Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World

Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World, Mark G. Brett, Eerdmans, 2016.

A mild disclaimer to start. Mark Brett is one of my closest friends, but as good friends we are able to disagree without loss of that friendship. He is also, according to Old Testament (O.T.) scholar Walter Houston, about the most sensible O.T. scholar alive. Hence I had high expectations of this book. They were not disappointed.

The book comes from a beautiful blending of Mark’s experience working for Native Title Services Victoria, his O.T. expertise, and a specialty in postcolonialism. To some the latter may sound overly specialised, but if we think for a moment we should realise that everywhere in the West, and just about anywhere, is postcolonial. Postcolonialism, is one of the most pervasive realities on the planet. And Mark is particularly well equipped intellectually and practically to engage with it.

The book’s structure is tripartite. Section 1 is on ‘The Ethics of Conversation’, bouncing off Habermas’s dialogical ethics, which Brett neatly places in a context of post-Nazi trauma. This last great Enlightenment thinker has, however, since 9/11, become increasingly open to the possibility and even necessity of dialogue between secular and religious thinkers. However, Mark critiques Habermas for not taking indigenous cultures as seriously as he is now taking religions.

The second chapter seeks a thicker, more substantial and less abstract mathematical notion of justice, going beyond utilitarian and distributivist notions of equalitarian justice towards a more reconciliatory and restorative view, necessary for a traumatised world, especially its indigenous, colonised, populations.

Ch. 3 engages postmodern hermeneutical or interpretive controversies concerning authorial intention, biblical unity and diversity, meaning and significance. Brett deals charitably but critically with Evangelical theologian and hermeneutics specialist Kevin Vanhoozer. A shorthand summary of his critique is that Vanhoozer underestimates both the diversity of Scripture and of the contemporary world and hence the complexity of the task of bringing them together in contemporary public debate.

Mark finds a ‘major difficulty’ in Vanhoozer’s neglect of  the ‘middle term’ in biblical reasoning between the individual author or authors and the completed canon – the tradition complexes such as the Deuteronomist and Priestly ones – ‘and moves directly from citations of particular verses to an overarching biblical metanarrative’. (p.70). This neglects the ‘historically extended, socially embodied argument’ (Alasdair MacIntyre) aspect of a tradition, including scriptural tradition(s).

Brett draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of a ‘social imaginary’ which underpins ‘how people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others’, social expectations ‘and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations’ (p.71). He argues that the Deuteronomistic and Priestly traditions see themselves as divinely revealed forms of conversation ‘that provide their community with a shared sense of legitimacy and character’.

Part Two shows how these social imaginaries have different understandings of divine sovereignty and covenant theology, sometimes contested by prophetic and wisdom traditions.

Brett argues against Vanhoozer’s subsuming these under one biblical metanarrative or worldview or interpretive lens or frame ‘for the national [Israel-centred] imaginary in Deuteronomy, the multi-cultural vision in Genesis, and the relative indifference to Israel’s covenants in Job. He argues that reducing this diversity to one worldview ‘impoverishes the potential contributions of the distinctive biblical traditions to political theology today’. (p.72)

Mark Brett is upfront about his own preference against the Deuteronomistic nationalist tradition that, despite tensions within it, leads us from the ban on outsiders in parts of Joshua to the ban or divorcing of non-Jewish wives in Ezra-Nehemiah in the Persian period and the building of a Trump-like wall to keep the Mexicans out – my analogy not Mark’s. Brett sees analogies to this separatist, nationalist approach in some modern communitarian, alternative society theologies. But to me, there are differences when it’s a disempowered group trying to re-establish (e.g. an exclusively Babylonian exile-based) identity and security by separation or building the wall.

For Brett, this is different to full-blown settler colonialism of the modern era in Australia etc. but it provided texts and ideological support for much of it, especially the papal doctrine of discovery entitling colonial takeover of unused or pagan occupied land. ‘When the “doctrine of discovery” reached the colony of NSW, it was after a long and tortuous relay race run by Christian princes and secular lawyers, each with their own interests at heart. Any plausible invocation of biblical norms today would need to take account of the fate of the national imaginary after the Babylonian exile, and also of the quite different theological imagination emerging from the Priestly and wisdom writers’ (p.90).

Ch. 5 addresses ‘Sovereignty in the Priestly tradition’ as part of Brett’s search for a more contemporary secular public theology. The life setting and exploration of a more hospitable yet Holiness-based post-exilic approach in the Priestly tradition which ‘struggled with the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BCE, … forced migration and … life in a province of the Persian Empire’ is more analogous and applicable to our current setting without Christian privileges (p.91).

Some of this chapter is quite densely scholarly in its explanation of the various strains of the priestly tradition. There is no doubt of the depth of Brett’s learning but perhaps more of it could have stayed under the waterline for the non-Old Testament specialist. The main point though is that the more universal, creation-based Holiness code opens up more opportunities for connection with the wider world outside Israel. For example, Ex 12:49 (// Lev 24:22) states its principle of equity ‘you shall have one law for the stranger and for the native.’ ‘Even circumcision can be seen as a mechanism of social inclusion and racial inclusion using ‘permeable social boundaries … without compromise to core religious identity’ (p.108-9).

Brett concludes that ‘the Priestly tradition constitutes a remarkable case of healing following the traumatic loss of political sovereignty. Displacing the national imaginary in favour of a counter-imperial imaginary, it exchanges political hegemony for a divinely given identity [all humans as God’s image] … free to engage with strangers in the same social space’ (p. 109).

Ch. 6 sees Isaiah’s prophetic tradition moving from ‘a critique of Judah’s kings in Isaiah 1-39 to a conception of divine empire in Isaiah 40-66 that is substantially aligned with the Priestly conception of sovereignty’. The priority of integrating divine and human justice is used to critique both cultic and kingly institutions incisively (p.110, 124-6). Together this shared imaginary ‘pointed more towards the possibilities for reconciliation than towards confrontational postures or theocratic states’ (p. 127). ‘Instead of [priestly] turning to the Mosaic past for authority, Isaiah interweaves visions of the future, but the two streams of tradition … share a counter-imperial imaginary that contests the authority of all other empires. Isaiah 56-66 looks ultimately to divine initiative for the consummation of a just society, but within that society the human practice of justice remains fundamental , including the protection of natives and strangers alike’ (p. 126). To me, this divine-human priority but integration is maintained also in 2 Peter 3’s ‘waiting for and hastening the coming of the new heavens and new earth’ by living lives of both godliness and justice, contrary to those today who prioritise personal righteousness at the expense of social justice (Christian Right) or visa versa (Christian Left).

Ch. 7 on ‘Alternatives to the National tradition in Job’ is one of the most accessible. Job builds on priestly theology, but ‘this wise foreigner raises significant questions about divine power and justice … left hanging in Priestly texts’ (p.127). Brett builds great connections between Job and the disproportionate (beyond all utiiitarian calculation, p. 136) suffering of the children of exile in Chronicles and Ezekiel, recognizing that children should not be punished for parental sins. Further, he convincingly links Job 38’s provocative cosmic questions and the answers of Proverbs 8 in ways that have continuing earthly and ecological significance in our search for both the Creator and creation’s wisdom – ‘speak to the earth’ Job 12:8 exhorts (pp. 134-5). Further,’ the personal in Job [38:2, 48] is the political in Isaiah’ [ 40:2, 21-3, 27-8, p. 138]. Brett’s biblical discernment reveals helpful inter textual conversations, seeing Isaiah 40’s claim to ‘a consistency in divine dealings with nature and nations. Despite appearances, both Job and Isaiah assert that ‘God does not fall asleep on the job’ (139).

Jumping ahead, Brett shows how an overly rigid notion of natural law and utilitarian consequence in the rise of overly rationalistic modern science and economics on the shoulders of a too tight natural theology makes it too easy to blame the poor’s personal habits for their plight, not social injustice. It also ignores indigenous insights into the natural world, much needed in our chronic ecological crises.

The third section, ‘Engaging the Present’, takes up these questions in full and rich ways which space does not allow me to do justice to. Nonetheless, in Ch. 8 on ‘Reconciliation and National Sovereignties’, we see Brett’s experience in indigenous land rights issues, his postcolonial expertise, and biblical justice advocacy excel. He commends a particularly a priestly kenotic ethic of self-emptying and sacrifice of sovereignty for beneficiaries of colonialism. Brett notes the misuse of the Exodus and conquest texts by colonial powers, yet notes how they can still inspire resistance by those suffering ongoing colonisation (p.160). Like the beauty queen on SBS’s First Contact who patronisingly preached to indigenous Australians about forgiving us for their loss of land, ‘coercive reconciliation … is simply another kind of abuse’. Citing Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, embrace affirms the integrity and mutuality of persons in relationship, not a smothering ‘ruse for assimilation’ (p.162).

Ch. 9 addresses refugee and rights issues. From a richly demonstrated base in international human rights law Brett charts a radical middle way between right-wing absolutisation of borders from a selective biblical perspective linked to a similarly selective and dangerously decontextualized reading of Romans 13 and Christian cosmopolitan arguments for a borderless world operating on a philosophical but often politically impractical plane. Decisively Brett states that ‘a relative indifference to land, borders, and Indigenous sovereignty is part of the historical problem, and … a globalized cosmopolitanism resurrects a colonial logic’ (p. 165).

Brett rightly reminds us of the neglected biblical roots of human rights, both from secular and sadly and surprisingly from Christians, many of whom spearheaded the tragic loss of a National Human Rights and Responsibilities Charter. ‘As it has done for centuries the Bible still inspires religious motivations to support the common good, including the protection of inherent rights … secured by a universal theology of creation. This is not the only approach to human rights … but in recent years, the Christian commitment to human rights has often been much thinner than it ought to have been’ (p. 178). Regardless of the problems of rights inflation, and of asylum seeker documentation, Christian practice should lean to the side of hospitality to asylum seekers.

The final two chapters address ecological and economic issues respectively. On the first Brett draws on his Genesis commentary, priestly traditions referring to the earth vomiting out its human occupants, Israelites and non, and prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah, as forms of critiquing anthropocentrism. Brett advocates new institutions for evaluating ecological initiatives, and again, following the Priestly authors of Genesis 1, prioritising the Creator Elohim, not the covenant Lord God Yhwh, in ‘broadly based inter-faith collaborations’ (p.193).

Given that the majority world is also the source of the majority of Christians, yet the least resourced, interlinking Christian practices and resources is a critical form of global or Catholic ecological and economic action. The final chapter on ‘Economics and Redemption’ avoids the usual traps of simplistic decontextualized texts used to endorse both Left and Right economic programs. Brett pithily sketches biblical economic ideals ‘which move between a domestic agrarian utopia in which each family has their own “vine and fig tree” and the counter-imperial vision in Isaiah 60 that has the wealth of nations arriving in Jerusalem’ not the Persian capital. ‘Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum lies the pragmatic suggestion within a national imaginary, … in 1 Samuel 8, that landowners might consent to providing a native king with provisions and resources in exchange for protection and social order’ (p.196).

Brett critiques the separation of neo-classical economics from biblical ethics and distinguishes policy values from wholesale identification with economic theories. He draws on Catholic economist Albino Barrera’s proposals for limiting the damage to majority world agricultural exporters due to crippling OECD protectionism. Barrera draws on international human rights standards to protect people from economic coercion leading to, for example, the savage Sophie’s Choice of starvation or sending your daughter into prostitution to support the family (p.201). Barrera also highlights the way cheap imports fail to reflect the real social and ecological costs of production in their country of origin.

Brett draws on Stephen Long to show how a theological doctrine like original sin can be used to justify a free market for Michael Novak or a strong state by Ronald Preston. Discernment, empirical detail and attention to local context are required before drawing too direct a line from biblical or theological principle to public policy. Drawing on Gutierrez, the father of Liberation Theology, Mark sagely uses his levels of liberation –political, historical, and spiritual. For Brett, ‘Public theology necessarily sits at the intersection of sacred and secular discourse without collapsing into either’ (p. 204).

This is shown in how he creatively links a biblical theology of shalom or wellbeing with the capacities based economics and human development approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Brett argues for local, familial and friendship-based approaches towards economic redemption from a perspective of human finitude, not utopian economic engineering of either Left or Right.

In sum, this book is full of riches. Don’t let the heavier digging involved in some of the more specialised aspects of the priestly tradition put you off enjoying the creative conversations Brett brings these texts into with the prophets and wisdom traditions in the search for a more humble, hospitable secular theology. This brilliant book incites a biblically hybrid social imaginary for us to address pressing public issues and political traumas crying out for healing today.


Revd Dr Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and Interim Director of The Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP), University of Divinity.