Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Decolonization and Tribal Theology


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Book review by Glenn C. Kharkongor

This slim but significant volume emerged from a series of formal and informal discussions at Bethesda Khankho Institute in Churachandpur, Manipur, India. The institute has wide links with organisations and scholars in the region and abroad, and describes itself as a centre for integrated studies in indigenous knowledge. Very simply put, “Khankho” is a Kuki worldview of goodness and celebration, with spiritual undertones.

Led by the editorship of Jangkholam Haokip and David Smith, both of whom have PhDs from the University of Aberdeen, UK, the book has assembled an international assortment of writers from the disparate fields of theology, history, psychology, peace studies, cultural studies and music. This breadth of disciplines has ensured the convergence of multiple ideas and perspectives.

The majority of the chapter contributors are tribals from Northeast India and elsewhere, though this has not been highlighted.  This has provided an authentic articulation of tribal and indigenous knowledge and experiences that serve to underpin the validity of the ideas and hypotheses posed in the book.

That the overlooked wisdom of the indigenous peoples needs to enter the mainstream of thought is a basic premise of the book. Tribal worldviews and knowledge systems may offer insights and solutions to the contemporary problems faced by society, and can usefully engage with the looming challenges to our planet’s future. While Christianity is the reference point of the book, it seeks to offer a wider context and role for the indigenization of theology so as to achieve grounding and relevance in tribal circles.

The first section of the book explores the links between primal traditions and Christianity in several parts of the world. It begins with an overview of tribal peoples by Virginius Xaxa, and then proceeds to accounts of the identity, folklore and arts of tribal communities in west Africa and the Philippines. The second section focuses on northeast India, with essays on several tribes.

The book makes a wide sweep across the landscape of conventional Christian theology and the introduction of indigenous concepts, such as engagement with tribal spirits, alternative concepts of God, and meaning of conversion, are a significant incursion. The proponents of these radical changes are firmly rooted in their Christian beliefs, but are prepared to face accusations of heresy. The editors are open enough to quote C. F. Andrews, the Anglican priest and Gandhian, who decried the practice of aggressive conversion as “trafficking in the souls of men”.

But this should not be such an alarming departure, because in one of the editor’s quotes, “traditional beliefs and practices of small-scale societies throughout the world underlie all other faiths”. Another quote avers that the major world religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are subsequent to the primal traditions, and that believers within those religions are primalists underneath.

Given that decolonization is a growing movement in academic circles around the globe, this book makes a valuable contribution. The Westernisation that came in tandem with colonisation, is mostly disparaging of Eastern and Southern cultures. In this derogation, tribal cultures have suffered the most, being more vulnerable as many indigenous communities mass converted to Christianity all over the world, and even more so in Northeast India. All over Asia voices are railing against the dominance of Euro-American theology. Decolonization is an existential imperative for tribals. It must start with theology, and this book has given us an excellent beginning.

The production of the book by Langham Publishing, UK is mostly adequate. The book would perhaps have been enhanced by providing abstracts of the chapters, an index, and indigenous artwork.

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