“Our birth inscribes us as beings-in-relation to others.
But we do not always honor that birth or those relations.”1
— Mayra Rivera Rivera
While I traveled as a singer-songwriter and kind of artist-missionary, songs became a way to enter the stories of the people I met. I formed friendships within the prisons of Bolivia and the industrial wastelands of Northern Philadelphia, being transformed by the beauty of hope and living faith in people. I also became increasingly aware of the realities of the postcolonial aftermath and the complex borderlands that exist everywhere, between rich and poor, between languages, cultures and religions, between stories, within people and within myself. I was a “cross-cultural” artist, performing in languages different from my native tongue, traveling across socioeconomic and cultural borders in the United States as well as political borders around the world. Shared Christian faith and spiritual legacy can bring an immediate mutuality which, at its best, can be a prophetic resistance to the borders which limit a person’s expression of life; relationship can be a prophetic resistance against injustice. However, sometimes it allows for neglecting the complex historical legacy and future ramifications of our present choices.
I find myself torn between two identities. One is my historical legacy and my undeniable place of economic privilege in the postcolonial aftermath. I am acutely aware that I live the way I do, and in contrast, others suffer as they do, as a direct result of colonialism and neocolonialism2, and I do not know entirely what to do about it. The other is my Christian faith and a sense of purpose birthed from the love of God in Jesus and meant to be shared and nurtured in Christian community, community meant to be an agent of transformational love in the world. This struggle itself and the dualism of identity reflects something of the postcolonial aftermath, but Christians of the 21st century must not turn away. Ultimately, when we fail to recognize generations before, even if we are not proud of where are own legacy flows from, we neglect the power of God to redeem. And when we fail to see the complexity of that which is in front of us, we neglect the fullness of hope we are called to.
Locating Privilege and Postcolonial Legacy
Theologian Mayra Rivera argues the impossibility of separating ourselves and our encounters with others, from our complex legacies, which are historical and relational. “We tend to represent the encounter with the Other [sic] as a pure origin. Yet each encounter between the self and her/his Other is a unique moment in a chain of encounters that constitutes subjects, societies, and the world. Subjects and collectivities emerge from, and thus are always already in relation to, their Others.”3 Within Christian mission, especially Christian mission from the privileged minority4 to the majority poor world, there is a tendency to co-opt the narrative, to speak for and designate all roles. Ironically, this misguided attempt to articulate relationship indicates a degree of separateness as the relationship is not recognized a priori. However, it is possible to hold a spiritual worldview and a sense of one’s purpose in Christian ministry without co-opting the identity of the “other” or reducing the other to a role. In essence, to find authenticity in our own identity, we must find it for everyone. I must not represent the other but rather represent myself. In the postcolonial aftermath, marked by violence and unparalleled poverty and inequity, this is precisely what I can do in mourning. “What grief displays, in contrast, is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.”5
Within Christian mission, especially Christian mission from the privileged minority to the majority poor world, there is a tendency to co-opt the narrative, to speak for and designate all roles
By using the “privileged minority,” I mean to locate that legacy which benefitted from (at least) and sometimes actively participated (at worst) in colonial violence. This phrase is also meant to identify a present place in the world, of those privileged by socioeconomic systems, or political, ethnic, religious, and gender affiliations. In recent decades, “Western” has been used to point to privileged and dominant cultures and nations. However, locating oneself in a globalized world, where both poverty and privilege reside in the same city and one’s historical/ethnic legacy may not be the legacy with which s/he identifies, is a complicated matter. “Majority poor world” also might be more accurate than grouping nations as “developing” because it indicates a complex reality which is not limited to an economic state but means to describe the many different forms of poverty6 to which the majority of the world succumbs in part or in whole. What is more, a Christian may not find her/himself in a place of privilege domestically, but moves into privilege through participating in global Christian mission from one nation to another, or in establishing international partnership.
Of course the legacy of the privileged Christian minority cannot be defined entirely through social and political critique, neglecting a genuinely concerned and loving spiritual legacy as well as a present Christian hope beyond politics and social reform. For the purposes of this essay though, postcolonial theory reminds us to resist the urge to co-opt all that is being shown to us and frame it from our own perspective; to resist the urge to solve the problem but rather strive to see it fully. I ask one to consider the systems in which s/he participates; the historical legacies of the systems in which s/he participates are what must be accounted for. We must embrace the fullness of the story because the depths from which we are redeemed is proportional to the measure of the glory of God, which as Christians we seek. We must mourn all parts and believe for transformation. I, too, claim my place among the privileged Christian minority. It is indicative of the systems in which I participate, even as I resist and seek to transform them.
Perhaps the unresolved tragedies of the past also open space to activate faith. Rivera states: “To be attentive to past encounters is to witness that foreclosure of an other and, perhaps, to mourn those possibilities that died. The burial rituals of many of these others — of those Native peoples, languages, cultures that are no more — have yet to be performed.”7 In this time, in the postcolonial aftermath, perhaps as Christians of the privileged minority, the way to reconcile our historical legacy with our spiritual purpose and authority and realize the reconciliation that exists in Jesus, is to mourn. A Lakota Sioux friend once told me, if a story is saturated with violence and brokenness and I no longer see my connection to others, “you should cry. Then drown in your tears and let Jesus resurrect you.”
Spiritual Authority, Mourning and Purpose
“Maybe when we [mourn], something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.”8
— Judith Butler
When I visit my friends in Juarez, Mexico, I believe our time together, our prayers and our worship are testimony of living faith in Jesus and our friendship manifests a greater reality than the violence that engulfs the city.9 This community I have worked with for years does not ask that I account for the historical and political relationship between the US and Mexico, many parts of which also led to the conflagration of drug violence that exists along the Border. However, I do not want the social reality of the groups I encounter to be merely a backdrop for the events being planned but rather part of the fabric of our communion and partnership and therefore something that can be changed and transformed as well. Something of the story must be connected for this to happen; Christian identity in the world must be reconciled in both historical legacy and spiritual authority. If mourning offers an authentic entry point to encountering the Other in the postcolonial aftermath as it concerns Christian mission, mourning might also enable Christians of the privileged minority to authentically carry our legacy of privilege, while standing definitively against the violence and injustice within it. Derrida describes, “The narrative is genealogical but it is not simply an act of memory. It bears witness, in the manner of an ethical or political act.”10 Mourning the violence and injustice of our own historical legacy bears witness to that violence and injustice; it must be part of the testimony of our lives as the privileged minority, if our lives are to be an authentic and authoritative witness in the world.
When learning about Brazilian struggles and the violence and poverty of the favelas, I was horrified by things like Candelaria11, where police shot into a group of sleeping homeless children on the steps of a Catholic cathedral to “combat crime” in Rio de Janeiro. I wanted to write a song but when I sat in prayer with the story of Candelaria, with the children of Candelaria, the only thing I could draw from within myself or from my faith was tremendous sorrow. I wrote a lament as it was the only possible way to enter the story; to carry the story. In mourning, too, I was received as fully present because I showed myself to be aware of the suffering realities of my friends.
In mourning, I stepped into a spiritual authority because in mourning I was connected with my deepest Christian purpose: relationship. In mourning I located myself in the same story and journey as my Brazilian friends. Locating oneself in the same story as the Other through mourning does not have to negate a legacy of privilege, but rather might bear witness to both injustice and hope in history. Mayra Rivera writes, “There is thus historical sin, but there is also historical goodness — historical grace.”12 Mourning finds/creates a single story and catalyzes/restores authentic identity through a process of becoming with the Other. Mourning becomes a prophetic act revealing the heart of God, like Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, and other ancient Israelite prophets who mourned injustice and devastation.
Locating oneself in the same story as the Other through mourning does not have to negate a legacy of privilege, but rather might bear witness to both injustice and hope in history.
Mourning can be a way of standing against injustice and crying out against it, even in protest. It is a nonviolent protest, siding with unrecognized victims. Jesus tells us we are not alone either, that God is active with us in comfort. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5.4 NIV13) The comfort God gives us is resistance against evil in the world. In the postcolonial aftermath, the practice of mourning and comfort, receiving comfort and being comfort in relationship, is a prophetic act of resistance to evil and restoration of cosmic balance, the Reign of God.14
Finally, we must remember that Christian mourning does not give way to despair. On the contrary, mourning steps into a promise of God in Jesus, that those who mourn will be comforted, will be given the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in a letter to the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”15 In this way, through mourning and receiving the Holy Spirit, Christians find the fullness of spiritual authority grounded in humility and the love of God. Christian mourning is an act of relationship, the fruit of which comes from transformational love and leads us to love, joy, and peace.
Mayra Rivera Rivera, the Touch of Transcendence, a Postcolonial Theology of God, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY 2007.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life, Verso Books: New York, NY, 2004.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1995.
Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor, Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY 2008.
The El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com/juarez
The Bible, New International Version
Michael Jackson, The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen: Portland, OR 2002.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, Online News Archive, “41.2 Million Forced to Flee.” http://www.nrc.no
Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace, Theology in a Ruptured World. Westminister John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2009.
Kwok Pui-Lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2005.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1999.
John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon, ed. Milbank, Pickstock, and Graham Ward, Routledge: New York, 2003.
Mayra Rivera Rivera, the Touch of Transcendence, a Postcolonial Theology of God, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY 2007. 129.
Whereas “colonialism” describes the physical expansion of, and occupation by, the colonial power centers, neocolonialism describes the economic and political practices of privileged nations leveraging power against other nations.
Mayra Rivera Rivera, the Touch of Transcendence, 101. I capitalize “O” in “Other” to reflect Rivera’s use of “Other,” which is at once a person as well as the locations of divine transcendence.
Thank you to Chris Heuertz, author and director of Word Made Flesh, for teaching me this term. “Majority world” is preferable to “developing world,” “third world,” “two-thirds world,” or “global south” and captures the disparate economic reality of the majority of people in the world, most of which can be found in formerly colonized countries, but whom also exist in the cities of the colonizing nations as immigrants or minority populations.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life, Verso Books: New York, NY, 2004, 23.
Jon Sobrino articulates different degrees of poverty beyond the materially poor. In No Salvation Outside the Poor, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008, he defines the dialectically poor, the consciously poor, the liberatively poor and the spiritually poor. 58 — 59.
Mayra Rivera Rivera, the Touch of Transcendence, 113.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life, Verso Books: New York, NY, 2004. 22.
The El Paso Times has created a page dedicated to Juarez since the war between two major cartels along the Border began in 2008, earning Juarez the title of “most violent city in the world” two years in a row. Since then, things have gotten worse by many accounts as the violence is no longer limited to those participating in the drug trade, or government officials trying to stop it. It has spilled into the general public, acts of terror to display power. The war flared, in part, because the U.S. economic recession weakened the border city. For more information see: http://www.elpasotimes.com/juarez
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1995, 35.
The Candelária massacre was an event in Rio de Janeiro, beside the Candelária Cathedral, on July 23, 1993.
Rivera, a Touch of Transcendence, 46.
The Bible, New International Version.
The “Reign of God” was the metaphor Jesus used to convey the order and character of God’s love.
The Bible, New International Version. Galatians 5:22-23.