identity and responsibility to country. I am seeking to re-read, to re-interpret, to re-imagine as much of the colonial inheritance as I can within that frame, for the sake of my people, and for the sake of our captors. For our colonial overlords are as much the victims of their Greek thinking as we are.
I am privileged to be alive in an era when a small handful of Euro-Australian theologians have decided to re-evaluate their faith through the eyes of First Peoples. Some of you will know their names: John Harris, Rob Bos, Norman Habel, Mark Brett, Chris Budden, Grant Finlay. To that very short list may now be added the name of Duncan Reid. In what follows, Duncan listens to what we are saying, treats what we are saying seriously, and seeks to articulate some measure of understanding. He is motivated, it seems, by a profound sense of crisis around the impotence of European theological traditions in the face of genocide and, especially, our global environmental catastrophe. I congratulate Duncan for this beginning, for it is only a beginning, and encourage both he and his readers to stay the course into deeper and yet more challenging waters.