Photo by John H Harrington [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Protestors marching at the Indigenous People’s March on Jan 18, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Decolonization is not a metaphor, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang insist.1Evelyn Tuck. and Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1, no.1 (2012): 1-40. Carelessly calling to decolonize things like schools and other such institutions metaphorizes decolonization. To do so kills the very possibility of decolonization and re-centers whiteness. Instead, it is yet another form of settler appropriation. What would it mean then to decolonize something like theology – and Asian American theology at that? I want to suggest that decolonizing Asian American theology requires giving up the search for physical belonging, replacing it with a theology of landlessness, and to be in solidarity with indigenous struggles for sovereignty. 

To talk about decolonizing anything on Turtle Island, 2Turtle Island is the name used by many Native Americans to refer to North America, such as the Iroquois and Lenape. we have to start with settler colonialism. By settler colonialism, I mean the invasion of sovereign lands whereby the invaders come to stay, often characterized by genocide and nativism.3Patrick Wolfe. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. (New York: Cassell, 1999), 2. This is in contrast with, shall we say, extractive colonialism whereby the colonizer arrives to plunder and rape the land and its peoples in order to enrich the colonizer’s place of origin. This second kind of exploitative colonialism is the story of Europe in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands in the twentieth century, and in many cases the decolonization that followed was a violent, historical event. At least up until 1965, most Asians arrived in the US through US military and colonial interests in Asia. We are here because you were there, the saying goes. But we often forget, or worse, ignore the fact the US is a settler colony that sits atop of stolen land.

Image by ish ishwar [CC BY 2.0]
Linguistic areas of North American Indigenous People’s at the time of European contact

Our first task in decolonizing is to understand ourselves as settlers of color, as Hawaiian activist Haunani-Kay Trask calls Asians in Hawai’i. Trask implicates Asians who reject the label “haole” in favor of terms like “local” or “immigrant,” through which Asians tell a model minority fairytale of success, of overcoming hardship and exploitation and racism, while to Native people, Asian success is “but the latest elaboration of foreign hegemony.”4Trask, Haunani-Kay. “Settlers of Color and ‘Immigrant’ Hegemony: ‘Locals’ in Hawai’i.” Amerasia Journal 26, no. 2 (January 1, 2000): 2. Settlers are not immigrants. Immigrants have permission to enter and stay; settlers squat on land they pretend is uninhabited.

Asian American theology, by and large, is a theology of hybridity, marginality, and liminality. 5 See for examples: Jonathan Y. Tan, Introducing Asian American Theologies (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008); Sang Hyun Lee, From a Liminal Place: An Asian American Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010); Julius-Kei Kato Religious Language and Asian American Hybridity (New York: Springer, 2016.) It looks for the possibility of becoming settled in a place that has viewed Asians as perpetually foreign, of becoming comfortable in one’s own skin. In a sense, Asians in the US have always been looking for a home that was never there, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, to the 1935 Filipino Repatriation Act, to the 1942 Japanese internment, to the 2017 Muslim Ban (which is still in effect, by the way). The wrong kind of Asians have never been welcomed by the United States; the right kind, of course, being people like the CEO of Google or Microsoft. An Asian American theology of liberation, on the other hand, is a theology from the viewpoint of migrant, undocumented, refugee, and working-class Asians. Asians who fall below the poverty line or whose children struggle to stay in school. The dominance of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans in the popular Asian representation means that the rest of us are further marginalized, not to speak of the intersections of class, sex, and gender. Either way, Asian American theologies are by necessity landless theologies, for Asian America is a country that has no soil. But if we are to decolonize our theology, or properly liberate it, we cannot be hoping to settle on stolen land. That is to say, Asian American theology cannot become yet another form of settler theology.  

A black and white photo of Sikh men in suits and turbans on board the Komagata Maru
Photo by Leonard Juda Frank [public domain]
Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru
June 1914

For one, indigeneity and struggles for sovereignty are not foreign to Asians. For examples, Palestine, Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Hawai’i, and Mindanao are all fighting to be free. At the same time, decolonization in Asia has almost always led to the transfer of power from white to brown and yellow neo-colonial masters. The ongoing oppression and colonization of indigenous peoples and minority groups were made possible only by the collaboration of our own people. Narrow-minded nationalisms led to conflict and further bloodshed that the West conveniently washed their hands of as the new world order came into being. They divided and conquered us, and we continue to pay the price for being so divided.

The struggles of indigenous peoples everywhere are deeply connected, because water does not separate land, but instead joins it together. First Secretary of the Tanzanian High Commission Mbuto Milando said, “when Native peoples come into their own, on the basis of their own cultures and traditions, that will be the Fourth World.” 6Tony Hall, The American Empire and the Fourth World: The Bowl with One Spoon. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 238. We cannot support the freedom struggles in the Third World such as Hong Kong and Palestine without also fighting to dismantle of the settler colony that is the United States.

Photo of a rally organized by Students for a Free Tibet. People are holding signs that say Free Tibet and Tibet Is Not A Part of China
Photo by Medill DC [CC BY 2.0]
Protestors organized by Students For A Free Tibet hold up signs on January 11, 2011 during a march from the Chinese Embassy to Lafayette Park.

“Indian country” is a term used by the US military to refer to enemy or foreign territory. 7Tuck and Yang, 31. That is what they called Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The United States as an imperial force does to Asia what it does to Turtle Island as settler colony. Indeed, the counterinsurgency tactics used in Iraq were deployed against water protectors in Standing Rock and Black activists in Ferguson. If we were to truly attempt to decolonize, we would be called terrorists. The US has been in a state of perpetual war from the very beginning: against Native Americans, Africans, and all over the Third World. To set ourselves against imperial violence in North America, we must continuously hold in view the ongoing war—and resistance—that began here over five hundred years ago. If the military views all these disparate geographies as ‘Indian country,’ how dare we not see our struggles as interconnected?

In articulating a Palestinian liberation theology, Palestinian theologian Naim Ateek turns to the historical Jesus who lived in Rome-occupied Palestine as the hermeneutic key to connect with the present-day Israel-occupied Palestine. 8 Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989). Ateek reads the metaphor of Jesus as the Temple as signaling a move away from an attachment to the land of Palestine, Jerusalem, and the Temple, which itself was destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman military. 9Naim Stifan Ateek, “A Palestinian Perspective: Biblical Perspectives on the Land,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the World, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015) pp.227-234 This, however, does not relieve the land of its holiness but, through the immanence of the Messiah, reminds us that all land is sacred and we must live in right relation to it. A proper theology of land that calls for the liberation of occupied lands such as Palestine directly conflicts with settler theologies such as Christian Zionism in the United States that justifies the taking of that land. And if the connection weren’t clear enough, Trump’s border wall along the US-Mexico border — which is Native land — is being built in part by an Israeli-owned defense manufacturer. So even if we didn’t think our struggles were connected, the capitalists sure know that these business opportunities are.

A woman is holding a sign that says "6 Million Palestinian Refugees Cannot Return To Their Homes." This photo was taken during the Passover demonstration on April 11, 2006 in downtown Boston
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh [CC BY 2.0]
Woman holds a sign during the Passover demonstration on April 11, 2006 in downtown Boston

To unsettle Asian American theology is to accept our landlessness here as we fight for Indigenous sovereignty everywhere. Decolonizing the Americas means all land is repatriated and all settlers become landless, Tuck and Yang write. 10Tuck and Yang, 27. As various Indigenous activists and scholars will argue, this does not mean that all non-Native persons are repatriated to their ancestral lands, but rather that the First Nations will be sovereign and settlers will live in a new relation to the land and to their hosts. 11Ray Aldred. “First Nations and Newcomers: Treaty,” in Strangers in This World: Multireligious Reflections on Immigration, eds. Hussam S. Timani, Allen G. Jorgenson, and Alexander Y. Hwang (Minneapolis: Fortress Publishers, 2015), 193–206. In practice, this means not only fighting for the rights of Indigenous communities such as in Standing Rock and honoring the treaties that continue to be broken, but it also requires the resurgence of Indigenous peoples and the return of stolen land. 

This is not a theoretical exercise. Many small but significant instances of land return have been initiated such as the nonprofit groups Planting Justice and the women-led Sogorea Tè Land Trust which, in 2018, facilitated the return of a quarter-acre of Ohlone land in East Oakland, California to Ohlone stewardship. One and a half acres of land was returned to the Nimíipuu by the Wallowa Lake Camp in Oregon, facilitated in part by the United Methodist Church. While symbolic and important, we must put this in the perspective that the coalition of American Indian and First Nation organizations, which participated in the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan protest to Washington, DC, included in their demands that the United States Federal Government restore a permanent Native American land area of no less than 110 million acres by July 4, 1976. What does this mean for Asians whose home ownership rates in the last decade were second only to Whites? (See Table 22 here). As we strive to build a coalitional politics through Asian American organizing and with other people of color, there will be an incommensurability to decolonizing our theology as irreducible differences arise in the process of struggling together if, for example, advocating for civil rights only means inclusion into the settler state. To unsettle ourselves requires us to give up our immigrant identity as a purely virtuous one, and risk a coalitional politics that is sometimes unfriendly as we reckon with Asian settler colonialism.

People of people holding a banner reading Trail of Broken Treaties 30th Anniversary 1972-2002, 20 point Indian Manifesto
Photo by Elvert Barnes [CC BY 2.0]
Taken Oct 12, 2002

Such unsettling can be violent as well. Those who prefer the metaphor must remember that “decolonization is always a violent event,” as Martiniquais psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon began in The Wretched of the Earth. There is no way the land will be given back, the prison system abolished, and the military disarmed without a fight. Fanon continues:

In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.12Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. (New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007), 3.

Now turn to Psalm 137. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? Under the captivity of Babylon, the psalmist concludes: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” If we Christians prefer to skip over the cursing Psalms, perhaps it is because we simply have not suffered the same. To begin to decolonize Asian America requires that we hold the complexity of being both oppressed and oppressor, victims of racial discrimination and still complicit in systems of domination. Psalm 137 is both directed by us and against us. Trask puts the challenge to settlers of color thus:

Non-Natives need to examine and re-examine their many and continuing benefits from Hawaiian dispossession.  Those benefits do not end when non-Natives begin supporting Hawaiians, just as our dispossession as Natives does not end when we become active nationalists. Equations of Native exploitation and of settler benefit continue. For non-Natives, the question that needs to be answered every day is simply the one posed in the old union song, “which side are you on?”13Trask, Haunani-Kay. “Settlers of Color and ‘Immigrant’ Hegemony: ‘Locals’ in Hawai’i.” Amerasia Journal 26, no. 2 (January 1, 2000): 21.

Blessed are the wretched, for they shall inherit the earth.

Take action: If you are asking yourself, if decolonization is not just a metaphor, what can I do? Here is one place to start: As a first step in building an Asian American theology of liberation today, we are organizing to call for churches to incorporate land acknowledgments into the life of the church such as in services, meetings, and events. For a primer on the what, why, and how of land acknowledgments, have a look here or here. Help us make this happen! 

  • Wong Tian An is a Malaysian, and mathematician by trade. They are writing a book on an Asian American theology of liberation.