Mark G Brett
Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0802873071

Political Trauma and Healing



"This is an invaluable volume for students and teachers of the Hebrew Bible, hermeneutics, ethics, public theology and holistic mission with a postcolonial lens."

Australia has a complex history in settler relations with Indigenous people of political trauma and reconciliation, both with sources and inspiration in Christian tradition. This is a narrative with historical parallels around the globe, but also resonates with the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel’s struggles with the evil of empires. Mark Brett is professor of Hebrew Bible at Whitley College, and draws on experience working in advocacy with Native Title Services Victoria, in addressing these themes in Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World.

Part one explores philosophical hermeneutics, commencing with critical engagement of Gary Habermas’ proposal for “post-secular discourse” inviting all voices – including religious – in public debate. Brett explores concepts of justice in colonialism’s history and the need for restorative justice today, which necessarily requires a critique of Habermas as well as colonial Christianity. He argues for nurturing postcolonial theology and practises, particularly self-emptying and relinquishing political control. Contrary to Kevin Vanhoozer’s hermeneutics that suggests the Bible is a single metanarrative, Brett explains there are diverse paradigms of theology and ethics found in the Hebrew Bible for different contexts. The lesson I most learned from Brett in these chapters is that hermeneutics best begins if we read without racist and colonial assumptions, and if we understand there is an underlying concern for justice and love for all people, whether in or beyond Israel, especially the vulnerable – a mandate found throughout the law, prophets and writings.

Part two focuses on inter-Biblical dialogue, with illustrative case studies of how the “social imaginaries” in inter-Biblical conversations can inform contemporary justice-seeking, and offer a critique (rather than support) of colonialism. Deuteronomy, for example, advocates hospitable welcome of strangers, understandable when we remember its law code comes from the seventh century BC. The national imaginary welcomed refugees into the southern kingdom arriving from the northern kingdom after experiencing the trauma of imperial invasions. In contrast, the priestly tradition, unfolding under Persian imperial rule, suggests pathways for postcolonial theology that advocates for minority voices on public issues, albeit without being able to claim political sovereignty. This is particularly relevant for public theology in secular societies – influencing from the margins rather than from the position of theocratic rule or withdrawal from public engagement. Later Isaiah is similarly counter-imperial in its advocacy for justice and Sabbath holiness. And Job, the exemplary foreigner, offers a non-covenantal yet solidly ethical concern for the most marginalised. Thus the Hebrew Bible, in its diversity, offers refreshing insights on social ethics relevant for contemporary challenges, as we, like the ancient people of God, navigate pathways towards post-colonial restoration.  

Part three addresses public theology with a thick postcolonial justice lens, using the hermeneutic that is sensitive to colonialism’s history and attunes to the variety of Biblical imaginaries. Brett begins with the issue of reconciliation and national sovereignties, which much of the book touches on, but he particularly argues in this chapter how the Hebrew Bible contributes and appreciation for indigenous knowledge and attentiveness to natural revelation, which are important for many global issues including reconciliation but also migration, ecology and economics. Whatever happens at a national political level, churches have a responsibility to practice and model holistic reconciliation that includes embrace, compensation, apology, forgiveness and hospitality.

In relationship to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, Brett argues the priestly literature and creation theology of Job offer a compelling framework for churches to engage issues of hospitality, national borders, human rights and the common good.

Brett offers a sustained appeal for congregational resourcing and inter-faith efforts with respect to justice for the earth and the challenges of climate change. He discusses how Biblical traditions relate to the earth, and how the Bible has been understood as part of the problem (since Lynn White’s essay’s sweeping blame against Christianity) and yet is potentially part of the solution. Brett offers readings of Genesis that call people to serve the land, the prophets and their vision for redemption of society and of nature, and of Job and its undermining of anthropocentrism. He appeals for all Australians to learn from local indigenous care for country, while also needing national and international collaboration and deeper interfaith conversations. In a globalized world, we need to pay careful attention to planetary inequities and what inequity means for who we challenge towards greater self-restraint, and who we seek to empower for development. The Biblical traditions offer resources for creation care, but churches in the West also need to learn from sisters and brothers in other churches in the majority world, and share and work towards a common vision of redemption of the earth.

Still related to environmental care, the final chapter addresses the struggles of the world’s fragile economic systems. Among the options for revised economics are a renewed vision for “shalom” and the parallel “capabilities approach” of economic development, redemption as the restoration of family and land in local economies, and the importance of fair trade as at least one area where churches and households can make a tangible difference in conscientisation and addressing inequities.  

Our world and our churches need a revolution in postcolonial and ecological ethics. It is important for us to ground this in Scripture – both as a guide for authority and to motivate our churches. Moreover, the traditions of the Hebrew Bible show how this the trauma of the excesses and abuses of empire, and movements towards reconciliation and restoration, have happened before in ways we can learn from. This is an invaluable volume for students and teachers of the Hebrew Bible, hermeneutics, ethics, public theology and holistic mission with a postcolonial lens. Mark Brett offers the church and theological academy an intellectual but praxis-oriented gift with Political Trauma and Healing that has potential to inspire further public theologising and keep on giving new life and shalom beyond the church to the world.

This review was originally published in Australian Journal of Mission Studies 11:1 (June 2017), 57-58.