In his iconic book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers, professor of transformational development at Fuller Theological Seminary, tells a story of a time when he was sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari Desert. In response to hearing the news that the Son of God had died for her sins, he heard an indigenous San woman say that she could believe God would let his Son die for a white person and that perhaps she could believe that God may even let his Son die for a black person. But she could never accept that God would let his Son die for a San.
She is convinced Jesus would die for a white Westerner and even a black African, but not for an indigenous San. In essence, she is articulating a belief that white people are most worthy of salvation, blacks somewhere below that, and San utterly unworthy. Her words show how she understands her core identity: less than human.
Why is this?
How does this deepest level of poverty that penetrates into the core of a person’s identity get lodged there?
We know that colonization causes systemic ruptures in indigenous societies. The settling of the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch, followed by the British, and later governed by the apartheid system, colonized millions of people.
But colonization doesn’t end at the level of physicality.
Its control goes beyond the body. The final frontier of the colonial project is the colonization of consciousness. Its aim is to convince people to no longer believe that they’re people anymore (check out this short clip from the late theologian Richard Twiss)
This final stage of colonization happens when oppression is internalized. That is precisely what we hear in the San woman’s words at the campfire, her and her people having internalized the message of being subhuman, one that originally came from the European colonialists and carried forward by the apartheid government, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.
The legacy of white, Western supremacy is alive, in South Africa, in the United States, everywhere the shadow of colonialism has made its way into body and psyche, robbing dignity and crushing the image of God.
And this has everything to do with us, mission-minded North Americans who cross boundaries of geography and culture to in the hope of doing good. It is essential, if we are to engage in ways that smell of the gospel, that we become aware of the colonial forces that have shaped the people we serve, wherever that is, down the street or across the ocean, and intentionally engage in ways that restore dignity.
In the next post, we’ll look more at these themes of shame, colonization, and how we can respond today.