Dr. Cristina Lledo Gomez is a systematic theologian and the Presentation Sisters Lecturer for BBI-The Australian Institute of Theological Education. She is also a Religion and Society Research Fellow for Charles Sturt University’s Public and Contextual Theology Centre. She is the author of Church as Woman and Mother: Historical and Theological Foundations (2018) and the recipient of the Catherine Mowry Lacugna Award (2020) for her essay “Mother Language, Mother Church, Mother Earth.”
I recently met a Lakota man who simply calls himself “Johnny.” He is part of the Indigenous peoples of what is known as the North and South Dakota lands of the United States of America. This past June, I saw Johnny at a conference surrounding the theme of “Decolonizing Churches.” Johnny thought it was a curious title for a conference, given the central role of churches as colonizers—destroying systems and structures of Indigenous peoples all over the world; demonizing their belief systems; bringing shame to their spiritualities, bodies, ways of healing and interacting; taking their children from them; preventing them from using their language and clothing; torturing or killing them; “civilizing” them by putting them in European clothing and educating them in “civilized” European ways; destroying Indigenous culture by encouraging interracial marriages—all in the name of Jesus. At the end of the day, Johnny was perplexed at how the colonizer could even attempt to “decolonize” themselves. In other words, how could the perpetrator take charge, as well as be the mediator and judge, of learning how to no longer perpetrate when this is what they have done for centuries? Johnny could not believe the church could really un-learn how to be the colonizer.
In the end, Johnny determined a better title for the conference: “Learning How Not to Dominate.” To an extent, I agree with him. I think using the word “colonialism” can dilute its dangerous reality. Explicitly defining “decolonizing” as “how not to dominate” is a good way to remind everyone that while there may no longer be white European explorers taking over lands lived on by Indigenous peoples, the colonizing mentality endures through the ways people dominate, are dominated, accept domination, or remain silent as others are dominated. This has been the norm many people have become accustomed to, and old habits die hard.
The Berkley Center’s Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda project is one way to address the problem of colonialism in our societies. It is a chance to learn a different way of engaging with others, one that does not seek to dominate over others. Instead, it seeks practices opposite to a colonialist approach, including walking alongside others, having mutual respect, learning from others, prioritizing listening over speaking, and not assuming you know better or more than others—all practices that create the sorely-needed relationships of safety, trust, collaboration, mutuality, and empowerment. From my perspective, the participants of the Berkley Center’s “Culture of Encounter: An Imperative for a Divided World” conference in Rome in May 2022 did indeed seek to follow these principles without having been told these rules of engagement. Even before meeting each other in person, through our conversations online and through reading each other’s writings, we had already begun these anti-colonial practices.
But, old habits die hard. Colonialism persists even if in principle all of the Culture of Encounter participants, without question, would completely abhor the idea and readily denounce it in public. I think in some circles, a variety of people believe colonization, colonialism, and colonial mentality are past realities. The fact that #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and gender and racial diversity officers exist at all tells us otherwise. As you can see, I have tied colonialism to racism and sexism since these are the most obvious ways in which the domination of one group has kept another group of people marginalized, oppressed, discriminated, controlled, and even murdered. But there are many other ways people dominate and destroy each other, intentionally and unintentionally.
So, what are the ways in which colonialism can persist and appear even among a group of highly intelligent, widely experienced, well-meaning academics, activists, and community leaders? For a start, Eurocentrism found its way into our encounters. At a public discussion panel that was meant to be about addressing a global agenda, we found a Eurocentric view determined the main issues to be addressed and the ways in which they were to be addressed. The direction of this discussion might have continued as such if not for a participant from a non-Eurocentric background who suggested the possibility of equally pressing issues from other parts of the world. This, in turn, encouraged more persons in the room, also disturbed by the Eurocentric discussion, to suggest a list of concerns that certainly fit under a panel meant to address a “global agenda.”
But when one is used to being at the center, it is very difficult to go to the margins. Thus, there are many ways the White/European/Western view might either justify remaining at the center or find a way to reinsert itself into the center. Likewise, those in the margins might feel the center too unfamiliar or that it requires too much hard emotional work. Thus, they might return to the margins, even when they know it is no longer right to be there. Unless all of us, both those from Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric backgrounds, Western and non-Western backgrounds, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, white and people of color, are prepared to pause and reflect on the pervasiveness of colonialism; on the ways in which it rears its head in new or insidious forms; on the ways in which our own thinking and behavior have been colonized such that we are used to seeing Western/European/White, patriarchal, middle class, heteronormative ways as the norm and measure for other ways of thinking and behaving, then the idea of creating a “culture of encounter” remains simply that—a beautiful idea that might appear impressive on a project website, on a papal document, in an academic journal article, but not really ever an actual possibility, especially when we finally meet each other in person, are in each other’s spaces, in each other’s faces, and interacting with our diverse baggage, quirks, and personalities.
One way to address this Eurocentric/Western/White, patriarchal, middle class, heteronormative problem is to diversify—to include voices from people of various continents, ages, backgrounds, specialties, and identities, to ensure they too are present at tables of discussions and decision making. This is definitely a start. But this is also definitely not enough. Thinking through and executing ways in which we might no longer dominate over others, regardless of race, nation, age, sex, sexuality, or other background or grouping is a process. If done well, it will take a toll on us all emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. It will also remain a never-ending process. Like the reign of God, it is an ideal we envision and seek to make present in this world. While we might only ever hope to experience it in its fullness when we meet our Maker, we should not be discouraged in seeking to build in this world a culture that is less about colonialism and domination and more about encounters of respect, mutuality, safety, trustworthiness, and empowerment. Maybe then, just maybe, Indigenous peoples like Johnny might be able to imagine the possibility that people who are used to being in the center are willing to share that center—or even better—are willing to go to the margins so that there might be more room for his and other marginalized people, those who have never known what it means to be heard, to be considered important enough, to truly be considered fully human and of intrinsic value. Maybe, just maybe, building cultures of encounter is our way out of our old habits of colonizing and being colonized.