Political Trauma and Healing

Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World

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Mark G. Brett
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , June
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his book Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World, Mark Brett, professor of Old Testament at Whitley College, demonstrates the agility necessary bring the three disciplines together. Brett’s thinking is as deep as it is wide, and it shows in how he masterfully ties these disciplines together.

Building on his previous work, Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), Brett focuses on the ways that tradition and scripture were and are used to oppress indigenous people. This is a constructive attempt searching to give real voice to some of these ongoing challenges. 

There are three main sections of Political Trauma and Healing. The first section argues against using secular theology that builds from the Habermasian framework, since it is inadequate to face the real and persistent challenges of postcolonialism. The inadequacies built into this approach leave aside ongoing and present injustices. Instead of using Habermas’s discourse ethics to emphasize procedural systems that build conventions and/or norm creation, Brett proposes thicker conceptions of Christian practices that can confront these challenges more holistically. One includes the practice of kenosis,or self-emptying, and relinquishing the power that persists in relationships between the colonizer and the colonized (5). Brett writes, “Communities of faith need to summon the courage of our kenotic convictions: repenting of unsustainable levels of consumption, shifting resources to where they are needed, and expanding our networks of communion” (34). After engaging with Habermas, Brett offers a guide into the question of how to read scripture. Here he uses Kevin Vanhoozer as a comparative model, and argues, contra Vanhoozer, that there is no single metanarrative in the Bible, but rather plural narratives that run throughout. Moving away from the single narrative is an exercise in stripping the imperial thrust away from biblical exegesis. If we see the biblical witness as biblical witnesses, it may serve us better in confronting the many ways that colonialism damaged those under its foot. 

Section 2 of the book builds from the end of the first, and incorporates the Hebrew scriptures and “social imaginaries.” Here Brett lays out different approaches. First, the book of Deuteronomy deals with how better to welcome the stranger, and the ethics of immigration and exit. Under a separate set of power relations and structures, one where the Hebrew people are now the minority population under Persian rule, the priestly tradition advances an ethic and concern of how minority voices can be heard and valued in politics. And the author of Job’s profound theology of creation spills into his voice and concern for the most marginalized. 

Section 3 of the work combines both the thick understanding of restorative justices in part 1 with exegetical work in part 2. These questions are: reconciliation, migration, and a combined concern with ecology and economics. The public theology addressed in each section is foundationally supported from work in the previous sections. With the question of reconciliation, Brett shows how the Hebrew scriptures can be used in ways that support multiple social imaginaries and postcolonial narratives. Tackling migration, Brett uses the book of Job to engage questions of hospitality, sovereignty, and borders. Logically combining ecological and economic questions of justice together, Brett posits that the One engages the question of ecological and economic problems. Brett combines the three different biblical themes to develop his ethic of restoration. He uses the “Joban critique of anthrocentrism” (193), along with the Genesis understanding of creation care, and finally the prophetic traditions’ emphasis on redemption, as biblical sources for some of the answers Christians seek when discussing the question of climate change and environmental degradation. 

This book is a notable example of how Christians and Christian sources not only engage with the postcolonial world, but offer a way of using scripture to treat and inspect relevant issues within post-Christian contexts. It takes seriously how we could better see the active agent in the pages of scripture, one that is revelatory and ongoing, yet confronts us differently in our various contexts. The challenge for any communitarian approach akin to the one that Brett offers is that the building of thick institutions and practices often leads to exclusive claims. This may be the inverse of the thin conventions of procedural imperialism. In any case, the power sewn up in one is different than that of the other. Would the thick Christian community that Brett envisions take seriously the demands of universalism? What are the solid resources that would lead to a thick Christian community immersing itself deeper in the world? In the spirit of the book’s interdisciplinary agenda, how does Brett, or Christian ethicists more broadly, evaluate the social scientific tension between the human impact on the climate with some of the real benefits of the global market? 

Those queries aside, this is a serious and ambitious work. I recommend it for seminarians, church groups, pastors, and others who are looking for an interdisciplinary work that gives us a tangible example of how Christian and biblical resources can continue to speak to the issues of the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kyle Trowbridge is a graduate student in Theology at Christian Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark G. Brett is professor of Old Testament at Whitley College, University of Divinity, Melbourne. He is also the author of Decolonizing God: The Bible in theTides of Empire and Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity.



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