Saturday, August 26, 2017

Vocation of a Theologian in the Trump Era

I was in Greece when Donald Trump was elected President on November 8, 2016. I was on a research trip and had just visited the Acropolis, the Agora, and the magnificent museums several days before. The fact that I was in Athens, the cradle of Western democracy, prompted me to think about the long struggle for democracy in human history and its relation to empire.

From left: Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow
Democracy is an unfinished project. On the one hand, people in many parts of the world have struggled for democratic and participatory government that respects human freedom and dignity. Three young men in Hong Kong, where I was born, have recently been jailed for their involvement in the pro-democracy movement. But on the other hand, the spread and protection of democracy has been used by Western powers as justification for regime changes, removal of elected political leaders, and military coups. The lack of democracy has been used as a signifier for the inferiority of non-Western cultures and societies.

As a postcolonial theologian, who is deeply interested in the relationship among religion, power, and empire, the election of Trump and the chaos of the White House in the past several months demand serious theological reflection.

For some, especially in the Chinese media, the election of Trump shows the dysfunction of democracy and the unreliability of populism. But to see the election of Trump as an aberration is to miss the signs of our time. His slogan “Make America Great Again” appeals to imperial impulse of many American people, especially working-class white men who perceive that they have lost much power. Trump had to appeal to his base and that was why he waffled in his condemnation of Neo-Nazis, KKK, and white nationalists after the rally at Charlottesville.

Trump enjoys the support of the Christian Right. Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for him and Jerry Falwell, Jr. campaigned vigorously for him and spoke on his behalf after Charlottesville. Many of us might think the Christian Right misinterpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was a political prisoner under the Roman Empire. But we cannot forget the complicity and lingering impact of Constantinian Christianity that has justified violence, colonialism, racism, war, and genocide in the past and in the present.

Learning from Foucault, we need to ask, “Is there something in Christianity that is productive and contributive to the discourse of imperial power?” When we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and when we sing “A mighty fortress is our God” (Martin Luther), “King of Kings….Lord of Lords” (Handel’s Messiah) and “King of Glory, King of Peace” (George Herbert), what kinds of images do we have for God? What if the Christian ethos inculcates a certain attitude toward authority and power?

Christianity has had a much more ambivalent relation with empire than we might think. From its very beginning and throughout the centuries, Christianity borrowed from, adopted to, negotiated with, and at times subverted the language of empire and status quo. As a postcolonial theologian, I see it as my vocation to study, research, and teach this complex history so that we can learn from the past, understand the present, and work collaboratively for a better future.

We need public theologians in our time, when many people, secular and religious, are looking for ways to understand what is going on and how to transform the status quo. Religious leaders and theologians such as Wu Yaozong, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosemary Radford Ruether, Desmond Tutu, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Ivone Gebara are shining examples who have spoken prophetically to the church and society.

Following their examples, we need to understand religion and power realignment in the Trump era. As a theologian of Chinese descent, I am keenly aware that the relationship between China and United States will shape the future of the twenty-first century. We need a new political theology that goes beyond its Eurocentric roots to address the rise of Asia Pacific, especially the emergence of China as global power.

To develop this new political theology, we have to learn more about postcolonialism and international politics. Books such as Sanjay Seth’s Postcolonial Theory and International Religions (2013), Herfried M√ľnkler’s, Empires: The Logic of World Domination fromAncient Rome to the United States (2007); Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (2013) and the anthology Legacies of Empire: Imperial Roots of the Contemporary Global Order (2015), coedited by Sandra Halperin and Ronen Palan are invaluable resources. Within the field of theology and philosophy, I continue to learn much from Enrique Dussel, especially from his acclaimed volume Politics of Liberation: A Critical World History (2011).

Colonialism and imperial expansion cannot be maintained by rational justification alone without the support of structures of feelings (Raymond Williams). Franz Fanon writes, the black man desires and wants what the white man wants. There has been an “affective turn” in the humanities and social studies, which focuses on the states of mind and body that are related to feelings and emotions. In Coming to Our Senses, Dierdra Reber investigates the roles of affect in ordering the neo-liberal global consumerist culture. The introduction of affect theory to the study of theology will open doors to understand suffering, loss, reconciliation, healing, and other subjects. Moreover, it will help decipher habits of the hearts when people hold so steadfastly and sometimes nostalgically to theological “truths,” ecclesial practices, and devotional patterns of a bygone era.

This new political theology must speak about racial justice as well as racial reconciliation and healing. How can the US as a nation come to grips with the legacies of genocide, dispossession, slavery? While racial and ethnic minorities may proudly declare that there will be no majority race in 2040, how can we build the infrastructures and movements necessary to help people of all races and ethnicities, genders and sexualities, to transition into this looming reality? What roles can the churches play in bringing people into fruitful dialogue across differences? What kind of theological education that will equip future leaders of churches and faith communities to lead people in this transition?



The white nationalist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville were sparked by the vote to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. While we condemn white hegemony, hatred, anti-Semitism, and racism, a deeper question is how to help people face history, heal from past wounds, and reconcile with a sense of loss of identity. Maya Angelou says, History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” The test for us today is to dialogue across political ideologies and spectrum so that past history can be interrogated, discussed, and reconstructed together. The statues and war monuments of the Civil War are divisive because the past wounds continue to haunt our present. If Christianity has contributed to a racial discourse that denigrated African Americans and other races in the past, theologians and religious leaders must summon theological and spiritual resources for racial justice and healing today.

The vocation of an intellectual and a theologian is to speak truth to power. We need that courage more than ever in Trump's era of alt-truth and alt-facts.