Re-Membering and Connecting: Decolonizing Theology Through Storytelling

by Kaio Thompson

Boston was never on the radar. After completing a Master’s degree in New York City,  the plan was to return to the Samoan islands and await a job in parish ministry. It wasn’t until a chance meeting with Professor Jonathan Calvillo at AAR in 2016 that I began thinking of furthering my academic career at the School of Theology. Eventually, the decision was made to move from New York City to Boston to continue my grad school education. Some people often ask: Why Boston? How could you pass up being back home on an island for Boston? Though I am deeply inspired by and admire my STH community, I chose Boston not for its warmhearted culture and people (sorry Bostonians, but it’s true); not for the cost-effective living arrangements; and most definitely not for the weather. Rather, I wanted to immerse myself in an academic culture and environment that would give a listen to a Samoan theologian. And it was not because I needed some kind of affirmation. On the contrary, I thought of developed countries like America, and cities like Boston that seldom pay attention to the stories of the people and cultures outside of their institutional walls and national borders. I wanted to be a storyteller in this setting–in Boston. And quite honestly, the story of my people hasn’t always been an easy one to tell.

Maori scholar/historian Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal work Decolonizing Methodologies started the conversation years ago of retelling our stories through our own eyes and language. Smith was one of the pioneering scholars to challenge western methods of research in the Pacific. She is well known for her candid writing:

“It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that it is possible to know of us, on the basis of their brief encounters with some of us. It appalls us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations.”[1]

Furthermore, Smith introduced 25 indigenous projects that were initiated within indigenous communities. Two of those projects entitled Remembering and Connecting are mentioned here. First, “the remembering of a people relates not so much to an idealized remembering of a golden past but more specifically to the remembering of a painful past, re-membering in terms of connecting bodies with place and experience, and, importantly, people’s responses to that pain.”[2] Theological discourse in the Pacific is often reluctant to re-visit the painful past and traumatic memories of the colonial era. Colonial trauma is often gleaned over and rarely given due attention because of Pacific peoples’ eagerness to move forward. In short, it’s much easier to not process and continue functioning as if it never happened than to process and risk being dysfunctional. For many years, colonialism was something Pacific communities deliberately avoided, fearing that that history may conjure up painful memories of exclusion and shame. Today, however, many are revisiting and assessing the impacts of western ideology and the trauma of colonial conquest. Communities across the Pacific are participating in a “collective remembering” of their one-time colonizer history. Indigenous people are reclaiming their histories through their painful, but essentially valuable stories that are a way of remembering who they were before and during colonialism, and who they seek to be today (re-membering).

Smith’s second project emphasized the importance of connecting. According to Smith, “connectedness positions individuals in sets of relationships with other people and with the environment. Many indigenous creation stories link people through genealogy to the land, to stars and other places in the universe, to birds and fish, animals, insects and plants.”[3] The Colonial God of Christianity took these stories from us, and replaced them with new one’s interpreted by them as they saw necessary. I continue to wrestle with colonialism as a clergy member, theologian, and activist. I find myself constantly asking how the Christian God and the Bible we encountered on the shores of Samoa – the one that spoke of love and community, the same one saturated with the blood of indigenous people – could still be a liberating Word for indigenous people given the history of colonialist and missionaries, some who called themselves “Messengers of Peace?”[4] I and other indigenous people around the world  believe that the truth of the Gospel tells a story similar to indigenous struggles for freedom and liberation like that of Pacific peoples. It is a story empowered by a people who shout with resilience –- as James Cone shouted – “suffering does not have the last say.” It’s a story of utter defeat (Cross as Colonialism) that turns to victory (Resurrection as Re-membering/Connecting) through Christ.

This is also the challenge for pastors and theologians if our aim is to interpret the Christian message truthfully. If our theologies do not re-member the strangers, foreigners, neighbors and islanders who were cast out by colonial ideologies–what good are they? If our theologies are dismembering rather than connecting and encouraging relational bonds with each other and the natural world – what good are they? Today, some Pacific theologians believe that if the truth of Christianity is to be the central motif of our faith then emphasis should be on the community rather than theories or doctrines shaped by faraway places (western culture). And yet, here I am, in a faraway place, studying in a faraway institution. But I am here as a community, as a village, and collectively as a “sea of islands” on the vast-great Moana (Pacific Ocean). Because these faraway places are hurting the earth, robbing her of her resources, and endangering the ecosystems of the Moana, I’m here to tell our story from the Pacific perspective and to hopefully create in community theologies that decolonize and liberate God’s people and the suffering earth. I am thankful that the community of STH has listened to mine and the stories of Pacific people in my short time here. All of you have done so with great love and understanding. I know you hear me – and I hear you too. Peace and Soifua!

            [1] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies (New York: University of Otago Press, 1999), 1.

[2] Smith, 147.

            [3] Smith, 149.

[4] Name of the first London Missionary Society ship to arrive in Samoa in 1830 led by John Williams.

Kaio Thompson is an STM student from American Samoa, and Los Angeles, California. An activist by nature, his work focuses on the intersections of Theology, Ethics, Ecology, and Post-Colonial studies through a Social Justice oriented lens of interpretation. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three daughters and is also a clergyman of the Congregational Church of American Samoa.

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