“The sun never sets on the British Empire!”  This cheerful motto, happily thrown about by British citizens and colonial officers through a large portion of nineteenth and twentieth centuries, almost gives one a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. I mean a literal warm feeling – the phrase conjures up images of sunny shores, imperial wealth, and maybe even happy natives.  It makes Empire seem like something desirable, something that enriches the world by bringing a sense of peace and happiness to the world.  And for a long time that’s how people, especially in the European and North American spheres, viewed Empire.  Empire was a sign of their people’s strength, and it brought great benefits to the world.  But times have changed.  Official empires no longer exist. Almost all of them have been entirely dismantled, and those that still cling to life have altered their structure. Imperial holdings are no longer “colonies,” but are now “Overseas Territories.”  With the dismantling of Empire came the realization that not everyone subscribed to the rosy view noted above. Colonial subjects saw imperial regimes as forces of oppression and destruction, not peace and happiness.  Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, these voices have grown, joining together across national lines to decry Empire in all its forms.  These voices together constitute the postcolonial theoretical world. Postcolonial theory is a branch of academic discourse that is aimed at deconstructing and resisting Empire, and its contributions to theology and biblical interpretation have been a great boon to these fields.

Postcolonialism got its start in the literary world of the mid-twentieth century as “a literary tool used to denote resistance to imperialist assumptions about knowledge and power in text.”[1] As such, it began as a subversive strain within the literary world that served as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with the colonial power structures of the day.  Since then, postcolonial theory has blossomed to incorporate a great number of other concerns through intersection with other deconstructive theoretical schools, such as feminism and queer theory.  At its heart, postcolonial theory seeks to name oppressive forms of power and calls for the return of power and dignity to the marginalized .

There are several key texts in the history of postcolonial theory.  Key among these is Frantz Fanon’s 1968 work, The Wretched of the Earth.[2]  In this work (and in his other writings), Fanon is concerned with “attempts made by colonized people to regain political and cultural emancipation from [their] colonizers.”[3]  While Fanon focuses primarily on the work of colonized intellectuals, his book casts a vision of freedom from colonial oppression that can be broadened to appeal to entire societies.  His work reads like a clarion call to the colonized people of the world, urging them to throw off the shackles of colonial domination and blaze their own trail. “Come then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.”[4]  Not only does Fanon call for the upheaval of direct forms of oppression, such as colonial governments, but also for the destruction of so-called cultural imperialism.  The colonized people of the world should not seek to emulate Europeans, who for so long oppressed them, but instead they should seek their own path and create their own sense of societal and cultural worth.  With texts such as Fanon’s, postcolonial theory set off on a campaign of deconstruction that continues to this day.

While formal examples of empire may no longer exist as they did in previous centuries, one does not have to look hard to see how the colonial mentality still pervades the world today.  This “neocolonialism” is not based on outright control of foreign people but it is subtler. Neocolonialism arises out of economic hegemony or through paternalistic relationships with other countries.  For example, the United States’ campaign in Iraq, ostensibly part of the War on Terror, has seen many twists and turns. Originally an offensive to remove a dictator from power, it has since become in essence a long-running occupation.  Yet, it is never described as such: The American troops are said to be in place to ensure stability and security in a war-torn country. While this may be true, the fact remains that the United States has an entrenched military presence in the country, and reaping economic benefits from it.  While it seems highly unlikely that any American government would seriously consider annexing Iraq or establishing an official colonial presence there,[5] America is exerting control over the state of affairs in Iraq, albeit in an indirect way.  For a less emotionally charged example, one could look at the case of Chinese contracts with sub-Saharan African nations, wherein China agrees to build much-needed infrastructure in return for access to these countries’ natural resources.  These situations and so many others like them, perpetrated by powerful countries against weaker ones, show that neocolonialism is rampant in the world today. As such, there is much fertile soil for the postcolonial project, as these structures of domination continue to perpetrate oppression around the globe.

But what of theology and biblical studies?  This is, after all, a blog focused on queer Bible hermeneutics. What does postcolonialism have to do with our project?  The answer to these questions lies in the use of biblical interpretation and theological discourse to justify or defend colonial structures, either explicitly or implicitly.  For example, take Christina Petterson’s  interpretation of the description of Solomon’s throne in 1 Kings 10.[6]  This text is not only intrinsically tied to the political and economic systems of its day, with the king of Israel shown as a great ruler taking tribute from weaker nations; it also served as a source of European material demands from colonial subjects in the Modern age.[7]  Pettersen’s work serves as just one example among countless interpretations of Scripture that colonizers and imperial oppressors have used to justify their domination over other peoples of the world.

In terms of deconstruction of power, many intersections exist between postcolonial theory and queer theory.  Both theories seek to eradicate forms of power that subjugate marginalized people. Both are inherently concerned with the wellbeing of the Other. Both draw on the history of liberation theology to ground their work.  By putting these two theories into conversation, we paint a vivid portrait of how power is portrayed in biblical texts. We see where God yearns for the liberation of the oppressed. These theories need not compete but both provide a wide array of biblical interpretations that deconstruct power and give hope to the hopeless.


An anonymous student

[1] Nicole Goulet, “Postcolonialism and the Study of Religion: Dissecting Orientalism, Nationalism, and Gender Using Postcolonial Theory,” in Religion Compass, 5.10 (October 2011), 631.

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1963).

[3] Ibid., 633

[4] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 252-253.

[5] Though the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination gives one pause on this point, but that’s a discussion for another time.

[6] Christina Petterson, “Nothing Like It Was Ever Made in Any Kingdom: The Hunt for Solomon’s Throne,” in Postcolonialism and the Hebrew Bible: The Next Step, ed. Roland Boer, (Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 2013), 93-108.

[7] Petterson, “Nothing Like It Was Ever Made in Any Kingdom,” 96.