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Political Theology, Justice, And The State – On The Background To The Course

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Last week on March 16 as part of PTT’s ongoing Syllabus Project we published the syllabus of Richard Davis’ course at Pacific Theological College in Fiji.  The following is the accompanying essay explaining the background and overall rationale for the course.

I teach at the Pacific Theological College, a regional ecumenical theological college based in Fiji. Each year I teach a course in our M.Th. program in the area of my specialization. In 2016 I chose to teach a course in Political Theology, the field in which I did my doctoral studies.

When designing my first course in political theology I began by jotting down the themes of political theology as they came to mind. The list included: theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth), historical periods (early Church, Reformation, Early Modern), ideologies (anarchism, liberalism, Marxism) and issues (civil religion, public reason, violence). I was then going to relate these people, periods and topics to the politics of the Pacific region. I soon realized that this approach was not going to work.

At the Pacific Theological College, we emphasize, among other things, contextual theology. For us that means doing theology in the Pacific for the Pacific peoples and churches. Defining the “Pacific” where I work is relatively easy, if limited to those nations where our member churches are from – spanning across the South Pacific from Papua New Guinea to Maohi Nui, and from Kiribati to Fiji. In the end, I had students in my class from Polynesia and Melanesia, specifically American Samoa, Fiji, Kiribati, and Vanuatu.

What does contextual political theology look like in the Pacific? Well it will be different from the mainstream political theology found in the West. Pacific nations are largely Christian, with Kiribati, for example, having church membership of more than 95%. And since the arrival of Christianity was relatively recently in the nineteenth century, there is no long tradition of Christian political thought.

Nevertheless, the politics of the Pacific is endlessly fascinating. The region’s islands have been colonized by at least five imperial powers (English, French, German, American, and Indonesian) from the nineteenth century until today. As colonial proxies, and then as independent nations, New Zealand and Australia also played a part in dominating the region. World War II had a large impact and during the Cold War, nuclear powers tested their nuclear weapons in the Pacific, out of sight of most of the world, and upsetting only a handful of relatively powerless people.

In the South Pacific there are democracies, a Monarchy, and but perhaps most fascinating is the Condominium that existed in Vanuatu, which as the New Hebrides was colonised simultaneously by both the British and the French. It is to the credit of the people of Vanuatu that they defeated not one, but two global empires in winning their independence in 1980.

Against this historical backdrop, my final approach to the course was to begin with the political issues of the Pacific and work back from there into how to link the Western tradition of political theology to the political realities of my students. The Western tradition remains important in the Pacific as most of the empires left legacies of neo-traditions which served their interests under colonial rule and which are now struggling to find a place in democracies.

In the end, the course outline followed the historical path of political change in the Pacific region. This begins in the pre-contact period, where we rely on anthropological sources for the earliest political formulations. These are not only of historical or anthropological interest; such cultural forms carry weight today in formal and informal politics and church life. The imperial period followed, and students were asked to consider arguments for and against empire. Decolonization and the formation of nationalism follow, with the formation of democracies.

Political involvement within Pacific democracies has often been led by prominent church figures who have entered politics, such as John Momis and Walter Lini. With the church still being an important place for genuine leadership opportunities in the Pacific, it remains a training ground for politics and place to gain a public profile. Finally, the course considers important issues in the Pacific, such as climate change. There are many more issues that could be covered, violence against women being an important one, but I cover that in another course.

Some of the difficulties faced in teaching this course in political theology were the lack of resources. Western sources are expensive, and have to be imported and in many cases do not apply to the non-liberal Pacific nations, where secularism and individualism fall under great suspicion. English, while the medium of instruction, is not the native language of any of my students.

The major assignment I set, to write a “mirror for princes” for one’s Pacific context, was a gamble. Would medieval political theology prove relevant enough to my students? An initial challenge was the lack of medieval political sources, but enough sources were eventually found online. In the end, the gamble paid off, with students combining well theological and cultural traditions as genre demands. One good thing about this assignment was that is it suited the virtues ethics approach of the students, whose cultures still favor leadership based on virtue.

The mirror for princes genre also cuts through foreign liberal culture, which assumes the good rule is assured by good law and structures of government, rather than requiring good people to make good laws. Nevertheless, the widespread corruption in the region’s political leadership shows that the region needs more virtuous good leaders if is to develop further. Another aspect of this is that the region’s activists and politicians often blame “empire” for the faults of the leaders, rather than looking at the virtues of their leaders, who often bring their communities and nations into disrepute. Often this criticism of the outsider can draw critical attention away from the importance of judging whether the indigenous rulers elected by the people are ruling in a virtuous fashion.

Will I do anything differently next time I teach this course? Undoubtedly, there will be more textual sources around next time, as well as changes in political realities. I would focus more on Christendom, as the Constantinian temptation is an article of faith in the Pacific. I would also like to add something on religious pluralism, as this is becoming an issue that Pacific nations will need to confront eventually, offering both religious and political challenges in the years ahead.

Richard A. Davis teaches theology and ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Fiji Islands. His research interests lie in political theology and Christian social ethics. He contributes regularly to the Politics of Scripture blog.

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